H is for Help

Help me. It’s not something I’ve ever been good at saying. Ask my mother. Though I was a talkative toddler with a broad vocabulary, I guarantee I uttered no phrase with more frequency than, “I do it myself.” My self-sufficiency is both learned and innate. I can count on one hand the number of times my father paid someone else to do something. It was only after my brother and I became teenagers, and my father’s job became more demanding and his free time rarer and rarer, that he hired a gardener to mow the lawn and started taking the cars into auto shops to get their oil changed. Everything else, he did on his own. To suggest he do otherwise was not taken as an attempt to relieve his burdens. It was taken as an insult.

In the eight months and one week since he’s been gone, many people have tried to help me. They’ve sent books, suggested therapy and other methods of self-care, held up outings and classes and activities and hobbies like they’re offering me a surefire path out of the darkness. For the most part, I have turned away, have let the offer of “let me know if there’s anything I can do” hang limp in the air because there isn’t. There isn’t anything anyone can do. I remember, when my father was in the hospital, the way I bristled at family friends who tried to tell us what we needed to prepare for, in case he took a turn for the worse. Just shut up, I wanted to say. Not because their words weren’t true or because their desire to help wasn’t sincere, but because he was not their father. You haven’t been here, I kept thinking. You don’t know him like we do. You do not get a say in how we handle this.

The world is rife with lists and articles and seminars on how to cope with grief, and from these, too, I’ve turned away because I’ve never found blatant advice helpful. I think it’s why I’ve also resisted reading books on grief. I don’t need books, I’ve thought. I have my own words. I have more words than I know what to do with. What I need is someone who will listen, but what I fear I’ll find is something Amy Lawless describes in a series of poems called, My Dead. When an elephant dies, the other elephants pick up the deceased’s bones and carry them around in their mouths. Scientists come onto the scene, explain away the death with logic and reason, and attempt to take the bones away. “But getting an elephant to let go of the bone,” Lawless writes, “Is an entirely different matter.”

I never let go of the bone. Ever. The thing my friends implore me to do the most often is the one thing I can never seem to manage: “Don’t think it to death.” Grief has rendered me into a flattened, vaporous version of myself, but it hasn’t changed the fact that for eight months I’ve been trying, with every ounce of precious little energy I possess, to make sense of a world that, without my father, makes even less sense than it did before. And I have been resisting so much, fighting so hard to keep going, to keep working, to keep myself afloat, to maintain some semblance of order and control, but no matter what I do, it’s all rebelling against me. I can’t get out of bed on time. I never stop being tired. It takes me weeks to respond to personal emails, and all the while, I am weighted by the belief I’ve clung to all these months: there is nothing anyone can do to help.

Several weeks ago, a grad school acquaintance asked if she could send me a book by Helen MacDonald called H Is for Hawk, a memoir written about the time MacDonald spends training a goshawk in the year following her father’s sudden death. I said yes, though I expected to be disappointed, assuming I read the book at all. I am now seventy-five pages in, and I am anything but disappointed. MacDonald’s descriptions of her grief are eerily close to my own, but even more than I relate to her, I relate to the hawk she is trying to tame: “Gosses are nervous, highly-strung birds and it takes a long time to convince them you’re not the enemy. Nervousness, of course, isn’t quite the right word: it’s simply that they have jacked-up nervous systems…Goshawks are nervous because they live life ten times faster than we do, and they react to stimuli literally without thinking.” I read that passage and thought, I am this bird.

I have always been a fighter. I am the oldest sibling. I am a Henkle down to my marrow and willful German blood. But I am also much more sensitive—in every meaning of the word—than any human ever ought to be. Both blessed and cursed with a hypersensitive nervous system, an empathetic heart, and an unflinchingly observant mind, I have always felt the need to daily retreat into my own little world for relief. But lately, my world hasn’t been doing much to calm me, or rather, I’m noticing the smallest noises, sights, and shifts in my environment to the point where it’s becoming unbearable. At first, I thought I was just getting fussier with age (as if I weren’t already fussy enough), but I’ve since begun to believe this isn’t about being fussy. My already-too-tightly wound system has been kicked into overdrive during these long, stressful months of grief and work and aloneness and loss, and I am living out the results of holding so tightly to my burdens: they have begun to unravel me.

At the point I’ve reached in the book, MacDonald has brought her hawk home and is trying to teach it to trust her: “The goshawk is staring at me in mortal terror, and I can feel the silences between both our heartbeats coincide. Her eyes are luminous, silver in the gloom…She stares. She stares and stares.” Again, I am this bird. The intensity of her gaze, staring hard at a person, at a world, that she cannot comprehend—having spent her life thus far in the protection of an aviary, and now thrust into open, alien territory—but damn it, she’s not going to let up. “She was scared,” MacDonald writes, “she wasn’t hungry; the world was an insult.” The way the hawk fixes her fear-drenched eyes on MacDonald, the way she resists any offer of sustenance and knows only her terror—I have been looking at the whole world like that ever since my father died. Even at my friends. Even at God.

For months, K. has been asking me to come visit her, and I’ve resisted. I’ve resisted making plans, resisted acting like the future is still something I know how to put my faith in, resisted everything but the day-to-day routine that keeps me moving, keeps me sane, or at least, keeps me suspended in what I’m beginning to think is less sanity and more functional madness. The other night, K. was trying to convince me, yet again, to let her buy me a plane ticket. I was a litany of noncommittal excuses, saying she didn’t understand what she was inviting into her home. I’m a wreck. An exhausted, unhelpful, irritable, listless wreck. “That’s okay,” she said, “I just want to take care of you.” I paused a moment at that, then said, “I can’t remember the last time someone took care of me.” She said, “I know,” and that’s when I finally relented.

I can never seem to remember that there’s a profound difference between giving up and giving in, and generally speaking, I am much more willing to give love than to receive it. In the past few weeks, I’ve had people who are very close to me say very tender, surprising things—that I’m incredible, that I amaze them every day, even that I, if you can believe it, make sense to them—and I have reacted just like MacDonald’s hawk, staring at them in complete bewilderment and disbelief. Why? I’ve wanted to say. I’m completely nuts, now more than ever, and they should know that better than anyone. That’s the thing, though: they do, and they love me still, and all they want to do is hold me near and help carry some of the weight. Maybe there isn’t anything anyone can do to move me through this grief, but maybe it’s less about the outcome and more about being willing to say, Help me, and then to let people try.