easter elegy for jenna morrison
I have to do this now while I am alive and awake. memories are fragments pulling towards each other by the magnet of absence. the people who are still here, circling a gap. drops on a window conjoining in gravity. two small hands, reaching into space.
jenna sails through the door at the last minute, rushing to meet her students. she dashes upstairs. I stand in the lobby watching her bag swing on a hook. she trails autumn air in her clothes. then her voice from above: is that you, matthew? are you here? you downstairs? where is my lovely matthew-baby?
years ago her dreadlocks wouldn’t fit under her bike helmet. now she takes it off and ringlets fall about her shoulders. my past tense will be inconsistent when I speak of her.
everybody knew that always on the edge of being late was a function of how much love and service she crammed into her day. and here we are ourselves: always on the edge of being too late.
she used to say my body is built for asana. before she would teach I spied through the studio door as she warmed up. her eyes closed, her spine long: step forward, breathe, step forward, breath, jump back. when she breathed her breath seemed to shimmer over her silhouette in a wave. she was wiry but had learned to soften, and by softening to find a broader strength. this was natural for her tissues, and she let her tissues teach her emotions in the same arc. this took a longer time.
I stand a foot taller than her and 90 pounds heavier. but one day she picked me up like a baby, slung me around in thai massage on a cotton pad. she grit her teeth and moved me.
she told me a little of her past. she scrapped and fought for years and then started lighting candles every morning.
after the bartending ended and the chanting began, after devotion broke into her confusion like a lighthouse beam, after committing to teachers and a sadhana –there were still hard years. no money. crossing the city 4 times a day on the green bike. (green is ruled by mercury.) trying to align classes and clients into reasonable time frames and vicinities. insomnia. lucas getting sick or having nightmares. in spare moments, she meditated or did the breathwork she’d learned. when that didn’t work, she smoked a cigarette or two. smoke made her breath visible: okay, look. I’m here. I’m working. I’m here and I’m getting through this. look at my breath.
one afternoon i came around a corner and saw her in the hallway embracing my ex-wife. holding her around the waist, pinching her a bit here and there, stroking her hair and quietly talking about my step-daughter, all grown up and in england. you have such beautiful hair. do you miss her? i can’t imagine how you feel. but yes you could, jenna. i stood back. my ex-wife missed the flesh of her flesh and was bathing in the tribe of one.
florian told their meeting-story at the funeral: the first time he saw her she was beginning to cross the street, and she was almost clipped by a car. so as it passed she kicked at the fender. the driver stopped, got out, and shoved her down to the pavement. florian rushed him and beat the shit out of him. then he helped her up with their eyes locked together.
I think her father died alone in china. alcohol I think she said. I wonder what kind of booze they drink in china, when they are abject. he was so far away from her. I remember her saying she had to arrange for his ashes to be returned two weeks before lucas was born. she stood at the desk at the chinese embassy, filling out repatriation forms on paper so thin her pen ripped through it. and her water ready to break.
[I would like a woman who was close to her to describe at this point in the text how she gave birth. maybe her doula? I need a co-author here, or to leave this shining and blank.]
there were years of family bed. she slept lightly, watching them both.
then florian got sick with lymphoma. she came to me trembling and weeping. what will happen? will you see him? when he came to see me I understood how she loved him: this alienated lion of shadow and flare. I told her that in ayurveda lymph disturbances were kapha and according to this he needed support but freedom from possessiveness and attachment.
his cancer was a volatile existential fuel. he looked at fear and flinched, and then settled in for the dark night. taking his shame in one hand and brashness in the other said come here my shadow let me wrestle you. I could see that jenna had married a man, and not one of these boys slouching around nowadays in skinny jeans slipping down. together they wrestled their flesh towards love and his cancer towards dasein.
they loved to the quick. they loved their friction. she lit her candles, and he lit blowtorches – I think he builds things. she wouldn’t have suffered someone without his black forest must. she let him be faustian and she loved it. he let her be a madonna/magdalen in teal, and he loved it. they chafed away each other’s roles, throwing off bright sparks. their virtue was lawless chiaroscuro.
she gathered all the herbs and recipes to purify him of cancer. he could manage some of it. but soup wasn’t enough to help him confront despair. she knew this, and allowed him to grieve, and mend his body through ultimate freedom, ultimate responsibility: through angst. she gave him space. she wept with me and said I love him so much, and I need to surrender to his pain, and mine.
when he recovered he wore his black euro-snaz suits with deeper austerity. saturn, rejected of the sun, taken into the fold of venus, now diplomatic with death.
(see how lucas rides his broad shoulders now, following the urn and piper down the aisle.)
jenna used to wrap her teal sarong around her in any-which-way. when she was still nursing she had no modesty. it fell open. just like our hearts when she asked us how we were doing.
there’s a picture with lucas in a sling on the beach, and darlene with the goofy hat. (darlene, darlene: how can we hold you?) back in the city the sling was functional. it let baby lucas hug close, while like a village woman from another century, she worked the fields of our hearts.
the week before she died she wanted to buy the last of my ghee. I just gave it to her, of course. money is basically meaningless to both of us. although I always had more money than her and this seemed terribly wrong. I had to push it into her hands as she protested and then batted eyelashes and said I’ll get you back my matthew-baby. she held the bottle at her rounded belly and reached for her helmet.
carlos told me over the phone first. I’d never met him but he was instantly my brother, and I wanted to drink with him to the very bottom of the night. then it fell to me to phone a hundred friends to give them the news. I came to fear, expect, and then finally welcome the impossibly long silence on the line. because the story was ruptured, I needed grammar and syntax to stop. because she had been crushed, I needed to hear breath and breath alone.
a week before she had wanted ashwagandha to stabilize the fetus. this baby was coming late in her life, you see. I gave her a pound of the ground root. the name means “sweaty horse’s balls”. and shatavari: “she who can please one hundred husbands”. because she was always on the edge of underweight. her body was like a kite under her breath. her family was the kite-string, staked to earth element, this dream of continuity. sweaty horse’s balls: she laughed and laughed. she actually liked saying shweaty.
she had no beliefs but rather great faith in doing things, faith in the things that were to be done. she used spirituality as a gesture to the relationships she could feel and act in. like every mother, she had no time for metaphysics.
she came to me once in tears about selling the studio she’d built with her friend dana. she couldn’t manage it with the baby and everything. but everyone and everything was her baby and why should she have to choose? every pregnancy was hers.
she was a pincher. she pinched flesh and made it pink. cheek, tricep, thigh, bum. she was a big bum pincher. women and men both. everyone was her baby. but she was also saying: I hope you’re getting enough sex. you deserve it. making sweet love is why we’re here, you know.
for staff meetings she sometimes had to skype in from ottawa. the shot was grainy but her eyes flashed. in the background glowed the walls of a childhood room. I think I saw a pennant from school. and a softball trophy? her mom’s computer was old. she was always apologizing for her crappy technology and vanished e-mails. she had a gnarly old cell phone with a busted screen and buttons crusted up with baby food, always lost in the bottom of a purse. it was useless: no technology would translate her body or feed her child.
she would leave the longest damned phone messages, interweaving business and intimacy in an excited gush of wanting to be close to your body. the distance of the phone frustrated her. you could feel her hands reaching down the line to pinch your ass. I used to skip ahead to the end of her messages, and now I regret this.
for community meetings I would make sweets from ghee, roasted mung flour, ground almond, shredded coconut, spices, and jaggery. sometimes she ate a half-dozen, feeling more and more grounded with each bite. her chatter slowed down, her ass got heavier on the floor, and she started to absorb the motherhood she bestowed on everyone else.
she was cremated. all the food she ate, which became her body, disappeared into light. I fed her food that turned into her flesh and then into light.
the moonstone hanging around her neck encouraged her to take on more water, with lime and soaked date and sea salt. it reminded her to keep her weight on. it reminded her of being pregnant: wearing ovulation around her neck. my eyes went from her eyes to the moonstone. when she was skinny it nestled into her clavicular notch. as she gained weight in the last months it lay on the surface of her flesh and moved as she spoke.
a catastrophe destroys the storyteller. i catch myself trying to speak a consolation, but it sticks in my heart. how is anything supposed to end?
in december michael stone wrote me an email that said only: grief, grief, and all is alive. i agree, and add to the refrain:
grief, grief, my body is alive.
grief, grief, her ashes are alive.
grief, grief, her little man is alive.
grief, grief, the white bicycle is alive.
grief, grief, the bike pirates are alive, with bike locks in the back pockets of their skinny-ass jeans.
grief grief, the rolling city is alive.
grief, grief, the pavement is alive.
grief, grief, the truck is alive.
grief, grief, the apartment as a womb of grief is alive.
grief, grief, the undertaker’s suit is alive, hanging in a black closet.
grief, grief, pinching each other makes us alive.
grief, grief, the dead are alive. they are here but we don’t know where.
grief, grief, the caregiver’s weeping is alive.
grief, grief, the caregiver is losing weight but she is alive (I was so worried about dana sweet dana).
grief, grief, mass cards and lilies are alive.
grief, grief, Sabbath candles and unrisen bread are alive.
grief, grief, the space between the truck’s wheels is alive and vibrating with death and the future.
grief, grief, krishna’s open mouth and grinding teeth are alive.
grief, grief, the driver is alive, and his children.
grief, grief, her crushed helmet is alive.
grief, grief, the maple trees are alive, it is november.
grief, grief, the men are alive, but they still feel like boys.
grief, grief, the yellow leaves on the ground are alive.
grief, grief, the kettle is alive, the loose tea waits in the pot.
grief, grief, her clothes in the closet are alive.
grief, grief, her purse is still messy, and very alive.
grief, grief, she leaned over me and her chest was radiant and alive.
grief grief, her shoes by the door are alive.
grief, grief, the ova are alive.
grief, grief, her husband is alive, wandering the black forest.
grief, grief, her son is alive, clinging to his father as to a raft, hesitant heroes.
grief, grief at the beginning of the line is a heartbeat.
grief, grief, the grief is alive.
as a choirboy in soutane and surplice I once sang: did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown? in the end that goddam jesus might win my heart after all. a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.
it was the most splendid fall. everyone has felt it. a bright quickening. more of us out on our bikes, and later in the season, despite the bastards taking away our bike lanes. a splendid fall. moments of resolution that pass and leave us gutted but invite more to follow in a cascade. a splendid fall. we’re going to repaint bike lanes on the pavement ourselves, in the middle of the night, in teal.
jenna died on a monday. on the sunday before I was downstairs packing up my ex-wife’s favourite belongings to ship them off to england. I was crying with loneliness and floods of memory, missing my step-daughter, missing the complexity of the broken bond. jenna came down after her class was finished and knocked on the door and came in and saw me and knelt down beside me and then took me in her arms as I wept and shivered. she put her right hand on my sternum and placed my right hand over her navel. her round belly, in the sun.
still shivering and sobbing, I told her that in the midst of my breakup I’d fallen helplessly in love with a woman. she broke into this huge grin: who is it, my matthew? and I told her the woman’s name, and she knew who it was, and her smile got wider: o that’s very good. that seems just right. then her face darkened a bit. but I’m sure that makes it harder for your ex. I nodded and wept harder still, unbearably and mystically guilty for what simply was. but you can’t help that or change that. I shook my head, weeping harder still. and no matter what happens, everyone needs a little tenderness. we do the best we can in love.
from jenna: a pause. a grin. a pause. a grin. then: so are you going to have babies together?
I nodded and wept harder still. I always thought you would be the best papa. I sobbed and said I hope I am not too old. no way you’re not too old, and you have good health. you are totally full of life and you will make new life and it will change everything. she cradled me, and my tears went quiet and cooled on my cheeks, and then she left my arms and sight for the last time, and I continued on with the day, and I continued on with many days, doing the same things I did when she was alive, but with more resonance, and teal in every shadow.
and today it is easter, and I walk in the sun on quiet streets with my lover, her left hand in mine and her right hand on her shining bump. baby will come sooner than all understanding.