Last year was the year of the grief memoir. Joyce Carol Oates’s “A Widow’s Story” concerns the loss of her husband. Meghan O’Rourke’s “The Long Goodbye” takes as its subject the death of her mother. Joan Didion’s “Blue Nights” mourns the death of her daughter. In those works, through the act of memory, the authors skillfully bring to life the loved one who is mourned.
Roger Rosenblatt’s project in his beautifully observed “Kayak Morning” is different but no less moving. “What greater grief can there be for mortals than to see their children dead,” writes Ms. Didion in “Blue Nights.” This is the scourge Mr. Rosenblatt is asked to bear. Two and a half years after his 38-year-old daughter, Amy, a mother of three young children and a pediatrician, died of an undetected anomalous right coronary artery, Mr. Rosenblatt takes up kayaking to battle his grief. “In kayaking, taking the opposite way can save your life . . . when you are completely off balance, so much so that you are certain you will topple over — you bring the paddle down hard on the water’s surface. . . . You will feel your kayak right itself. Only by moving in the direction you least trust can you be saved,” he writes.
Part elegy and part quest to understand the unrelenting pain of loss and the senseless death of his daughter, “Kayak Morning” is an insightful and necessary meditation on grief and the mercurial state of mind it evokes.
Few memories of the lost daughter are revealed; Mr. Rosenblatt covered that ground in his acclaimed “Making Toast,” in which he shared the story of his family in the days and months after losing his daughter. By not bringing Amy to life, he runs the risk of excluding the reader from the emotional impact of the narrative, but this is not Mr. Rosenblatt’s intention. His intent is to evoke the wayward, unknowable, chaotic journey of grief and the guilt, anger, and unrelenting pain associated with it. Not only is “Kayak Morning” a moving meditation on the passages of grief, it is a profound reflection on the eternal and sustaining nature of love.
Mr. Rosenblatt, an acclaimed writer and professor of writing and a self-proclaimed loner, takes up kayaking to seek solitude and the possibility and hope of spiritual reconnection with his daughter as he embraces the water. “To water everything returns,” he writes, “a chambered nautilus,” “cuttlefish,” “silver sardines,” “a school of mackerel,” and for Mr. Rosenblatt it brings him closer to the visceral essence of his primal union with his daughter: “A girl may speak the truth to her father, who may speak the truth to her. He anchors her. She anchors him.”
The journey commences at Penniman’s Creek, an inlet shaped like a “wizard’s hat,” not far from his house in Quogue. The creek is about 200 yards wide at the mouth and half a mile long leading from the village to the Quogue Canal. Everyone who has had to bear grief knows that it is not circumscribed. “You can’t always make your way in the world by moving up. Or down, for that matter. Boats move laterally on water, which levels everything,” he writes.
The solitude and the ritualistic rhythm of paddling give him a sense of purpose and provide respite for the alienation he feels in the presence of others, who can’t fully know his pain. “I turn. It turns. The kayak creates little wake. I swerve. It swerves. I move with it. It moves with me.” The art of kayaking, of being one with the water, becomes a perfect metaphor for how in grief we carry the departed with us.
When a death is unexpected, as was the case for Mr. Rosenblatt, we especially witness the brutality, rage, chaos, and imbalance it unleashes. Mr. Rosenblatt searches for order and answers. Like all significant and urgent works, the art of writing provides him with a canvas to examine the paradoxes of death.
“Kayak Morning” is made up of short lyrical vignettes, poetic verses, snippets of conversational exchanges, and embedded quotations from Melville, Emerson, Stevens, and other luminaries, forming, if you will, a book-length quarrel or argument with the self, that seeks to find solace and meaning even as it acknowledges that no meaning or amount of faith can be satisfactory if the cost is a precious life.
“It colors everything I do,” I said.
“What did you expect?” said my friend.
“I’m in a box.”
“Isn’t that what grief is?”
“You’re the doctor. You tell me.”
“What do you want?” she said.
“I want out.”
“What do you really want?”
“I want her back.”
“Well,” she said, “you’ll have to find a way to get her back.”
In his search for meaning, Mr. Rosenblatt is an amiable, intelligent, and at times darkly ironic guide. Though parallels between “Kayak Morning” and C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed” have been drawn, Lewis finds solace in faith, whereas Mr. Rosenblatt finds it in love.
If redemption is to be found in grief, Mr. Rosenblatt discovers it in his refusal to bury his daughter’s memory. Unlike Emerson, who, he conjectures from his essay “Experience,” about the death of his son Waldo, “steeled himself in the name of some higher truth and superior thought,” Mr. Rosenblatt allows himself to continually experience the pain of grief and to feel his daughter’s death. He does not deny his emotions.
The epiphany he discovers in his poetic journey is that “love conquers death.” No “celestial jury” will bring Amy back, but in every minute since she died Mr. Rosenblatt is aware of his love for her. “She lives in my love,” as all our beloved ones do, if we choose to live too in the emotions of our loss.
Jill Bialosky, who lives part time in Bridgehampton, is a poet, novelist, and editor. Her memoir, “History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life,” will be released in paperback in February.