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Emergency and Emergence

I don’t mind, or I won’t mind, where the verb ‘to care’ might multiply.[1]


I resisted the calls to write about COVID that began to circulate with the first lockdown. Because my losses were not caused by the virus, these invitations felt like a form of erasure. That initial impulse to rehearse how we have or have not made our way through this crisis still feels suspect to me, as if we can know what the pandemic means from within the present of a catastrophe that is both unprecedented and stubbornly quotidian. In the face of our unknowing, these calls are symptoms of a proleptic imaginary, one that threatens to steal from us the time we need to grieve.

In the earliest days, days that coincided with my sister’s dying, I reread Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, a book written in the midst of a different global crisis and undertaken to counter calls to action designed to short-circuit the processes of mourning. In my favourite chapter, ‘Violence, Mourning, Politics’, Butler describes the relation between self and other as a site of vulnerability, and mourning as an experience of submitting to a transformation, ‘the full result of which one cannot know in advance’.[2] In contrast to the will to mastery informing so much of American life in the wake of 9/11, Precarious Life reminds us that vulnerability is the one thing that we share with all other sentient beings, that this vulnerability cannot by mastered through decisive action, and that decisive action in the face of unmanageable loss risks reducing certain lives to something lesser than: less valued, less human, less grievable. ‘What grief displays’ – Butler argues – ‘is the thrall in which our relations hold us, in ways we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide, in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control’.[3]

To grieve is one thing; to tell the story of that grief without objectifying what one has lost is something else. A year and a half into the pandemic, I realised that the first year of COVID was missing from my chronological memory. For the first half of 2021, I consistently misremembered ‘last year’ as 2019. I could feel myself slide past 2020 as if it were something ephemeral – water moving under ice, a long breath held under water. Denise Riley explains this experience of lost time in terms of syntax, where the need to tell is undercut by the involuntary stasis that so often accompanies loss: ‘This lacuna must be due to the fact that the experience of a-temporality systematically undercuts its own articulation. Here it can’t speak itself, because the usual articulations of syntax, in its continuities, are snapped’.[4] When the bond between the self and a beloved other is severed through death, vulnerability is not simply our undoing. It renders telling impossible: ‘It’s as if any death causes the collapse of the simplest referring syntax. As if the grammatical subject of the sentence and the human subject have been felled together by the one blow’.[5]



  1. an unfilled space or interval; a gap.[6]

Like a hollow mold, the experience of loss renders visible the contours of the thing mourned, and it is not uncommon for it to be transformed by the transfigurative light of sorrow into an object of desire… [7]

A span of time and a body are containers, mutable and intractable. My sister’s cancer began in her lungs and then gained momentum as it moved into her brain. There, the tumours spread like fleshy coral planulae, while her body tightened, her skin like translucent vellum stretched over her skull, across her ribcage.

Seven years in Stage IV did nothing to diminish her stubbornness, although the disinhibition that accompanied those mutating seeds, carried as if by breath to brain, had receded. As had all vanity. In response to a caretaking request by her husband, she unbuttoned her flannel pyjamas to expose her naked chest. Looking me in the eye she whispered, ‘Don’t be shy, Missy. I don’t mind.’

  1. a missing portion in a book or manuscript.[8]

Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries. The originals become almost irretrievable.[9]

We’d reconciled after a long estrangement, our conversation ending with her death three months later. During our last visit, the first in over ten years, she asked if she could brush my hair. I sat on the edge of her bed, and, as she brushed, she told me a story from childhood. She’d lost a ring. It was a special ring, and I had volunteered to help her find it. Somehow, this ‘helping’ meant pulling her around in circles on a sheet of cardboard over a field of sand outside the subsidised housing complex where we lived. We never found the ring, and I have no memory of this event. Too late, I understood her story as a gift, showing me what was needed as she was dying: an unbroken bond, a shared adventure, a joyful habitation of space. But the space this story makes is so far removed from the world we actually shared, I can hardly bear to tell it.

Our childhood games all had some element of violence. In the most innocent, we would climb onto the roof of the storage shed beside our building and dare each other to jump into the sandy expanse below. Neither the roof nor the ground mattered. It was all about the space between, that moment out of time – just before jumping – where we were free to choose. I remember that moment like a hollow in the middle of my chest, an arrhythmic volley between anticipation and regret, freedom and failure. Laughing, she would step out into nothing. Even when I jumped, she had already won.

I have only one memory of being intentionally cruel (not that I was cruel only once, but that my memory is limited to this single instance, like a waking version of the dream-work’s condensation). We were probably ten and eight. I’d learned about trust exercises in school and offered to teach her. In a clearing that had only recently been a copse of trees, I stood behind her – arms outstretched – and instructed her to fall. And as she was falling, I took two steps back to watch her land on a bed of exposed roots and jagged rock. Eyes closed all the way down she believed, until the last second, that I would swoop in to catch her.

  1. a cavity or depression, especially in bone.[10]

I forget that when somebody dies, their library of little words, so beautifully charged, is also gone.[11]

Our father was neither loving nor kind. A quasi-survivalist, he made his own weapons and dreamed of an apocalyptic return to a world where he could live in his teepee painted with dream images, dressed in a leather tunic and leggings with beadwork he’d done himself. This fantasy world was a permanent Black Powder Shoot where he’d be surrounded by the like-minded: white supremacists, armed men in costume with no qualms about cultural appropriation as long as they were the ones doing the taking. At home, this worldview manifest in all kinds of ways. One of the most troubling was his commitment to DIY, even in things for which he lacked all skill.

My sisters wanted their ears pierced. In a surprising act of generosity, he bought us each a pair of sleepers made of 14 carat gold. On the ottoman in front of his black vinyl chair he’d assembled everything he needed: four pairs of sleepers, a long, thick needle, his Zippo lighter, and a bar of soap.

‘Who’s first?’

When no one volunteered, his smile began to waver until April suggested I go, even though I hadn’t wanted my ears pierced in the first place. When I started to back away, she gave me a stern look. With her hands on her bony little hips, she tilted her head and said, as if with unassailable logic, ‘You have to go first. You’re the oldest.’

In the weeks leading up to my visit, she’d stopped eating and lacked the strength to make it downstairs. Although we spent most of our time together in her bedroom, she insisted on sitting with everyone in the dining room for supper. Step by painstaking step, one hand on the banister and the other on my arm, she moved in a stuttering shimmy down the very narrow stairs. She wanted those two days to feel as normal as possible, as if, through sheer force of will, she could push the spectre of death to a place outside our small envelope of time.

But death would not be pushed back. Fentanyl was administered in timed intervals via ports in both her legs. The vials were kept in a locked cupboard, with a handwritten account of each dose recorded in a notebook beside her bed. The drug made her sound as though she were talking in slow motion. It became harder for her to stay within a conversation. One minute she’d be smirking, her brown eyes opened wide like a cartoon character in surprise, and the next she’d be weeping. She had this recurring joke that still makes me laugh (though I’m the only one who finds it funny). In the middle of a conversation she’d pause, mid-sentence, and say: ‘It’s not fair. Why am I dying? It should be you. It should be you.’


By writing, as by reading, one can pick one’s own ancestors and establish a second intellectual hereditary line to rival conventional biological heritage.[12]

I never could play ladies right. It was my fake smoking. In the game of playing house, smoking was what separated adults from children. I was expected to be Mother, but my failure to perform this one act to my sisters’ satisfaction meant I couldn’t play at all. When I was 11, I paid each of my sisters 25 cents a week for my own shelf in our jumbled closet, and I transformed my bottom bunk into a tiny room. A wooden plank at the foot of the bed became a makeshift table for my cassette player and books. I would curl up in the space left over and read. Years later, April told me that she would wait until I left the room and move my bookmark to random pages, and then wait again for my reaction, but I never noticed. How to explain that the plot was peripheral? That I read to be elsewhere. To be anywhere but there.

Near the end of my PhD, I was a guest on a talk show about crime fiction where I discussed the representation of misogyny in Natsuo Kirino’s Out with an expert on contemporary Japan. This was the only thing I’d ever done that made any sense to April. She’d come across the episode on some random cable station and was mesmerised by both the fact of me on television and the violence of the novel itself. Years later, at the end of our last visit, she confessed a secret wish. She had hoped I would bring a copy of Kirino’s book for her to keep once I’d gone. That I would have understood this without her asking. When I got home I sent her my teaching copy, dog-eared and filled with notes. And in the same parcel, a soft, stuffed, saffron rabbit whose colour matched the cover of the novel exactly. I don’t know if these items travelled with her to the hospice, but I remember the pleasure in her voice when we spoke about the novel on the phone. It was as if I’d written it myself. As if I’d written it just for her.    

Then I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.[13]



I would like to thank Lisa Baraitser and Laura Salisbury for the introduction to Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow and Laura, especially, for the workshop that prompted the writing here. I’m also grateful to have had the opportunity to respond to their essay, ‘“Containment, Delay, Mitigation”: Waiting and Care in the Time of a Pandemic’ (2020). The request for that review arrived just three months after my sister died, and their translation of the word ‘containment’ as the ‘capacity for thinking’ from within the experience of trauma – which I read as a call to complex forms of care that take time – carried me through the grief and solitude of that first interminable lockdown.[14]

This essay is for April Straw.