Maya Stein is a poet, essayist, writing facilitator, and itinerant photographer, and the editor of Grief Becomes You. Her work has been published in Huffington Post, Taproot, The Stone Gathering, Prime Number, Little Patuxent Review, and other print and online literary journals. She has self-published two collections of poetry, two collections of personal essays, a series of writing prompt guides, and has maintained a poetry practice, “10-Line Tuesday” since 2005, which now reaches nearly 1,600 people around the world each week. She can be found wandering the back roads by tandem bicycle, searching for the perfect cup of locally roasted coffee, or online at mayastein.com.
I want to tell you about my father. Specifically, the snapshot of us on a Fort Lauderdale Beach, me, at two or three years old, aloft on his shoulders, both of us squinting in the sun. He is holding my tiny, doughy feet in his hands. My palms are curved around the sides of his head. We look loose and easy, as if we’re sharing the same inside joke. This is a bookend.
I want to tell you about my father. Specifically, his garden on the tiny island he lived on in Brittany, France in the tiny, 12th century village of Josselin. How you had to cross two footbridges to get to his old stone house, the River Oust underneath you, sometimes raging, sometimes still. How my dad’s enormous dining window looked out into the wildness of it all, and how a bird would come, daily, to tap at the glass and my father would say, “Hello, sweetie,” and stand there, waiting, until the bird flew off again. How the beauty of that garden lay in its collision and overlap, in the tumble of species against species, in the joyful abundance and intersection of color and texture. This is another bookend.
I want to tell you about my father. Specifically, his passion for Renaissance and Yiddish music, the boom of his voice when he sang, the way he looked when he played the piano, as if he’d entered the room of something exquisite and sacred and holy and would be there for a while. How serious he was when he played, how locked in, as if glued to his seat and the keys and the notes on the page and wherever it was these took him to, and how I would sometimes go upstairs and lie on the carpet in the hallway and listen, and it would feel like he was taking me with him. This is another bookend.
I want to tell you about my father. Specifically, a story about a particular banana cake with chocolate frosting in 1979. There is another story from my great-aunt Ethel’s second floor apartment in Culver City, Los Angeles and another one from Quebec where my dad and I sat side by side on the lip of a water fountain and had a conversation that’s followed me for 35 years. There are stories from an Israeli kibbutz and a farm at the end of a dirt road in southern New Hampshire and a bus ride in Cuzco, Peru and another about taking the back roads in the Jamaican highlands and winding up in a cave teeming with bats. There are stories about an acupuncturist in Chinatown and a drive through Joshua Tree National Park and that time we saw Blue Man Group in Las Vegas and a story about a chicken recipe I have recreated countless times. These are more bookends.
I want to tell you about my father, but I can’t tell you about my father without also telling you about life without my father. His death is a bookend now, too, a heavy one, marking the precise location where our interwoven narrative — the landscape of 45 years of shared experiences and memories and stories — stops. And for the past two-and-a-half years, the absence of my father has threaded itself through everything.
Grief has become a lens, a prism, a mesh-screened window, far more porous and intangible than a bookend. It has become how I move through and metabolize the world, a filter through which my life is now forever tinted. Grief is an inheritance my father has left me with, a complex richness of feeling that announces its arrival with little or no warning, and can swim idly by or swallow me whole. Sometimes, grief is a wave cresting and crashing; other times it’s a feather-light tap. However it appears, and however it lands or lingers, grief has become part of who I am.
It belongs to me. It is my tenderest, most rigorous, most forgiving companion, a frayed edge my heart traces as it beats. Grief is how I have learned to bear my father’s absence. And it is the place I return to sit on his shoulders, to rest in a circle of light, to hold his face again, and to feel him there, holding me close, keeping me from falling.
Grief Becomes You is a collection of narratives — in stanzas and snippets, in paragraphs and photographs — surrounding loss. It is a gathering place of stories from nearly 60 contributors from around the country and abroad. It is, I hope, a beginning, an opening, a trailhead, a sign on a map that says “It’s okay to be here” and “You are not alone.” It is, I hope, a way to help carry these and other losses forward, and to encourage more stories of loss to be shared. I believe the visibility of grief is not just valuable but vital to healing, and I am deeply grateful to those who have entrusted their stories to these pages.
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