The Woman with the Bones

Photo by Dương Nhân from Pexels

Here is what I know about grief: It is anger. Rage that stabs at my spine and claws my throat. It burrows into my skull. It lurks just there. Just behind. It visits at night, shuffling, dragging brokenness into my bed. And I know what I need to do. I hear it whisper, wheezing out the words — Come, curl up with me. Make me your lover.

Only, I cannot. I must not. 

Anger is the part of grief that I cannot allow. I am not allowed to allow. I cannot let it loose in me, but I cannot stifle it either. Or distract it. Or shame it. Or rationalize it. I know this deep in my bones — I have to feel the anger. I have to see it. Sit with it.

But I cannot. I must not.

On an especially cold day last week I found myself compelled to build a fire. From the base of my belly, I needed to build and tend a burning thing.  I needed kindling. So I took our hatchet, sharp and dangerous — it felt good in my gloved hand. I carried it to the wood pile.  I chose a frayed looking log. The blade glimmered in the morning sun. I knelt on the ground, as if in prayer, and began to hack.  I swung hard. I envisioned missing the log and burying the hatchet in my leg. How much would it bleed? Would I end up in the hospital? Would I even scream, or would I stand there staring, numb? What does a blade in a bone feel like? I changed positions — moved to a safer angle and swung again.  And again. And again. I was a brute, stripping layers from that log. A rush of elation each time I sunk the hatchet deep enough. A thrill each time I shaved off a long piece of wood to add to my growing pile of splintered rage. The crack of the splitting log, thud of the hatchet was my savage invocation. My arm ached.  My hand trembled, and still I swung.  Still I raised the hatchet high in my right hand and brought it down hard — inches from my left hand. The recklessness — it made me feel…

It made me feel…

Wild. Irresponsible. 

The responsibility of grief — it is by far the worst part. The expectations others have for my pain; the expectations I have for my pain — all the things that we are supposed to do and yet, not do; feel and yet, not feel; be and yet, not be. It is mad. Maddening. Madness.

Only I must not be mad.

Because mother’s must not be mad. Good people must not be angry. Good people understand their feelings. They go to therapy. They nod and smile and say “I’m ok” when asked. They don’t resent their friends. Or family. Or children. They don’t push away. Or shut down. Mothers don’t get to say “Fuck This.” Good people, even in grief, don’t get to say “Fuck This.” Not really. As much as folks around me want to help, offer to help — life moves on. Everyone has to carry their own burdens. It’s best for the world if, after 2 to 3 weeks, we don’t talk about it anymore. Certainly not the anger. Certainly not the darkness. No one wants to sit with the angry woman. In this culture there is no time for grief. 

So when? When can I grieve?

When is there time?  When do I get to be angry? Is it before or after I get up with the kids at 5:45 am? Is it before or after I breathe and breathe and breathe trying not to yell at them? Is it before or after I make them breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks? Before or after I dress them, play with them, understand them, listen to them, empathize with them, uplift them, hug them, nurture them, nourish them, respect them, comfort them, teach them, make space for them? Before or after I set boundaries? Before or after I fight to find enough strength for compassion? Before or after I realize that because I am struggling, my children are struggling? And I am failing them right now.

I am failing them.

I have this dream every night. I am falling. Fallen. Cradled by cold damp earth. There is no light. Thick black fog swirls around me. And I can hear my children. But I embrace a jagged shadow. My bare skin burns against this cold formlessness. Loss is a shapeshifter. I gladly turn from my children and pull the shadow close. It gurgles, a sound like fabric tearing. I am relieved by the truth of it. Rust and blood. Rattling. She is shaking me. She is shaking the bones of the dead. She is asking if I want them. Take them. she spits. Take them!

I can still hear my children.

My hands are trembling. I’m gripping the hatchet.

Take the bones, she wails. They are The Dead! Take them! She is screaming. I am screaming.

I need to build a fire. I need to swing this ax. I need to burn. We need to burn. I am the fire. I am the ax. The blood. The bones. I am the jagged shadow.

When I wake up, my babies are with me. Their warm bodies snuggling against me. And I must contend with the part of me that wants to return to the bones. To the barbed lover, the angry woman, the fallen mother. Rather than hold my child I want to go back to the scorching caress of obscurity. She is my truth. She is wild.

I wonder now if this is how my sister felt after our father died. I wonder if the woman with the bones visited her at night. If she was at a loss for how to be a mother. How stand with the living and be with the bones of the dead.

I think about my mother watching her own mother slowly forget her. Mother forgetting daughter — what incinerating cruelty. As she stood cooking us dinner, could she hear bones rattling? Did she dream about burning? Only to wake and find three children still reaching — always reaching for her? 

This is grief.  A blade that violently peels apart. A fire that consumes. 

I scoop the ashes from our fireplace into a brown paper bag.  Mama, what are you doing? my daughter asks. I’m cleaning the fireplace baby, I respond. Why? she asks. So when we build the next fire, it will have space to breathe, I say. Oh, she contemplates. Metal scrapes across stone. Can I help? she asks. Yes, I say, handing her the old brass shovel. I hold the bag open as she carefully scoops the ashes, her small hands trembling as she grips the cold handle. I wonder how often her hands will tremble. Together, we carry the ashes out to the garden.

Why are we putting them out here? she asks. 

We put the ashes back in the earth, baby, and then new things will grow, I say.

Like blueberries?



Yes, my love.

Can I have some blueberries?

Of course.

We walk back to the house together. I turn from the ashes and take her small hand in mine. There will be more fires to build, more bones to burn. I am not done with Anger and She is not done with me. 

I will witness this darkness. I will burn the bones. I will make a lover of my grief. 

And Also…my children will know me by my wildness.

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