In This Room

Why did I come in here.

For Wedge.

Well, that was stupid. He’s not here. And now you have made your dad dead in this room. And you will keep doing this. Every new room you enter, you will make your dad dead in it. Now he is dead on the second floor. He is dead on the ground floor. There is only one floor left.

I’ve been working (and it does feel like work) on going out a bit more—not far, not anywhere unusual or exciting, just out of the house and a little way further into what used to be my everyday world. I didn’t expect it would be so hard. I used to go to campus almost every day, after all; I worked in my office there five days a week pretty much year round, until we all went home in March 2020. I went there so often that I was getting tired of it. I used to pull into the parking lot with resignation. Now I arrive in tears. I can’t help it: they start on the way there, as I travel the streets and pass the schools that are mundane but evocative landmarks in our family history, and they continue as I wander the grounds where I loved to visit the kids at lunch time during their summer camps, and when I look up at the residence where Owen spent two pretty happy years and then more unhappy ones, and when I remember the flags flying at half mast in his honor. Then I sit at the desk where I have sat for so many hundreds of hours before, and there are pictures and reminders everywhere.

It isn’t just the memories, though: it’s the uncanny sensation I get when I’m there of having traveled back in time. Because I have spent so little time there since COVID, the campus feels as if it belongs to another life altogether—except that Owen was alive in that other, past, life, so the disorientation that has settled somewhat around home (where he has been dead for so long now) comes back full force. “Every new room you enter,” the grieving narrator realizes in Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise, “you will make your dad dead in it.” That’s it exactly: that’s why it is so hard “just” going back to campus, and why it was also so hard when I made myself go to the Public Gardens, where I had not been since just before he moved back in with us in November. I love the Public Gardens, but going there meant that now Owen is dead there too.

Everywhere I go, I have to keep doing this. It’s easier when I have a focus, a task, a distraction, a friend. Constant distraction is a kind of avoidance, though, a way of not thinking or feeling. It’s a useful strategy—it has been invaluable, really, essential (as mindless TV has been) for helping me get through this hardest of all times. Before long I am going to need to be able to walk across the quad and not break down, though, and that means not just getting used to being there again but somehow closing the gap between the old life it was the setting for and the realities of my life now. I’ve been thinking again about Woolf’s image of the corridor between two blocks. I feel as if I am still in that transitional space: I am further along it, but I haven’t emerged yet, and I haven’t yet figured out that new story that reconciles what still seem like incompatible realities—the sameness of it all, and, simultaneously, the absolute difference of it. The dissonance still can make me reel, literally. I have been grateful for the quiet benches that let me rest for a while, just sitting with the sadness until I’m ready to take it with me somewhere else.

10 thoughts on “In This Room

  1. Jeanne July 7, 2022 / 2:17 pm

    It sounds so hard.
    Many of the people I know have the feeling that time didn’t pass during the pandemic, and then we’re confronted with someone’s children two years older and we realize our concept of time is faulty.

    • Rohan Maitzen July 7, 2022 / 6:55 pm

      It really has been such an odd interruption in that way, isn’t it? I know people who had no children and now have toddlers, all while for many of us it has felt like time standing still.

  2. Dorian July 7, 2022 / 2:39 pm

    So hard, Rohan. Thinking of Woolf’s diagram as a sketch of the lived reality of grief–so heavy, so beautiful.

    • Rohan Maitzen July 7, 2022 / 6:57 pm

      Thank you, Dorian. It is so, so hard and strange. I do feel I understand things about To the Lighthouse that eluded me before.

  3. theresakishkan July 7, 2022 / 4:02 pm

    A very moving post. “I feel as if I am still in that transitional space: I am further along it, but I haven’t emerged yet, and I haven’t yet figured out that new story that reconciles what still seem like incompatible realities—the sameness of it all, and, simultaneously, the absolute difference of it.” Whatever the new story is, it will have memorable chapters, haunting (and haunted) ones, and you are such a brave woman to share this.

    • Rohan Maitzen July 7, 2022 / 6:58 pm

      That’s very kind, Theresa. I have felt such a compulsion to write – even as I have found it harder than ever before in my life to read.

  4. ellenandjim July 7, 2022 / 4:10 pm

    This early or the first months are very hard. I was away from where I teach except for 2-3 short visits (across the street) until early June when I went in to teach in person. It’s been painful for me because basically the area in which both the OLLIs I teach at operate are both desolate, deserted. Where there was once a lively social life, there is almost nothing. I know you (rightly) view the pandemic as not a bit over, and the populations of these places are ages 60-90 for the most part. Many of these people undoubted are carrying on attending classes online because they are afraid of contracting the virus even if they are almost 100% vaccinated. But many are also or at the same time traveling and internationally, socializing in other ways. It seems to be more the case that coming in is inconvenient, you can take more classes online if you need not drive there and back and park. What’s emerging is the social life was after all not that centrally important to them.

    Both my classes were and are much much smaller but I thought I’d soldier on in person through the fall. Both staffs are grateful to me and those doing this. I’m doing this because I’m a much better teacher in person and for my mental health. I am alone far too much — especially this summer because I won’t get into a plane as yet (I’m doing it once in August to see a young woman friend and her new baby — in Toronto!)

    Over on face-book where one is allowed more characters, several colleagues have said they are finding going back in person very hard too. They are glad not to stare at black boxes with names in letters but apparently in very different situations (some undergraduate) the experience is hard to mixed.

    About home life everyone’s responses to a death of a beloved person are so different — circumstances are part of this. Also beliefs. I am convinced Jim didn’t exist before he was born and he now no longer exists. I’m an atheist. I think I might go mad if I was not surrounded by evidence of our lives together for 45 years and especially his life. So it’s precious memory that means so much — but like everyone (I don’t talk about this) we sometimes had conflicts and I have some bad memories too. I don’t know if this is helping you. I mean to. I am probably meaning to help myself too.

    • Rohan Maitzen July 7, 2022 / 7:01 pm

      It does help, and I’m glad it helps you too. There is such a community of grievers, and though we all have our very specific griefs, we also have a lot in common. Just knowing that other people are making their own way along is good to know, isn’t it?

      I am an atheist too, and so was Owen. Though I cannot say exactly that this comforts me, I know that what he wanted was oblivion, and I believe that is what he found.

  5. Carolyn Ruane July 7, 2022 / 11:12 pm

    This is so moving. I want to read the book. Thank

    • Rohan Maitzen July 8, 2022 / 6:46 am

      It’s a really delightful book – sad but also hilarious.

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