The Grief Scale

Weighing heartache while traveling home from caring for a friend


“A what?” I asked, tugging my carry-on from the plane’s overhead compartment.

“A bin hog.” The woman stood behind me, waiting to de-plane. I dropped my heavy roller bag into the aisle and wished I had a clever comeback. Something smart and maybe a little bit mean. But I’ve always been too slow to deliver wit.

Instead I said, “That’s a very unkind thing to say,” and wheeled my bag to the jetway. That’s when my eyes went hot. My throat constricted, and the world went blurry. There was no way I was going to let a bully in an ugly pink sweater set see me cry, so when I reached the line for the terminal escalator, I picked up my overstuffed bag and ran down the stairs instead.

Being called a bin hog would not normally make me cry. Not even if I was tired, which, in fact, I was. Or sick or hungover, which I wasn’t. In fact, I’ve been called a lot worse by both strangers and even people I love. But I had just come from a week of taking care of a very sick friend, and suddenly I felt everything—all the tears and tightness of throat, all the sadness simmering at the surface. The veil that had barely covered it all week was finally slipping off.

During my layover in Houston, I stood in a corner near airport security, and I cried. I faced the oncoming passengers, who were busy putting back on their belts and shoes, stuffing laptops back into their cases. I wondered if a sobbing woman would be deemed a threat to airport security.

I later learned airports have an actual “cry room,” though I don’t think they really call it that. My friend Kim made use of one on her way to a funeral. If you think about it, an airport cry room makes a lot of sense. We pass through airports before, or during, some of our most difficult moments—on our way to, or from, visiting a sick loved one. Or going to a funeral. Or coming home without a father.

The way we recognize a musical score—by its scales, the repeating notes—is similar to the way we recall grief. A musical score can transport us to another time and place, as if the music has always lived inside us; in the same way, one grief recalls another.

I was in the Denver airport when I found out that my father died. I had known he was really sick this time, because my usually stoic mother, who had until then told me not to come home, finally said, “You’d better come now.”

I was waitressing at a Mexican restaurant in Colorado, which helped support my life as a ski bum. It was a busy night—an hour wait for a table—and it did not occur to me to leave work early. Not even if my father had been taken to the hospital in an ambulance. I was twenty-four.

After my shift, I drove home in a snowstorm and called the airline to book a flight. My boyfriend drove me to the airport. It did not occur to him to cancel the private ski lesson he was to teach the next day so he could go with me. “They’re important clients,” he said. I nodded. Probably even agreed.

But at security, I was delayed because I had worn my overalls, a staple in my wardrobe at the time. If I wasn’t wearing a waitress or ski school uniform, I was wearing baggy jean overalls, which now makes me wonder how I ever got a boyfriend. The overalls were decorated with metal buttons and latches, and when I went through the X-ray machine, I lit up like a Christmas tree. The woman called me over and scanned me with her angry, buzzing wand.

“It’s my buttons,” I said and started to cry. “I’m going to miss my flight.”

“It’s not my fault you’re late. You should have planned better.”

It did not occur to me to tell her my father was dying. That missing my flight would mean I wasn’t going to be able to say goodbye. I just stood there, red-faced, flushed hot with anger and sadness. Her wand buzzed over every metal button and clasp.

I ran to the gate, pulling my suitcase behind me, but they had just shut the doors, and as everyone knows, once they shut that gate, the plane is as good as gone. Still, I begged. The woman behind the counter told me there was nothing she could do. There would be another flight to Los Angeles in three hours, and I could fly standby. She said she thought there might be a seat.

I walked to the pay phone to leave a message at my mother’s house. I wouldn’t arrive until morning. I tried my sister, but she wasn’t home either. I left messages on answering machines. I looked out the airport windows for a long while, watching the plane take off into a sky that turned from black to purple, pink to pale blue.

I went back to the pay phone and called the hospital. I was transferred twice. Each time, I managed the words: “I’m calling for a patient, Paul Roberts.”

After the third transfer, an unfamiliar voice came on and asked, “Are you his other daughter?”

“Yes. How is he?”

“Where are you?” “The airport. I missed my flight, but I board soon. I’ll be there in a couple of hours. How is he?”

“Are you alone?”

“Yes.” I didn’t need to ask her how he was doing again. I knew. But the knowing also came with disbelief—the human mind can hold both at the same time, the knowing and the rejection of that knowing. But it’s more complicated than denial. It isn’t exactly a rejection of knowledge—just the ability to hold it with its opposite in the mind at the very same time.

My mouth seemed to move, words coming out without any real connection to me. I felt outside of myself, watching from somewhere else, as I said, “He died, didn’t he?” My voice, a squeak. I wanted to say the words so she didn’t have to. To make it easier on this stranger, this person who had possibly attended to my father’s dying.

The voice on the phone said, “I’m so sorry. Are you OK? Is anyone with you?”

“I’m fine. I’m OK.” But I was in full cry.

The gate agent who had told me I hadn’t made it onto the last plane looked over at me from behind her desk. Everyone else was trying not to stare at me, keeping extra busy, which made me feel better and worse all at the same time.

“Tell my sister I know,” I said. “That way when she picks me up from the airport, she doesn’t have to tell me. So she doesn’t worry about telling me

“Are you sure you’re OK?”

The gate agent announced that the plane was boarding. “I have to go,” I managed to say and hung up. I sobbed as quietly as possible, waiting for my group to be called.

The woman at the counter waved me over. “I noticed you may have gotten some bad news.”

I nodded.

“Your boarding pass?” she asked. I nodded again and handed it to her.

She looked at it, ripped it up, and handed me another one.

“This seat’s in the back, but there’s no one next to you.”

“Is it a window?” Because I’m afraid of flying, I need to stare at the wing if the plane encounters turbulence, as if my gaze will hold the plane in the air. This has been my flying ritual for as long as I remember. Yet, if my father really had died, which I still wasn’t sure I believed, would the universe really kill us both in one day? Regardless of the laws of separate probabilities and chance, I concluded that this was not possible—my own strange and private logic that sometimes helps, sometimes doesn’t.

“It’s a window.”

“Thanks,” I managed. I couldn’t think too much about this kindness because sometimes it’s the kindnesses that make you cry, even more than the nastiness. Or maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the two.

Lining up, finding my seat, and putting my bag in the overhead bin came as a relief. I had something to do. And I knew when each action was complete. As the gate agent had promised, the middle seat remained unoccupied. I leaned toward the window and watched the mountains of Colorado recede, the glaring blue winter sky, the wavering silver airplane wing.

This was back when the airlines provided meals, even on a two-hour flight. The flight attendant offered me breakfast, but I waved it away.

“I’ll have yours,” the woman next to me said, so I accepted the food and then handed it over.

“Are you sick, honey?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “just sad.”

I nodded and she nodded, and then she made quick work of her two meals. Usually, I feel like I have to explain myself to anyone who asks, strangers included, but I couldn’t do it, so I just left it at that and went back to wing watching. I tried to picture my father’s spirit, floating among the wispy clouds, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t see him as a ghost any more than I could imagine him dead. And then wild thoughts arrived: maybe someone had made a mistake! It’s been known to happen in hospitals. Maybe it wasn’t my father who died but some other man! It couldn’t be true that I would never see my father again. My mind would not concede this possibility.

All life leads to death, so why is it so very hard to imagine? The world is made up of the things we know. How can we go on without all of them arranged around us? Sometimes we can’t, but we must.

The plane landed, and I walked toward the exit, hoping my sister had gotten the message.

She was standing with her boyfriend, and they were both wearing black sunglasses. She hugged me, and I said, “I already know. You don’t have to tell me.”

She nodded.

We loaded into my sister’s baby blue convertible Mustang and headed for the 405. The Southern California sunshine glimmered off the oil-streaked freeway. It was 9 a.m. and already eighty degrees. I took off my jacket and sweater. We rode with the top down, and my hair struggled against the wind. We looked like a family on the way to a picnic or the beach. Like everything was fine. The line between joy and grief incidental.

I hadn’t meant to write about this. I sat down intending to write about my sick friend and how hard it was to be there with her, unable to make any difference in whether she would get better or not. Driving with her in the rain to see the doctor in the sprawling Florida cancer hospital. How when I left her and landed at the Houston airport, I lost my shit because of everyday cruelties. Because people don’t know what you’re going through. Because I have pushed past someone on my way somewhere, been rude to telemarketers, cut people off in traffic without knowing anything about them, about what they are going through. I wanted this to be about how we should always be kind because the person we are unkind to might have spent a week sleeping on a couch with two cats she is allergic to, waking up to clean out their litter boxes; she might have sat next to her sick friend in the slanted light of the rainy afternoons, watching her sleep. She might be worn thin by hope.

To try to make sense of grief, we put it on other scales—the kind that measure its weight. Maybe this is so we can one-up each other in the game of our own unhappiness? The workplace, for example, measures grief by days off. I can take off three days for a parent or spouse. Two days for a grandparent, but only if I have to travel. I took the days off for my British grandmother. I figured she would want me to even if it wasn’t enough time to get to England and back. But our emotional attachments cannot be quantified by how direct our bloodlines are to those who have died. I have known people who said that losing a dog was worse than losing their mother. When my favorite dog, Riva, died, I wailed into the furry cuff of her neck, collapsed on the floor of my kitchen. Even so, it was nothing like losing a father, at least not for me. But even my dog’s death brought me back again to my father, that familiar pool, dark and deep.

Grief is like water—all water is wet. And each new sadness dips into the well of the rest, carrying the old grief with the new. That said, it’s one thing to wade into a small pool of grief, and another thing entirely to drown. But water is water, and each drop adds up to become an ocean. I have another friend who says grief used to be one room in the house until she and her husband lost their son. Then, grief was the only room.

I cannot access grief without metaphor, a way to measure the unmeasurable. You’d think we would have gotten used to it by now—this living and dying—but we haven’t.

In my memory, my sister and I didn’t talk to each other on the car ride home. When my sister and her boyfriend dropped me off, I walked into the dark house, where my mother and my oldest sister were trying to sleep. My childhood bedroom was free, so I lay on my bed, and I stared at the popcorn ceiling. I remember thinking it reminded me of sea foam. I felt tired but couldn’t sleep. I could hear the pounding of my heart in my ear, so I turned onto my side and put my ear on the edge of the pillow, a trick my father had taught me. “It’s so you can forget the beating of your heart.” I felt curious about the details of my father’s death but didn’t have the courage to ask. I felt the creep of guilt for not being there, a shadow that would stay over me for the rest of my life. Or at least until now, twenty years later.

I lay there in my childhood bed until I heard the rest of my family rustle. Then we looked through the house for a letter. Though Daddy didn’t kill himself, he knew he was dying, and I was sure he had left some sort of message for us—his daughters. Something that would make us feel better. I searched drawers, filing cabinets, cupboards. I came back with a couple of bottles of whiskey and a carton of cigarettes, his hidden contraband.

Later, I found out that my sisters had already stumbled across another stash of his hooch, and when they got back from the hospital early that morning, they each poured themselves a shot and drank to Daddy. I wished I had been there. I was glad I wasn’t. I couldn’t decide. I still can’t.

My mother told me he had hung on, but they were all telling him to go. Then she told him I had arrived, that I was there, and he died. “He was waiting for you,” she said. “He wouldn’t die until you got there.” She said this as if it would make me feel better. This lie. This cruelty. This kindness.

“But I didn’t get there. Why did you tell him I was there?”

“Suzanne, you don’t know how hard it was to see him like that. You would understand if you had been there.”

“But I wasn’t there.”

“You’re missing the point, I think. You’re just tired.”

Whenever I say or do or feel differently than my mother would like, she makes an excuse for me: you’re sick, you’re upset, you’re tired, you’re drunk, you’ve misunderstood, you’re just in a bad mood.

I wasn’t there, and he must have known it, didn’t he? The wild thoughts took over again: if she hadn’t told him, would he have still been alive in the morning when I got there?

But he didn’t hear my mother, wasn’t conscious for that, my sisters insist. And there is this: Daddy sent them out of the room before he lost consciousness. Only my mother was allowed to stay. Would I have been asked to leave with my sisters? Why wouldn’t I? Still, the mind won’t accept it.I go on without knowing.

My sisters have always told me I was lucky I wasn’t there, how terrible it was to be sent out of the room and then to see his sunken, ashen face at the end. But I now remember so little of my father; his voice has faded. Aside from whiskey, cigarettes, and Old Spice, I can’t conjure a smell. At least I would have that—a picture, as awful as it was.

And maybe I wouldn’t dream him alive only to watch him die. In my dream, I find out my father has really been alive all these years: my mother has been lying to me. But by the time I realize he isn’t dead, it’s too late. He is dying. This is my reoccurring dream, even now, after all these years. Rather than see him die once, I have seen him die countless times in dreamscape.

I’d meant to say something about kindness, too, and its opposite, which is more often heartlessness than meanness. But maybe that’s its connection to the all-too-full-of-heart grief. Without love, there is no grief. So we hang our hearts on hope, the scales of that old song playing again. The music never really disappears—even when we refuse to listen.

Soon after I returned home, my sick friend went into remission, and we laughed about the bin-hog lady from the airplane, thinking up witty comebacks. My friend is better at this than I am: “I guess pigs really do fly!” “At least I’m just a bin-hog, whereas you’re a hog!” “Lady, you’ve just become a character in my next story.”

I’d also meant to talk about the man with the hole in his throat and the shining heads of beautiful young women, and the piano that played itself in the lobby of the Florida hospital. The crude crimson scrawl through the word cancer on the kind doctor’s nametag—like a child’s red crayon crossing out a mistake. The pharmacy with the row of IV bags hanging from the ceiling like a plastic chandelier. I had meant to write the new, horrifying words now in my lexicon: PET scans and ports, lesions and bone strengtheners, flare responses and fentanyl lollipops.

And I had also meant to say something about the green smell of rain and the blue herons walking along the marsh on their elegant legs. Something about how the gray sky fell onto the windshield of the car and about the way the wipers pushed the water away, the window clearing just long enough so we could make out the highway before us.

About the Author

Suzanne Roberts

Suzanne Roberts is the author of Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (Bronze Medal Winner from the North America Travel Journalists Association for Best Travel Book) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems.

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