Resources for Loss

“What the Living Do” by Marie Howe, contributed by Vivian Nguyen (2023)

What the Living Do / Marie Howe
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
This poem was written by Howe in tribute to her younger brother, Johnny, who passed away due to AIDS complications. I found it online two years ago in the winter, in Cambridge. It initially struck me with its captivating list of the most mundane activities — complaining about the kitchen and HVAC, talking about the seasons changing, clumsily walking down the bumpy Cambridge roads, buying a hairbrush, yearning for love and pain. And yet, in all that ordinariness, an extraordinary feeling emerges every so often that knocks the breath out of our lungs — the acute feeling of being alive. I think this piece fits in the section “Resilience in Adversity” well, as the narrator and poet navigates the loss of her brother through her daily functions and comes out of it with a newfound appreciation for life and all its charming mundaneness.

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