The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth, –
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
What do you expect from a retired professor of English whose specialty is American literature?
Seriously, though, this poem has been running through my head for two days now, pushing itself into my consciousness at the very time I’m creating my own bustle in the house here.
Dickinson has always been one of my favorite poets, though I know she’s not everyone’s taste. I find, though, that her poems have such variety and contemplate such life issues that mirror the conflicting ideas and even confusion that I have felt at many times. Some poems when read together indicate that she had two opposing ideas and wasn’t necessarily sure of things, even of belief.
But this one, just now, is what has insistently made itself part of my life since Monday.
Truly I have been (as has Kay) part of the bustle that is necessary at such times. Even as we were just realizing he had died, Kay and I had to be active. We had to call hospice, and that started the wheels in motion. First the nurse arrived to officially deal with his death; she cleaned him. I called Charles, who was here in a few minutes. I called Billie, who dressed and came over. About ten minutes later, her son Joe showed up too. Mind you, this is at 2 in the morning! We were not alone; we were surrounded by friends. And we found ourselves telling stories to the nurse, laughing. When the funeral staff came in to pick up Dad, one of the guys was one of our cousins. Small town life again, comforting in ways you don’t really anticipate as you are growing up.
Then he was gone, and they were gone, and we were by ourselves. But we couldn’t sleep — too much to do. The bustle had begun. With a 9 a.m. appointment at the funeral home to make arrangements, we had to locate necessary items — clothing, photographs, insurance papers. And then I started texting cousins and close friends. And started getting responses back, even at 4 or 4:30 in the morning.
Kay and I got through with the funeral director by 11:30 or so, and stopped in Egan for a little while before heading to Lake Charles. I needed to check for something at my house, though I couldn’t find it. We had coffee with a friend of mine. We also had pampering time — I treated us to a spa pedicure and manicure. I figured we needed to feel better, and this was the perfect treat. We were back in Egan by 7, and found the hospital bed and other equipment was gone (thanks to Charles, who let the people in to pick it up). We got something to eat, and I made some phone calls. Then we crashed.
Today, Wednesday, we spent here at the house — my friend Patty came from Lake Charles. She and Kay cleaned up and washed clothes. I made more phone calls, worked on funeral arrangements, went through paperwork, went to Crowley to the clerk of courts to get a copy of the living trust that Dad had set up and registered. Then it was on to the funeral home. Then I picked up delicious shrimp poboys and came home. It was a bit after 2 by the time we finished lunch, and then went back to work. By 5, I loaded my two dogs into pet carriers, and Patty took them back to my house in Lake Charles for me. If we have visitors drop in tomorrow, I won’t have to worry about the pups.
The bathrooms are clean. Clothes are washed. My room is neater than it’s been in weeks. I managed to get the rest of the house in good shape, but really didn’t bother getting my room as organized — I was just too tired, and there were more important things to do. Now, though, it is much better. Thanks, Patty!
And tonight, Charles came over for supper. He’d cooked some jalapeño pinto beans in the slow cooker. I grilled some sweet peppers and bell peppers and onions. Kay cooked some fajita meat and made queso. We had a great meal. The strawberry daiquiris were also quite tasty.
Now I am relaxing. Soon I will head to bed and hope to get some sleep. Tomorrow is another day of bustling, both in the house and elsewhere. Friends may drop in. I need to get a haircut. And Kay and I need to be at the funeral home at 4; close friends and the two of us will be there until 5, when the visitation begins. That runs until 9. Then Kay and I and Cindy (one of her oldest friends) come back to the house for the night.
Friday is travel day: Kay and I will go to Lake Charles for a few hours and then head to San Augustine to the family farm. My cousin Mike and his wife will drive down to the farm as will, bringing his mother, my dad’s sister, and they’ll get there and open up the house before we arrive. They’ll also bring supper. What a treat not to have to worry about that! We just get to relax and be together and laugh and remember Dad and how many years we’ve gotten together. We can hear more Aunt Mildred and Dad stories.
Saturday will be the funeral service and burial, followed by lunch and then it’s back to the farm with family and friends coming by. If we’re still functional, Kay and I will come back to Egan that evening.
I know that the bustle in the house isn’t really over even then. There’s still so much to do. There are papers I need to locate, insurance policies to find, business to take care of. And then there are still the closets to be emptied and books to be sorted and packed. But that can be at a leisurely pace, certainly compared to the rather rapid pace of this week.
That, though, is when the emotional letdown will come, I think. The rushing about and the busy pace have kept us going. Once that pace stops, once we have time to sit and think and remember, the realities will come back into full focus. No longer having to be social directors of sorts, we will be in our own individual and collective times, when grief will come to visit more often.
One of the great joys of my life has been teaching literature — and teaching literature has provided me with such profound consolation in difficult times — as when Mother died, or Phil died. Teaching literature means exploring the human condition and the emotions that make us human — and one of the most profound experiences we humans share is the death of loved ones (indeed, loss in the broadest of terms as well). Through the necessity of teaching major works of literature, I found myself so personally connected and deeply comforted. I also found that students came to see how literature speaks to us, beyond the differences of time and culture, and touches us, speaks to us, connects to us beyond time and place.
When I taught Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, or the poetry of Edward Taylor, I found not only deeply religious Puritans expressing their faith, but humans who dealt with the loss of parents or children. Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece, Walden, came from his deep grief over the loss of his brother, and represented not Thoreau’s becoming a hermit, but his personal search for what Emerson had called for in “Self Reliance.” Thoreau wondered what was essential to life, and in the process of that two years, two months, and two days at Walden Pond he moved through grief to reconciliation — he moved back to town in spring, surely not accidental — but the time of renewal. Over and over, I found human voices and human grief, working through to acceptance and reconciliation.
Particularly for me now, Bradstreet’s poems about her father, Thomas Dudley, are pertinent. In “To Her Father With Some Verses,” Bradstreet says:
“Most truly honoured, and as truly dear,
If worth in me or ought I do appear,
Who can of right better demand the same
Than may your worthy self from whom it came?
The principal might yield a greater sum,
Yet handled ill, amounts but to this crumb;
My stock’s so small I know not how to pay,
My bond remains in force unto this day;
Yet for part payment take this simple mite,
Where nothing’s to be had, kings loose their right.
Such is my debt I may not say forgive,
But as I can, I’ll pay it while I live;
Such is my bond, none can discharge but I,
Yet paying is not paid until I die.”
She wrote other poems in honor of her father, but this one, I find, is simplest, most direct, and clear. And I’ve always thought it was on target, but never more so than now that Dad is gone. If I have learned anything, become anything, if there is anything worthy in me, I owe it to him, and to Mother. They modeled the values, not just mouthed them. Bradstreet says that she owes her father such a debt that she can pay and pay and never pay that debt off. This is the way I feel too. My debt is never paid off. I pay it off daily, in pieces, in my own life, in how I live, and in living the principles and values, not just professing them.
Dickinson wrote about loss of many types, and about grief. Many of my students, frankly, thought she was weird or crazy or just obsessed with death. Yet her world was so different from ours in that illnesses often led to death, and medicine wasn’t exactly always a help. Further, death was something that happened at home, not in some sterile hospital room. And funerals happened at home, not in some special place.
Perhaps too there is some truth to the idea that there is a therapeutic element in writing. Certainly if that was true for Dickinson, it in no way diminishes the power of her art .
Even with so many of her poems about death and loss and grief, Dickinson could write these lines, which I see as a counterpoint:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.”
And Walt Whitman, her contemporary, wrote of death in surprisingly joyful, hopeful ways. (He was, after all, an American Romantic).
As he noted:
“this is thy hour o soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson
thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the
themes thou lovest best,
night, sleep, death and the stars.”
It has been my privilege to make a living out of my great passion for literature. That I got paid to teach what I love has always been an amazing thing to me.
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that lines of literature, even entire poems, pop into my thoughts at any given moment. They spoke to me as a teacher, but more importantly, they spoke to me as a person. I pick up literature for fun, not just for a job.
Thanks, Emily, and Walt, and Anne, and any number of other writers, for illuminating my life. Thanks for giving a voice to my pain, for reminding me that grief has a cycle that can bring me to reconciliation, for showing me the joy that is also in life, even in the midst of grief.
As Whitman asserts in “Song of Myself,”
“All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”