I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes–
I wonder if It weighs like Mine–
Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long–
Or did it just begin–
I could not tell the Date of Mine–
It feels so old a pain–
I wonder if it hurts to live–
And if They have to try–
And whether–could They choose between–
It would not be–to die–
I note that Some–gone patient long–
At length, renew their smile–
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil–
I wonder if when Years have piled–
Some Thousands–on the Harm–
That hurt them early–such a lapse
Could give them any Balm–
Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve–
Enlightened to a larger Pain–
In Contrast with the Love–
The Grieved–are many–I am told–
There is the various Cause–
Death–is but one–and comes but once–
And only nails the eyes–
There’s Grief of Want–and grief of Cold–
A sort they call “Despair”–
There’s Banishment from native Eyes–
In Sight of Native Air–
And though I may not guess the kind–
Correctly–yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary–
To note the fashions–of the Cross–
And how they’re mostly worn–
Still fascinated to presume
That Some–are like My Own–
Let me begin with a story I’ve told in parts elsewhere.
With this story, I want to launch a multi-post discussion about “Comparing”, a sticky issue and one of the most complicated “C’s” with regards to loss, grief and co-mourning.
Little Parker (aka Petit Parker, or “P. J.” for Parker John ,or also “Peej”) is Renée and John Hall’s son. He and his twin sister, Penelope, were conceived a few short months after our Parker’s funeral, which Renée attended. She’d flown to Utah from her home in Paris, which is where we Halls and Bradfords lived and loved each other, and where our strapping “Big” Parker had been assigned with Randall to be what we in our church call “home teachers.” That assignment means that once a month, son and father hopped on the family scooter to zip across town to check in on the Halls, one of their several stewardships in our congregation.
Back then when Big Parker was alive to visit them, the Halls had three girls under the age of six; Abby, Hannah and Axelle. These princesses always donned their pink net tutus and fairy wands, tiaras and pastel feather boas to greet their home teachers, then showered them with squeals of love and laughter. Big Parker was the monthly celebrity in their home.
When word was official that our Parker did not survive his coma, John Hall was the second person in the world to call us. He phoned Utah standing surrounded by members of our church congregation in the courtyard in front of our meeting place in the heart of Paris.
“But. . .”, I could hear his usually voluminous voice shrivel to a whimper, “But, how can. . .how. . .how can this be true? I’m so. . .just. . .” His voice kept cracking. “We love you guys so much,” he said, every syllable pressed dense with sadness.
If you can imagine Jeremiah Johnson weeping and stammering through a phrase, you’ve got an image of our friend John grieving.
I remember virtually everything about the moment Renée took me aside during one of our visits to Paris that first year. Her blonde shoulder length hair was tucked behind one ear. She was wearing fire engine red. The sun was pouring in the window behind me on the right. Many others were in the room. And she took me over to a chair, whispering with joy dipped in sadness, “Melissa, no one knows yet, but John and I decided to have one more child.” She touched her stomach and shrugged, “And it’s two.”
I reached and took her forearm, smiling with my brows furrowed.
“And if one’s a boy,” Renée said, her bright grin starting to tremble in its edges, “We’ll name him Parker. Is that okay with you guys?”
When Parker and Penelope came into the world, they made the perfect sparkly disco spotlight over an equally snazzified family complete with ultra-octane parents and those three twirling princesses. At the Hall home things were kept at a rollicking clip with high-froth-quotient parties, spontaneous dance-a-thons, theme picnics in the local parks, and frequent excursions to Euro Disney.
And Euro Disney is, in fact, exactly where the Halls were on February 20, 2009. That date would have been Big Parker’s twentieth birthday. That was the day Parker Hall (just eight months old) contracted pneumococcal meningitis.
When I got the phone call in Munich that Little Parker was in a medically induced coma and probably wouldn’t make it another day, I caught the next plane to Paris. Folding and refolding the waxy white airplane napkin, I couldn’t block out possible scenes of an ashen-faced Renée folding up baby boy clothes to be boxed or given away. I tried to suppress the impossible notion of my boy’s name being a curse. I foresaw the fragility that would invade and potentially reduce these mighty parents, this magnificent family. I narrated to myself the story of loss Renée would yearn to tell. And I feared all the ears that wouldn’t want to hear it, that would never ask to hear it, that sacred but scary story of the dead child. The story that so few can acknowledge straight on. The phantom child that makes the parent a specter, a bitter jinx in life’s otherwise carbonated cocktail mix.
At l’Hôpital Necker Enfants Malades and cloaked in paper gowns, masks, and gloves, Renée and I entered the isolation booth where her Parker lay motionless, his swollen head and listless body wrapped in gauze and sterile cotton, the hospital staff avoiding eye contact while attempting light conversation.
It was a still life (nature morte) of unspeakable but crashing familiarity. The volume of my pleading inner dialogue with God and with Big Parker—“Make him live! Strong brain! Strong lungs, strong, strong!!”—was so loud, I was sure the staff would ask me—s’il vous plait!—to keep my thoughts down.
From that weeklong coma Little Parker did miraculously return to life. But it was not a strong life.
Cerebral meningitis had ravaged his system leaving him deaf, hydrocephalic, convulsive, shunted, and cut and sewn so many times his head looked like a Spirograph drawing. He was gravely compromised neurologically, his gravitational vector was shot, he was droopy and unresponsive, and he had to be fit with cochlear implants in order to retrieve – 10%? 5% of his hearing? – if any hearing at all.
John and Renée and their four girls began teaching themselves sign language—both in English and in French. They also began a family journey of fortitude and despair, faith and disappointment, a journey whose description I dare not even touch. I’d do it injustice, get the essentials all wrong, flatten it to a cheap little subtitle. Who am I to tread on such hallowed ground? So, for firsthand descriptions of their ongoing challenges, you’ll want to go here.
Renée, like Melissa, writes full-bodied e-mails. Over these past years, we’ve tracked one another’s experience with loss, amassing volumes that describe heaven’s severe but benevolent teaching methods, the wonder of small joys, the isolation and irony that come with the most defining trials in life, the sharp and bruising contours of grief’s landscape, the deepening spiritual experiences hardly transferable by written word, and our love and hope and yearning and passion for our two Parkers.
With Renée I am confident I can unload my private pain liberally, and she’ll scoop it up and hold it right there, against her gut. As a matter of fact, I think she holds it within her gut, because her own burden has carved out room for feeling something of its weight. She’ll weigh my burden there, absorbing it within her own. This is how I envision it.
There, in her gut, when she carries all she can of my burden, does she feel its entire weight? She’d be the first to say, no.
And, no, I cannot feel or understand the entirety of the weight of her burden, either.
We’re both sensitive and sympathetic people. And we share a common, eternal bond. But we sister-friends cannot fully feel the weight of one another’s hardship.
Or “heartchip”, as my Luc once called it.
And there’s something more, some thing vitally wise about how Renée weighs my heartchip. She doesn’t deposit my heartchip on one side of a scale and deposit her heartchip on the other side, waiting with Dickinson’s “narrow, probing eyes”, sizing up whose – Renée’s? Or Mélissa’s? – is the heavier of the two.
Whose scale sinks lower.
Who of the two of us deserves more sympathy.
Who wins at Sufferier Than Thou.
While every bit as analytical as mine, Renée’s eyes don’t seem focused on tit for tat, ledger-keeping competition, on who wins in this ponderous loss lottery. She only wants to understand, I know this fabulous thing about her, and in that focus outward, she accepts that both our burdens of loss are simply unique and therefore the losses weigh differently.
She also knows that what we two sister-friends have lost imposes a tonnage that changes life forever. Knowing that seems to be more than enough for her to bear.
By choosing to hold my heartchip next to her own heartchip instead of pitting them against each other, she frees herself from a few things.
First, she frees herself from the corrosive effects of self-pity. If you were to meet Renée on the street, you’d call her the joie de vivre lady, as the policeman in her Parisian neighborhood does. Blondely buoyant with a vibrant red-lipped smile, neon lime green rubber boots, all her kids piled willy-nilly on a doggoned circus act of a double stroller, her life percolates with merriment as if painted, carpeted, wall-papered and wardrobed all in Merimekko.
Renée also frees her heart from the weight of harsh judgement. Sure, she gets impatient (as do I) when folks call petty things tragique! and when mere inconvenience – a basic blip – makes some people rage, stamp and whine.
(Confession time, everybody? I get more than impatient. I get rabid. But I realize, too, that that was once me.)
But Renée’s heart remains supple, juicy. Hers is the kind of heart the Arapahoe Indians call the moist heart, which, in their tradition, is the sign of a fully developed heart. Pardon the cuteness, but her own heartchip has not made her heart into a chip.
And she frees herself from carrying resentment towards others. (You are right if you sense more cuteness coming.) There might be substantial, ongoing, cumulative heartchip, but look here: Do you see a chip on this lovely shoulder?
“The very attempt we often make in quantifying losses only exacerbates the loss by driving us to two unhealthy extremes. On the one hand, those coming out on the losing end of the comparison are deprived of the validation they need to identify and experience the loss for the bad thing it is. He sometimes feels like the little boy who just scratched his finger but cried too hard to receive much sympathy. Their loss is dismissed as unworthy of attention or recognition. On the other hand, those coming out on the winning end convince themselves that no one has suffered as much as they have, that no one will ever understand them, and that no one can offer lasting help. They are the ultimate victims. So they indulge themselves with their pain and gain a strange kind of pleasure in their misery.”—Gerald Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 32-33