2020 REVISIT: The endless possibilities of a brand new decade I mentioned in last year’s revisit of this piece came to a crashing halt just three short months after I wrote the 2019 REVISIT. COVID-19 has redefined death and grief along with everything else. We measure death by bad (coronavirus) and good (every other kind) now. But grief is grief and COVID perhaps has simply ratcheted up the customary anger. I dedicate this to all those who lost a loved one or a really liked one this year, no matter what the cause of the death.
2019 REVISIT: So much life and death has happened since I wrote this piece three years ago. The resilience of the human spirit makes me happy- no, rather it makes me content. Happiness doesn’t quite shine as brightly as contentment as one gets closer to the sunset and further from the sunrise. Each has it’s own tribulations and rewards. We wouldn’t be who we are without both. We are heading towards a brand new Roaring 20’s and all of the possibilities of a new decade. This piece still gives me a bit of solace as I hope it does you. To Grandma Anita and Cousin Bruna, our newly minted empty chairs. We celebrate how long they got to sit in them.. ENJOY!
2016 Too many people missing from too many tables-this thought runs around my brain in an endless loop on Thanksgiving Day this year. Whether that empty chair is newly minted or the dust of emptiness is three inches thick, the temperature of grief can still be taken. We careen now towards the first anniversary of an empty chair once occupied by our friends’ and neighbors’ boy, AJ, the absolute worst of all the firsts. I am no closer to knowing the impact and the method of grief employed by my two sons than I was on the day it happened. The silence on the subject is steep. But who can say if this wall of silence is good or bad? There are so many ‘grief books’, as if a manual could provide a blueprint of how to handle the kaleidoscope of emotions or lack thereof that occurs after the loss of someone so close. Grief is singular in nature for many. It cannot become a group sport for everyone. There are those I suppose, who find solace in talking to perfect strangers about their loss. Others prefer to share that loss with a few close people like spouses or siblings. Then there are those who can share their grief with no one.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve and often we attempt to gauge our grief against another’s. I think there is a pecking order and hierarchy to grief displayed, with the parent or child or spouse of the deceased holding the head position of course. But what if that person at the head of the grief line doesn’t measure up to another’s preconceived notion of the requisite display of grief accorded to their status? We also silently take our own grief measure. Are we displaying the appropriate amount for our position? Are they? All of this is as subtle as the slightest movement of an eye in those old horror movie paintings. Silent thoughts that creep at dawn when sleep won’t come.
Age, surely, plays a part in all of this. To lose people when we are very young renders us not well equipped at all to know the proper measure. Youth is adorned with rabid insecurity juxtaposed against an overdose of immortality. How on earth can a teen or child or even a 20 something hope to cope with the stark reality when it’s a peer that passes rather than an old person whose passage is a continuum of life and not a horrible aberration. Silent rage alternating with numb denial is more likely. So when the topic of the anniversary of this death is broached with my son, it gets met with angry silence at me if not the question. Why are you talking about that, I am asked. I stay silent and don’t respond with why not? Instead I harken back to my youth and my experience with grief to try and understand, to try and measure his grief against a time of mine gone by.
My first exposure to death was when I was very young. Perhaps that helps to define one’s coping mechanism. As an eight year old, I returned to Italy to say goodbye to my maternal grandmother. I remembered her well and how devastated I was to leave her as a very small child going to America. I climbed up on the bed with her in the same house in Italy where I often visited my very first days. A week later, I climbed up on the same bed to kiss her goodbye after she died. A few years later, four to be exact, my 42 year old mother lost both a brother and a sister within a year of each other. A year before my birth, her eldest sister and my namesake died at 36. Grief grew in my home in those years since my grandmother’s death. I was exposed very young to a mother who wore black for many months as was her custom, according to the pecking order of the deaths; more for a parent, less for a sibling, six months here, a year there. It’s no wonder that when I became a teenager capable of choosing my own clothes, most of them were black and still are today, albeit more for the slimming quality of the color than for its mournful boast.
Another searing brush with grief on the first anniversary of my first marriage, a child bride at 22; 37 years ago to the day of this writing. My husband’s 24 year old brother dead from a mixture of drugs and alcohol. We never used the word overdose, such a poor connotation it had. A mixture is accidental and more palatable to the taste of the grief this nightmare wrought. Two closer siblings you would be hard pressed to find. The separation of their living together caused squarely by yours truly. The talk was perhaps he could come to live with us soon. We never did find out what my answer was. We were children at 22 and 26, barely capable of navigating the waters of a new marriage, let alone deal with the Titanic sized grief that came crashing into our lives. We could not share our grief. Those that can, stand a greater chance to conquer it. It was subtle the thought that I was to blame for breaking this bond that the two had forged amongst the chards of fear and loss they suffered when they lost their father at such a young age. Not so subtly, I thought the fault was mine as well, but came to resent the fact that he perhaps agreed. Not the best framework from which to share and support each other’s grief.
Three years into this grayness, I thought perhaps a change of scenery would do him good. I thought perhaps the balm that my homeland always offered me would lend itself to help mend his shattered heart and soul a bit. He agreed to the trip at first, but when time was near he would not go. I was angry and afraid and torn. What should I do? I needed to go home. I needed to be with my parents and with my Italian family. It was six years and a lifetime ago that I had been there. The decision agonizingly came. I had to go alone. It became clear I could not save us both and so I chose to save myself. Grief is a singular event. We truly never know the depth and the breadth of someone else’s no matter how compassionate we try to be. He told me the reason upon my return of why he could not go at the last minute. He pretended, he said, that his brother was not dead, but simply on vacation in Italy and couldn’t face the thought of losing that bit of comfort that kept the insanity at bay. We lasted but a few more years, the torment too great; his, mine and ours.
A February day at a hotel in a seminar in Long Beach. The 12th exactly. Someone comes in and waives me out with such concern my blood goes cold. It’s a sister who tells me our father has died. I don’t comprehend it. I don’t accept it. This is a man whose spirit and wisdom and way of life should lend itself to near immortality or if not, at least a 100 of those years. We move in a straight line forward. This is not an easy task. He is dead 3000 miles away. Airline tickets made for myself, my second husband and my 10 month old son. He was 83 when he passed, in his favorite chair right before lunch. I smile at that recollection as I write this because that is a reward for a life well lived. I had talked to him just the night before. He said something to me very out of character. I feel like having a beer he said. I said have one then. My dad was no drinker by any stretch of the imagination. I find a message and comfort in those last words to me. I can’t really explain why. At times, I am saddened that I lived away from him for the last 11 years of his life. He did come out to visit me in California a few times. He enjoyed it and I enjoyed all my summers in Italy with him and my mother, that’s for certain. I do regret now and then not living near him for the entire time. I told my sons recently, I won’t ever have you feel this type of regret. I will live wherever you both are. Not quite the comforting thought to teenagers as it is to a 50 year old. He is gone now 18 years and I think of him often. But the grief is not the same as experienced for one whose life is cut so short. I am happy for the longevity he enjoyed and the great health he had till the very end. It was also much easier for me losing him after living far away for many years. The loss was much harder for my siblings who saw him frequently and for which he was much more a part of the fabric of their everyday life. I believe that can weave itself into the grief endured. His death also marked the passage of so many of my parents’ peer group: cousins, sister, brother in law and on and on. It seemed for awhile they would all be gone, all the adults I grew up with in both the Bronx and Italy.
The quintessential death that makes you a true orphan is that of your mother. There is nothing like this loss. The feeling that the one person in the entire world who you could count on, who loved you truly unconditionally, who would save you from anything and help you with anything is gone. It’s like you are drifting all of sudden and the seas are choppy and there is no guarantee any more of anything let alone a safe voyage to the shore. My mother suffered her way to death. She was so ill in the hospital at the end and I was so helpless and so afraid to go back to New York and see her. I had this feeling that if I did she would let go and so I postponed and postponed and I knew she felt the same way. She would say you don’t need to come. But then the night came when I talked to her last on the phone and she said please come and I knew and she knew and I asked her to please wait for me and she couldn’t. I got on the plane with my two small sons ten years ago next week and an hour or so after we took off my husband at home in Los Angeles got the call that she passed. We landed at 5:30am and got the news. Not having lived near her either for the past 18 years of her life also saddened me a bit but she came to visit every year after my father passed away and my sons got to enjoy a lot of time with her. I treasure the fact that she lived with me for a month or so every year. I think we got to share things in a different way than just a meal each week or things like that if I had lived near her. Who knows? Retrospection is wonderful in its lack of fact. Grief comes with no manual and no set time frame but come it will to everyone eventually.
A CUP OF COFFEE BEFORE YOU GO?
Thank you Dear Reader for stopping by.. If you like what you read, consider leaving a cup of coffee before you go. Helps to keep the steam of the writing percolating. Regardless, I love the fact you took a few minutes from your busy life to read me.. It means the world to me..