Thursday, March 4, 2010

Two Elegies

I was beginning to think I was a heartless jerk.

Tragic earthquake in Haiti? Horrible, for sure. But the people there have been suffering since day one, right ... and what does Haiti have to do with me?

Ditto Chile. Sympathy overload.

Or when some people with disabilities like mine urged me to support medical research to fight spinal muscular atrophy--the diagnosis behind my disability, considered the most common cause of genetically based neonatal death--I couldn't be bothered. As you'll hear soon on NPR, I was too busy thinking about the implications of this "cure mentality" on the disability civil-rights struggle to care much about dying babies.

How monstrously selfish could I be?!

But two recent deaths of people near me, in as many months, changed all that. I learned I do have a heart after all.

Sometimes that's what it takes, I guess. You don't appreciate what you have until it's broken.

The first death, at the end of last year, was my childhood housekeeper. Inez was like a second mother to me (perhaps that's unfair to my step-mother, but you get the idea). Though she helped raise my brother and me from infancy through college, I never really knew much about Inez. She was a hard-working uneducated Black woman who loved watermelon, made a mean fried chicken, and spoke a little like the stereotypes in old movies
--but occasionally with a sharp edge that used to frighten me. She could be fiercely opinionated in a Brooklyn sort of way.

In later years, I asked her about her life. She was born in the South--Georgia? Alabama? I'm not sure--and came to Harlem in the 1940s. She had a grown-up son with whom she was in and out of touch. She was proud of having worked in some of the finest homes on Park Ave. (I guess she was slumming with us; we lived on E. 79th at York, and then on Central Park West.)

She moved to Florida a few years ago, after retiring, where she had family. It was one of her nieces who called me with the sad news. She said Inez was 92 when she died (I asked). Inez had always insisted she was 19, year after year.

I found myself thinking about what Inez had seen in her lifetime, especially the changes for African-Americans like herself. I was pleased she had lived to see Barack Obama elected president, though I don't actually know if she voted for him. But I do remember how much she enjoyed watching Sammy Davis Jr. on TV in the 1970s, up there with Frank and Dino, sharing the spotlight with any number of glorified and respected white performers!

I wanted to go to her funeral, but alas, it was on the other side of the country (I now live in L.A.). Of course, that hadn't stopped her from showing up at my wedding 20 years ago... Anyway, in lieu of a personal appearance, I helped my family arrange to send flowers.

Eerily, I had spoken to Inez just days before her death. We had talked at Christmas--she always phoned on my birthday and Christmas--but she called again a few days later, sounding distraught, desperate. She wanted urgently to get hold of my father. She said she wanted to thank him for the money he'd sent. It wasn't the first time he'd sent her money, but this time she had to say thank you rightaway. Leaving a message on his answering machine wasn't good enough. I made sure he called her back pronto.

Her niece told me Inez had not been ill and her death was a shock to the whole family. But my dad and I both couldn't help wondering if her urgent phone call had been a kind of premonitory goodbye.

Well, 92! Not a bad run.

Then, last Friday, a 13-year-old girl was killed when not one but two cars hit her when she was crossing Sunset Blvd. within blocks of where I live.

Julia and my daughter had been best friends in preschool.

I knew and liked her parents, from birthday parties and such, and have distinct, happy memories of conversations with them. But my wife and I haven't seen them in years.

I figured my shock and sadness would soon fade.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Within hours of receiving the news, my wife sent a condolence card. But in the ensuing days, I began to feel that wasn't enough. My sorrow was building, my frustration at not being able to do something, not knowing what to do... I found it hard to work, to write. I wanted to express a connection somehow, but wasn't even sure that was appropriate or would be appreciated.

Then I realized that although I had nothing practical to offer the bereaved, my impulse wasn't really for their sake. They're a well-connected, prominent family, and the tragedy received a lot of media attention. They were surely inundated with well-wishers. No, it was for my sake. I needed to do something myself, something from me, or rather, of me.

Was I being selfish in this yearning to connect with the calamity? Or maybe it was my writerly isolation--the essential loneliness of my profession--that was seeking an excuse to reach out and touch.

But I decided to stop doubting myself, stop the second-guessing. The compulsion to connect, to express sorrow in a public way, is entirely human and appropriate, I decided. Even if it is just me--my wife has a different way of handling strong emotions--that shouldn't stop me from listening to my heart, from following my own drummer.

I discovered I'd already missed the funeral. So I called the synagogue and asked if the family was sitting shivah. As some of you know, shivah refers to the Jewish custom of receiving well-wishers into your home for one week following the death of a loved one. It sounds Old World, an imposition on the mourners. But the idea is to keep people from withdrawing into a shell, to join with the community in mourning, or at the very least to keep busy and force a brave face during the worst of the unbearable. It gives you something to do with all that emotion.

It sounded like just what I needed.

For it's not merely the immediate family that benefits from the process of shivah. Many of us on the outside, with only an ancillary connection, also require an outlet for the emotions stirred by tragedy.

I learned the family has chosen to receive people only at certain evening hours. But on Friday it'll be at the synagogue, just before Shabbat services. Perfect! Especially considering I was feeling awkward about invading their home. (I don't even know if their house is wheelchair accessible, and wouldn't want to ask at this particular time.)

So I will let myself feel mournful and won't keep it to myself. I will attend. I will listen to my inner impulse. Not because I have to but because I want to.

The thing is, I've never really wanted to do something like this before. Which is why I say I've learned I'm not a heartless bastard after all. Perhaps it's the collective weight of all these tragic events--including Haiti--that moves me. But somehow this one horrific, sudden snuffing out of a life that seems so close to my daughter's has tipped the scales.

And I'm sure they won't resent my being there either.

No comments:

Post a Comment