Dedicated to Paul Zollo and his father. How museful mixed up messages can be! And to all those celebrating this year’s holidays with a brand new empty chair.
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 a particular empty chair once occupied by our friends’ and neighbors’ boy, AJ, the absolute worst of all the firsts. I am, though, no closer to knowing the impact and the method of grief being employed by my two sons than I was on the day it occurred. 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, I believe. 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 very few close people like spouses or siblings and yet there are those who can share their grief with no one.
Are any of these ways right or wrong? Not really. The only purpose served is when 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? Do we silently take our own grief measure? Are we displaying the appropriate amount for our position? Are they? All of this 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, I imagine, 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 such 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 and not a very old person whose passage is a continuum of life and not a horrible aberration. Silent rage more the norm in this case alternating with numb denial. So when the topic of the anniversary of the 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 was so very young but perhaps that helps to define our 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 her 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 mother in her early 40s lost both a brother and a sister within a year of each other. A year before my birth her oldest sister and my namesake died at 36 years old. Grief grew in my home in those years since my grandmother’s death. Exposed very young I was to a mother who wore black for many months as was the 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 that 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 of course and more palatable to the taste of 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 great 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 their father died when they were so very young. 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 I think 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 think back and 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 much easier for me I imagine losing him after living so far away for so many years. The loss was much harder for my siblings who saw him so frequently and for which he was much more a part of the fabric of their everyday life. I believe that weaves 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, however, 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 I was 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 she felt the same way I knew. 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 each year. I think we got to share things in a different way than just a meal each week or like that if I had lived near her. Who knows? Retrospection is wonderful in it’s lack of fact. Grief comes with no manual and no set time frame but come it will to everyone eventually.