blackbirdonline journalSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Beyond Grief

My neighbor has been cleaning out his backyard for the entire year I’ve lived here, but today, for the first time, I can see beyond the piles. Parking cones, faded to a dusty orange. A garage door past the short brick wall that separates our backyards. Wood slabs, torn tires, broken chairs. Rusted aluminum shelves and plastic gas containers. And other items I haven’t noticed before: a tall camera dock, a decaying speaker—old film equipment, maybe. Whose voices might still live in those devices? I want to raise each piece to my ear and listen to them sing like the ocean.

I wonder how much of a person can remain in photographs or films or voice recordings. How much of a departed person we can collect. I think of my Uncle Neil and realize how long it’s been—nearly thirteen years since his death—and then I wonder: how much of her brother does my mother still possess?


The neighbor emerges from his house, his thick, silver beard crawling down to his belly, a long-sleeved shirt covering his often exposed, tawny skin, and suddenly I notice: it’s not summer anymore. My fingers are cold with fall. He hunches over his possessions, back and neck curling like a shell shielding its oyster. Perhaps he felt me appraising his insides and rose from bed to protect.

The morning sun illuminates the trees but the leaves are orange and yellow instead of green and I am tense, clutching leg to leg in my seat on the back porch, shoulders lifted as I think of my mother and Neil and watch the neighbor put things in order. Soon those leaves will be red, brown. It’s only the beginning of the end.

The neighbor walks back and forth through his jungle, past his wild sunflowers and chipping ladders and the copper, rotting car whose interior is so packed that sometimes you cannot tell that the windows are clear glass, that the windows are not darkened by tint but instead by items stacked high. Perhaps photographs and films live inside.

What does it mean when one’s insides have been bloated with rotting junk for so long that the outside appears different than it truly is? How might one reduce the bloating? Every day the silver beard walks past the car, a new item in his hand that he’s detaching from his overflowing yard and feeding to the sidewalk in front of the house, but never does he stop at the vehicle; he walks past as though it isn’t there.


My mother calls while I’m watching the emptying yard. I ask what I’ve been wondering all morning: When’s the anniversary of Uncle Neil’s death? I’ve been thinking of him but I can’t remember the date. Is it today?

It is.

I thank my mother and we say good-bye.

I want to light a yahrzeit candle—a tall, cylindrical taper that burns for twenty-four hours in remembrance of a Jewish loved one. Every year after her brother was gone, my mother lit one. I remember the candle glowing in our kitchen at night. Blue Hebrew letters wrapped around its center. I remember my mother’s silence.

I imagine the gun Neil pressed against his temple.

And I imagine, perhaps for the first time, what my mother’s grief might still look like: an opaque, shallow pool of salt water caught in an isolated, stagnant basin, peppered with black sand and yesterday’s forgotten wine corks, waiting to be released back into the oscillating ocean yet never really wanting to return, never really wanting to admit that she has to be the one to bring herself back and empty herself out, watching the sun rise and fall, rise and fall, wishing, like Neil had, that it would just fall fall fall instead.

For thirteen years my mother has been hoarding her grief like my neighbor has his possessions, but today I think I see beyond their shells. He’s still peeling layers from his yard, shuffling his feet over cement and shifting items around one last time before he brings himself back inside where it’s warm.

I stare again. At that man’s sorted yard, at that bloated vehicle, at that opaque pool of salt water.

I want to call my mother back and tell her of the old camera docks and decaying speakers and the people that might remain in those photographs and films. I want to tell her: gather the old photos and videos and raise them to your ear; let them release you; let them sing like the ocean.  

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