Grief is a Jumble Word

Ken Otterbourg contemplates love and loss and what we remember when we try to forget.

Ken Otterbourg | Longreads | February 2018 | 14 minutes (2,710 words)


I woke up sad today. I was sad when I got out of bed, and I was sad when I went downstairs to get the tiny can of wet cat food for the four cats. I was sad when I nearly stumbled on the bottom step of the first landing in the basement. I was sad as I thought about what would happen if I fell and lay in the basement for several hours with a broken leg or a concussion while the cats ate the cat food and licked my face and the dog wondered where I was after he had heard the pop top on the cat food can that signaled it was soon to be his turn. But I did not fall. So, I was sad when I let Bailey out of his crate and watched him scratch his face against the carpet while I got his leash.

I was sad when we walked outside as the sun was coming up in the east and I could still make out Venus in a morning sky that was the color of hope flecked with a few clouds off in the distance. Venus helped but not enough. I was sad when we walked down Fourth Street. I was sad crossing Broad Street and watching the morning traffic build and all the people on their cell phones even this early. I was sad after Bailey took his shit in the monkey grass even though it was a good shit that indicated the virus that nearly killed him two weeks ago and caused him to shit blood that was the color of raspberry juice was gone and that the $550 I had spent during four hours at the emergency vet between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. was definitely money well spent and necessary.

After we got home, I was sad scooping out his dog food into the bowl and giving him the remains of the cat food that stuck to the tiny can. The dog was happy and wagged his tail and swirled in delight. I emptied the dishwasher, and that didn’t make me happy or cause me to swirl in delight. It never does. I was sad drinking my coffee, which usually made me happy because it made me think of how much JoAnne loved coffee and how when I met her she used to drink a whole pot of it every day, so much that I wondered how she got any work done because she must have kept having to pee. But now things like that make me sad, and I would stop drinking coffee myself but I don’t think it would matter. I was sad eating my English muffin and banana and reading the newspaper and doing the Jumble and wondering if there is a list somewhere of all the five- and six-letter words that can only be arranged in one correct way and are therefore Jumble suitable. Those are the sorts of things that I think about, and many times a little nerdish insight or aha moment of that type is enough to make me smile. But they can also make me sad because there is nobody to share that insight with except the dog and the four cats and they don’t care, and it’s not the type of thing that you can save until later when you speak to an actual person because you would have to figure out how to slip it into a conversation so that it sounded natural and it never does. It’s the sort of utterance best delivered with no preamble across a kitchen table to the woman who loves you in spite of these tendencies and maybe even a little because of them.


I did not have to work this morning because it was Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year, but that made me sad instead of happy because it meant I didn’t really have anything to do in the morning except get ready for temple. So, I read the newspaper on my laptop and I remained sad. Angry, too. But mostly sad. I read about Facebook and its ad algorithms that the Russians may have exploited during the 2016 presidential campaign. I was sad that I didn’t really understand what had happened, the technology and the digital architecture that underpins this malfeasance, but my ignorance didn’t lessen my sadness. It was not bliss.

I woke up sad today. I was sad when I got out of bed, and I was sad when I went downstairs to get the tiny can of wet cat food for the four cats. I was sad when I nearly stumbled on the bottom step of the first landing in the basement.

I was sad when I thought about Facebook, and how JoAnne tried to keep her own death off of social media and nearly succeeded, although after she died she wasn’t there to worry about such things and it no longer mattered. That made me think about her birthday which is coming up and whether I should close out her account or just let it spin out there in the cosmos like a lost satellite for however long our planet survives before it broils away or is blown to smithereens, or people move on to something else other than Facebook to while away the hours. I investigated my options, and I was sad at the available choices. All these words that start with “de.” Delete. Deactivate. And of course death, which isn’t really the same but sort of is if you think about it hard enough. My sadness prevented me from doing anything about it, and that made me sad, because it reminded me that I can no longer make up my mind on the vast majority of decisions that are part and parcel of being alive. But while I was reading about deletions and deactivations, I thought about how I would close out JoAnne’s account and that it would be a good idea to post a whole bunch of photos of her so that all the people who loved JoAnne would have some pictures of her when she was happy and mostly well or at least not dying.

It was sad looking through those pictures. I knew it was a mistake when I opened the file and saw photographs from our life together and all the memories came spilling forward like a can of paint tipped over. I saw the picture of JoAnne and my mom on our wedding day, when my mom’s cancer was just starting to kill her and JoAnne was still vibrant and healthy and the two of them are smiling at each other with a love that makes me cry and with a shared look on their faces that I once thought was simply joy but now I’ve come to understand also carried a recognition of their joined future, which neither of them understood at the time. I had to close the file. I took a shower. I was sad when I got out. Wet, but sad.

I always get sad in the shower, because I see JoAnne’s razor on the wall, attached to a cradle and little suction cup. After her second round of chemo, the hair on her legs and under her arms never grew back but we kept the razor there just in case and although we talked about taking it down there was really no need to because it didn’t bother us and it’s just a plastic razor. It can only carry so much symbolic weight, even if we don’t know how to measure sadness. I still had to shave, and I was sad about that because I was forced to look closely at my face in the mirror while I ran a sharp blade at a precise angle across my skin. I saw my wrinkles and the folds in my ear lobes that I read somewhere are a telltale sign of aging as well as the hair that grows inside my ears and require me to pluck it out with JoAnne’s tweezers. It is an act of excessive vanity, and it always makes me sad, because I am no longer sure who I am plucking those hairs for, and it makes me think of dating at some time in the future and that makes me sad and nervous. But mostly sad.


I called my sister and told her I was sad. She said she understood, and I believe her, because she knows a lot about sadness, but she also said she couldn’t talk right now, because she was getting ready to go to temple and also because she needed to talk to our father, who is in a nursing home and can be difficult to reach and then difficult to talk with if you can get him on the phone. He had a stroke the day my mom died six years ago and that still makes me sad. It’s not his fault, but that doesn’t matter. It is just the way things are. My sadness with him is more of a background sad, a step above white noise. I would call it beige noise. Or maybe ecru, which is one of my favorite words that appears with regularity in the New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s a fun word to say. I can imagine it as a good name for a dog. When Bailey nearly died two weeks ago and I was at the emergency room vet waiting and my cell phone had died and I had read all the out-of-date shelter magazines they had and I was convinced that at any moment they were going to call me into a backroom to tell that they had done everything they could do but it wasn’t enough and I still owed them $550, for a brief moment I thought about how long I would have to wait before getting a new dog and what his name or her name might be. I had been listening to Cannonball Addersley singing Mercy Mercy Mercy that day and so I thought that Mercy was a good name for all the reasons you would expect and also because it is easy to say. So is Ecru, but the dog would have to be the right color.

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I understood my sister’s need to prioritize. She was sad that I was sad, and she said to hang in there. Eventually, it was time to drive to temple, and I parked in the lot across the street and watched everybody walk in with families or partners. It was just me, and that made me sad. I talked with some of my friends when I got inside, but services were getting ready to start, so I grabbed a yarmulke from the bin and stuck it on my head. It fit well, which was surprising given that I had just had my hair cut. I was happy about the good fit but not for long. The yarmulke fit so well that I quickly forgot it was on my head and the happiness it had so easily brought also quickly disappeared.


I was sad during services. We read about god’s decree in the Unataneh Tokef and who would die of famine and flood and disease and all the rest of the punishments and afflictions that can befall us. It made me sad to think about JoAnne being part of that parade of souls passing before God like sheep before a shepherd. It made me sad and angry to imagine that this was some sort of larger plan whose mysteries hadn’t yet been revealed. The liturgy says that repentance, prayer and charity lessen God’s decree, and I wondered – based on that standard — how much more JoAnne might have suffered if she wasn’t such a good person. After that, I drifted in and out during much of the rest of the service. I was sad and that made it difficult to concentrate or to really care. I thought about all the other places I would have rather been. I probably still would have been sad but at least I wouldn’t have to listen to a theology that I no longer accept.

I was sad eating my English muffin and banana and reading the newspaper and doing the Jumble and wondering if there is a list somewhere of all the five- and six-letter words that can only be arranged in one correct way and are therefore Jumble suitable.

After services ended, I went to have lunch at a friend’s house who always has a big spread after Rosh Hashanah. She was a close friend of JoAnne’s, so seeing her made me sad, and she told me she had been thinking about JoAnne a few days before and those thoughts had made her sad, and we shared a laugh about that but I don’t think it made either of us less sad. I ate my lunch with some people I know and made small talk that was uneventful and forgettable. The meal was good, and it was healthy, too, so it was okay to have some dessert, which was also good but less healthy, and I felt less sad when I found out there was shredded coconut hidden inside a big chocolate cookie. Near the dessert line, I had to talk with a woman I know who had breast cancer a few years back and had a mastectomy, maybe even a double. I had tried to avoid her, but it was impossible. We were both sad at our losses, which are different of course, but still joined by the cosmic forces of grief. She was telling me to stay strong and to take it day by day, and I was nodding, but I was also thinking about services and I wanted to ask her how she felt when we were reciting the Unataneh Tokef. Did she want to scream? Or did her sadness muffle that impulse and jam it back down her throat? Eventually, we ran out of grief to share and I ate my dessert and said my goodbyes and came home.


The house was hot inside. It was a warm Indian summer afternoon, and it made me tired along with my sadness. The painters were at my house, finishing up the outside. It looked beautiful and that made me sad because the house is being painted so I can sell it so I can live somewhere else that doesn’t remind me of death and loss at every turn. I talked with one of the two painters there, the one who speaks better English. His partner only speaks Spanish, and I tried earlier that day before I left for temple to talk with him using the skills I have learned from my online Spanish instruction app, but my lessons haven’t included any words that are helpful in telling someone where they need to touch up some clapboards. I was sad about that, about the uselessness of what I know compared with what I need to know. And I was sad that this young man, whose name is David, was most likely here illegally and that he needed to learn English more than I needed to learn Spanish, which seemed unfair but was also the way things were. Which is sad, too.

I worked for a few hours. It didn’t make me sadder, but it didn’t make me happy, either. Work in general makes me sad. I sit at my desk and work and then when I am done working I go sit somewhere else and eat or read or stare. I don’t like to sit that much, but it often seems unavoidable, and that makes me sad. I fed the animals their afternoon snack. This time, I didn’t have a problem with the steps. I gave the cats their food and petted them a bit. One of the cats, Itty Bitty, is covered with scabs. The vet has said there is not much to be done, but she seemed unhappy. It can be hard to tell with cats, and that made me sad, because it reminded me that at some point I need to find new homes for them because I am selling my newly painted house that reminds me of death and loss and I don’t know whether the place where I end up will have room for four cats or any at all.

It was sad looking through those pictures. I knew it was a mistake when I opened the file and saw photographs from our life together and all the memories came spilling forward like a can of paint tipped over.

I did some more work, and then I decided to go for a run. I am told that exercise releases endorphins and that they are supposed to make you feel good and maybe less sad but truthfully sometimes it is hard to tell after a run because I think the sweat can wash away or dilute the endorphins. I ran around the park and then up the hill through a nice neighborhood that is leafy and filled with big houses. A much older man was running at a faster pace and he ran past me not like the wind but fast enough that I was compelled to make a wisecrack that he had to slow down. He looked at me and it’s possible he didn’t hear what I said because people often say they have a hard time understanding me because of the timbre of my voice. In any event, he didn’t acknowledge my comment, and that made me angry until I thought through what might have happened. Then I was just sad that he was 10 years older and that much faster and maybe he was running hard because his wife was waiting for him and they had plans, which could mean a lot of things and even the PG version made me sad.


I ran down the hill and past the fields where the high-school girls practice field hockey. It made me sad to see all these lithe, pretty, young women with the goggles on their faces, like they were getting ready to step into a motorcycle sidecar. I don’t know much about field hockey practice, but I could tell enough that all these women were either terrible or disinterested in the sport and had probably decided to take it up because it might look good on their college applications and because Title IX had been a boon to increasing the number of scholarships for women’s sports such as field hockey. I believe in equality, but I was sad that the method for achieving it involved a sport with a stick that looked like a candy cane run through a table saw and had rules that prevented you from using it in a way that might make the game more exciting.

I ran up the hill to my house. I was huffing and puffing too hard to feel sad. I was sweating. I had forgotten for the time being about the faster runner and the field hockey players. But my left foot hurt, and that made me sad because my left foot is always hurting and the podiatrist has said I probably will need an operation to cut off a big part of the nerve in the bottom of my foot so that it doesn’t hurt. I am sad about having an operation, because I would have to get someone to stay with me for a few days, and that is a reminder that I now live alone. Help and assistance and comfort are now transactional. They don’t sleep beside me anymore.

I took the dog for a walk. My foot slowly stopped hurting. I walked past the restaurants near my house. I am sure I looked a fright, with my sweat-soaked T-shirt and cautious gait and little dog prancing at my side. There were people eating dinner outside, groups and couples, and that made me sad. I wanted to cross to the other side of the street, so they would not have to see me walk past, all sweaty and gnarly, while they were eating tomato pie or Vietnamese inspired spring rolls, but there is a restaurant on the other side of the street as well and its diners deserved the same courtesies, so I just walked next to the parking meters and hustled past as quickly as I could.


I came home and took another shower. I emerged still wet, still sad. I had to figure out what to eat for dinner, and I was sad about that. I made a bagel and some chicken salad and carrot sticks. I had to peel the carrots and then cut them into strips. I had to be very careful using the knife because I have cut myself many times when a carrot has slipped, and at some point, I am going to not just have a minor nick but rather a cut that requires a stitch or two so it won’t keep pumping out blood at my lub-dub rhythm of 45 beats per minute. Thinking about my heart rate makes me sad, because it’s so low. I wonder if JoAnne made my heart beat faster. I’d like to think she did, but I don’t know, and now I will never know. My dad has a low heart rate, as well, and I don’t know whether my mom before she died of her own cancer made his heart race, and that is also something I will never know. And that also makes me sad, even if knowing it would be kind of creepy.

I was sad eating my dinner. I read a short story in a magazine about a bar fight in Sacramento in 1950 between a preppie and a ranch hand, and I had a hard time following the plot. It could have been that the story wasn’t all that great or that the concentration required to do that and also eat the chicken salad on my bagel without it falling into the little bagel hole in the middle was too much to do at the same time. But after I was done with my bagel, I read the story again, and this time I could follow the plot, but my opinion of the story hadn’t improved. I was sad about that, because I felt like I had spent 30 minutes and had nothing to show for it. I didn’t want to commit any of the story to memory where it might jostle with other information that I desperately want to retain.

I sat on the couch in the room where I have the TV. I no longer watch much TV. It is not as fun to watch a show by yourself.

I was sad doing the dishes and wiping the counter top and folding up my napkin, because there is only one napkin to fold and I think quite often that I should just get a package of 150 napkins and not have to open the napkin drawer ever again. I see JoAnne in that drawer. But I also see her in the silverware drawer and the place where we keep the cutting boards and of course the shelves where our coffee mugs sit. They are all handmade mugs, a crazy tribe gathered over the years. I have to remember to use all the coffee mugs, to rotate them from the back, rather than just the same two or three over and over. Each of these mugs has a story, although some of them are really just a line or barely a haiku and others a saga or even a megillah, if I want to use the language of the theology I no longer accept. But all stories nonetheless. I can hold any mug up to my ear and it is like a seashell whispering a secret. When I can’t understand what the mug is saying, that’s when I want to hand it to JoAnne and tell her to take a listen, so she can tell me what she hears.


I sat on the couch in the room where I have the TV. I no longer watch much TV. It is not as fun to watch a show by yourself. There is no one to ask what happened when you dozed off or to dissect a complicated plot or complain about the lack of plausibility in a show that professes to be dramatic rather than comedic. There’s nobody to laugh with at Chris Rock’s manic pacing back and forth across the stage. Laughing by yourself, with yourself, is not a crime, but it is its own equivalent of a tree falling in a forest. I want to laugh, even if nobody else hears it. I think it’s good practice, although I am not sure what I am practicing for. My parents had drilled into me from a young age that TV was bad and reading was good. I still hold that opinion in the whole, although there are enough worthwhile television shows and horrible books to make an equally strong counter-argument. It would be easy for me to say that not watching TV doesn’t make me sad, but that would not be so. Reading makes me less sad, but it is all below the water line and if you are face down in a puddle the depth of the water is immaterial.


Eventually, it was time to go to bed. The cats had stared at me for an hour. It was a silent interrogation. Their patience and discipline had worn me out. I was exhausted and saddened by doing nothing but sitting on the couch and trying to read and trying to remember what I read so I can forget it at a later time, on occasion as soon as I get upstairs to brush my teeth. The other day, I had to go back downstairs after taking off my clothes because I couldn’t remember the name of Anthony Weiner’s wife.

My friends and I are all concerned about losing our memory, by which we mean losing our minds. We are haunted by the specter of dementia and Alzheimer’s. We talk about it. Joke about it. Share tips to battle it even though we know deep down that none of it works and that we will eventually be stuck with the past and the present in amounts that can be cruel in their proportions. That makes me sad. I want to remember, but there is so much I want to forget. Not to pretend it didn’t happen. Not to stop the hurt for good. But for a few minutes perhaps even an hour not be able to remember all of what made me sad.

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Ken Otterbourg is a writer who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C. His work has appeared in Fortune, the Washington Post Magazine and National Geographic.

Editor: Sari Botton