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The On Being Project

It’s Going to Be Okay, and It’s Not Going to Be Okay

I discovered the television series The Leftovers about three years after my mom suddenly died of lung cancer. The series begins three years after the Sudden Departure, an event in which 2 percent of the world’s population disappears. Although the Departure initially appears to correspond with the Rapture prophesied in certain Protestant faiths, there are too many unanswered questions that force humanity to seek other answers. Loved ones didn’t die; they suddenly vanished, and for those left behind, the grief is ceaseless and closure impossible. “The closest analog that we have in the real world,” show creator Damon Lindelof has noted, “is death.” On the show, characters’ losses include loss of loved ones, loss of belief, loss of rationality, loss of purpose.

When confronted with loss, many of us want to look for explanations, for causality, for someone or something to which we can assign blame. We ask not for infinite happiness, but simply a reason: “Why?” And when we are met with silence, we might turn inward, use our own desperate creativity to fashion a meaningful narrative. We might look for patterns in our lives, recurring motifs, numbers that reek too much of providence to be purely coincidental. Our questioning nature has helped turn us into master storytellers.

These instincts are magnified to the extreme in The Leftovers. A man who can take pain away with magic hugs makes more sense to some lost souls than the cruelty of random loss. For Kevin Garvey, Sr. (played by Scott Glenn), learning aboriginal songs to help prevent an apocalyptic flood is more rational than accepting the idea that life has no greater purpose; that we are helpless in a chaotic world. The always unlucky Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) finds comfort in believing that his misfortunes are a deliberate test of faith. When Matt learns of police chief Kevin Garvey, Jr. (Justin Theroux)’s alleged inability to die, he puts pen to paper and creates new scripture, words to live and die for.

His book of scripture is not fiction in his eyes, but a poetic retelling of real events. Watching him scribble in his book made me think of my own diaries, which my mother gifted me with every year from middle school until college. “How nice, that you can look back on your life like that,” she said once, admiring the volumes of bound pages stacked on my desk.

Nine days before her death, I unearthed the last journal she gave me, its pages made from delicate, textured paper, a wooden star glued on the blue cover. Flipping to a blank page in the middle, I read: “June 6, 2014. My world is ending.”

*

I haven’t stopped writing about grief since my mother died. Maybe in ink, I think, death will become less frightening, and I too can somehow hope to stave off the apocalyptic flood. I write letters to my mother. I write what I think she would say about my new pair of shoes, or the latest celebrity gossip. I write about my dreams — dreams in which I save her, dreams in which I tell her everything I ever wanted to tell her but never did. I write in order to dispel the notion of grief that has an end.

On The Leftovers, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) is also on a never-ending journey to reconcile with grief, having lost her husband and two young children to the Departure. In the season three episode “The Book of Nora,” she finds herself agreeing to enter a machine purportedly capable of reuniting her with her departed loved ones that could also irradiate her into oblivion. As Nora walks toward the machine, she flashes back to the final moments she shared with her children — a hectic morning at the kitchen table, her daughter accidentally spilling orange juice on her phone, Nora lashing out in anger. This memory, and her lingering regret, is what propels her forward into the chamber.

Regret is also what keeps me revisiting my history with my mom, because no matter how loving and close our relationship was — no matter how many times I told her “I love you” — it’s the moments near the end when I failed both her and myself that color my grief. My mom and I were chatting in her room one weekend, not long after her diagnosis, when she suddenly turned to me and asked, “Is there anything you want to ask me? Anything you want to know?”

I could tell she wanted to give me an opportunity for closure, just in case. If only I had the courage she possessed, I could have asked her so many things: Which childhood memories meant the most to her? What did she think I should name my kids? Did she know she meant everything to me? But at the time, I wasn’t having it. I couldn’t.

“No,” I said. No, because she was going to get better. No, because I didn’t need anything from her, except for her to live.

She grew quiet. “I feel like we don’t talk as much as we used to. I think you’re pulling back because you’re scared.”

“That’s not true!” I wondered how she could think I would ever push her away, seeking to protect the fiction of my own safety over her grim reality. But she was right about me, of course. She always knew me better than I knew myself.

By the time I escaped my denial, my mother had succumbed to delirium. Now the only way I know how to reconcile my grief and regret is to write about her. I write down every memory of her that comes to mind — the flowers I sent her, the phone calls, the tears, the jokes, the times we sat on the couch watching television together. The lingering ache of all that I never told her, never asked her, is only soothed if I believe that she already knew what I wanted to say.

*

Nora is one of the few seemingly rational characters on The Leftovers. She mocks Matt and Kevin’s ridiculous gospel, and crusades against fraudulent departure claims. But unlike her counterpart, the agnostic therapist Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman), Nora still retains a measure of uncertainty. She rejects mysticism and spirituality, yet she still makes space for the unknown. She still yearns for a truth that makes sense.

Nora is defined as much by her grief as by her hope that she might one day find the answers she’s looking for. It is a hope like hers, inexplicably combined with pragmatism, that imbues much of my writing about my mother. Aren’t my memories of her also stories I can live by?

Hazy and imperfect, clumsily pieced together, memories partly make up who we are. My writing stories about my mother and my grief makes them visible, makes me feel seen. But then what? Being seen can also make you want to hide, and it is this contradiction that haunts Nora throughout The Leftovers. With bereavement and the pity of others comes a new identity for her, just as our grief is stitched into the fabric of our lives. Nora doesn’t want to be known as “Nora Cursed,” doesn’t want to be in pain. But she needs her loss, too, for it is her love for her family, manifest; her promise to never forget them.

Every time I talk about my mom, every time the word grief appears in a paragraph I have written, I am afraid that all I am is grief. Afraid that others will define me only by my loss. Afraid that I will never be able to stop writing about this. Afraid that one day, I might. I write so I don’t forget. But this living reminder of my mom and the love she embodied is also, inevitably, a constant, living reminder of her death.

*

In The Leftovers season three episode “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” Nora decides to tattoo the names of her children on her arm. At the last second, though, she is overcome by fear, and randomly chooses to tattoo a symbol of the Wu-Tang Clan to cover up their names. “I thought, for the rest of my life, people would come up to me and they would say, ‘Oh, what a nice tattoo. Who are Erin and Jeremy?’” she says, weeping. “And I would say, ‘They’re my children. I’m Nora Cursed, ask me about my poor departed children.’ It’s pathetic.” Nora is caught between remembrance and forgetting, suffering and joy, guilt and peace.

I loved Nora the moment she graced the screen in season one, because her tragedy was so palpable, worn on her sleeve — embedded in her name, as I’m afraid mine is. What if it never gets better? What if I don’t want it to? Perhaps that wouldn’t frighten me so much were it not for the isolation in which grief exists. I am constantly made to feel as if there is something wrong with me because I am unable or unwilling to let go. In The Leftovers universe, everyone is always grieving, and everyone fears they might be going mad.

For me, watching the show now feels like being pulled underwater, drowning in questions that have no answers, and yet it also makes me feel less alone — and the sanest I have ever been. This is why I write about grief: To inject a bit of madness in a world that so desperately wants me to “move on.” To create space for those of us who fear we will go mad with loss. To tell them it’s okay, and to tell them it’s not.


This essay was originally published on Catapult. It is reprinted here with permission.

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