Looking at This Makes My Heart Black

On January 5 in 2017, I walked along the Agean sea and remembered my father who died on this day the year before. The things I should have done, the desire to rewrite the past. But why punish myself with guilt? A line from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal came to mind: “I often wonder why people torment themselves as soon as they can.” I ran my hands along the stone wall of an ancient fortress while tormenting myself for everything left unsaid and undone. Perhaps this self-punishment was an echo of the blood sacrifices of the past, a modern variation on the ritual of sati or the tribes who chopped off their fingers to illustrate their grief for the ones they’ve lost, to relieve their guilt for continuing to live.

As I walked along the sea of a strange country, I recalled the day-to-day details of my last year with my father. Our morning drives to physical therapy, his constant tidying of our tiny pantry shelf. The comfortable rhythm of our conversations and silences, our little routines and quiet complaints. We built a life together, two men living in small clinical rooms, waiting for the phone to ring with news of a lung. Looking up at the clear winter sky, I realized my parents would kick my ass if they saw me brooding like this—and I was pleasantly startled to find that I was still having a conversation with them. Here was a small moment of grace at the end of a pier in the Aegean sea.

A few days later, Candy and I began working on a mural in the Lakkos neighborhood of Heraklion. Grief Is a Beast That Will Never Be Tamed combines a short meditation on mourning with a retooled collage of the Pietà. The title came one morning while I wandered the strange region between wakefulness and sleep, surfacing from another dream of my departed parents, their faces before me and very much alive yet I could only say you’re not supposed to be here. I do not know how to grieve. Without faith in an otherworldly logic to the universe, two options present themselves: wallowing in pity and guilt, or moving forward with my chin up and the sensation that I’ve buried something.

One particularly hard day, I was wandering through the supermarket, lost in a dim memory of childhood shopping trips with my mom, remembering the way she held my hand as we scrolled down the aisles while I gazed up at the fluorescent lights, wondering if that was heaven. Now I was a confused adult, standing before a display of energy drinks while I watched the people flow past me—men and women in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties—and the obvious fact finally hit me: Everyone here has lost somebody too. Or they will. We are all carrying the ghosts of parents, lovers, and even children. Why should I feel so alone? Perhaps this is why grief often feels indulgent, even shameful: if everyone else appears to be carrying on happily, why can’t I? As I passed through the sliding doors, the city’s billboards for widgets, entertainments, and endless youth felt particularly tone-deaf that night.

Six weeks later, Candy and I began spreading black paint across a wall in Greece. I had reservations about the project. Was the word ‘grief’ too obliterating? Is there anything to say about the subject? After we pasted up the text, an elderly woman stood before me with a passionate expression, her arms outstretched as she spoke to me in Greek. “She wants to know if you wrote the story on the wall,” someone explained. When I nodded, the woman clasped her hands together and her eyes went damp. The translator continued: “She says she just lost somebody and you describe her grief very well. She thanks you.” This single moment made the project worthwhile.

The next day a woman with a stern ponytail told us the mural was horrible, that it was not art and, to be clear, she absolutely hated it. “Looking at this makes my heart black,” she shouted as she walked away. Part of me agrees with her, for I remain uncertain about whether a public conversation about grief can be constructive—or if it is too dark, if it is a black wall that forecloses discussion. But we have received several extraordinary responses from people who have lost fathers and godmothers, wives and sons. Many of them describe the rituals which have helped them carry on, whether it’s a an action taken in memory of a loved one, listening to a favorite song, or simply a whispered reminder. And I must remind myself that the only things worth making are the things which ask questions I cannot answer.

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