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On Loss and Love: Books on Grief

By kileyturner
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It's part of life, unfortunately, but books that address it well can be treasures.
Last Goldfish, The

Last Goldfish, The

A True Tale of Friendship
edition:Paperback

Twenty-five years ago and counting, Louisa, my true, essential, always-there-for-everything friend, died. We were 22.

When Anita Lahey opens her binder in grade nine French and gasps over an unsigned form, the girl with the burst of red hair in front of her whispers, Forge it! Thus begins an intense, joyful friendship, one of those powerful bonds forged in youth that shapes a person’s identity and changes the course of a life.

Anita and Louisa navigate the wilds of 1980s suburban adolescence ag …

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Excerpt

Prologue:

A fish story In early Grade 9, I teamed up with a girl named Meredith for a science project. She was quiet and skittish, like a shy rabbit. We went to the pet store together and purchased six goldfish, six bowls, then divvied them up: three to her house, three to mine. Our plan was to place the fish in different environments—a busy kitchen, a dark closet, a bright windowsill—and try to gauge their contentment level by their behaviour. Which fish were more active, more hungry? The question, mine, had been whether a fish would prefer a darker home because it mimics the experience of a more natural habitat such as a lake.

But right away I found myself troubled by the idea of keeping fish captive. Watching my three fish swim circles in their bowls, taking notes, trying to describe their activity levels, I felt like a fraud. I had no idea how to assess the happiness of a fish, nor what kind of research to undertake to better inform our experiment. I hadn’t the first clue how to penetrate the mysteries of the universe. Nor could I explain any of this to Meredith. I’d roped her into this, so I put up a brave front when we sat down to compare notes.

“How are your fish doing?” I asked.

She answered so softly I could barely hear. “One of them died.” I stared. She was wringing her hands. “Do you think it was sick when we bought it?”

“It seemed like the other ones, didn’t it?”

“I think so.”

We sat in silence.

Suppose Meredith’s fish had come home with me, instead. Say the guy at the store had pulled a different specimen from the tank. The fish’s bowl had been placed in a prime location, on the windowsill in Meredith’s bedroom, south-facing. Maybe fish, like African violets, shrivelled in direct sunlight? I was overwhelmed by potential variables; I was so not ready for science. I was sure that none of our classmates had a dead creature on their hands. But I also doubted any of them had taken this assignment so keenly to heart.

I’d picked Meredith for a partner because she didn’t make me nervous. Maybe it made sense, now that I was out of the little elementary school with a graduating class of 28, to start aligning myself with more kids like me, who were into such things as books. But I was relieved when our experiment was finished, our results handed in. In the drawings for our report, Meredith had attempted to depict the dead fish, floating in its bowl. It looked like a tiny piece of driftwood.

In French class, which came right after science, I sat behind Louisa. People called her Lou for short. She had red hair, brightly inquisitive eyes and hands that gestured energetically when she talked. She’d adopted the habit of tipping back her chair and tossing questions at me, so that I gradually came to trust she really did want to talk to me: “Are you reading the Merchant of Venice for English too? I love Shakespeare. It’s so dramatic.” “What did you do on the weekend? My mom’s friend took us to the art gallery. It was amazing!”

Louisa was impressed by the goldfish experiment Meredith and I had embarked on. She called it “ambitious.”

“We don’t have a clue what we’re doing,” I assured her. “It’s ridiculous.”

One morning, gravely, but hurriedly, so as to get the details out before the fierce Mademoiselle Vachon began conducting class, I told her what had happened to Meredith’s fish.

She laughed. “What a story!”

I was startled. Then I laughed too. Sure, it was tragic for the fish, but the creatures weren’t exactly known for their longevity. Hadn’t we all flushed one or two down the toilet, or seen a sitcom goldfish funeral, its tongue-in-cheek solemnity? I stopped noticing Meredith, stopped looking for her telltale slouch when I slipped into science class or walked, heart clenched, into the cafeteria that teemed with students I didn’t know. It seems cruel, in retrospect, you might even say foolhardy: the things I might have learned, the fastidious scientist I might have become, pushing onward with that studious girl. But I didn’t want Meredith anymore. I’d found a better prospect, off I went.

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This Is Not the End of Me

This Is Not the End of Me

Lessons on Living from a Dying Man
edition:Paperback

NATIONAL BESTSELLER
A BEST BOOK OF 2020
CBC – The Best Canadian Nonfiction of 2020
The Globe and Mail’s Globe 100: Our Favourite Books of 2020
Chatelaine’s 10 Best Books of 2020
The Walrus’s Favourite Books of 2020
For readers of Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air and Will Schwalbe, the moving, inspiring story of a young husband and father who, when diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of thirty-three, sets out to build a legacy for his infant son.

i can't make you feel what i …

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Through the Garden

Through the Garden

A Love Story (with Cats)
edition:Hardcover

A Globe and Mail 100 Best Book Finalist, Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction
A deeply affecting portrait of a long partnership and a clear-eyed account of the impact of a serious illness, writing as consolation, and the enduring significance of poetry from one of Canada's most celebrated voices.

When we ran off together in 1978, abandoning our marriages and leaving wreckage in our wake, I was a "promising writer," Patrick had just won the Governor General's Award. I was so happy fo …

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Excerpt

Patrick’s home from the hospital after a two-week stay that felt like a year—so much has shifted. They let him go not because he’s well but because they don’t know what else to do. He says he’s just waiting for the next catastrophe. Pneumonia still whispering in his lungs, his blood counts low, he moves around the house only with the help of a walker that we borrowed from the place that makes those things available, who knew? It rattles and clanks as he pushes it and his weariness down the hall from room to room, a ghost, a ghost in chains. 
      He has the legs of a ten-year old boy, his arms are smaller than mine. I once wrote a poem about the way he walked—“Even the dead reach for you / as you walk, so beautiful across the earth.” It was a sexy, blue-jeaned, slim-hipped swagger, the assured gait of a man at home in his body and the world. Now it’s a clank, slide, clank, slide, his legs capable of an uneasy balance, not power or confidence. The walker sits by our bed at night so he can make it the short distance from our bed to the bathroom. He uses it to navigate the paths of the garden, and often I see him motionless behind it as if it’s a stubborn aluminum gate he can’t figure out how to push through. I remind myself he’ll get to the other side of it, but it will take time, it will take time. I ache for him.

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The Shape of Family

The Shape of Family

A Novel
edition:Paperback

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER

Named a book not to miss by USA Today * Chicago Sun-Times * New York Post

"Deeply involving....Rings so true." -- Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room

From the international bestselling author of Secret Daughter and The Golden Son comes a poignant, unforgettable novel about a family's growing apart and coming back together in the wake of tragedy.

The Shape of Family is a novel about race and culture, parents and siblings, marriage and love, but most of all …

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The Smallest Lights in the Universe

The Smallest Lights in the Universe

A Memoir
edition:Hardcover

Canadian MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager interweaves the story of her search for meaning and solace after losing her first husband to cancer, her unflagging search for an Earth-like exoplanet and her unexpected discovery of new love.

Sara Seager has made it her life's work to peer into the spaces around stars--looking for exoplanets outside our solar system, hoping to find the one-in-a-billion world enough like ours to sustain life. But with the unexpected death of her husband, her life became an …

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Seeing Martin

Seeing Martin

edition:Paperback
tagged :

When art student Mira Samhain loses her father, she becomes preoccupied with images of flesh and anguish. Martin Zorn becomes her lover and muse, his body's every detail she commits to paper. It's not the first time Zorn has been curated. His sister, photographer Marie Claire Zorn, spent her career working to record every gesture her younger brother made, every emotion he expressed; she made them both famous, and eventually destroyed them. Seeing Martin is Su Croll's debut novel, a work that inv …

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Excerpt

Mira stared out the window. All this rain had done something to the centre of winter. A change had come. The air had weight. Sidewalks and streets were nearly impassable, but underground, everything was still moving. Trains shuttling from station to station. That life never stopping. Under the city were colour-coded arteries and three forlorn trumpet notes at the beginning of each train ride. Concrete walls, inches from the windows, were dark and returned empty reflections of other riders. Some were just killing time, riding to the end of the line, then waiting for the cars to reverse. These riders never left, not really. They would sometimes get up from their seats and wander the platforms, but they never ascended the escalators to the upper air. It was as if they had forgotten where they were going. They travelled the length of the metro map, transferring from the yellow line to the green to the orange before switching to the blue line and its journey to the terminus where the cycle could begin again. This was how they used up all the hours inside their perpetual forgetting.

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If You Hear Me

If You Hear Me

edition:Paperback

A World Literature Today Notable Translation of 2020

Sliding doors open and close automatically, exit to the left, entrance to the right. Beyond it, cars go by, and pedestrians and cyclists. A large park behaves as if nothing has happened. The mirage of a world intact.

In an instant, a life changes forever. After he falls from a scaffold on the construction site where he works, the comatose David is visited daily by his wife, Caroline, and their six-year-old son Bertrand—but despite their devot …

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Excerpt

The First Hour

Hard to believe, but I’m alive.

In fact I’ve never been so present.

So clear.

I see everything.

Roger cursing and pacing back and forth, scolding the men one by one.

Body in the middle of the street, on the pavement, helmet lying near the head, a tool in between—the level, cracked. Liquid seeping out from it.

Martin running over, pushing aside Max and Vidal. He kneels on the glove, places his ear close to the lips, detects nothing. Looks for the pulse on the neck—no pulse. Opens the shirt, buttons flying in every direction. The red stain, on the chest, alarms him. Several ribs are soft, possibly broken. He hesitates. Makes a decision. He lifts the chin, feels the inside of the mouth, blows air into it twice, stands back, changes position, dares to press down, hands interlocked, elbows straight. By the book. His assurance is surprising, such a shy man.

He persists. Patiently, rhythmically.

In spite of everything, the lips, the blue nails, the white cheeks.

Roger paces up and down anxiously watching the far end of the street, the ambulance, the ambulance, the ambulance?

Finally.

Finally, Roger yells, raising his arms skyward.

Martin steps aside

mops his forehead

goes to sit down alone, in the shade, in a corner

the paramedics unpack their equipment

lift the eyelids

one blue eye, the other black, a bad sign

insert a tube in the trachea

open a vein in the arm

what are they injecting?

adrenalin

then

there’s nothing.

Nowhere.

Green room

too brightly lit.

Men, women, with gloves, masks

metal

stained sheets

murmurs.

Swollen face, shaved skull

neck in a harness

one arm in a splint.

Serum dripping drop by drop.

Each drop reflecting the neon lights, snail tracks.

Green garments, their folds like mountains, valleys

the weft and warp of the cotton, worn thin.

The body is young, robust, muscular, broken

familiar, but neutral

intimate, distant.

Nothing of this belongs to me.

Not the limbs, not the face, not the threads, not the seams.

Not the air in the tube,

not the lungs.

Just barely a point of transit.

I’m up here, at the ceiling, floating

suspended

between leaving and returning

held

within hazy boundaries

within a slack envelope

within a habit.

Early this morning I woke up, showered, shaved, ate three toasts with peanut butter.

The sun was shining, for once, and I remembered to put a brownie in my lunch box.

In top shape, just one filling, no eyeglasses.

It’s 11:43. That’s what it says there, on the clock.

These bones aren’t mine anymore, nor these tendons, these ligaments. This isn’t my skin anymore.

Just barely a possible location.

An alarm sounds.

It’s my turn to go fetch Bertrand at school this afternoon. I said we’d go play in the park.

Caroline always wears an ankle bracelet that tinkles like a little bell. Her cream has a scent of musk rose. She likes dark chocolate, she talks in her sleep.

The body, down there, is the only way I have of staying with them

two hundred and six bones six litres of blood seventy kilos

this intubated body is the only life I know.

The alarm never stops. The lines crawl, almost flat, across the black screens. He already looks like a corpse. The waxy skin. The immobility. The resemblance is perfect.

Yet seen from up here, it stays ready for use by a living man. You can tell from up here, it’s plain to see.

Plain to see, a possible life, and then nothing—black black.

It draws me upward, it buzzes, it goes fast, it goes without saying. I’m not afraid. It’s natural, after all, to die, why does it always bother us so much? It’s gentle.

The tunnel, yes, but no words to describe it.

I’m drawn by presences. I let myself glide. It’s good. It’s like giving in to a first love, on a perfect day of vacations, health, a wide-open future. I’m gliding at speed

slowly, though, s-l-o-w-l-y

until it strikes: the light

strong white unbearable

I explode without a sound.

I spread out, to the greatest length, to the greatest breadth, in all directions

my thoughts pure crystal

my heart swathed in cotton

I’ve just come back home after a long, harrowing journey

I evaporate like a puddle in August and it’s good

it’s so good

and true, so very true.

Threads that bind me to the living unravel

change into coloured beads

move off into unfathomable space

driven by what?

reconciliation.

For a long time: the void

In the void I hear:

You can still choose.

It snaps.

Whips. Guillotines.

I shrink.

Dark, once again, sticky.

Screwed, nailed, heavy,

little lights come on, thunder rumbles,

I don’t feel pain.

I feel the point of contact between my skull and the table, a point where

for a fraction of a second

the whole universe is gathered.

I feel my heart beginning to beat

haphazardly

like a horse shaking its head with a snort

Good boy, says a tired voice.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Day 1

Caroline has just come in with the groceries when they call her on her mobile from David’s phone.

 

“Hi there, Golden Muscle,” she answers.

At the other end, the response is slow.

They offer to pick her up to take her to the hospital. They refuse to provide details; the fact is, they don’t have any. Roger Pitt, the foreman, comes to get her himself. He had to stop everything anyway, send the guys home, and have the scaffolding inspected. What’s more, he feels guilty; there’s nothing like a work accident to spoil his week. He drives the pick-up without saying a word. Caroline looks straight ahead.

At the hospital, a receptionist at the front desk guides them toward the intensive care unit. She gestures for them to take a seat in the waiting room. They sit down as far as possible from two nuns consoling each other in a barely audible whisper. Judging from the thermos bottle and the pile of cushions at their feet, and especially from the dark rings around their eyes, Caroline infers that they spent the night here.

“You really should go get some rest! Otherwise you’re going to end up on the other side,” the receptionist urges, pointing at the large swinging doors bearing a “No Entry” sign, behind which she then disappears herself.

She returns with a curvaceous nurse, who walks straight toward Caroline and plumps down in the adjacent chair. Her name is Sue, and this is the first time she has sat down since her shift began. Getting right down to brass tacks, she fires off a series of questions about David’s general health. No diabetes, no heart condition. No alcohol problem either. She promises to come back shortly and is swallowed up by the swinging doors.

The interval is filled with a hypnotic rosary that irritates and reassures Caroline at the same time. After three Sprites and a bag of ketchup-flavoured potato chips, Roger Pitt looks in vain for an excuse to leave.

“I have to get going, Mrs. Novak. Take a cab home, ask for a receipt, the company will pay.”

These are the first words he’s spoken since they got out of the pick-up.

A half-hour later, Sue comes back and sits down next to Caroline. She explains the situation in simple terms: David has suffered internal bleeding, a cardiac arrest, chest and head injuries. Also, a broken arm and collar bone, which, under the circumstances, are hardly worth mentioning. The attending doctor will be able to tell her more in a moment. See him? Of course. But not right away. Later.

Later.

Caroline thinks about nothing. The shock has completely emptied her mental space. She concentrates on the large beige wall tiles; the slightest crack turns into a living human or animal form, a hallucination.

They’re torturing me, that’s it! This is a torture room. I’ve got razor blades under my skin. Where? Somewhere under my skin. This is my body—get out! They’re flaying me alive. Long shreds of throat. A train rolls by, close, too close, it scrapes the rails, the cars screech, the cars reek. Is it day or night? I hear my heart, machines, orders, a saw. Dogs. A tank? Must be Nazis. Am I going to die again? They’re going to kill me. A dirty, long, painful death. They want me to talk to confess to own up to snitch—I won’t tell them anything. I have nothing to tell—what exactly do they want? This is a mistake. I have to defend myself. I have to stand up, to open my eyes.

Caroline decides to walk in order to set her brain in motion again. She ambles down the corridors, goes up and down stairways, and stops at random in front of the pediatric department. She keys her in-laws’ number on her cell phone. Karine answers with her sandy voice. They exchange a few brief sentences that poorly convey the magnitude of the situation. The love of their life has fallen from a scaffold. He fell just a few metres, five or six seconds, that’s all; whatever the outcome, it will take them months, years to get over it.

Caroline is overwhelmed by a wave of loneliness as soon as she hangs up. She suspects that a similar wave came over Karine at the very same moment. She doesn’t know her very well, but she intuits her. Underneath the prominent cheekbones, the delicately arched eyebrows, the porcelain skin, under the still striking beauty and unstinting kindness, Karine is a self-sufficient island with a fragile ecosystem. Everyone knows glaciers are melting in the north and oceans rising in the south. Islands will be the first places to get wiped off the map.

I should have been more cautious, too. I should have paid my electricity bill. But, then, it just arrived. They’ve slit open my guts with a kitchen knife. They want me to talk—I’ve got nothing to spill. They’re beating my head with a rifle butt, my head, my head. They’ve hung me from the ceiling by the wrists and are waiting for my shoulders to pop. They shout, they laugh, they bang on pots and pans. The leather around my wrists, the metal. The leather, the metal, my head.

The train.

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The End of Me

The End of Me

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

56 very short stories about death from Giller Prize finalist John Gould

The End of Me is an astonishing set of sudden stories about the experience of mortality. With an ear attuned to the uncanny and the ironic, John Gould catches his characters at moments of illumination as they encounter the mystery of their finite being. A marooned astronaut bonds with a bereft cat; kids pelt a funeral procession with plums; a young girl ponders the brief brutality of her last life, and braces herself for the …

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