I earned my first badge of grief when I was seventeen. My mother lay in a closed casket, dressed in her voile and peach wedding dress, at a Westside funeral home. A public figure in 1960s Chicago, she had a popular column in The Daily News. Alongside my family and close-as-blood friends, her fans came to pay their respects to the writer whose picture still blazed from newspaper trucks speeding around the Loop that day. People I’d known for years held my hands and said words meant to comfort me, or simply get me through the next hour. But losing the person I loved most tugged me so far out of myself, all I could do was look at them blankly. I didn’t know who anyone was beyond our immediate family. I studied the sad glimmers in dark clothes, their expressions, as if they were paintings. And when they approached, I considered the way the light hit or emanated from their faces.
Years later, I discovered the same disembodying quality of grief in Song for Night, Chris Abani’s novella about a fifteen-year-old soldier, a bomb diffuser caught in a merciless war. It’s not only the soldier’s vocal chords that are severed in this story, but the artery between his adolescent psyche and his ability to hold his feelings close. In an October 2007 NPR interview, Abani says, “Well, the truth . . . is that the most sublime things coexist with the most devastating things in every context, in every culture, in every situation. And what transforms the world is not the denial of those things, but it’s actually the recuperation of them. . . .”
In Song for Night, My Luck, the protagonist, is already dead when the book opens. He walks the earth, looking for his fellow soldiers. This restless distance made sense to me—I, too, am sometimes one of those ghosts crowding human spaces, trying to reclaim or understand the mother I lost too quickly, or purchase an independence from her. I think of how I might have somehow saved her.
After she died, I heard my mother sing to me. In a dream I saw her walk up a staircase to my bedroom, wearing a black veil—I was terrified she’d remove it and reveal her corpse. Another time, I heard her repeat my name in a quiet office suite, and a stack of files dropped from my hands. My family stored her work for decades. Only recently did I pull open those boxes with her Daily News columns, as eager to hear her written voice again as I was to do the opposite: to seal up the boxes and let the newsprint continue on its way to dust.
Some in my family believe my mother took her own life. Others think about this differently. She was placed on her back instead of her stomach by the EMTs, which choked off her airway. A note was found in one of her dresser drawers, face down, in which she said she didn’t want a funeral when she died. In her stomach, a combination of pills and alcohol was brewing to get her through a horrific day. I don’t know if she just wanted a little rest or was hoping for the long rest—I only know she couldn’t stay.
When I began my fifth novel, Book of Knives, the idea of writing a ghost story came to mind, though I couldn’t say why. My imagination conjured a collection of novelty knives owned by a cook, but I didn’t know why they mattered. Then a line came to me: The knives go missing, one by one. I still had no idea what I was on to.
I went to see A Ghost Story. This was back in 2017, when I still went to movie theaters. Afterward, I listened to Daniel Hart’s soundtrack on repeat and entered a world of spirits, once again occupying that part of me that will not rest. A defunct Midwestern campground, so far north it was practically in Canada, appeared while I sat at my desk. In a narrow valley I found a row of cabins in need of serious repair. They were clustered at the edge of Hidden Lake, with its nearly bottomless center. Broken-down swim equipment sat in sheds, and the boats hadn’t been taken out in years. This was a place overtaken by weather, trauma, and wild animals. I sensed there was at least one ghost roaming about, and instead of fleeing from those tropes, I chose to embrace them. A husband, newly deceased. His grieving widow, Nora—my protagonist—who rushes too quickly into a second marriage with the husband’s best friend. She was in bad shape, and one of the questions that kept surfacing was how one holds such deep loss.
Nora is her own woman. I wasn’t trying to slip inside her as much as she was determined to settle into me. A documentary filmmaker, she owns a house. She has many cameras, mics, an ability to edit video as well as film. She records rock bands, has two parents, both alive and still in love, lives in Berkeley, went to a summer camp as a girl, is an avid runner and childless. All things I am not and have not. What we share is loss. She educated me on how her loss is similar but different from mine. She showed me its particular color, its scent, the way it feels as it rubs her skin raw. Our conversations unfolded to the music of that melancholy soundtrack. Each time I played it, a passage opened and I stepped into her world. We walked around Hidden Lake, sat on the fragile dock, listened for her husband’s voice. Both of us wanted him to come back to life, to make her whole again.
I have a friend, a writer, who fought in Vietnam as a young man while my mother wrote her protest columns and I marched in the streets. This friend will walk down a New York City sidewalk, camera slung over his shoulder, and study the shops, stoops, and faces, looking for shots. Then all at once the bodies of deceased soldiers will appear, lying on the sidewalk, torn to pieces, trying to catch his gaze, reminding him his friends are still present, knotted tightly in his psyche, pressing on his ventricles. I’ve never experienced that particular reality, but I almost understand. All of us who know loss do.
In that NPR interview, Abani goes on to say, “What transforms the world is not the denial of those things, but it’s actually the recuperation of them literally, through love.” My mother was a forerunner of new journalism, an animating spirit so full of love she could barely contain it all. In her work, she held humanity and the salve of art each time she wrote about beauty and destruction in this world.
And she was my all.
I return to the question that keeps troubling me: How does one hold such deep loss?
My novel begins with Nora at the sink, which is where she stands when she’s “trying to figure things out”:
As if answers to loss will drop like small bundles in the backyard. I will have only to run out and collect them to feel safe again, the way I did when my husband, Takeo, cut the agapanthus he grew and placed the blooms in my arms.
For many of us, writing and reading fiction means drinking from the well of love where a measure of grief always stirs. If we look into the deep water, there is a chance we will find ourselves already there, looking for the next story.
Lise Haines has published five novels including Book of Knives (Poisoned Pen Press, 2022), When We Disappear (Unbridled Press, 2018), Girl in the Arena (Bloomsbury, 2009), Small Acts of Sex and Electricity (Unbridled Books, 2005), and In My Sister’s Country (Blue Hen, 2003). Rick Moody says of her work: “Haines is an astute psychologist, a cool, unsentimental investigator of humans, who often locates the hard truths.” She has been a fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and at Ragdale, a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard University, and is currently Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College. (updated 1/2023)
Read “A Conversation with Lise Haines” by Sherry Ellis in AGNI Online.