“Think about it: One moment, you’re a sexually spent adult; the next, you’re a budding youth about to enjoy life all over again.”
Virginia Morell’s brilliant essay, which you can read by clicking the graphic above, perfectly fit my mood this week. A week from last Sunday, my fourteen-year-old grandson was killed in a car crash in Kansas. If you have read my previous post, you know that. What Morell made me think about is a portrait of a family in grief and why we want to be remembered when we’re gone.
Not everybody does want to be immortalized in some way. Some people fade away, alone and unnoticed, but they may wish it were otherwise. On the other hand, some affect (I think it’s an attitude born of resignation mixed with fear?) a cavalier attitude.
“I don’t care where you put me,” said my mother, not wanting to discuss arrangements near the end.
Others, like my husband’s wonderful Aunt Rosemary, met her end with joy. ”I’ll see my husband and Mama and Daddy again.” Her faith in an immortal afterlife was strong.
Yet when we are faced with an unexpected, untimely death, something in many of us rebels. My grandson, yet to live his life in full bloom. The Ukrainian victims of Russia’s hellish thermobaric bombs, their lungs suddenly collapsed mid-step. All those many young Black men and women killed in our streets. The Native women who are simply vanished, too often unsought. And, of course, recently we have all seen or read about so many untimely deaths in the Covid pandemic. If any of these things or something like them has happened to you, I am very sorry for the wounds you have suffered.
I am old enough to regret the misspent hours of my youth. Not the time spent socializing with friends or even a few misdirected acts of mischief. No, it’s the self-denials I regret: the opportunities I passed up out of fear of rejection, the degrees I didn’t get, the the times I didn’t take a chance on love. Still, I did tend to dive in now and then, I did find true love, I did learn a lot, and, okay, I didn’t achieve my goal of being a dedicated scholar, but I did all right and so I have no lasting agonies of remembrance.
Except for one: My nineteen-year-old son killed himself. His was a unique, difficult personality, and I gave birth to him much too young to know how to cope with parenting well. I was still learning about that when he died. The logical part of me knows that he was bipolar and unmedicated by choice and that he refused the psychiatric help I arranged for him. The part of me that is a mother, that had, I thought, an unbreakable bond with him, still chafes and struggles at the unbinding, still wonders why he didn’t let me help him more. Still regrets his absence from our lives. Wonders, now and then, what he would have said about—something, anything. Sees him in every Christmas ornament, every place set at the table, every glimpse of a young man in a hoodie.
That part of me spools a thread between my own heart and that of any parent who loses a child. Recognizes that expression of sudden, desperate acknowledgment of what has happened. It’s that part of me that led me to go to a wake for my young optical technician, whom I barely knew, to hug her father tight and whisper assurances that one day the pain would not be so acute. It’s that part of me that would crawl over hot coals to get to the mothers of Ukraine and Chicago and Los Angeles and Myanmar and Sudan, to hold them and whisper whatever may help.
One of the persons I admire most is Fred Guttenberg, who has turned his grief over the death of his daughter, Jaime, in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting, into a public reckoning with the reality of losing thousands of children each year to gun violence. He does not hide his tears or his agony while he demonstrates that one can make the end of violence a mission that is not impaired by mourning. And then there is Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery, who has sat through hour after agonizing hour of court trials, of watching that video of her son’s last moments over and over again. Who refused the Justice Department’s shameful plea bargain agreement and insisted on a full trial, which ended in the world seeing what the consequences of racial hatred should be.
Truly, I never wanted any immortality except my children. In my Romani-Native, deeply Scottish mountain community, children are everything, our life’s blood, the consequence that must be considered before we spend any resource, make any move, take any decision. All of our lives are about them. Without them, our lives have no lasting purpose, no matter who we are or what we achieve personally. It is not about blood, but about community: our children belong to all of us, and all of us must take care with them. They will carry forth the meaning of our lives and braid something new with our strands.
As I read Morell, I thought that perhaps we humans can only achieve immortality by eschewing violence, by giving up our right to defend resources to the point of war, by putting our children’s lives above all other motives. Maybe her jellyfish and other examples have somehow achieved more than we, with our larger brains and volatile weapons.
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