an answer to grief

It’s February, but the weather around here has been more of a false spring. Balmy rains and warm weather tricked the trees into blooming early, and I wanted to buy into it. Last Thursday, I propped open the back door while I was in the dish pit, and kept finding reasons to go out to the bailer. It was sunny and warm, and it felt like winter was finally at an end.

Two days later, I woke to a snowstorm I had no choice but to drive through. Four hours total, round trip. Heavy flakes coated the car as I packed it, and I looked up the road. The mountains before me were already white with snow, haloed in gauzy clouds.

I kissed my sleeping love, scribbled a note that I’d be home around four, and then I drove into the snow.

Coasting along 40 and 26 through that white, silent landscape, I felt small and vulnerable. There was a persistent clunk from the floorboards I had yet to identify, and every skid and slip of the tires tightened my knuckles till they hurt. The snow worsened, blinding in parts, and at one point, I pulled over to catch my breath. A hush fell over the car when I cut it off, and for a moment, all I could hear was that soft pitter-patter of snow.

I stepped out and looked up.

The dark rock wall beside me was coated in icicles half as big as my car. Snow blanketed the boughs of trees above me, a gradient of pale grey and dusky purple in the shadows, and I thought about a game my mother used to play with me when I was a child. She’d ask me what colors I’d use to paint what I saw. Black and white were not allowed. “You have to see past that,” she’d tell me. “What do you see?”

It took me a while to figure out the trick I use now. With the distractions of light and shadow, it’s hard to see the individual hues. If you unfocus and let it blur, all you can see are hues. A palette, a gradient of vivid color bleeding together, utterly devoid of outlines. I didn’t have the vocabulary I needed at first to know what paints I’d need, but I learned. Burnt umber, raw sienna, phthalo blue, alizarin crimson. The lesson stuck with me, and thirty years later, every time I see something so beautiful I wish I could paint it, I deconstruct it the same way.

What I saw: burnt umber, Payne’s gray, indanthrene blue, neutral gray, Prussian blue, all mixed with titanium white. The snowy world around me was cast in a strange twilight, a softness to it that felt utterly unreal.

I thought of taking a picture, but it felt wrong. I knew it wouldn’t truly capture what I saw. So I took that moment with me, and I left.

On my return trip, the snow had already melted. Sunlight returned, banishing that soft, strange world, and I felt a sense of homesickness for the moment I’d lost. The rain returned, and now, almost a week later, the trees are budding again. Violet crocuses have erupted along the sidewalks, and daffodils are slowly lifting their heads from wet earth. It remains to be seen which way the weather will go.

I’m not the only one wondering. Weather has become a common concern. All around me, people murmur about climate change and politics. Doubt and terror of living in a world seemingly governed by chaos.

“Everything is out of control.”

A block up, activists line Pack Square. The signs differ by the day, but they are always a call to action, begging the rest of us to wake up. Change things. Go vegan. Protect our earth. And I think about them as I pour ice into cups. I think about Antarctica disintegrating, of people drowning from floods and unprecedented hurricanes. I dump coffee grinds into the compost, over and over, and I wonder how many of the people around me know we are currently living in an extinction event. How many of them know the hard facts of what we’re in for. How bad it’s actually going to get.

I take the compost and the recycling out, and I remind myself of the reasons why I get out of bed.

Every day, I walk past a graffitied bumper on my way to work. GRIEF in red, stark against white concrete. It’s not the only one of its kind. That message is everywhere in this city, scrawled in the same hand, seemingly everywhere I go. GRIEF, like an answer to a question unasked. A confirmation of why I’m here.

A wave from an invisible hand.

I saw it again today. Yellow, this time, bright against the black plastic of another gas pump. I paused, as always, and wondered who it was. Why they wrote it. What they’d been through.

I wished I could wave back. Say, “I see you.” Say, “I see it.”

Say, “Me too.”


“Interesting test results” was the first thing my doctor said to me when I walked into his office. “Come on in.”

I sat down and folded my hands and waited. Worried. Watched him scribbling furiously. Worried some more.

“So.” He handed me a sheaf of papers. “I was right.”

I flipped through the papers, but didn’t understand.

“The reason your medications aren’t working is because they can’t. Go to the last page.”

I did.

This individual is heterozygous for the C677T polymorphism in the MTHFR gene.

MTHFR. My mouth quirked.

“Now, check out page six, upper right corner. See where it says ‘poor metabolizer?”

CYP2D6 enzyme activity: None.

“That combination right there is why nothing works. Your brain isn’t methylated enough to properly regulate your neurotransmitters. That second mutation? That’s where the weird side effects are coming from. Put the two together, and we have the reason why you haven’t responded to treatment. But it also tells us how to fix that.”

I turned the pages, trying to understand. I’d studied psychology as an undergrad, and I had developed familiarity with psychiatric medicines over time in treatment. Few, if any, had benefited me. Therapy was effective, but it wasn’t a cure. I’d manage to maintain a normal baseline for small stretches, and then inevitably crash again. The diagnoses changed, over and over, according to my reactions to medicines. The prognosis was never good.

Believing you are an unsolvable problem is bleak at best. I’d been more worried the results would come back completely normal. But there on the page were answers. Entire classes of contraindicated medicines that I’d known from my own reactions didn’t work, but doctors had run me through anyway. Years of treatment that had been a waste of time, and we didn’t even know.

I fought back tears.

“This is fixable?”

He smiled.

“It is now.”


2019 wasn’t a kind year.

But neither were the years before it.

Between 2016 and 2018, I lost just about everything. Friends. Family. My home. My car. My hopes. My dreams. All of it crumbled. I couldn’t make it make sense, and my attempts to cope with it were poor at best.

I don’t think anyone necessarily copes well with huge losses. What you thought was solid no longer exists. You start to doubt whether it ever really existed in the first place. Others attempt to help, advise, console, but they can’t get through it for you.

The person who has to learn how to live with it is you. And that means a lot of grief, a lot of redefining what you thought you knew. A lot of burials. Rethinking the choices you made, and whether, in hindsight, they were the right ones.

In 2019, I spent a lot of time sleeping in my car. I drove between Greenville and Asheville, trying to outrun my own grief. There was so much of it. I’d spent so much of my life in Greenville. I had so many memories there, and after Pru died, too many of them were painful. It was easier to sleep in my car on a cold February night before a work shift than sleep in a warm, comfortable bed in a house I didn’t belong in, because it reminded me of the person I’d never be again.

I was becoming someone else, but I didn’t even know who that was. It was terrifying.

Now, a year later, I know why it scared me.

I am the one who decides who and what I become.

The last time I posted here, I’d decided to move to Asheville. I didn’t have a solid plan, but when was the last time a solid plan had worked out? I knew what I needed in order to make the move, and as long as I could keep up with my bills, I could make it work. It would be difficult and scary, but difficult and scary were the norm. Things have never been easy, but if I’d survived that far in Greenville, surely I could do it somewhere else.

I found a job in Asheville. It didn’t work out. I clawed my way through three weeks of interviews and zero callbacks till I found another that did. I’ve been slinging coffee in a cafe in downtown Asheville since then, surviving mostly off tips. Serving isn’t easy, especially with chronic fatigue, but I manage. I walk the mile back to my car, and on the drive back, I call my mother just to hear her voice.

Ten years ago, I was living in terror of watching her die.

But she made it. She’s healthy and well and tells me about her latest project with the gardening committee, the latest news with my siblings, all the things she did that day.

I started this piece with the idea that I’d say something about grief. If anything, it’s this:

My mother saying “I love you, too” before she hangs up is worth every ounce of grief I went through ten years ago.

An unexpected hug from a new friend is worth the struggle of trying to get close to people after being hurt.

A suspended moment of awe on the side of the road, marveling at snow in a warming world, makes me want to fight for it.

Finally getting a solid answer on what’s wrong with me, after years of feeling hopeless and unfixable, was worth fighting this hard to stay alive.

And struggling to write this, after months of feeling like I’d lost my voice, reminded me why I say anything at all.

To the artist who reminds me why I endure grief:

Thank you for telling me I’m not alone.

Thank you for reminding me why I’m doing this.

It’s a scary, chaotic world out here, isn’t it?

But we’re alive, and we’re in it. We can change it. We might not be able to fix it, but we can remind each other not to give up.

Thank you for that.

Maybe I’ll buy a marker, so I can give you my answer. Same as yours, just one word.