[The Montana Professor 19.1, Fall 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

After the Hour of Lead

Nancy Coughlin
Liberal Arts

—Nancy Coughlin
Nancy Coughlin


After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round—
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
A Wooden Way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—

This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing Persons recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—

--Emily Dickinson (from the Norton Anthology of Literature, 9e, 922)

Going back into the classroom felt like an arbitrary decision, just as all my decisions of the past two years have felt arbitrary, from brushing my teeth to taking a shower to doing laundry to sitting down here this morning to start this essay. In July of 2005 my seventeen-year-old daughter Hannah died, and from that point on I've more or less been going through the motions. It's what you do—and maybe you know this already? You plod along as if, for all the world, you were just a slightly more catatonic version of everyone else. The FedEx man asks you to sign for a package, and of course you do, and you even make small talk with him, and all the while you're dully aware that he has no clue what's happened to you, or that if he does see anything amiss—like, say, the fact that you're still in your nightgown at two in the afternoon—he doesn't find in it cause for speculation, much less alarm, and for all you know he's just lost somebody himself, and he's just going through his own mechanized motions—lifting boxes, toting the clipboard, clicking the pen so you can sign. And here you are, maybe both of you, acting just the same as you would if the world remained intact. You carry in the package, not the least bit caring what's in it; he gets back in his truck and, for lack of a better plan, drives to the next address.

This is not the way it works at first. At first there's only roller-coaster shock. You learn what's happened and you don't believe it, and then you do believe it, and then suddenly you don't again. You sit there at the funeral home and you actually believe—not hope but believe—that if you just shook her shoulders a little, or sang the right song, she would wake right up again, and you'd be back where you were. Meanwhile, friends and family swoop in from everywhere to take care of you, and you're grateful partly because you never really know how much you're loved till love saves your life; and partly because their presence here means that something horrible really did happen to you, and it's not that you're just making too much of things as you usually do; and partly because they give you a role to play. You're host and guest at the same time. You're glad they cook for you, but you also take a small, familiar comfort in being able to provide the condiments.

Eventually, of course, your people have to fly back to where they came from, to the other people counting on them and the people they count on in turn, and that's only right and even, as I recall, a bit of a relief. After all, you need to be alone now, or maybe you don't need that at all, but no matter what, the solitude's inevitable, has in fact been waiting for you all along, so you might as well invite it in, then proceed with the exhausting, ludicrous business of stumbling toward whatever it is that's supposed to happen next.

What I thought I was supposed to do, what I thought might make me feel better or at least closer to normal, was to take care of my own small family—my husband Henry and my other daughter Becky, who was twelve at the time. I thought we would grieve together, help each other through, have long talks and crying sessions, lay flowers at the grave. But it didn't turn out like that; I'm not sure why. It seems the two of them needed to keep quiet. Every time I tried to talk about Hannah, the air in the room seemed to thicken. Their responses were brief, almost perfunctory. They grieved for Hannah—I remain sure of that—but they couldn't talk about it in any fluent, natural way. And perhaps that was my fault—assuming, as I always somehow have, there's fault to be assigned. After all, I'd always been the family cheerleader. They led their up-and-down lives, under-reacting to the good parts and overreacting to the bad, and I served as their mascot on the sidelines, turning somersaults at their victories and discounting their defeats: "It's okay to get a 'B' once in a while," or "No big deal, we needed a new couch anyway," or "You really got a lot done on your sabbatical, all things considered." I don't know that Henry and Becky ever, until the last years of Hannah's life, which were very hard, and maybe not even until Hannah died, had to think of me as being susceptible to grief, or even as being a vulnerable, separate person at all. Certainly they've never seen me so fragile as they have in the past couple of years.

But, though we as a family haven't talked about it much, I've found other people to talk to (as, perhaps, they have too—I hope so). I've told my story dozens of times—even occasionally, like now, to strangers. I've provided regular "grief updates" to friends, family, and an impressive array of mental health professionals, and the consensus is that I'm doing all right, or, anyway, that I'm doing the best I can. "Give it time," they tell me, as if there might be some other choice in the matter.

The one thing I haven't been able to do is write about it. And this is especially frustrating, because I'm supposed to write about it. Writing is what I do, or anyway it's the thing I think I should be doing when I'm doing absolutely anything else, even sleeping. It's the answer I give at parties when people, under the bizarre assumption that everyone must have some sort of occupation, ask me what I do. "I'm a writer," I say, though not very audibly and with a slight facial tic.

But I haven't been able to write about Hannah. I started a sort of memoir about her a year ago but made the mistake of trying to "research" it by looking through old letters, journals, photos, home movies. It was the movies that did me in—Hannah at two weeks, three months, a year. All that lingering over her tiny, perfect feet; her efforts to roll over; her baths; her fascination with her mobile; her first, halting steps. You can hear Henry and me in the background, joking about how you can tell by the way she grasps the rattle that she's going to be a genius. And so on. The most poignant thing about the movies is how clichéd they are, how sweetly mundane. How I envy those people their naiveté, their casual confidence in the ordinariness of their life to come. They don't know yet—they won't have a clue about it till she's nearly three—that their baby is severely autistic; that she'll never learn to speak more than a few sporadic, barely discernable words; that she'll spend most of her adolescence in an agony of destruction, flinging her head over and over against the hardest surfaces she can find, screaming for hours without let-up, clawing and biting and slamming herself against her parents, her sister, and a long line of the most loving, patient teachers and caregivers a hapless but well-intentioned community can provide. They don't know about all the time they'll spend hoping, first for a cure, and then for at least a degree of alleviation; experimenting with therapies, medicines, diets, techniques; and worrying helplessly about her adulthood, her life after they themselves have died—only to have it all come to nothing when, two weeks past her seventeenth birthday, she dies of an epileptic seizure in her sleep.

There's much more to say about all this. Or it could be that there's nothing more to say, that what's sayable has been said already and the rest—the most important part—is beyond my grasp forever. But I can't know that yet, as I'm writing. I'm not really capable of knowing much of anything at all, in fact, and I marvel that anyone feels he can know things. Instead, as I said, I've spent the past two years mostly going through motions, and sometimes it's felt like just that: trudging slowly, heavily through the hallways of my house as though I'm in a brass-helmeted diving suit at the bottom of the sea. I've stripped my daily life to the essentials, which are surprisingly few. When the dog scratches at the door, I have to let her in or out. By two-forty-five I have to be dressed—which usually means tucking my nightgown into a pair of sweat pants—so that I can pick Becky up from school. When the dishes pile so high in the sink that we're eating our cereal out of old cottage cheese containers, then possibly I'll wash them. And in the presence of strangers and friends, and especially of Henry and Becky, I have to wear the face of a rational, sensate being.

But something's different now, maybe. Some tiny thing has changed in the last several months. It began when Henry, who's a full-time English professor and thus, unlike me, hasn't been permitted the luxurious trap of utter stasis, got involved in starting an honors program at Montana Tech, which meant his teaching an extra honors class in English composition, which further meant he'd have no time to teach a class he usually taught: "Introduction to Literature: Drama and Poetry." The evening when he casually mentioned this to me, I said, without much in the way of thinking it through, that I could easily teach that class myself. Or not. I didn't care much either way.

It's like the way I might be walking past the basement door and suddenly take a sharp turn, go downstairs and put in a load of laundry. Or I'll finally get around to depositing a check at the bank drive-through, then afterward turn the car right instead of left, which must mean that I'm about to do the grocery shopping as well. (And then I'll get halfway through the supermarket and, mid-aisle, my heart will start to race, and I'll badly need to be home again, but I'll keep at it, finish the job. In fact it's been a long time since I've simply fled to the parking lot, leaving my full cart to melt and rot.) The way I do such things is to turn myself off, to carry on robotically. I've had a lot of practice with turning myself off—maybe everybody has?—to the point where I do it very well. I've long found it the best way to get through certain routine displeasures: dental drillings, party conversations, all those long, long sessions when Hannah would be raging, shrieking, flinging herself against the bathroom door, making it billow, while I huddled—mindless, heartless—inside.

But at the beginning of everything I do, there has to be a moment of selfhood, and a brave little leap: "I'll get out of bed now," "I'll answer the telephone," "I'll order the headstone." "I'll teach the class" came out of my mouth with surprising ease, though it meant a three-month commitment, though I hadn't taught in eighteen years, since we lived in Virginia and I had a full-time instructorship at Virginia Tech; though it involved becoming a public person again and associating with other people, talking to them, looking at them and being looked at. Before I had a chance to hesitate, I called the department head at his house. If he was home, I'd ask for the job; if not, I'd forget the whole thing. I got his answering machine. I said I could do it if he wanted me to but that it didn't matter either way, really, and I certainly wouldn't be crushed if.... He called back the next day and gave me the job.

This happened during the summer of 2007. Henry gave me a copy of the Norton anthology he would have used himself, had he had time to teach the course. A week or two later, I opened it and leafed through the table of contents. I scanned the poems and plays, so many of the titles distant yet familiar, like your mother's voice trying to wake you in the morning. And I don't know how to say what happened in the course of the next hour or two. I want to call the change miraculous, but I'm afraid you'll think I mean it in the god-given sense, and my rigid mind can't seem to flex in that direction. Also, I need you to understand that it was more or less temporary, as I think all miracles must be (and maybe all tragedies too, for all I know). But it was lovely. Let's leave it at that. Even now as I write this, I'm tearily grateful.

I'd forgotten it all, and now it came back to me in drops and splashes that slowly built to a much-needed rain. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Williams, Hopkins, Auden, Dickinson, Yeats. Certainly, the collected glory of it didn't hit me at once. No, I had to read a bit—a Hamlet soliloquy; a Keatsian ode; a yawping, headlong burst of Walt Whitman. But soon enough I felt drunk with it, giddy, while at the very same time I felt ridiculous—I was still myself, after all. How could words on pages be so dizzying? The last time I'd felt this close to hysteria was in the early days after Hannah's death, when four of my brothers and sisters had flown in to be with me, and we were all drinking margaritas and playing poker one night, and my neighbor across the street brought over a lovely but very solemn casserole, and as I led him into the house and introduced him to my family, I started laughing, laughing because it was all so ludicrous, wasn't it?—all of us sprawling there around the dining room table, boisterous, teasing, unruly, and meanwhile right there at our feet lay the shifting, crumbling edge of the abyss.

Naturally, I could take only so much of such a feeling at one time. I read through the anthology in the course of several days. Then I spent a couple of weeks making up my syllabus, the hardest part of which was choosing what to leave out. Timeless, indispensable works I didn't teach that fall semester: Antigone, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Cherry Orchard, "Death, be not proud," "Kubla Khan," "Ode to a Nightingale," "The Second Coming." And on and on. They fell like sequoias, and I winced at the thought of students, taking my class to fulfill a degree requirement in some other subject, who—because of my choice—might go through the remainder of their lives without having come in contact with each particular paragon.

For the rest of my days that summer, I shuffled along as usual, I think. Though I rarely dressed or even washed my face, I managed to pay bills, renew prescriptions, hire someone to weed the front lawn. But one part of the day changed significantly: the early evening, when Henry came home from his office at school, and we would talk for half an hour or so (though sometimes only during muted TV commercials) about our separate days. The change felt strange to me, a little embarrassing, even a little dangerous, somehow: for suddenly, now, I had things to say.

At first it was a list of logistical questions: "How many days did you devote to Oedipus?" "Will they have read Hamlet in high school?" "How do I check out movies through inter-library loan?"

It felt awkward, asking Henry questions. Frankly, I wasn't used to thinking of my husband as a man with practical answers. For twenty-five years, our roles had been the opposite: he lived in an insular world of abstractions, rhetoric, and committee meetings; whereas I was the one who bought the kids underwear, replaced the coffeemaker, planned the Hanukkah party, consulted with the pediatrician. How much to say about this? When I met Henry, when we were both twenty-two, he didn't know how to drive. He was far from home for the first time in his life, and he'd never learned to do laundry, never had a real job, didn't know how to set up a bank account or buy groceries or strain a pot of spaghetti. Not to brag, but I myself knew nearly all those things. Though I'd grown up in a family that considered me the quintessential flibbertigibbet, nonetheless I'd had part- or full-time jobs since I was fifteen, and I'd lived on my own for the past three years. True, in every other romantic relationship I'd had to that point, I'd been the dreamer, the artist, the one who had to be led by the hand through the procedures of practical life, but next to Henry I was a domestic genius, and I played into that role so well and so long that I actually became that necessary person, so much so that now it's hard to remember being any other way.

So I had to surrender something in order to ask him questions. Pride, I suppose. I had to become someone who didn't know everything already, and that was hard. I had to resist the urge to dispute, almost automatically, whatever answers he gave me. "Really? You don't think Oedipus deserves more time?" "But is it really fair to grade them on class participation?" I had to learn to keep myself from asking such things, or only to ask them when I really meant them, and not just out of my old habit of assuming him clueless. It was a lesson in humility that I'd already been learning gradually, over a period of the last several years, as Hannah had become more difficult, and especially after she died. In the old days, I had to know everything. It was how we kept our heads above water. But now, I was starting to see that I needn't do that anymore, that I could make mistakes and the world wouldn't implode. At first this was disconcerting—after all, it meant finding a brand new purpose in life—but eventually I came to see it as a great relief.

For Henry, too, the change was at first a mixed thing. It was lovely for him when I relied on his counsel about syllabi and paper topics but not so great as gradually I extended my trust to include his getting the car tuned or operating the lawnmower. But he adjusted, too, and has become much stronger and happier for it.

Eventually, as I started preparing for class discussions and reading, researching my material in greater depth, my nightly conversations with Henry took on a less practical, more literary air. We talked at length about, say, the triumph of the primitive in A Streetcar Named Desire, or redemption through surrender in Margaret Edson's Wit. We both came to cherish such conversations. It was like starting over, becoming intimate friends again, sojourning in a soothing world of ideas, speaking our own esoteric language. In short, it was like being back in graduate school. But the odd thing now was that suddenly I'd become the aesthete (as I think I had been, before I'd met him) and he, more or less, the world-weary pragmatist. He'd been thinking, talking, writing about literature for twenty-five years, to the point that he wrote thoughtful, orderly criticism now instead of wildly inventive, over-the-top fiction; that he tended to find the social and political sides of literature more compelling than the merely aesthetic. In other words, I liked to talk about the role shadows and light played in distinguishing dream from reality in Death of a Salesman, while he was more interested in Arthur Miller's dissection of the American dream. Nevertheless, we understood each other, and our minds met on the same, expansive plain, for the first time in many years, and it was an unmitigated good thing.

Perhaps what I came to love most about teaching, even more than the dazzling material itself, was the persona I assumed in the classroom. I felt it settle loosely, lightly upon me, like a protective cloak, the very first day, when I walked into the frankly lit, unadornable old classroom and stood arranging my books and papers at the teacher's desk. A smile to the students who were there already, a nod to those who came in later—these represented the unspoken link between us, as well as the shifting but indelible barrier that makes things somehow safer.

Oh, what grand assumptions they must have had about me! That I always looked this presentable, in slacks and matching, tailored blouse; that my hair was always clean and I always wore mascara; that this was not the first time in several months that I had actually worn socks! It's not that I wasn't me anymore, of course, but rather that I was suddenly a "me" I'd forgotten about till now. I was a teacher again, and, as I was soon to realize, a better, or at least a happier, teacher than I'd been before. I was a little smarter now, for one thing—and don't ask me how that possibly could have happened, what with all the years my brain lay fallow. Wiser, too, in some small way. Age and grief will do that to you, I suppose. But the thing that impressed me most about myself was that I didn't really care much about teaching. That is, I loved doing it, and I wanted to do it well, but I knew that if I didn't entirely succeed, my ego would remain intact. Or, rather, the opposite: there was very little ego left in me to crumble or otherwise. Though I could imagine myself being done in by my own inner conflicts (whether life was worth living, etc.), I had become completely invulnerable to any external blows less powerful than those I'd already been dealt. If the students ended up hating the material, or grumbling about their assignments, or, heaven forbid, taking a dislike to me personally, well, that wouldn't be the disaster it would have been twenty years ago. As things went, they took to me fine, as far as I could tell, and they themselves were a delightful bunch—good-natured and gregarious and even fairly diligent, and some of them quite savvy about literature. I teach mainly through class discussion, so I'm dependent on my students to come through for me in class, and, by and large, these students did.

Students. I keep wanting to call them "kids," but at least a third of them were older than traditional students, ranging from their late twenties onward, and even the younger students often led very grown-up lives with real jobs and even children of their own. Montana Tech is that sort of place: it seems the winds on this hill are too wild to allow ivy to grab lasting hold on the walls, and if there's an ivory tower here, then a hundred years of soot, wind-carried from the copper mines, have rendered it unrecognizable. And the students, too, were wind-blown—a far cry from the sheltered, feckless youth who'd accompanied me to my freshman year in a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. Sometimes that was for the worse, academically: many of them missed classes because bosses or daycare workers weren't flexible and maybe also because they tended to think of college as a sideline—a barely affordable diversion from the more urgent, imperative labor that filled up the rest of their days.

But they were also very different from the hyper-practical, fiercely careerist students I'd taught in the eighties at Virginia Tech. I learned this on day one. I'd prepared a set of leading, secretly rhetorical questions in defense of the value of the arts in contemporary society, but the whole lesson turned out to be unnecessary. It wasn't that these students didn't care about their material futures, that there weren't many of them who still wanted to follow the path to where the money was, but that just about all of them—even the least artsy, the most pragmatic—welcomed the side-trip a class like mine offered. "It's a relief," one young woman said later in the year. "It's the only class where my head doesn't explode," said another. Putting aside for the moment that, intellectually speaking, I actually wanted their heads to explode, I was happy to serve as their escape from the just-the-facts demands of engineering, geology, physics, business administration. My course, with its persistent emphasis on beauty, truth, art, and the like, with its heedless admiration for men and women who spent their lives foolishly trying to express the inexpressible, was their respite from "real life." Mine too, come to think of it.

On the first day of class I had them write a paragraph describing their feelings about and experiences with literature. Their responses varied: "It seems like other people can find 'meanings' in poetry. I can't." "I just need to take this class for my humanities credit." "This class is going to lighten up my intense and serious school schedule." "I am a math major in my third year and hope this experience to be a pleasurable one. I also play rugby." But along with and sometimes in the midst of more matter-of-fact responses came sudden bursts of aesthetic passion: "I love drama! I would've majored in musical theater if I thought I'd get anywhere in life with it." "I had a hard teacher at Butte High named Char Davis, but she made me see how great literature was, and I've loved it ever since." "I love Shakespeare!" "I used to get in trouble as a kid for sneaking books outside to read instead of doing yard work." "I really love the Roman and Greek literature and myths." "The first reading I ever loved was Beowulf." "I love reading and making up stories so I thought I would take this class." "I can trace my family lineage back to Lord Byron, who was a poet."

My class included an ex-Marine just back from Iraq, who took my course as part of the random, confused experiment his life had since become. Another young man was coping with the everyday horror of AIDS. Several of the women had had babies in high school and were only just beginning to think about their own lives again. One woman had both multiple sclerosis and epilepsy; as well, her children had been taken away from her ten years before, when she was sent to prison on a drug-possession charge. Another woman missed a third of the semester, hospitalized with severe depression. Still another—a small, wiry forty-two-year-old who looked far older and more weathered than her age seemed to decree—suddenly disappeared not just from my class but from the entire community: the Butte police found her car just off the Interstate up on the pass near Delmoe Lake, but, as of this writing, nobody has any idea what's happened to her.

So they'd all been through things, they all had their versions of disaster. (Or, if they hadn't, they would eventually. I think I can say that without fear or hope of being proven wrong.) Was it selfish of me to take comfort in this? The idea that we're all in different models of the same boat—that life is just, simply, really hard—has been a solace for me, with varying degrees of success, since Hannah's death. I take a similar consolation in the literature I teach. My students that fall semester would sometimes tease me about the fact that I seemed to include only tragic plays and sad poems on my syllabus (I really should have taught The Importance of Being Earnest...), and my only defense was to hark back to Aristotle's concept of katharsis: the idea that watching the sufferings of some fictional "other" provides a release from the pain of our own lives. They didn't generally buy that idea. So many of them, even those who'd suffered more than I had, simply refused to think of life as essentially tragic. And, for my part, I felt no compulsion to dissuade them of their dream-laden optimism, because it seemed to me mostly harmless and maybe even healthy—maybe, in the long run, the only useful way to think.

Besides, for all I knew and know, they were right. As must be clear by now, I really don't know very much about Life, with its daunting capital "L." It could well be that, when all the facts are compiled, life is, at its heart, a thing worth reveling in. Certainly, it would be a great relief to think it so. But I also take a more idiosyncratic comfort in the fact that, on the day when "Lyrics as Poetry" was the theme and I asked them to bring in lyrics to their favorite songs, my students, weirdly, almost invariably, chose morbid, pessimistic songs to share with the class. (The one I remember most vividly was a rap song called "The World is Hell." And, come to think of it, I was the one who brought in the Monkees' "I'm a Believer.") So the fact may be that in the end they're all just as muddled as I am, just as the great poets and playwrights who also helped save my life were and are muddled, all of us moving in fits and starts through moments of numbness, panic, horror, and the occasional soul-saving grace—and that the deepest, sweetest consolation we have is that we're all in such good company.

[The Montana Professor 19.1, Fall 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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