ClingBy Arielle Bernstein
November 02, 2011
I was happy to see a baby at the funeral. It was a big baby, with creamy white skin and lots of baby fat, a docile and calm thing. When his mother went to put earth on my grandmother’s grave, as part of the Jewish tradition of burial, she didn’t even put him down. She kept him pressed close to her abdomen and heart; he waited silently, wrapped around her waist, while she shoveled big heavy clumps of red earth into the empty space of the grave. I hadn’t been nearly as effective. I took tentative little handfuls of soil and grazed them over the top of the pine box.
We kept talking about the baby afterwards even though I don’t generally feel especially affectionate towards babies. Generally speaking, I don’t know what to do with them. I like children because you can have little conversations with them. Small children are nice to talk to because they are so new to the planet we live on that everything seems new to them too. You often overhear small children saying things that are interesting and cute and strangely profound. Recently I overhead a small child talking to his parents: “We should go to Bermuda for spring break,” he said. “Bermuda’s far away,” his dad replied, “What about Detroit? How about that instead?” “Okay,” the child agreed. “That sounds like fun!”
This is a pleasant and uplifting sort of conversation to listen in on.
Babies, on the other hand, are too new to talk, so it is rather difficult to communicate with them. They gurgle and sputter and require being changed. I’ve reached the age where most people assume I really like babies, and so they will habitually try and make me hold them. This mother at the funeral was no different. When I complimented her technique of simultaneous grave shoveling and baby holding, she hoisted her little darling on me. In my arms the baby was no longer the shining symbol of the circle of life, a pleasant reminder on a sad day that life will continue. In my arms, the baby was just a heavy little human being. I’m sure the baby was a bit disappointed too. I seemed less interesting close-up. I didn’t smell like his mother. He started crying almost immediately.
The service was a smaller one than my grandfather’s, not because less people knew my grandmother, but because after a person goes to an old person’s home fewer people keep in touch.
This is considered normal in our culture. We are experts at dividing the human experience by age. Since we are children we are divided up with our peers and actively “other” any other age group. When I first started visiting my grandmother, I felt conspicuously young. The elderly neighbors were always surprised and thrilled to see me there with them, as if visiting the older members of our family is some kind of chore, rather than a joy.
I feel embarrassed by my grief. I keep telling myself it is normal that older people die, that it is not a tragedy though it feels like it is. The grief starts and stops in uncontrollable ways. Some of that grief is undoubtedly selfish. I am afraid of getting old and dying myself. I get concerned when I read that the human brain completes itself by the time a person is in his or her mid-twenties. After this point the synapses are more firmly planted. The adolescent brain is a risk taker; the adult brain is theoretically more sober in response to the world.
I look at myself in the mirror and wonder if it is true that I have reached the next stage of my primordial human development. I don’t feel that way at all. I’ve become good at pretending that my instincts are under some kind of tight control. When a student confides in me that he or she feels bad about a class, or is struggling in some of the myriad ways we struggle, I give advice—good advice I hope from an older and wiser perspective—but the truth is I don’t know if I am any wiser. I still cling to the things I love with the tight little fist of a child. Whenever I don’t get what I want I still feel the empty ache of that want. Some people would argue that acknowledging those tendencies is a kind of wisdom too. In my meditation class one student mentioned that one way she finds it easy to be at peace with her feelings is to imagine her child-self feeling them. “That way I can empathize with those feelings of tension and stress but, you know, I can also distance myself from them. You can’t take children’s feelings as seriously.”
This is a kind of wisdom, I suppose, but it isn’t the kind of wisdom I want. Maybe I empathize with the little-girl-child-self deep inside me too much. On day seven of her hospital stay my mother combed my grandmother’s hair. Every brushstroke killed me. My child-like feelings and adult ones merged into the same wily animal, frightened of the ravages of time, of the minute by minute landscape of growing up.
These minute by minute landscapes become simultaneously smaller and larger as we age. In grade school we all did things at the same times, learning the same concepts and reaching for the same goals. Today, we are all grown ups and doing the same things too. In college, all of my friends got the memo to do study abroad at the same time. And on Facebook, I am consistently amazed to see that all of my friends got the memo to get married at around the same time, sometime between the ages of 28 and 32. The feeling that something is just the right time is more than a little socially constructed; the more we fill the future with all these controlled little experiments of experience, the more that bright, blank spot on the horizon feels further and further away.
Immediately after the funeral my father drove me back to my apartment. He hugged me and I didn’t want to let him go. “Hey now,” he said gently. He tried to crack a joke, “I’m not dead yet. You’ll have to save some tears for my funeral.”
This only set me off into more sobbing. In the months following my grandmother’s death I didn’t understand how everyone wasn’t mourning everything that could potentially be lost all the time.
It woke me up a little when I saw a neighbor who used to visit my grandmother a great deal walking down the street with her little girl. I don’t think they remembered who I was at all. The last time I saw her daughter she was just a baby, and here she was, clearly the same little person, but older and inquisitive, walking (walking!) and talking (talking!) and holding her mother’s hand. How extraordinarily ordinary the way that people grow! It is so obvious when you meet someone you haven’t seen in a long time, the way they are exactly the same as they always were, but different too, every heartbeat a grateful little pulse in time. We rely on instinct in more meaningful ways than we rely on reflection; we know exactly what our ancestors know—how to keep going and going and going and going until eventually we stop.
Beautiful piece, with such a wise and graceful last paragraph.
(BTW, I’m at the age where a fair number of friends are getting the “Get Divorced” memo–that one seems to be coming in a little more sporadically than the get married memo did, but not by much.)
Thanks for your feedback, Zoe. This particular essay took me a great deal of time to write. I find writing to be very therapeutic, and I always hope the end product is wise and graceful. It is strange to think of every stage of life as being somehow culturally constructed…Do you think that is what is happening with your friends as well?
This is on the menu of discussion items for Monday! Superb!