A pile of books spreads across three shelves on the bookcases built into the wall next to the fireplace. They’re all history books, except for a token smattering of fiction. Half of them are books I already have copies of elsewhere, scattered on other bookcases throughout the house. And this pile has rested there for three years, gathering dust except for the lost moments when I take a volume from the rest, thumb through the pages, smell that particularly dusty musk of books well-loved. A half dozen or so even have bookmarks in them, where they were last set down two thousand miles from here.
The first page of each is the hardest to look at, and also the reason to pick each up. A dedication is written there, always in those thin-tipped black pens that I’ve always favored. Because I was the one who wrote the inscriptions, each to my grandfather on a birthday or Christmas or because I felt like sending him a book in the middle of July. It was a thing I learned from him, that books given as gifts should always have a note written in their cover. It was not a frivolous defacement this, not from the man who used bookmarks his entire life because dogears damage the pages, but one of those simple rules to live by that takes on a holiness by simple virtue of long practice. Each with a year though and my signed name, and a few words noting the occasion. So I could place them in chronological order if I wanted, an ordering of gifts sent.
The inscriptions are never much, mostly inane Merry Christmases, or a variation on what a good book the particular tome is. I never knew what to write, and I suppose that all that needed to be said was said between the words, by the gift itself, by the time spent, but those consolations ring hollow now. Every meaningless one feels like a lost chance, of multitudes of words left unsaid. A few of them are even matched pairs, books that were given and then given back so that the other could read it too. My favorite inscription is in Master and Commander, one I forgot to inscribe myself and so my grandfather did it for me: “Christmas 03, from a Grandson who can’t write. Love you Steven.” I didn’t find that until a year after he died, after my grandmother followed him and I slowly packed his books, lifting each one by one from the shelves they’d anchored for as long as I remember.
Grief is not a process, nor a journey, but is simply the human condition for anyone who’s lived long enough to lose people. It’s always there in some corner of our mind, and the smallest things will sending it flaring to life: the whiff of a perfume, the way a stranger crosses his legs just so, the posture of the old guy ahead of you in line at the airport. At least every week or two, I still see my cat out of the corner of my eye, slouching in her favorite chair or lounging in that corner that gets the sun in the afternoons, and she’s been in that carved redwood box these last two years. But for that moment I forget, and I slip back in time, before the snapped fast forward of years and moments so I feel the loss happen all over again and then stop, lodged in my throat with the tears that have come too often to come again.
I think that grief freezes us in time. When someone we love dies, we die too, in part. And that part of us is always that same age, because the part of us that loved them, the part of us that was intertwined with them, can never grow again.
And so as we age, parts of us don’t, arrested in a past dragged forward step by step. Our ghosts never rest, trailing behind us in shadows and dreams, tied to us by chains that stretch back to the age we were when they were taken from us. A boy who loses his father at ten, will always be ten years old when that pain revisits, even when he counts his age in three digits. We never catch up to them, and they never did catch up to their lost ones either, and so it goes in an unbroken thread of grief to the first beasts sentient enough to mourn.
Those books sit there in their pile, a catalog of years. I took one from that pile, a favorite of my grandfather’s, to read myself since I’d never had the chance. But it was one of those few with no inscription at all, and it shattered me to see that. See, I can’t take that book from that pile, because nothing ties it to it but memory that it belongs there. And memory is such a fragile cup to hold such vital things.
If I break up that pile, then someday I won’t remember which books were in it, and if I don’t, then no one will, and one more part of him will die. One more beautiful thing will pass from this world. He’d want me to read them of course, he wouldn’t want me to treat that pile as some sort of shrine.
But sometimes we need shrines, at least for a time, because while our ghosts never leave us, given places to dwell, they might not haunt us.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.