In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood sisters embody two opposing world views. Elinor, the level-headed older daughter, is the reserved sister whose sense marks her as the responsible sibling who puts others ahead of herself. Marianne, her younger sister, is all passion and feeling, all sensibility. Elinor’s reserved demeanor is deceptive, for her repression of her true, deep and deeply felt emotions burst out of her, surprising others who have failed to see the depths beneath her surface control. Even Marianne fails to recognize her sister’s emotional turmoil.
Though I prefer Pride and Prejudice (it’s one of the novels that I reread yearly), Sense and Sensibility reminds me of myself and Kay. I’ve always felt close to Elinor. I am the eldest and have had a similar sense of responsibility for others — for most of my life, indeed, I have had responsibilities that many people my age didn’t have to cope with. As a teenager, I was wildly emotional — over Viet Nam, over imagined ills, over the kind of mother-daughter clashes common to adolescent girls. My temper usually got the better of me. I had to learn to control it, to subdue it. By the time I was in my 30s, I think I was, for the most part, more like Elinor Dashwood. Calm, thoughtful, sensible and practical. I could be counted upon to plan and follow through. I was, quite simply, an almost overly responsible member of the family. Actually, I had been abnormally responsible as a kid — I mean even at 4 and 5. Circumstances sort of demanded it. And that continued.
Kay has always been the more fragile of us, more easily hurt and prone to hide in her room. She’s the youngest, and inherently shy. I think she came into the world with an inferiority complex. She’s much more confident now, and continues to work on that. But she’s still outwardly more Marianne Dashwood. Her feelings are paramount — they are all on the surface. They control her at times.
My feelings are there too — but my Elinor side seems to balance them. At times, perhaps, to suppress them until I am alone and can deal with them alone.
Perhaps this difference has been most evident since Dad died. I had been with Dad a lot more than Kay had, not because she didn’t want to be there, but because she is still working. Weekends were her time. And he was in the nursing home for a couple of months, too, so we visited him rather than lived with him. During the weeks he was there, I supervised the house renovations. I handled other issues. I also got the irritated Dad more, I think.
But after we brought him home, it was intense, 24/7. Kay had the first weekend by herself. I had the two weeks. I had the minute-by-minute nursing and caregiving. I made phone calls to arrange ambulance transportation to dialysis. She came for the second weekend and didn’t leave because Dad’s condition rapidly declined; I was supposed to go to Lake Charles, but didn’t because I was exhausted. That was fortunate, since we took him to the ER on Friday night and ended up getting hospice on Sunday. On Monday, hospice was there all morning, and he was in great pain. Kay and Billie went to Lake Charles, doing some shopping and dropping a check from me off at my house for the repairman who was going to be there on Tuesday to fix my air conditioner; my friend Patty was to be there for the work.
Kay came back to a Dad who was basically asleep — after hours of my conferring with the hospice nurse and administering more and more morphine. I still dream about those hours before she came back.
But when he died, I did what I do best — crisis mode. I do that by long experience. Kay did well too, but there were moments for her when she broke down, when she said she wasn’t ready to let him go yet. And that was after the funeral, too. The many details of arranging a funeral kept us occupied. But afterwards?
Reality had set in for her. He was gone, but as she said, she wasn’t ready to let him go yet. t think it had hit me much earlier. My predominant feeling after his death: one of relief, relief that he was now no longer in pain.
She is grieving now — emotions much more on the surface, much more in control of her. Marianne, again.
Me? I think I have been grieving for a year. I saw Dad slip away in pieces. Right now, there are times where I can feel the tears are there, and beneath the tears a gaping hole that is ready to suck me through. It will hit me, I know, but right now there are other things I must do, business issues to take care of, and family problems to help with. My emotions are private things, and I try not to let them out in public, which is another part of why I feel more like Elinor. Her emotions are deep and when they are unleashed/released, they threaten to overwhelm her, and they surprise her as much as anyone.
Unlike Elinor, I know only too well how deep my emotions run. I also know that I will let them loose sometime. Just not now, when the practical Cheryl has her list of what must be done. There will be times, in my house or my apartment — or my car — when I let them out and bawl like a baby, sobbing with my loss. But that’s not for public display.
Even at the funeral, when I felt that void start to open and the sob caught my throat, I gulped, grabbed some TicTacs and started munching. At times, I was afraid that the sound of pouring out TicTacs was audible and might disturb the service, but I kept chomping away so that I didn’t just lose it and really distract everyone. That would be unacceptable. I kept remembering what Dad told me at his brother’s funeral, years before, as I started to sob — “Wares don’t lose control in public”. There’s the key: in public. Emotions are private, and to be released when appropriate. So I channeled Dad’s voice telling me that even while I was at his service, looking at his casket. Closed, might I add. Funerals are difficult enough, and an open casket makes them even more difficult.
At the funeral, I kept worrying about my sister, about my Aunt Mildred (Dad’s sister), and my Aunt Jean (his sister-in-law). Dad would be proud, I hope, that we all were teary-eyed but not out of control. That would be horrible.
And now, almost three weeks afterwards, I work my way through the lists of to-dos. I’ve seen a lawyer. I’m getting repairs on the house before we put it on the market; I’m waiting for the appraiser’s report. Kay and I are working this coming weekend on the hundreds of tools that are neatly housed in the double-garage. They will get boxed and moved into storage. I hope to go to the bank to the safety deposit box.
There’s so much to do.
Kay is working through this, trying to find her way through the changes that include Dad’s death and how we shape our lives without him. We talk daily, often several times a day. We talk about our own plans to rebuild at my beach lot in Crystal Beach — and I think it’s important for us. This is our family house that we’re building, our future. We’ll create our own memories there, but we’ll carry others with us. The new house will be furnished in part with things from Egan. We probably won’t need anything at all for the kitchen. We’ve got chests of drawers. We need to buy new chairs for the table that Phil found and refurbishes. We’ll need a new sofa (one that is a sleeper). I want a new rocker for the living room. We’ve got televisions and a stereo. Our grandmother’s stereo cabinet from the 1940s will become the DVD storage, placed beneath the living room television. It may also be the bar, something Kay and I find appropriate. We’ll have 3 bedrooms, one for me, one for Kay, one for Rachel, my niece. One bathroom.
Channeling my Elinor, I keep going as I work through the list. I help Kay as she occasionally breaks into her Marianne side. At home, I let my own emotions out at times, but so far, nothing of epic magnitude has emerged. At times, though, I admit to feeling overwhelmed — not by Dad’s loss as much as by the sheer number of chores that await me. Panic attacks threaten, but I’ve avoided them with deep breathing and grounding techniques.
Emily Dickinson speaks to me at this time as much as Jane Austen does: in one poem, Emily D says
I taught that poem for years, and it speaks to me constantly of how I myself feel. I’m so used to grief that I can wade it easily. But comfort — “balm” — that and joy are less well-known to me and threaten to make me slip. Yes, Emily, yes. I agree.
Sense — me — and Sensibility — Kay: We manage. And that’s positive, good, desirable. We work together. Day by day, step by step. I count our successes. They make the troubles– the griefs that threaten, the new crises that crop up– survivable.
Not that we don’t bicker. We do. Don’t get me wrong — our essential sibling relationship remains. But both of us are conscious that Dad, our mediator, is gone, and it’s up to us to find our way together.