A week after I started reading You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, my childhood best friend’s grandfather (a man I remained very close with my entire life) died of a seizure two months after suffering an unexpected heart attack. Surgery, if it succeeded in reviving his use of his vital organs, would have completely paralyzed him. For a man who love and lived so much, it seems like such a cruel way for him to die: first, weakening the heart he loved so much with and second, stealing the use of the body he lived his stories with.
I had two funerals that week. The first was for Pop. The second funeral was for a brother of an aunt by marriage. That grief was less personal, wrapped in impersonal duty. But as you said in your book, after a while the griefs are not individual, isolated events of mourning. They join together like rain drops, like a puddle, a pond, a lake, spilling over to form a river to the ocean, rising up to eat the shore. Grief will swallow the world if we let it. It will join the electric hum of anger and ignite the flames to burn us all.
Like you, I am also afraid of fire and water.
I have weathered many grief storms. I have not gotten any better at saying goodbye.
I fell asleep reading one of your stories about a white man’s arrogant questions at one of your readings. (It wasn’t boredom, Mr. Alexie, but I was very sad which makes me very tired, but not when my body is supposed to be tired. I couldn’t sleep all night, then fell asleep while dressing for Pop’s service. It was a dinner, not a funeral. He didn’t want a funeral, but no one knew how to say goodbye, either. You’re right: white people grieve so strangely, quietly, together but apart, presenting an honorary grief package while keeping our messiest sadness to ourselves.) I dreamed of being in line behind such a man at a book signing. He was asking you how you’re so civilized, so talented, despite your upbringing.
That is not an arrogance you introduced me to, Mr Alexie. Everyone’s always surprised to learn that poor people aren’t stupid or talentless. They want poverty to be the fault of the impoverished. They don’t want change. Change is a scary thing, like poorness, when you realize it can happen to you too.
I am not a confrontational person. I am afraid of everyone. But I was not afraid in that dream. I was disgusted. I was angry. I hesitated, at first. I wasn’t sure a white woman had the right to speak for you, to defend you while you were standing right there, more than capable of defending yourself. But I was so, so angry. I asked him how he overcame the guilt of being a sexual predator, an abuser, power hungry, and weak with need. He got angry, too. I told him that’s what the TV said middle-aged white men like him were. I thought he liked his boxes. I thought caricatures were his truth. He left. You were laughing. I have never heard you laugh, but I imagine it is the loud rumbling laughter that comes from the belly. I imagine that laugh not as your crutch but as your super power. I want to laugh at the world like that whenever it makes me afraid.
But the point of this letter isn’t to tell you about a dream or about grief. You already know about those things, even more than I do. It’s about your book. It’s about how I needed to put it down every few chapters, but couldn’t leave it down. It’s about how so much of it settled into my bones like a truth I’ve always felt but never heard out loud or learned the words for. It’s about how grateful I was for someone else to say “out loud” that their mother was awful, but also good, that loving her was hard, complex, and maybe it’s not okay that we don’t know if we love our mothers but the feeling is real and we are not alone in it. It’s about how, for every word that settled into my bones like they lived there, I felt myself pushing back against ten others. I felt the walls build up. I knew that one day, they would need to come down. And I’ll be reading this book, again and again, as part of that process.
Maybe my process, too, will be its own book. I dont think I will share it though. It’ll be a foundation, a draft, for all the stories that will hopefully follow it.
Thank you for being willing to roar your truths (and your metaphorical truths). You’re teaching the meek to be brave, to fight, to accept change.