I don’t think you can plan a break in blogging. So much has happened over the last few months, it’s hard to say exactly what the cause of the break was. A partial questioning of the point of blogging at all (Is it too self-congratulatory? How do I feel about random internet people who may have found me through friends of friends on Facebook reading this stuff? How strongly do I actually believe in what I’m writing? What if I change my mind? Doesn’t the internet make everything permanent?), and perhaps just an increase in general busy-ness. I have a few other ideas, but I’ll save those for a later time.
I’m going to keep my comments and thoughts and reflections on this post fairly brief. Almost two months ago, my grandfather passed away after a far too short battle with cancer. I was still in Denmark at that point, but was able to get home for the service. What is written below is what I said to the audience there. Now that he is in the ground at one of his favorite places in the world, I want to share this piece as a tribute to him.
On Bears, Mirrors, and Distance
I was once chased by a bear. I’m pretty sure it was a grizzle bear, although looking back on it, it may have been a hairy scary monster. In any case, I have a very distinct memory of this bear, chasing after me, me running as quickly as I possibly could, but somehow ending up in my parents bathroom, a dead end, where there was nowhere for me to turn to, no place for me to run to without being caught.
Screaming, laughing, I accepted my defeat. The grizzle bear swept me up into his arms, and put me on the sink. There was a mirror in front of me and a mirror behind, which meant that there were infinite grizzle bears and infinite little Katherines, getting smaller and smaller, further and further away through the tunnel of mirrors.
After a few minutes of convincing the bear that he was, in fact, my grandfather and not a bear, I asked him something I’d been wondering for what I’m pretty sure was the majority of my four years of life. “Granddaddy, are we really inside those mirrors? Can we actually go there? Why does it look like that if it’s not actually real?”
I’m not sure how he responded. I was four, and was likely more concerned with telling him my wonder than getting the kind of scientifically accurate and thorough response that this bear so commonly gave. But I’d like to spend the next couple of minutes to answer my own question, which so often occupied me nineteen years ago.
I want to fast forward a few years, to just two weeks ago. It had been a hard month. I had been, as I so often am, living out of the country since September. I was in the midst of final exams, deciding where to live next year, finding a job for next year, learning Danish, and maintaining somewhat regular contact with friends and family both at home and abroad. The first couple weeks of May, 2017 consisted of full day meetings followed by Danish class until 10 in the evening, and then a couple hours of phone calls with my family, talking about Granddaddy, thinking, processing, trying to be together despite the 8 hour time difference and 4,895 miles between us.
Just before we hung up the phone on the last of these phone calls, I asked my dad “Do you think he’ll still be there by the time I get home on Thursday?” I already knew the answer was probably no, but I thought I should ask. I went to sleep, and woke up around 6:30 the next morning, about an hour before my alarm. Five minutes later, the phone rang. “He’s gone”, they said. I didn’t have anything to say, because I already knew. Why else would I have woken up at exactly the same time that he died? I said “okay”. That was a short call.
But what does any of that have to do with grizzle bears and mirrors and a question that four-year-old Katherine asked nineteen years ago?
Maybe nothing, directly. Except that I woke up as he departed his body. As I hung up the phone, I thought of how my dad told me he was still in the hospital room. I thought about the limitations his body has been putting on him for the last five years, at least. I thought of how far away I was, and how far away I have been. I thought of how I felt angry that he had to go before I could come home, and how I felt comforted that he didn’t feel he needed to wait. I thought of how he has always wanted me to do what is best for me, and that he wouldn’t have wanted me to come home too early. And I realized that in leaving his body, he was able to be with me for my last days in Copenhagen.
Suddenly, those 4,895 miles that had felt so significant the night before shrunk down to nothing. Physically, of course, they were still there. But I don’t think it’s really right to say that he’s gone now. Because on that day, he was more with me than he had been since last July, when we said goodbye at the island. Rather than the space between us increasing, it decreased. The memories I have of him became my memories, shared perhaps with a friend, a member of my family, but definitively mine. I don’t even know how much of the Grizzle Bear story I opened with is true; I was four. The chance I added a detail or two is excellent. But I don’t think that matters. I think what matters is that the memory is there, and that that particular way of remembering it is the way that brings me closest to the Bear.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that the answer to my mirror question is yes. We were inside those mirrors, we are inside those mirrors. We went there, we stayed there, we are still there. Maybe not physically, but maybe the physical isn’t what matters. Because in order to be in those mirrors, in order to be able to even be able to ask about the mirrors, we had to be there, together.
As Granddaddy wrote in one of his many many poems, this one as a tribute to the death of his sister:
I’m sure there are chemicals in the brain
That mix memories with emotions
And they will surely disappear with death,
As I guess they’d clutter the world.
Yet sometimes I think memories are stored somewhere else
Like my computer files somewhere in cyberspace.
I would like to think anyway that some day someone,
Dead or alive, will stumble on them and smile.
For me, those memories are not stored in the computer, not stored in cyberspace. They are stored somewhere between me and Granddaddy. Somewhere, maybe physically inaccessible, but somewhere that is always there, no matter how impossible it seems. As a four year old, I couldn’t understand that the images in the mirror were real; I couldn’t touch them. But now, I know that each and every reflection represents a part of our relationship, a certain kind of memory, shared just between me and Granddaddy. Some are far away, like the tiny Katherines off in the distance, and some of them are as huge and life-like as the Grizzle Bear chasing me seemed that day. But all of them are there, somewhere. The closer you look, the more there are, memories stored away in the mirror that four-year-old me and my Grizzle Granddaddy looked into nineteen years ago.