A Taxonomy of Loss


Our car is hot, almost uncomfortable. The fan belt, or the water pump, something, isn’t working, the AC just blows flaccid air. Still, with the windows half-down, light bouncing off the glass, I can finally breathe—after months of fires blanketing the city in rust, after months of hospitals, after monolithic skyscrapers, after the oppressive dark of sleepless nights.  Then, seconds later, inexplicably, there it is: the hospital smell again. Of human excrement, faintly, and the sharp taste of whatever chemical attempts to drive it away, to make clean bodies slowly in decay. Now my face is full of it, this olfactory spectre threatening to drown away the sun, even as we head directly into it. 

Dunja's grandfather, left, playing soccer.  Courtesy: Dunja Kovacevic

Dunja's grandfather, left, playing soccer. 
Courtesy: Dunja Kovacevic


Grief is complicated by atheism or non-belief. Loss is instant, final. There is no comfort in the body, the grave, which feel markedly more empty. Derrida says something about love as movement, distinguished into (the often conflicting) who and what of love.  It’s tied to the question of being, are you a some one or a some thing. It’s a fine question, really, until confronted with the body, the thing, extinguished. 

Then it is only who you miss, who you yearn for. Who—the singular, irreplaceable who outside of your mind, fantasy, memory—that which can’t be reconstructed and who can never be again. 



Your other granddaughter has taken up bees. She lovingly constructs and paints their boxes, watches them at work in the clover, frets. The bees are a comfort and a surrogate. I like it when she talks to me about them. We’ve both inherited that information-as-control-as-comfort thing. My own interest in bees is more abstract, Plathian. She explains to me one afternoon, between hospital visits, about bee colony organization. All worker bees in a colony are females who lack reproductive capacities and whose roles change throughout their lives, according to their capabilities. Male bees are called drones, and their role is limited to reproduction. 



Our colony, three generations of women, has taken over the ward. We translate news as best we can through language and emotional barriers. We refill ice chips, sponges, sit with you, hold each other, finish the week old crossword abandoned in the family room. Each day our roles change. Daughters become caregivers and then sometimes children again, granddaughters become supports, no longer children. We circle. We entomb our king.



Every time you open your eyes, which is less now, we tell you what day it is, how many days until the wedding. Nine. Seven.  Five.  Did you know, that day, was two?



Who picks up their phone first, sends out the signal, I don’t know. Soon they’re all out. Everyone flails; phone to ear, mouths moving.  It happens very quickly, the hiss of adrenaline and survival. The amygdala, or amygdalae, from the Greek almond, from therapy. I am fixed on the perfect berry atop the imperfect vehicle, sushi—Blue Mountain roll—unfinished in front of me. A deep violet. I escape to the bathroom, down steps, grey, into a basement, floors blue. The blue of my trembling hands, cornflower. At some point, I say, someone just tell me. He’s dead, isn’t he? It comes out as flat as it feels.

The blue of the car—electric. The blue of the hospital halls, pastel, not unlike my bridal nails. The blue of your paper skin, indescribable. No, bloodless. And ours, pounding wildly, a taunt: red, red, red. 



Trevor gifts me The Year of Magical Thinking for Christmas. I am angry with him. It is proving an exceptionally hard winter and I am trying to survive it. Do you want me to survive it, which in this context means are you trying to kill me. I’m learning to tread lightly, avoid depression triggers, keep away from the edges, employ diversion tactics. I put the book on a shelf, where it sits for two years, where it asks: are you healthy/stable/strong enough? 



I avoid the room. My brother holds me in that way only reserved for emergencies, whispers, we got our goodbye.  I want to remember you like that: defiant, fighting to live. How we held your swollen hands and kissed your eyelids, how you stirred at his name, which is your name also. 



Some, the wedding comes together. We smile through tears, hug too long; keep your place at a table. By the end of the night I am slumped over a toilet in the trailer, nothing to offer it but wine. I sob into the lap of a friend who repeats, he’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone. But you have a husband now. I fail to see the connection.



I hear somewhere that, in time, we forget the horror of the end. Instead, we will be left only with memories of your life lived, your vivacity, your strength. Forgetting has its own horrors, in the shape of absence. I’ll hold fast to pain instead—which, in its clarity, is so full of you. I write and revise sentences soundlessly, and repeat them three times, like an Orthodox priest.