Making Me Understand is an occasional blog feature where I analyze what a particular work of art or the work of a particular artist means to me right now.
I just attended the bar mitzvah of one of Young J’s closest friends. Yes, it’s a Thursday morning. In more observant Jewish communities, traveling on the Sabbath to attend a classmate’s bar mitzvah would be prohibited, so today was the bar mitzvah for family and for the middle school class, and Saturday morning will be the service for family and friends. The bar mitzvah boy is chanting from the Torah portion both times. He did a wonderful job today, and we all got to discover that the soft-spoken, shy kid we’ve known for ages has a beautiful and melodious singing voice.
It didn’t occur to me to skip the bar mitzvah, even though my father passed away just six weeks ago today. More observant people will often avoid attending happy events or concerts after a parent dies, and the period of mourning lasts for a year after death, during which, as I just read in a book a former colleague wrote, a child is supposed to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, three times daily in memory of their parent.
The four of us walked to the synagogue this morning in high spirits, moving quickly through the not-quite-spring chill. We were excited to hear the bar mitzvah boy, and we didn’t want to be late. After the Torah reading, however, it was time to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. I was in an unfamiliar place, separated from the rest of my family by a barrier because men and women sit separately in an Orthodox synagogue. My side was populated by parents and teachers and Young J’s female classmates. I was the only one who stood as a mourner. The only other mourner in the small room was a man who raced through the prayer so fast, I couldn’t keep up with him. A second chance came up moments later to say Kaddish again, and I didn’t bother. Like, oKAY, Judaism. I give up already!
After the service there was a lovely breakfast, and J and I watched as Young J’s class assembled in different groups. I could have sat there in a corner observing them like an anthropologist all morning, because watching middle school dynamics is so fascinating. But then I had a chance to speak with Young J’s friend’s grandparents, in town from California, and they were so lovely. Young A was there and at a certain point, Young J came and complained that A was cramping his style. It was nearly time to leave and take him to school, anyway, and Young J had warned me that Young A and I were not to walk back to school within several blocks of him and his class.
As I prepared to leave, I felt myself approaching the wall of grief that I find myself slamming into periodically these days, usually without warning. I thought of my father, and how he wouldn’t get to attend my sons’ bar mitzvahs. I started wondering what kind of speech he might have given.
I had promised Young A a detour on the way back to school, to watch a subway train from the bridge above the tracks. So we stood in the cold sun and waited, and I was grateful for the diversion from my encroaching gloomy thoughts. As soon as I dropped him off at school, however, I succumbed. Maybe it was a teacher who stopped me in the hall and hugged me, because I hadn’t seen her since my father passed, and who wanted to give me words of comfort (which always seem to work the opposite way for me). Maybe it was just my time to grieve. I kept my head down walking home, and as soon as I came through the door I started sobbing. And there is still Saturday’s event to get through. “I’m not ready! I’m not ready!” I said, over and over.
I’m not ready, but I still have a busy day to get through. Lunch with a friend (who is, like me, a member of the Dead Dads Club, so she will understand), then some translation work, and then a lecture in the evening and possibly drinks with friends after. My grief needed to be confined to a very intense cry, and I found myself going straight to the final line of this poem by Elizabeth Bishop, an American poet who spent her final years living in Brazil (my birthplace).
Pink Dog [Rio de Janeiro]
The sun is blazing and the sky is blue.
Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue.
Naked, you trot across the avenue.
Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!
Naked and pink, without a single hair…
Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.
Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies.
You are not mad; you have a case of scabies
but look intelligent. Where are your babies?
(A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.)
In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch,
while you go begging, living by your wits?
Didn’t you know? It’s been in all the papers,
to solve this problem, how they deal with beggars?
They take and throw them in the tidal rivers.
Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites
go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights
out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.
If they do this to anyone who begs,
drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,
what would they do to sick, four-leggèd dogs?
In the cafés and on the sidewalk corners
the joke is going round that all the beggars
who can afford them now wear life preservers.
In your condition you would not be able
even to float, much less to dog-paddle.
Now look, the practical, the sensible
solution is to wear a fantasía.*
Tonight you simply can’t afford to be a-
n eyesore… But no one will ever see a
dog in máscara this time of year.
Ash Wednesday’ll come but Carnival is here.
What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?
They say that Carnival’s degenerating
— radios, Americans, or something,
have ruined it completely. They’re just talking.
Carnival is always wonderful!
A depilated dog would not look well.
Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!
* Carnival costume
“Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!” was the perfect expression of my feeling today, and my anticipation of how the happy events I have scheduled will feel. I will always feel like escaping, and yet… I can’t afford that feeling. I don’t want to have my expression of grief inhibit my joy for a full year. But I am finding that grief is like a Mylar overlay on a map. It will be there as long as it needs to be, I can peel it back for a bit, but it is important to have it.
The figure of the pink dog is also the expression of my feeling as a grieving person — and even as a person with cancer — moving through worlds wholly unconcerned with either thing. One feels apart, and one can even feel at times like an outcast. You walk into a room dressed in your fantasía, but you carry an unseemly burden (or burdens) with you, slung over your shoulder, and the crowd parts to let you through.
Brazil is my birthplace, but not much else, because I moved to the United States at five months old, and never returned. I have no ancestral ties there. But it seems to have left indelible traces in my DNA, or in my soul. From the Bishop poem, my thoughts jumped next to the classic song about Carnival by Tom Jobim, “A Felicidade.” These are some of the English lyrics:
Sadness has no end
Happiness is like a drop
Of dew on a flower petal
After light oscillates
And falls like a tear of love
Happiness of the poor seems
The great illusion of Carnival
We work all year
For a momentary dream
To make a Carnival costume
Of king or pirate or gardener
And everything is over on Wednesday
Sadness has no end
This song is the perfect expression of the very Brazilian concept of saudade, “a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.” It helped me to remember that happiness can end, because my happiness is not very long-lived these days. It is good to remember we can return to a normal baseline of sadness.
I had understood there were five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. But between stages four and five, perhaps there is room for saudade. It makes a lot of sense to me.