In the second chapter of The Shepherd’s Crown, the world says goodbye. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For extensive discussion of death and grief, and this is gonna be an upsetting one, folks, so please take care of yourselves.
It was not a bright, sunny day. It was overcast, bitter and cold, the kind where you are certain you could never wear enough layers to keep out the chill.
I left the house after I read this chapter. The very act is a gamble these days, especially since I’m in the global epicenter of this damn virus. I’m in Brooklyn, and my neighborhood is not quite as densely packed as Manhattan, but some days, I don’t think my neighbors really understand what social distancing entails. It certainly means that you shouldn’t walk four abreast on the sidewalk, making it impossible for anyone else to pass you. But I had to leave. Sometimes, grief is suffocating; it fills every available space and presses down on you. It makes it hard to get out of bed. To push the duvet to the side. To put your two feet on the ground. To drink water, to eat, to shower, to care about even the most banal routines of the day. Why do anything if they’re not going to be there anymore?
So I went outside, to get what fresh air I could through my cotton mask, to escape the claustrophobia that was settling in. See, the thing about grief is that it is nightmarish to experience alone. At times, it feels like the loneliest experience imaginable, even if there are other people suffering a loss, too. But we are living in a time when the world as a whole is experiencing grief because we’ve lost.
The things that make us feel human.
The routines that we took for granted.
And actual people.
I now know four people personally who have died. It’s no longer an idea anymore; this epidemic is taking people from us at a monstrous rate. It’s only going to spread and grow and we can’t even begin to grasp how it is going to irrevocably change our lives.
So I was outside, walking the mostly empty streets of Brooklyn, and the rain poured down on me. But it did not provide me relief. It did not wash away my sadness. That would have been poetic. Fitting. Tidy. Instead, I saw sadness everywhere. In the empty parks and playgrounds, in the way people barely make eye contact before they move as far away from you as possible, in the distant and pervasive wail of sirens that all of us here in New York hear constantly.
I went back inside. I stopped fighting the grief, just as my therapist has told me to do, and I collapsed on my bed, and I let it conquer me for ten minutes. Ten minutes of my own wail, ten minutes of being distraught, ten minutes of begging the universe to please, please give him back to me.
Then I blew my nose. I washed my face. And I sat down and started to write.
Even if I had not lost Baize last year, this chapter would have messed me up regardless. Not nearly as much, as Pratchett managed to hit a few sore points that are specific to what’s been going on with me. But it’s still sad because he manages to capture the terrible, terrible beauty of loss. We do not live forever, but we can live on forever. Who better to demonstrate that Granny Weatherwax, who was first introduced to us in Equal Rites? She’s Granny Weatherwax! She’s always going to be here, right?
No. And the Discworld series has always talked so heavily about the human condition, even if a good portion of the characters weren’t human themselves. What is more human than death? What is one of the only things we all experience? Birth and death. As Granny notes in this chapter, she’s experienced that over and over again as a witch:
Her visitor was no stranger, and the land she knew she was going to was a land she had helped many others to step through to over the years. For a witch stands on the very edge of everything, between the light and the dark, between life and death, making choices, making decisions so that others may pretend no decisions have even been needed. Sometimes they need to help some poor soul through the final hours, help them to find the door, not to get lost in the dark.
Everyone’s time ends. That is a comforting notion because it means this is not something that only happens to some of us, but to all of us. If you have grieved, so have countless other people. In that sense, we’re never alone in our grief.
But it also means the inevitable waits for us all. After my dad passed, I braced myself for that inevitable. His death messed me up for a long time. I lost acquaintances over the years, but then, a few years back, I lost my best friend, Kasper, to suicide. (Yes, this is the same Kasper from all the old Mark Reads reviews.) Since then, it feels like I lose someone major every year of my life. And you’d think that maybe I would become a veteran at this, that I would have experienced so much grief that I would get better at dealing with it.
That’s not how it works. It is not as if I exist in a video game and have leveled up in experience. Instead, you’re right back at the beginning every time. And this last death, this last major one, took me out. Is still taking me out. Is still beating me. Well, it feels like that some days, and I know now why so many of you reached out to me in the last month to give me a trigger warning for The Shepherd’s Crown. How could this not affect me? How could I read this and not see Baize in every word, on every page?
It hurt to read this. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Pratchett knew how to dig in just a little deeper with his words, and it’s one of the many gifts of his craft. How many times throughout these forty-one books has a sentence just knocked me flat? Well, this chapter alone seems to have about a hundred of them. But that’s a good thing. I don’t say that as if I’m a masochist and I enjoy feeling this pain. I don’t. It is, frankly, terribly, terribly exhausting, and I wake up every morning hoping that it will be gone. I’m tired of crying. I’m tired of missing him. It sucks the energy out of my body every day. And yet, every day, I find a way to pull back the duvet. To put my two feet on the ground. To eat food, to drink lots of water, to take multiple showers (one after every time I leave the house), to live, even if that version of living feels like a bland imitation of what it once was.
It is a good thing that this chapter digs in deep. It forces me to say things out loud. Did Baize benefit the lives of the people in his environs? Absolutely. Without hesitation. I know a handful of people who are suffering, too, who struggle to make it through these days especially without him. Was he happy? Yeah. He was. Did he live a good life? Loudly and proudly and absurdly. Did he love me?
Yeah. Of course he did.
It hurts to read this because of the poetic way in which Pratchett writes of the sudden shock that hits you when you find out. And you find out at different times. In different ways. I got a phone call on a bitterly chilly Friday evening as I got off the 5 train down the street from my office. I was in a Lyft to his place fifteen minutes later. I had to be the means by which a whole handful of people found out too, which I wish upon no one. I called one of his best friends. I called my brother. Other people who cared about him and knew him well because I didn’t want them to find out through Twitter. Some people claim to have felt it, to have known that something was wrong. Maybe it was a bit of the same magic Pratchett talks about here, or of a different kind. But it’s a wrongness that filled so many of us. Unlike Granny, Baize was so young. How much potential was thrown to the wind in that candle being extinguished? I had just finished giving him developmental edits on his novel. When I had to organize his computer for his mother, I discovered that he’d only gotten to chapter two in his re-write of the manuscript. What words would he have put down if he’d just had more time?
I heard something from a lot of his friends and family members, too.
“It should have been me.”
We all thought it. I still do, sometimes, and I don’t say that to be cruel to any of you, or to suggest that I don’t matter to the world. But I know I’ve lived a very, very full life. I have fulfilled virtually all of my bucket list items and I’m only 36. All of us who said this outlived Baize, were older than him. The expression wasn’t born out of a self-deprecating desire.
We just knew it was unfair. And if Death cared to barter about these things, we would have traded all our lives just so he could continue on.
Things were complicated. Things were definitely otherwise. We were dealing. We knew sorrow. We knew so much of it. Death is messy and complicated and awful and very rarely do we greet it with grace. I kinda love that Granny does, that she knew the day before that it was her time to go. She prepared. She said goodbye to her world. I think that part is what will always fuck me up. Sometimes, death is sudden and inexplicable, and no one gets to say goodbye. Sometimes, it does not happen as orderly as it does here, and sometimes, the people we love die alone.
As much as that hurts to type that—and really, this entire thing—I think this is going to be good. I hope so. Because I am so full of sorrow, and there’s a part of me that feels relief. That feels what I wanted from the rainfall today. A washout. A cleansing. A respite. I get to tell a truth, to release it into the world.
I miss him every goddamn day.
Mark Links Stuff
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