Today in shark class we marveled at the oddness of shark biology—the sand tigers’ practice of intrauterine cannibalism (unborn pups eat other embryos while still in the womb) and the unborn big eyed threshers that eat eggs from their mother’s uterus, a practice known as “oophagy.” (I love the sound of that word–somewhere between “egg” and “oaf”). We talked of Hawaiian and Aztec shark god myths and marveled at pictures of weird species like dwarf lanterns and goblin sharks. I suggested we all convert to an ancient shark worshipping religion and walk around the campus in strange wooden masks.The class had the feeling of discovery and aimlessness that grade school classes used to have—“Oooo—look at this weird picture.” I guess my goal, if I had one, was immersion and delight.
I told the class that as a child I mourned the eclipse of “Jaws” reign by “Star Wars” in 1977. Since I lost my father last year, any mention of childhood summons him. My father was, after all, the person who took me to see “Jaws.” Each memory threatens to pull me into unknown depths. Even the well-worn stories are reframed by his absence.
This past January, a few months after his death, I started feeling pretty choked up reading “Charlotte’s Web” in a class I was teaching on animal rights. E.B. White’s evocation of the barn, the maple tree turning “bright red with embarrassment”–I lived those things.
I tried to “sober” myself up by reminding myself how lucky I was to grow up in the country, to return to it for so many years as an adult. The comfort felt flimsy, temporary. Yet I do get periods of reprieve from grieving my father and the farm I loved so much. As Roland Barthes noted in “Mourning Diary,” what is startling about grief is its “discontinuous nature.”
But even on sabbatical, I am always alert for mourning’s return. And today, after my literature class, a lovely student ecstatic about reading stories and studying English, chatted with me after class. She said, “I want to know your story.” (Such a loaded question!) I told her I was a late-blooming writer, and that writing ran in my family. “My father was a writer,” and on the word “was” I felt an almost physical sensation of being caught, as if I’d snagged my sweater on an unseen thorn-bush. As my student confessed that she had a hard time finishing the poems she started, I listened, suspended in the past tense–“my father was…”—trying to feel, to inhabit, to understand every contour of that word, that place, before I finally pulled away.