“They cut you open to get at your heart, sounds like a metaphor for something but it’s not”
In the The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, narrator Olga describes her reaction to her husband of nearly two decades’ abrupt decision to abandon her and their two young children. “I couldn’t calm down. Was it possible that Mario should leave me like this, without warning? It seemed to me incredible that all of a sudden he had become uninterested in my life, like a plant watered for years that is abruptly allowed to die of drought.” The end of a long marriage is a sort of death, the death of a life built together.
A little over three years ago, my father threw himself, most likely head first, out of a window of a homeless shelter in Vienna, Austria. He died. He killed himself. He had been taking care of my mother, who has dementia, on his own, despite my many requests that they move to New York so I could help too. He left a suicide note that took me a year to read. Earlier that morning at 5am, my aunt had called me to say he had gone missing from the apartment he lived in with my mother. I immediately got up and as I was rushing out the door to go to the airport, my aunt called again. He had been found, at a shelter. He was “fine.” I insisted I wanted to talk to him. My aunt said no, firmly, he doesn’t want to talk to you or anyone. I said, again and again, I need to talk to my father. No, she said.
As Olga starts grappling with her loss, her emotions begin to run amok. “I didn’t want to react like that. Another rule was not to become hateful. But I couldn’t contain myself, I immediately felt a rush of blood that deafened me, burned my eyes.” Her grief is beyond her control at this point- it takes over her mind and body.
When I was changing planes in Toronto, on my way to Vienna, sipping a tea and about to eat a quesadilla, my husband called. “Your father is dead. He killed himself.” I stood up and started to run. I said over and over again, “No, no, no” and “my father, my father, my father,” and then I fell down. “Don’t hang up,” my husband said, over and over again. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t walk. I was screaming and crying. Airport security removed me to a corner of the airport.
One of the classic horrible things that happens to grieving people is they become alienated and alienate themselves. Certain “friends” will stop calling, as if grief were some horrible catchy disease. Let’s face it, it’s not fun to be around a griever. Other “friends” you get rid of yourself, accidentally, on purpose, too. Olga’s friend Lea tries to be patient. “But I couldn’t restrain myself, I soon began to distrust even her…So I abruptly stopped seeing her, and was left without a friend to turn to.”
When one is truly miserable, there is no comfort. Grief devours, destroys. It is not true that misery loves company. Rather, misery works to destroy the connection to other humans altogether. Absolute misery demands a profound loneliness and disconnect. In the months after my father died, I tried to blunt out my feelings, but of course, that didn’t really work. I became addicted to klonopin because I shook constantly and it helped some. I drank. I watched mindless TV from when I woke at noon until I fell asleep at midnight or so. I called friends wasted and hysterical. Understandably, people no longer wanted to talk to me. And as Olga states about her children, “I was afraid I would be unable to take care of them, I even feared harming them, in a moment of weariness or distraction.” I, too, had two children and I was not the best mother to them after my father’s suicide. I was not a good wife or a friend. I was just grief.
Olga represents all my fears for my future and all the pain and suffering I’ve already endured.
Sixty pages of this book take course over one night, a terrifying night about four months after Mario has left Olga, after Olga has seen him with his new lover, and in a satisfying moment, ferociously attacks him. The violence is wonderful- the blood, the infliction of pain, her grief “a black mania for destruction”, her grief turned outward to the source of her suffering. On the “hardest day of the ordeal of my abandonment” Olga wakes, “sluggish, as if from a circulatory problem”. Everything becomes unfamiliar, even her own children. Her daughter comes in to her room and says, “’Gianni threw up on my bed.’ I looked at her obliquely, listlessly, without raising my head.”
When Olga has an unpleasant sexual encounter, “out of desperation,” I was reminded of the essay “The Love Of My Life” by Cheryl Strayed. After her mother dies, Strayed pretty much fucks everybody she can, destroying her marriage. Strayed writes, “Occasionally I came across people who’d had the experience of losing someone whose death made them think, I cannot continue to live. I recognized these people: their postures, where they rested their eyes as they spoke, the expressions they let onto their faces and the ones they kept off. These people consoled me beyond measure. I felt profoundly connected to them, as if we were a tribe.”
Olga’s worst day, her twenty-four hours of hell, involves a descent into madness, an entrapment in her grief and sorrow and pain. Her phone is broken, her door is jammed shut, she is physically, literally trapped and cut off from the world when she needs the world more than anytime ever in her life. Her son is very sick and so is her dog. Her daughter becomes a witness to Olga’s unraveling.
After my father’s suicide, after I’d alienated my friends, I lived in a bubble. I could look at my sons and see them, but they seemed to live in another world, even as they stood right in front of me. My husband absorbed everything, the screaming, the pain, became a sponge for me, the person who tried to keep me alive. Often I would crawl the walls, screaming out for my father, while he tried to hold me. This happened almost nightly for some time. It’s been three years; it still happens and the strangest things set it off, the unbearable pain. Last spring, walking down the street, the weather was just changing from the cold winter and that did it, it came over me like a wave. It was a beautiful spring day and my father was not there to enjoy it and that beautiful Spring day felt like someone stabbing me with a knife. I lost it for a week or so. My husband missed work once, because I had kept him up all night. I felt terrible that it was my fault he missed work. I felt completely out of control. I couldn’t help myself, or anyone else. I just caused trouble.
Olga looks at her notebooks during the day she locks herself in the apartment. She doesn’t remember writing in it. Olga begins to hallucinate. She doesn’t even know where she is. Her own house is unrecognizable. Her behavior, what she is doing, becomes erratic at best. It is some of the most frightening reading, these sixty pages. The reader fears for Olga’s life, for her children, for her dog.
I ask myself to this day, who am I, if not my father’s daughter? Who am I without his love, his words, his company? Olga fights to not completely disintegrate, to recognize and fight off her hallucinations. “I had to anchor myself to things, accept their solidity, believe in their permanence. The woman was present only in childhood memories. I mustn’t be frightened, but I also mustn’t encourage her. We carry in our head until we die the living and the dead.”
I carry my father with me. I used to think I saw him on the streets of Brooklyn when I left my house. I dreamt he was still alive and woke to remember, slowly, that he was dead, starting out my day with a fresh grief, his death new again. I have four flights of stairs in my house and at the top of them, bleary from vodka and klonopin at night, or even sober and distracted with grief, I would have visions of myself falling down them, dying.
Olga says, in the slow coming out of her descent, “I was no longer I, I was someone else, as I had feared since waking up, as I had feared since who knows when.” Grief destroys the fabric of your world, and you. I am not the same person I was before my father died. I am someone else.
“Reason and memory had flaked off, sorrow that lasts too long is capable of this. I had believed I was going to bed and yet I had not. Or I had and then had got up. Disobedient body.” Just surviving this sort of sorrow is all that can happen. Nothing–eating, sleeping, doing anything, moving, putting on clothes, makes sense. The body is a just something to encase the pain.
Eventually, the day ends, the door becomes unjammed, help arrives. By then Olga, in one final burst of emotion, realizes that she no longer loves Mario, that this is a new beginning. And while she acknowledges that she was responsible in pushing people away with her grief, she now also sees the people who really don’t care about her.
Often people find the mad grievers interesting, the tormented are like fascinating, wild animals in a cage. People look wide eyed at us, but are careful not to get too close. And these people can go to hell. My aunt, for refusing to let me talk to my own father, can go to hell. My uncle, who basically was the most useless human, can go straight to his grave. My dad’s minister, who sat across from me in my father’s apartment, telling me that he had called her the night before he jumped out of the window, asking her to take him to a mental hospital, to which she responded, “can’t your wife do it?”, calmly, as if that was the right thing to do when someone reaches out and FUCKING ASKS YOU TO TAKE THEM TO A HOSPITAL. I had to leave the room because I wanted to strangle her until she died. Everyone else should die, not my father.
What happens next in The Days of Abandonment is both strange and perfect, sad and not. The destruction of Olga’s marriage takes its toll on the family, like any force of nature, like a vicious storm, but it dies down, leaving behind the mess. The haunting book chews on ideas of weakness and strength. What do these things even mean when your world falls apart? It also confirms for me that not all people feel the same. Some people feel so much, it’s unbearable, it’s like being on fire.
Last Summer, one of my cats killed a blue jay. I think often about his mate for life, sitting in a branch of a tree above the dead body of his mate, making the most intense sound of agony for hours and hours. It was an ugly song of grief. And I think about the unfortunate time I sat on my porch in the Dominican Republic and listened to my neighbor’s puppy barking and then its barking became desperate and then it didn’t sound like barking, it was some other noise. I found out later what I had listened to was it accidentally strangling itself on his line, I listened to him die, listened to his desperate desire to live, to not die. He died.
At first, Olga, desperately wants her marriage to survive. It is a hideous struggle as her marriage dies. But when she finally relinquishes her last physical connection to Mario, her wedding ring, the worst is over. “I’m here now, my children are alive and playing with each other, the pain is distilled, it hurt me but didn’t break me.”
Strayed writes at the end of her essay; “Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do. It’s what I did then and there.” And that is what Olga does. And that is what I try to do. Eat, sleep, get dressed, talk to my family and friends and meanwhile, the whole time, my father is still dead.
At the end of the book, Olga is talking to a person, the only person she can really turn to:
”’Has it been very bad’, he asked me in embarrassment.
‘What happened to you that night?’
‘I had an excessive reaction that pierced the surface of things.’
‘And where did you end up?’
‘Nowhere. There was no depth, there was no precipice. There was nothing.”
There is nothing to do, but doing what needs to be done. Little things, just living, just doing the things that the living do. And that is what we do, people who live with so much loss. There is nothing else to do.