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What if God comes instead?

An appreciation of Victoria Chang's poetry collection Obit.


"My father's brain has died before him. It was surrounded by his beloved skull. What if the hinges on his skull break and his brain falls out? Do I give it back or toss it? What if we call the waiter over and God comes instead? Do we offer him a seat and a brandy or do we cover our eyes and hope He doesn't see us?"

~ Victoria Chang


I was starstruck by Victoria Chang's brilliant line, "What if we call the waiter over and God comes instead?" from the prose poem "The Obituary Writer" in her superb book Obit. Here are some of my musings on why.


It has been the basis of my most moving religious experiences that God is with us here and now in one another—one of us, and all of us. But there's something else going on in this line.


God comes not as an inherent part of the waiter's humanity, but instead. There's a sense of panic in coming face to face with God, and a sense of shame that we would rather avoid something that should be a great honor. Is it because I'm not ready for it? Because I'm embarrassed that I don't know what the protocol is? Because what I've ordered, or wanted to order, is something God would not or should not give? Or am I afraid He will bring exactly what I ordered?


Maybe God will tell me he has opened up my husband's head, pulled out his shrinking brain, and tossed it.


No, God wouldn't tell me that. Would He? (Would She?) Please don't tell me that was a "secret supplication of the heart" tracked by the Recording Angel.


Caring for, and grieving for, someone who is suffering from increasing dementia is not only heart-wrenching, it's exhausting. Sometimes I just want it to be over.


But of course I don't want it to be over. Though we've lost a great deal, there's so much left to experience and discover.


If only I had the time, energy, patience, and love to do this right, to appreciate everything Bru can still do and treasure every aspect of life we still have together. If only I could be, if not the perfect partner, at least a competent caregiver.


This is how I feel: conflicted, ashamed, disloyal, confused, beaten down, and embarrassed by it all. A failure at love and at care. And of course I know that my feelings do not define reality, real though they are. I know that I'm managing, that I'm doing much that is right, and that failing in the moment at a particular task does not make me a failure.


But still, do I really want to know what God might think of me? Will He give me what I ordered (which order?), or give me what I deserve?


Victoria Chang's poetry collection Obit largely comprises prose poems in the format of obituaries. It examines the extended and fractured grief that comes with the slow death of a loved one, as well the ambiguous loss created by dementia. In this book, many things die before anyone breathes their last: the father's frontal lobe, the mother's lungs, the poet (many times), language (many times), voice mail, the future, civility, privacy, and on and on.


I have my own list of things that merit a private obituary. The surreality in many of Chang's obituaries dovetails my experience of the way grief can distort and disorient as I deal with Bru's disorientation and declining abilities. In Chang's hands, the clarity of grief's distortion can be redemptive, and I'm grateful for her showing me that sometimes moments of beauty can be made of heartache, frustration, and anger. Obit is an important book, and I'm glad to have it on my shelf.

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