I never met Kathleen's late husband Bill, though after reading 'It's All Right, I'm Only Crying', I feel as though I know him. I know that he liked to talk about books he loved after the light was out at night and I know what he ordered at his favourite restaurant: a cheese quesadilla and, to follow, vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.
It's almost disconcerting to learn so many personal details about someone you have never met through reading a tribute to their life, written after their death. Yet in Kathleen Christison's new book she takes the reader with her on the journey of grief and painful memories of love that she experienced in the months surrounding Bill's death. The more personal the descriptions become the more I respect Kathleen for her frankness and honesty and her decision to share her emotions so openly.
Kathleen's story is in fact her fourth published book. Her third, 'Palestine in Pieces: Graphic Perspectives on the Israeli Occupation' was the first that I read. It was through this that I was introduced to two things that are precious to her: her husband, with whom she co-authored the book and who became her "political partner", sharing a passion for her second area of focus, the injustice of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Bill and Kathleen's introduction to the Middle East was unusual. Both worked for the CIA, on the 'other side' of justice in the region, not only implementing American foreign policy in the region but also believing in it. Yet eventually what they saw there, the humanitarian issues and the implications of the American agenda, touched both. It was enough to switch sides; after retirement they moved from being agents of American policy to protesting against it.
Quite early into the book we are introduced to Kathleen's diary. It is through these painful glimpses of memories, recollections of everyday events spent with a loved one and the gaps they leave behind that are the most moving:
"Living as one person suddenly requires an adjustment in many of the small things. I buy too much food, and fruit rots in the refrigerator. The toilet paper doesn't go down as fast, the trash doesn't build up as rapidly, the soap bars last longer."
Kathleen's writing style is personal and honest. It sometimes feels as though you are chatting with an old friend who is telling you stories, as if you are leaning against the empty dishwasher in her kitchen as she tells you that there are no pots and pans inside any more. Dinner for one just isn't the same.
Yet as distressed as Kathleen's words make us feel, she herself at times seeks comfort in the grief that surrounds her. Her insistence that she will not stop grieving for fear of losing memories of Bill, is moving.
"I have this fear every day of time passing, particularly on the days when I have been distracted enough not to feel like crying. What if I forget? My life would be empty – empty of Bill, of the beauty of our love, the beauty at grief I feel at having lost him."
What eases the pain are four CDs that she listens to on repeat; they draw her closer to Bill. Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings makes her cry. Kathleen takes comfort in returning to the house they shared together, where Bill both lived and died. She involves herself in faith groups, which offer a sense of community and draw her closer to God. Pressing ahead with the work they used to share together is difficult, but she knows Bill would have wanted it.
Sometimes support comes in the form of people: Owen, the hospice counsellor who listens selflessly to Kathleen's grief and stress, guiding her as she talks and cries, "a bit of light who came along totally unexpectedly at the darkest time of my life". Bill's nurse Rachel, who cared for him in the last weeks before his death, always able to make him smile, providing him with comfort. I imagine Owen to have warm eyes, Rachel to have a playful smile. They are true examples of the best of human nature, of individuals who helped another selflessly through a dark time.
Sometimes the characters in the story are more abstract than this, and offer the opportunity to Kathleen or the reader for spiritual introspection through their words. The Sufi Jamal Rahman quotes Rumi and suggests that pain opens up possibilities for change – a chance to shed some positive light on an otherwise dark time? Or Swami Kripalvanandji, whose quote breaks up the first two sections: "If you can cry with a pure heart, nothing else compares to such a prayer."
For anyone who has experienced a deep loss, they may find comfort in that through Kathleen's story they can share a similar experience with her or borrow or take inspiration from her coping mechanisms to use for themselves. For those who have never experienced the pain of losing a loved one, or who fear bereavement because they don't understand it, this book forces you to face it head on. Kathleen's chronicle certainly makes death and its imminence seem real. It will make you think twice about taking anyone for granted again.
Perhaps the most moving part of the book is the idea, interwoven throughout, that although Bill has gone some part of him continues to live on through his spirit and his memories. He appears in Kathleen's dreams, smiling, and in the messages of condolence she receives from her friends that remind us constantly that he was a courageous, respected and loved person to many. Gaza has dedicated a water purification plant to Bill's memory; Palestine will not forget him either.