This essay explores the relationship between grief and personal expression. I use Sigmund Freud’s conceptualisations of the German word heimlich as a way to understand the ambiguity of a grief that has been buried and the narratives of self that ensued. I argue that writing and other forms of personal expression allow us to bring these ambiguities closer to us, to examine them and then to properly let them go. This is the story of how grief shook my family. The more theoretical aspects of this essay were drawn from research which formed part of my Master’s thesis at Curtin University of Technology.
Keywords: writing—heimlich—unheimlich—familiar—strange—grief—otherness—self identity
The watch is an old thing, an analogue that needs winding every day. The band is made of grey leather and there are cracks of overuse in the skin. This is my father-in-law’s watch. A blind man’s watch. I’m holding it, touching it. Today I go as far as shutting my eyes to feel what he might have felt whenever he fastened it around his wrist. I lean my left arm on my chest and pull the band through the buckle, and although I fumble and miss the holes so many times I start to sweat, everything does (in the end) loop together. Next I lift the cover that protects the face. I use the pads of my index and ring fingers to find the raised dots of twelve and six and then those of three and nine. I feel my way around, get my bearings so to say, touch the hands. From here it takes unknown minutes to gauge that it’s quarter to eleven, and by this time I’m so frustrated, I feel like throwing this watch against the wall.
We take our children to the park, Mitch and I. They don’t know yet that their grandfather has died, and because they’re so young we’re tempted not to mention it. We tell ourselves they won’t remember, they hardly remember what they had for dinner the previous night, and at ages two and three they don’t have the maturity to understand something as abstract as death. But, true as these things are, I watch my children now, sitting on a picnic bench, swinging their legs beneath them while they negotiate slippery kiwifruit and sliced banana from fingertips to mouths, and I know that although they don’t realise it, they have suffered a loss. Isn’t it my job (and Mitch’s, for that matter) to help them crystallise this loss? To give it a name?
We were at the zoo on the day Samuel died. A phone call came just as we entered the reptile house. The kids started running around, squealing, pointing to the snakes, and at the time this one-sided conversation (Mitch on one end, his sister on the other) seemed very unreal. Afterwards we didn’t quite know what to do. There was no urgency (for no amount of rushing could change what had just happened), but we were utterly consumed. I remember walking. Lizards merged into penguins and then into bears. Mitch had the mobile attached to his ear. And all the while I watched my children banging on the enclosure glass, spilling over boundary lines, as though I were watching TV. At one point Mitch started smiling in the same way one smiles when he or she is a victim of a prank. ‘Looks like the old boy finally gave up the ghost,’ he joked, and in a way his reaction didn’t surprise me because his dad was always pretending he was going to die, always talking about death, always saying his time was up. But of course it never was.
‘I want you to take me to Mandurah, to visit the jetty one last time,’ he once demanded.
‘I want you to cook me a barbecue, you know, in case.’
‘I’m not long for this world.’
And then there was ‘I’m weary’, which he said by way of explanation on the night I found a ‘how to’ book on self-euthanasia next to his reading machine.
At the time I was drawn in to his drama. I told him I wanted to see him grow old ... I wanted a paternal grandad for my future children ... I loved him.
Mitch said, ‘Well, Dad, if you need a hand let me know,’ and then he motioned it was time to leave.
In the car on the way home Mitch reassured me that his dad had no intention of killing himself. That he’d done stuff like this before. That the idea was to upset people. To get attention.
I couldn’t stop sobbing.
For the rest of the drive, Mitch was silent. This was how it was. These were non-conversations. Things we couldn’t talk about.
I know now that Samuel was no boy who cried wolf; he was seriously ill. Of course, this is stating the obvious; he had diabetes, he was blind, he had suffered heart attacks, kidney failure, dialysis; and had endured not one but two organ transplants. Surely I knew he was not well. Yes I did. But ‘not well’ is one thing; dying is another. What I didn’t know (until after) was that he’d been given only a 50 per cent chance of ‘seeing the next five years’, thirty years ago; he was not supposed to survive his fortieth birthday, let alone become a grandparent, grow old, and live to see the hope of 60. Lately his heart had been operating on just seven per cent efficiency; and he and his doctor had begun measuring his life in weeks.
Thinking about this I am reminded of Sigmund Freud’s conceptualisations of the terms heimlich and unheimlich. Heim of course is German for ‘home’ and lich translates quite readily into the word ‘like’, but heimlich is not as simple as ‘homelike’, and what attracts me now are the ‘shades of meaning’ (1985: 345) and the process by which familiar is rendered strange. Heimlich, Freud argues, ‘belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different’ (1985: 345). On the one hand, heimlich is something domestic, familiar, or intimate. But, on the other, there is a more negative connotation, an implication of that which is hidden or concealed. More so, the etymology of the word is such that its meanings—from ‘intimate’ to ‘concealed’—continue to shift until heimlich becomes aligned with its opposite, unheimlich or ‘uncanny’, which for Freud (1985: 339-45), as for Ernst Jentsch (1995: 3-6), is that which incites a feeling of fear. Freud, in particular, describes it ‘like a buried spring or a dried up pond’, and argues that heimlich becomes unheimlich through discovery (1985: 343-44).
According to Annaleen Masschelein this means that ‘something is frightening, not because it is unfamiliar or new, but because what used to be familiar has somehow become strange’ (2003: 3). I wonder now what it might have been like from Samuel’s perspective, to be always dying, and always to pull through. To be told time and time again this is it, and then for it not to be. To be unable to talk about it, save for the little dramatic truths. I especially relive those last weeks, the words he said, the dry, ‘If I make it to my sixtieth birthday’, the need for resolution and forgiveness, the desire to sit and listen, and allow his grandchildren to tear up the garden whichever way they desired, and I see these weeks differently. I can’t stop thinking that actually this time he sat across from us at that barbeque eating rissoles and chatting about our kids and school, hiding what he knew.
‘Come on,’ Mitch says, breaking up my thoughts until I’m right there again, back at the park, back to being a mum, back to packing away two little lunchboxes emptied of fruit. ‘Let’s take them for a walk.’
We’re cold, rugged up. It’s autumn, and the pathways are dense with fallen Liquid Amber. Our daughter crunches through the leaves as though they are puddles, and I am delighted by the sight of her. I’m delighted by the brightness of all the colours. By her smile and her simple joy. I’m glad I can see her. And I’m glad Mitch can too.
Mitch brings home more watches. I hold a silver one in my hand. It has an elasticised wristband and it is heavier than any watch I’ve ever held, male or female. The face is a raised dotted black circle, a speakerphone. Beneath this, the LCD display reads 2:49. I press a tiny button and an American woman’s voice sounds: ‘Two ... Forty ... Nine ... pm’. Each word stands separated, on its own. She enunciates the ‘t’ in her ‘forty’. There is a twang to her ‘nine’.
For days Mitch doesn’t say much. He goes through the motions of coming and leaving, and although I know there is a lot for him and his family to do—everyday administration, bills, funeral plans, even mundane chores like emptying the milk from his dad’s fridge—I’m left with the kids for long hours at a time, no one to talk to, no one to help me make sense of things, and this is making me anxious. Every night I ask the usual questions. ‘How was it today?’; ‘Are you going okay?’ I want him to speak. I want to see him cry.
He’s not a writer, but on the couch late one evening I hear him scribbling in a way I’ve never heard before. In the 15 years we’ve been together he has only written me one letter, and it was short and gave little away. Birthday and anniversary cards are often signed with the barest of sentiments: ‘Love Mitch’, ‘kisses’, or ‘I bought this card because it had all I wanted to say’. But now I hear the pages turning and the pen working, and every now and then he stops, and there is only an eerie silence.
‘What are you writing?’ I ask.
‘My speech,’ he replies, turning to face me.
‘May I read it?’
‘No.’ His voice is firm and definitive.
I joke with him. ‘You’ve got pages and pages there. Is that what I have to do? Die, so you can write me how you feel?’
He laughs, but then his laugh breaks.
He twists forward again. From where I sit by the heater I can see the back of his head, his hand on his temple, his elbow resting on the arm of the couch. He stays like this for a few minutes and then he starts scribbling again. I’d like to go over there and sneak a look, but I understand too well the nature of writing. I understand the private circle between thought and pen and page. So I study him from behind, from outside his circle. I study his movements, his wrists forming letters, his words interspersed with stillness, his stillness with more words.
‘It ... is ... nine ... o’clock ... pm.’
The voice, another accented with American twang, flies up out of nowhere. Samuel’s watches are all in an archive box. No one is pressing any buttons, no one has asked for the time, and in the quiet of no television, no radio, no conversation, it frightens me.
‘What was that?’ I ask.
Mitch turns. ‘It does that.’
‘Can’t you do something about it? Can’t you shut it off or something?’
I know I’m being insensitive, but it’s unnerving, this random voice in the middle of the night, telling me the time.
In her novel A descant for gossips, Thea Astley describes a character’s retreat into everyday life after a harrowing experience as ‘more normal than normal, more real than real’ (1968: 119). I feel this way now. This thing, my home, highly familiar and recognisable, has been disrupted by something quite unfamiliar. New knowledge, mortal knowledge, the knowledge that Samuel knew he was going to die—these things have changed the way I perceive both his blindness and the differences between his home life and mine. Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre calls this ‘alienation’, and in doing so he draws an important distinction and relationship between ‘other’ and ‘otherness’. He says, ‘alienation is a result of a relation with “otherness”, and this relation makes us “other”, i.e., it changes us, tears us from our self’ (2008: 214). To paraphrase—‘other’ is something (possibly) friendly and accessible. It offers itself to us, up to a point, and when it looks at us, we do not feel uneasy. In contrast, ‘otherness’ is distance: an inaccessibility that threatens, frightens and drags us away. There is a never-ending dialectical movement between the two. To pass from otherness to other is to gain knowledge and power over the thing that was once unknown. But to move in the opposite direction, from ‘other’ to ‘otherness’, is to discover something unknown or something distant in what is near. What we knew, and what we were familiar with, moves away and plunges us into the depths of uncertainty (Lefebvre 2008: 215).
I sit by the heater like I always do. I tell myself that really my everyday life is the same. That it’s Mitch’s grief up there on the couch that matters, not mine. Yet, invariably, just like Astley’s character Vinny Lalor in A descant for gossips, I stare at ‘stared-at’ walls, and I feel that these walls no longer hold my family in the same way (1968: 252). I make myself a cup of tea. I’m not hungry or thirsty; what I need is the action of something to do, of movement. So I boil water. I choose my favourite cup, a simple white ceramic, and make Orange Pekoe, very milky, with one spoonful of sugar. But as I do this I remember it was Samuel who got me onto the tea in the first place, and I think of him as a blind man, as a dying man, struggling to plug in the electrical cord of a kettle in his own private darkness, and the very repetitions, the acts of brewing and stirring, which I’d normally find comforting, upset me. For things are no longer the same. They are different. I am different. Pushed from other to otherness, into a point of knowing, familiar is made strange. Heimlich, unheimlich.
I do wonder about this obsession with watches. On the morning of the funeral Mitch irons a shirt in the kitchen, and the thought crosses my mind that none of the watches in the archive box are glamorous or even remotely fashionable. None are finely detailed. Samuel once asked me what I had purchased for Mitch’s birthday. ‘A watch,’ I said, and was promptly barraged with questions.
‘What does it look like?’
‘What is the band made of?’
‘Is it digital or windup?’
‘Are there numbers on the face?’
‘What colour are the numbers?’
‘What colour is the face?’
‘Does it have a second hand?’
‘It’s silver,’ I replied. ‘The face is a slender rectangle. It’s an Armani watch, and the emblem, a golden eagle in mid-flight, is perched where the number 12 should be. The rest of the numbers are black. There is a second hand, a fine line. The face is a pale dusty pink, like the colour of your skin.’
‘Sounds nice,’ he said.
After that, whenever we visited, he asked Mitch if he was wearing his watch, and if he was, Samuel wanted to hold it. I thought he was just being polite, making conversation, but I understand now there’s a difference between form and function. Mitch could get dressed up, could put on a suit, could go out for dinner and his watch would tell the time, but it also looked good. Samuel’s watches, one purchased to supersede the other, none quite attractive enough to satiate his desire, all bulky, practical, functional, were simply not made to match cufflinks.
The funeral begins with a PowerPoint presentation, an ode in pictures to Samuel’s life and loves. The first photograph is black and white, from his wedding. It is a candid shot, like so many I’ve seen before. The bride wears a fur-lined cloak and thick-rimmed glasses. She’s blonde; her hair is cascading down her shoulders. The groom’s hair is darker, woollier. He is positioned side on, so that we see the bride’s face as a portrait and the groom’s in profile. It’s winter. It’s a head shot: two people clearly in love, big smiles, eyes directed to each other’s lips. Who would have thought that, within five years, the bride would die in a car accident, the groom would lose his sight, and the three yet-to-be-born children would experience a transformed homelife.
I spent years writing a Master’s thesis that explored themes of home. I began my research with Gaston Bachelard, who in 1958 published the polemical The poetics of space, and who approached the topic of home from a phenomenological perspective. At the most simplest level Bachelard argued that the homes we are born into and grow up in are the first world or first universe spaces that subsequently shape our understandings of all other spaces (Bachelard 1994: 4). Of all the ‘homes’ we might eventually experience, it is this home—this early initiation into physical and emotional environment—that Bachelard argues is our most fundamental of places (1994:15). When he writes ‘all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home’, or when he says, ‘the sheltered being ... experiences the house in reality and in its virtuality, by means of thoughts and dreams’, the house he is referring to, the one that ‘comes to dwell’ in his present experience is the house of his childhood (1994: 5). For me, as a child, ‘home’ evoked a mum, a dad, siblings, a big house by the ocean, the tranquillity of regional Australia, friends, school, good grades, and bright sunny days. After I moved to the city to attend uni, I looked back on it longingly, nostalgically; Mum was in the garden, Dad was home at 5:30 on the dot, the fire was lit, the dryer was on and I could smell a roast. My home was what I thought all homes were made of. At aged 17, my version of home was not unlike the one theorised by Bachelard. I viewed it from the vantage point of one who had moved away, and so it was always there, in the recesses of my mind, always the same. It was ‘the land of Motionless Childhood ... a fixation of happiness ... a memory of protection’ (1994: 5-6). My world (like Bachelard’s) began ‘enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house’ (1994: 7). My memories—like Virginia Woolf’s descriptions of the red and black flowers on her mother’s dress as the base that (life) stands on—were quintessentially maternal (Woolf 1985: 64). Not only was my memory of home rose-tinted, it was fundamentally tied to person, and in particular, ‘mother’. So when I met Mitch and found out that his mum had passed away before he could develop any memory of her, I responded with, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘What for?’ he replied. ‘You didn’t kill her.’
No I didn’t. But I was still sorry. I was sorry that he didn’t know what she looked like, that he couldn’t place her voice, that he had no motherly phrases to draw on, and that he didn’t know what her favourite food was, or her favourite movie. For years I asked and asked, ‘What was your mother like? Tell me about her.’
Curiously neither Mitch nor his dad possessed many photos. I expected, since Samuel was blind, a certain absence of photography, but at the same time I also expected to see an album from the wedding or a christening. Not so. It took me more than ten years to accumulate the handful we contributed for Samuel’s funeral. I asked aunties and cousins to find whatever they could. I spoke to Mitch’s sister who, being older, had a few more memories. I sat with Samuel. ‘Will you tell me about Mitch’s mum?’
‘What do you want to know?’
‘She was nice. We had a good time. But I don’t want to talk about her now. I promise one day I will.’
‘One day’ never came.
So I started writing a novel. This novel formed part of my thesis. It was about home, but not my home. This story had a mum, a dad and an only child. The mum died when the child was just a baby. She wasn’t Mitch’s mum, for I knew nothing about her. This wasn’t Mitch’s family, for there were no characters, no locations, no plotlines that I lifted from his reality. For my examiners I wrote that I was reconceptualising society’s bounded and very Bachelardian definition of home as a memory of protection, care and warmth; I was removing the maternal aspect and instead focusing not on carers and walls, but on the continual repetition of everyday life, regardless of its nature. However, thinking about this now, I wonder if I was also writing a substitute for the story Samuel never passed on. I too felt a loss (or at least an absence). Perhaps I wasn’t just creating a novel. Perhaps I was creating a space in which I could ask the same questions I asked Samuel—‘Tell me about her, I want to know’—and this time be answered.
Mitch was our son’s age when he lost his mother. I wonder (I have always wondered) if, at the time, he was told. I wonder if he went to her funeral. And if he didn’t, I wonder if in being protected, he was actually being denied some aspect of her.
In his speech, Mitch tells the congregation that he never felt a loss. He never felt like his family was different to any other family, ‘to Jason’s family down the road’.
Mitch says he thinks not of losses, but of things gained.
His brother adds that the three of them were quite fast on their bicycles. They were experts at noticing things, experts at reading aloud. ‘You’d be surprised how quickly it becomes your normal life.’
I wonder about this normal life. How internalised it is. How accustomed the children must have been to this idea of normalcy, always remembering to tell their dad where they were, what it looked like, what colours were around. Even now I can still see any one of them reading out a restaurant menu, describing in aching detail every cake in the display fridge, every drink. At an age when I was holding my parents’ hands to cross the street, Mitch and his siblings were probably already looking out for potholes and cracks in the footpath.
I remember taking Samuel to Mitch’s graduation. ‘To lead Dad through a crowd,’ Mitch had instructed beforehand, ‘you let him hold onto to your elbow, and you make sure you tell him what’s ahead.’ As it turned out, this was much easier said than done. I forgot who was supposed to be holding onto whom. I held Samuel’s arm (not even his elbow, but his upper arm as if I was leading a delinquent to detention), I confused ‘left’ with ‘right’ and resorted to visual directions like ‘this way’ and ‘there’; and although I successfully guided him up the stairs of the auditorium, I couldn’t work out how to turn him so he was facing the stage, and I couldn’t find the words to describe what he had to do with the fold-down chair. Truly I had done a bad job. An insensitive job. And by the time we were both seated, he was scolding me and I was vividly imagining what it might be like to push him down the stairs.
How he must have normalised his children’s competence too.
Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist, argues that our self-identity, understood in terms of an ongoing biography, ‘is not to be found in behaviour, nor ... in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going’ (1991: 54). It follows that our everyday routines provide us not only with a sense of continuity, but also with a narrative to cling to. A certain familiarity arises out of the repetition of daily life. In his essay ‘Time, Space Routines and Place Ballets’, David Seamon argues that at these times the body moves automatically, the ‘hands know what to do’ (1980: 156). All that is left is an ease—a habitual and automatic ease—that results in the kind of consistency that is associated with the more positive meanings of Freud’s heimlich. But, at the same time, it is precisely this ease which provides a mask for any unpleasantness held beneath the surface. If a routine is performed to keep a certain narrative going, then while it creates a sense of something predictable and known, it also functions, like the more negative understanding of heimlich, as a way to avoid, deny or repress knowledge. That is: there is no movement between other and otherness. Routine keeps what is heimlich familiar, and what is potentially unheimlich distant.
We are at Samuel’s house, just the four of us. The Saturday after the funeral. The kids are running around the backyard. Mitch is watering plants, keeping things alive.
We sit on the swing-seat. ‘About Granddad,’ Mitch says.
‘Granddad’s not home,’ our son replies. ‘He’s gone.’
Mitch and I look at each other. ‘Did you say something to him?’ he asks.
I shake my head. Our son is being literal; of course he notices the absence of his granddad.
‘Daddy!’ our daughter exclaims, hopping off the swing-set, and moving towards the garden. ‘It’s a bee.’
Mitch nods. ‘It is.’
I’m waiting for him to tell the kids.
‘About Grandad,’ he starts again.
The words don’t come. Our son jumps off the seat and moves towards his sister. Soon they’re both off. Another part of the garden. A waterfall to explore.
Mitch stands. I watch him while he checks the timer on the reticulation and then the lemon tree for signs of scale. I help him pull weeds out of the garden, and as he sprinkles tiny balls of Osmocote onto the plants, I imagine him as he’ll be later tonight, slicing potatoes for our dinner and feeding at least one of the kids, and I see quite clearly a part of his personality that chooses safer, more familiar narratives over the ones less known. He’s not just finding comfort in routine; he’s creating a certain spatial distance from his unheimlich moments. These plants to water, these things to do: they are the illusion of stability, a way to block out or deny the more difficult aspects of his life. I wonder if this is how his dad coped too, what his dad did way back when. Was he too seduced by everyday routine? Just so he wouldn’t have to talk about things?
Our kids are dipping their fingers into a pool of water, splashing each other, giggling. I think of Henri Lefebvre’s premise of dialectical movement, of a neverending passing from other to otherness and back again (2008: 215). I think of the novel I wrote, the substitute for ‘mother’, the loss. In writing that manuscript, I was being true to that movement: I was bringing that loss closer to me, I was making it familiar, and in familiarity, I was turning my alienation into disalienation. I look at Mitch now. He’s still in routine, still not ready to face his alienation, his otherness.
‘What do you want to do for dinner?’ Mitch asks.
‘It was a good speech,’ I say.
‘Thank you,’ he replies.
I nod towards the children and whisper, ‘You will tell them, won’t you?’
‘You never answered me.’
‘What do you want for dinner?’
I don’t reply. I am determined he will not hide in this way.
‘Grandad’s gone to Heaven,’ my son says a week or so later.
We’re walking, just him and me, around our neighbourhood. His small hand is clasped firmly in mine, and he is looking towards my face.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Did Daddy tell you?’
He shakes his head. ‘He didn’t.’
‘Then who told you?’
I squeeze his hand.
At home, I give him paper and a pencil case full of crayons. He scribbles, and then he says, ‘Mummy, draw me a truck with a trailer with a bobcat on it.’ He hands me a crayon and points to a space on his pad, ‘Put it here.’
‘What’s this crayon coloured, Mummy?’ he asks.
‘Aqua,’ I reply.
‘It’s not blue, and it’s not green.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘It’s a little bit of both.’
I don’t want to imagine what this moment might be like with my eyes shut. I draw all manner of mechanical equipment as per my son’s instructions, colour after colour, and I don’t push him when he vaguely says, ‘here’ and ‘here’ and ‘here’. I don’t ask, ‘where?’ And I don’t teach him to be so specific that he needs to mention the centre of the page, or the top. I watch him while he copies what I draw: gorgeous little scribbles, circles for motor bodies, lines for wheels. ‘See Mum,’ he says, ‘it’s a cement mixer.’
‘Yes,’ I praise, ‘it is.’
I stand up. I get that old grey watch out of the archive box again. In my other job, the job I go to on the days I’m not consumed with motherhood, I teach creative writing. In tutorials we often talk about narrative structure, and I tell my students that, regardless of everything a character must go through a process of change, something must happen; that equilibrium must be disrupted before being restored again. Otherwise what’s the point? But as I hold this watch now I think of our own disruption, and I think of Mitch going about the everyday busyness of life, not talking, not acknowledging, and I think of my son, his eyes directed towards my eyes, and I can’t see the change. If we really wanted we could make this disruption last forever. We could normalise it, skirt around it. We could hide it, ‘like a buried spring or dried up pond’ (Freud 1985: 343).
But what might that do to us?
Astley, T 1968 A descant for gossips, Brisbane: Jacaranda Press
Bachelard, G 1994 The poetics of space (trans Maria Jolas), Boston: Beacon Press
Freud, S 1985 ‘The uncanny’, in A Dickson (ed) Art and literature: Jensen's Gradiva, Leonardo Da Vinci and other works, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 339-76
Giddens, A 1991 Modernity and self-identity: self and society in late modern age, Stanford California: Stanford University Press
Jentsch, E 1995 ‘On the psychology of the uncanny’ (trans Roy Sellars), www.cpmg.org.br/artigos/on_the_psychology_of_the _uncanny.pdf (accessed 22 May 2009). This translation first published: Angelaki 2 1995: 7-16
Lefebvre, H 2008 Critique of everyday life: foundations for a sociology of the everyday, 2 (trans John Moore), London: Verso
Masschelein, A 2003 ‘A homeless concept: shapes of the uncanny in twentieth-century theory and culture’, Image and narrative: online magazine of the visual narrative 5 (January), www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/uncanny/uncanny.htm (accessed 29 October 2012)
Seamon, D 1980 ‘Time, space routines and place-ballets’, in D Seamon and A Buttimer (eds) The human experience of space and place, London: Croom Helm, 148-65
Woolf, V 1985 Moments of being, Orlando: Harcourt