Grief and Reading
There’s a word I’ve been searching for. I didn’t know I needed it, until I heard it. Annihilation. I heard on the radio one day, sitting in LA freeway traffic. It’s the name of a comedy special. The comedian had recently, suddenly lost his wife.
In his comedy special, the comedian says, after his wife died, “Everything failed me. Everything – comic books, superhero movies – everything that I used as an escape route or for comfort failed me.”
Annihilation is the name of grief.
I lost my twin sister Ginny two years and 8 months after she was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma. Annihilation is my experience of her illness and death. A great emptying out. Like someone took a fish tank and dumped it over - the water, pebbles, fish, everything rushing out. After my sister died, I was the empty fish tank, standing there, purposeless. Who was I again? I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be doing with my life.
Ginny and I grew up in a chaotic household. My parents tried to pretend everything was fine, which only made it more confusing. My first memory is my mom sobbing in her bedroom. I must have been three. My father left us multiple times, in different ways, and when he wasn’t leaving us, he was usually at the racetrack. They had both been refugees as children, and learned to parent through deep trauma. By the time I finished 6th grade, we had changed schools 5 times.
The constants for me was my sister and my books. Ginny and I had each other. I like to say reading was my first love, but honestly, it was Ginny. She taught me what it meant to be there for someone. When we were four years old, facing off against our father’s mistress, she spoke up for me when I didn’t know how to. My relationship with her taught me that love is not understanding but total, unconditional acceptance.
And when I was old enough to read, I consumed books everywhere I could, often under the covers with a flashlight. In 1st and 2nd grades, it was Judy Bloom and S.E. Hinton. The moment one brother betrayed the other in That Was Then, This Is Now marks my loss of innocence. I cried and cried, and wondered why it had to be that way. Nancy Drew carried me through 3rd and 4th grades. The library carried an inexhaustible supply of her adventures.
By the time I got to 6th grade, I was in a full blown love affair. Books were my corridor, leading me away from my shy and awkward self. I fell deep, tumbling head first into The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. My heart ached for Benjy Compson and later for Caddy. Each word in that book was a doorway to the sublime, and sentences contained whole universes of mystery and emotion.
In high school, when I read James Michener’s The Drifters, I believed I was on the same trip, eating muesli and smoking hash around Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. The characters were so real to me; their lives were my life. I yearned to read every day, to assume my rightful place in that world. I ate my own version of muesli – raisins and walnuts – as I traveled chapter by chapter through the book. The book gave me a sense of belonging, albeit to a fictional cast of characters. But it was a release from being unseen, by my peers and my family.
By the time I reached my 20s, I carried books with me like talismans, private sources of power and comfort in my shoulder bags. I read the best books slowly, like Aleksander Hemon’s The Question of Bruno - one chapter a week, savoring the author’s exquisite command of a language not even his first.
I even read until a year into my sister’s cancer. Until reading felt like a heavy burden. A joyless chore. It amazed me how easily my pleasure in reading abandoned me, as if it were something I never did. I stopped reading altogether. Even the New Yorkers piled up. For two years, they formed a stack on my floor tall enough to hold drinks near the sofas.
When, later, I read Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, it made total sense when she stopped reading and writing for months. She says of that time period, “This is a case in which I needed more than words to find meaning.” Whatever it is that writing and reading require of us – the ability to imagine worlds unknown and to experience joy, maybe - it was gone. Later, Didion experienced even more tragedy - she lost her daughter Quintana, at age 39, the same age Ginny was at death.
Grief takes the person you love the most. Then it takes everything else. My sister’s cancer, its multiple recurrences, its relentless treatment - it stole my resilience. I try to explain the experience to others. Imagine the person you love the most dangled over an impossible abyss, in pain. You are made to sit and watch them suffer and keep them company until they fall, not knowing when it might happen. Two years and 8 months. The logistics of caregiving were doable. The psychological cost to witnessing suffering was more than I could bear.
Afterwards, death became an appealing alternative to more human suffering. The day my sister died, ISIS released a video showcasing the beheading of journalist James Foley. James was the partner of a friend of a friend. The pages of the NY Times seemed filled with torture, rape, starvation, corruption, ethnic cleansing.
I’d lost the point of continuing, and for a while, I couldn’t see my way back. But I thought about my family and friends. They had just lost Ginny, too. I couldn’t be the cause of more suffering. So I decided to keep living.
“I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” as in Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable.
This is how I lived for a while. I couldn’t go on, but I went on. I didn’t care what happened to me. I remembered the kindness of others during my sister’s cancer. It meant everything. I hoped I had become a better person. So, I tried to practice kindness, to recover from the two years and 8 months.
Slowly, I thought about how to rebuild my life. I had given up my home, my office, my career, my friends in NYC to care for Ginny in LA. I had been an independent film producer. I’ve smuggled films out of Beirut and Beijing. I’ve pulled off film shoots in Haiti and Palestine. I became known for taking on impossible and risky projects. But after two years and 8 months of knowing only uncertainty, I yearned for security, no matter how false.
I applied for a teaching position at a university, went through a series of interviews, and was offered the position. In my gut, I knew it wasn’t right. But it was the safe choice. My friends thought being a professor was a legitimate career move, and they encouraged me. My boyfriend Lawrence asked if a tenured teaching position was really what I wanted to do with my life. It was the right question to ask.
The part of me that answered No was the person who’d built a life full of adventure based on a childhood filled with books. Lawrence said he wanted to leave LA, to travel to Portugal, Spain, Morocco. I said yes without thinking. Maybe my subconscious knew before I realized it, Lawrence was proposing the same itinerary as James Micheners’ The Drifters.
In that initial first year after Ginny’s death, my relationship to words, to reading, became something quite different. I thought of Ginny constantly and missed her with a deep hurt in my soul. When the feelings inside me were the strongest, she sent me signs, in the form of words and books. One early sign came when I was playing Words with Friends with a caregiver friend. I had just played the winning word - L O V E. Out of curiosity, I tapped the dictionary link. The meaning of love made me think of my sister Ginny. A warm, happy feeling washed over me. When the next game started, the tiles G I N Y appeared on my holder. An N was already in the center of the board. G I N N Y. I stared in amazement. Words with Friends gave me 23 points.
Another sign came after our birthday, my first without her. I told Ginny everyday that I missed her. I asked her to communicate to me, repeatedly. Lawrence and I went to visit a friend in Grass Valley, one of the most gorgeous and unspoiled parts of California. Rivers, forests, quaint small towns from the gold mining era. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses through it. Mark Twain settled here for a while, when he first came west. We went for a favorite drive, along highway 49, to Downieville, a town of 282 people, set along the banks of a rushing river.
We got out of the car, explored the three blocks of the town, and saw a “little free library.” It’s one of those boxes people set up, where you can take or leave a book. Out of habit, I looked inside. There was a book called Dying to Be Me. It was my sister’s talisman during her cancer. It’s the story of a woman who was cured from stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the same cancer my sister had. I’d never seen the book anywhere else, other than in my sister’s hands. Two books over was a book I tried to read several times during my sister’s illness and failed. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. One book representing me, and another representing my sister; the book between them was Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. I hadn’t heard of it. I turned it over, and read the back cover. It was a story about twins with an intense attachment, one of whom dies from cancer. A man walked out of the house and shouted me, “Take the book, take the book!”
It was months before I dared to read it. When I did, I my heart caught in my throat. The first chapter is written from one twin’s point of view in the moment she dies from cancer. Her soul leaves her body, and she hovers above, describing the scene below. Like many caregivers, I had to watch my sister die. Because the hospice service didn’t send the right nurses, my sister’s doctor coached me, over speakerphone, to administer the sedation that kept my sister calm, until she stopped breathing. What I wanted more than anything was to talk to Ginny about this experience, this very last experience we would have together in body and soul. Reading that chapter felt like Ginny was talking to me, describing what she went through.
After Portugal, Spain and Morocco, Lawrence and I decided to keep traveling, not to go back. Traveling became the great healer. Perhaps it was writing over memories with new images, smells, words, details. Perhaps traveling demands engagement with the world, if only to figure out how the bus works in Rome or when you can eat in France. But I carried the same pain around with me. Yes, I had decided to live but it wasn’t enough. Doesn’t living require profound courage? I was reliving my sister’s illness and death, out of guilt, out of familiarity. But I needed to be present. I needed to let go. I needed the audacity to move forward.
It took many months before I felt desire to read again. Of course, I tried many times. But just as many times I couldn’t find the focus or the energy to generate the wonder that reading requires.
And then one day, I saw Zadie Smith’s new book in the Zurich airport, Swing Time. Its bright yellow cover called out to me. I loved her fearless, ferocious style in White Teeth. I read this new book anxiously, afraid it wouldn’t carry me through. But I was wrong. Reading that first chapter brought on a rapturous feeling, only possible through great Art and Beauty. Each word was a shining gem. It sang to me! It led me to Colson Whiteheads’ The Underground Railroad. I read about the suffering of the characters, and I read about their great courage, humor and humanity. I finished the book feeling hopeful, not hopeless.
Then I saw Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in a used bookstore in Berlin. I picked it up, unsure of trying again. But I read and I read, falling in love with Franzen’s brilliant wordplay, his insane details of our interior lives. I went back to the bookstore and found Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, a book I savored intensely. It was like reading Faulkner’s Yoknapawthapha’s county for the first time.
I think of my sister everyday. I see her in my dreams, and sometimes my nightmares where I’m a caregiver again, trying to find her or failing to save her. The grief remains, but it no longer paralyses me. It’s a part of my everyday. As is reading, again, too. Lawrence and I are still traveling, and now at each city I visit, I find my way to the used bookstores, and look up at the shelves, in hope.
Karin Chien is a producer of independent American films, a distributor of independent Chinese films, and the president of dGenerate Films. She has taught film producing at Loyola Marymount University, Temple University, and School of Visual Arts, and has worked as a consultant to Lucasfilm, Sundance Institute, Film Independent, PBS, NY Times, and more. You can read more about her at www.karinchien.com
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