The RRJ recommends you read “When Things Go Missing” by Kathryn Schulz, from the Feb. 13, 2017 issue of The New Yorker.
At Toronto’s York Mills subway station a few weeks ago, waiting for the bus driver to come back from wherever bus drivers go when they’re not glowering at you, I took the latest issue of The New Yorker out of my bag. It was midnight and I was freezing. I flipped through the magazine, mainly to distract from the music-less isolation of a dead phone, skimming an editorial on Trump (that’s what? The 200th week in a row?), a feature on L.A. mountain lions, a profile on award-winning chef Anthony Bourdain (which was doting but fun), and a piece by Kathryn Schulz, which appeared in print as “Losing Streak,” in the Personal History section. (If her name sounds familiar, it’s because she won a Pulitzer last year for her feature, The Really Big One.)
As the bus driver slammed the door of his bus-driver-cubicle closed, I began to read what I thought would be an account of gambling. “A couple of years ago, I spent the summer in Portland, Oregon, losing things,” Schulz began. The west coast writer detailed her transformation from her usual filing-cabinet self to a full-time misplace-er, like her scatterbrained sister and careless father—someone who reminded me of…me. A non-ironic loser. Not a loser, per se (not on most days), but a lose-er.
“My first day in town, I left the keys to the truck on the counter of a coffee shop”—been there—“The next day, I left the keys to the house in the front door”—every other Sunday—“A few days after that, warming up in the midday sun at an outdoor café, I took off the long-sleeved shirt I’d been wearing, only to leave it hanging over the back of the chair”—I miss you, red sweater—”When I returned to claim it, I discovered that I’d left my wallet behind as well.”
I got comfortable in my questionably-stained bus seat, ready to launch into a psychological analysis of losing. Why do people lose things? Where do lost socks go? In the third column, Schulz mentioned “M.I.T.,” and I sunk even deeper. Here comes the explanation. The experts are just around the corner. (At this point I was a comfortable two stops from my home.)
And then, it happened. Right around the time I was supposed to pull on the yellow cord and trudge uphill towards my bed, the narrative flipped.
“My father, in addition to being scatterbrained and mismatched and menschy and brilliant, is dead. I lost him, as we say, in the third week of September, just before the autumn equinox. Since then, the days have darkened, and I, too, have been lost,” Schulz wrote. “Or perhaps it would be more apt to say that I have been at a loss.”
I read the paragraph over again. And then I tuned out the bus stop announcements. I read as Schulz’s great personal piece became a masterpiece. I read as she lost her concentration to mourning, lost her father to a hospital, lost the sound of his voice as he lost his way in the mazes of his mind. “Like a dysfunctional form of love, which to some extent it is,” she continued, “grief has no boundaries.”
I’ve tried to find words to describe the fabric of Schulz’s narrative, the effortlessness of it, and the best way I can explain it is to say that Schulz solidifies grief, holds it up to the light of understanding, and turns it for the world to see, crystalline and sharp. That is a hard thing to do with grief. It is perhaps the hardest.
In the paragraphs of Schulz’s account of loss and retrieval are the most human fears and godly acceptances. I love this piece for the philosophical soothing it provides—it is hot ginger tea on a cold night to the frightened recesses of an existentialist mind. It’s what all of us who’ve grappled with mortality—which is to re-emphasize, all of us—have ever thought, made eloquent and noble. It’s lined with sadness so personal it is knowingly universal. We are all constantly losing, minute by minute, and Schulz doesn’t turn away from that: “All of this is made more precious, not less, by its impermanence.”
By the end, 16 stops past my house, I believed her.