Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Grave New World

I watched a disturbing film the other night in which a British photographer, mourning the death of his teenage son, takes revenge on one of the local gang members who has been terrorizing his alcoholic grieving existence with acts of violence.   In the end, there is a bizarre twist and change of heart…. it was difficult to watch.

So many of my friends 'forgot' to have children.  It could have happened to me; I was sailing through a relatively self-centered existence when I found myself unexpectedly pregnant.  At first it seemed a little 'conceptual'… not much change in my day-to-day.  I ignored it, denied it… and suddenly in my 5th month or so, I thought I was miscarrying.  In the ER, the Drs. scolded me a little for my callow attitude.  It was a hot summer night; walking downtown I began to acknowledge that I was carrying life, and by the time I got home, I was teary and praying.  Cricket, I called the baby-- because that's how it had felt… don't leave me, Cricket.  I got on my knees by the bed and begged my version of God to give me a chance.  Next day I began eating well, frying liver for lunch-- making better choices… talking to my child silently, singing-- chanting, whispering in the dark, sending internal messages and listening.

I'd never felt this sort of intimacy before… I even dreaded the separation of birth, but that turned out to be another revelation.  How could anything, anyone… be so perfect and fascinating-- so miraculously lovely and infinitely compelling?  Instincts kick in… protection, love, compassion, empathy… the utter dependence and trust of an infant… the complete fulfillment of maternal devotion.  The smallest discomfort is a challenge-- a pain or illness is your own wound… you will lie down in front of cars for this being, give up blood and organs, sacrifice all creature comforts for a train set.

As they grow and separate further, you obsess over their daily absences and little independent lives-- you worry, pace, long and miss.  Their sweaty face after a ballgame is like celestial radiance.  Their victories are joy, their losses are devastating failures.  My son had a seriously trying teenage spell.  Arrests, troubles, suspensions-- he was cooler than cool, gangsta-tough, but so vulnerable.  I spent scores of sleepless nights; days were worse.  An illness or flu which kept him in bed --- my only respite.  There were panics and police visits… one night where I had a terrorizing call from a weeping mate of his who informed me after many minutes of distress that he was in jail.  My relief was beyond anything I'd ever felt; for a moment I was sure he'd been killed.  That moment-- the paralyzing, gut-shaking wrench of perceived loss-- taught me something about the impact of this kind of news.  The emotional range between life and death-- is massive.

Recent acts of terror-- the relentless sequential delivery of statistics and details-- have stacked up into a skin-thickening coat of familiarity.  In countries of civil distress, violence and death are a fact of life.  In New York, we live with daily shootings, muggings, elevator shaft accidents, crane collapses and drownings.  Domestic abuse, rape, cruelty and gang wars, concert violence and pediatric cancer-- heartbreak and suffering, neglect and wheelchairs.  We read, we watch news, we speak of it… we cry at movies, at ASPCA commercials, at sad songs and when our boyfriends or husbands stray.  But when I hear and see recent news of these mass killings, I think only of how every tragedy everywhere has a mother, a father… how the very possibility of my own child being taken from me is beyond any tolerable grief.  Unbearable:  this is the operative word.  We have all lost parents, friends, husbands… but our own child-- the thing we created and nurtured and carried as our own-- this is an unfathomable hole.  In the moment where I misunderstood that phone call, so long ago… I experienced the unbearable… and have never fully recovered.  I don't know how the parents of the Trayvon Martins and the Eric Garners-- of every single child in the Orlando incident, in the Paris incidents-- Nice-- the shopping malls, the schools and movie theaters-- of 9/11-- how they can go on.  I have seen them go on,  with varying paths of bravery-- some wanting revenge, some choosing forgiveness and mercy, some using medications or alcohol, seeking some peace or cause to fill part of their 'hole'… some discovering nothing but suicide relieves the pain.

Looking back to our own childhoods, so many of us find them lacking; possibly my own son will dis his childhood-- after all, he grew up without a father.  My own father the hero failed to protect me.  Times were different, he was not a natural parent, and he missed things-- people who wait in the wings to take advantage of children's innocence-- bad people.  We grow up and must learn to cope with these violations.  Some people hoard possessions to compensate for things they missed-- they collect lovers to try to forget their own neglect-- they seek new pain to purge that which someone inflicted on them.

But we devoted parents-- who take a vow every single moment-- for our babies, for our toddlers and adolescents-- for our naughty, bratty budding gangsters and our angelic young men with sparkles in their eyes--  we swear we will not let these things happen to our children.  We speak gently to them-- we touch them with tenderness,  we listen to their tiny terrors and bad dreams, we dry their tears, we cheer them on and share their defeats and try hard to give them some independence and core while we fight for their innocence and defend them with all we are.

And then there is a random train ride… or a subway psycho… a black plastic bag underneath their foot… an assault weapon at a rock concert-- a plane crash during a happy vacation… rifles in a classroom.  How do we process this, we careful, passionate, doting parents?  Every single senseless murder and death is a tragedy of incalculable proportion-- a catastrophic event-- a searing, ripping, unsealing pain that scars over only temporarily but opens like an unhealed wound with every memory.  Statistics are a leveling, distant thing… but death and grief are relentless bedfellows.  The dream of gravestones, of blood and tears and the remembered joy of birth-- how does one reconcile these things, how does anyone go on from such a gatepost?

The end of the film-- the hideous staging of revenge-- and the victim was clearly a perpetrator of heinous evil-- provided nothing but further grief, twisted non-closure, the sick panicky epiphany of regret, of human frailty and the utter fragility of even the roughest child-- of the line between death and life.   And the power of the crossing only reminds us that all this violence has a kickback-- a reaction, a consequence-- a hideous rippling brushfire effect--- and how the sorrow from an unnatural, premeditated murder or random death-- for the mothers-- gentle or tough--  is an utterly crippling, indelible life sentence.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

We Can Be Heroes

I'm not sure if anyone else saw the article by Max Blumenthal essentially shooting holes in the legacy of nobel prize-winner Elie Wiesel.  His bitterness was maybe poorly timed, and no matter how valid his points, we are all flawed and human and we make mistakes, and fame not only does not assure protection but maybe leaves us more vulnerable to poor choices and insecurities.  The bloggers who obsess about Mr. Wiesel's disappearing tattoo… well, I'm not sure their vendetta is worth the energy… his death seems to have made this all a bit moot.  

I had a personal interest in the death of Mr. Wiesel.  Thirty years ago,  for some time, our telephone land lines were one digit apart.  In the days of answering machines, I often got messages for him; one day I looked him up (he was listed) and called to tell him I'd received some of his medical test results in error.  We had a friendly little New York City exchange, and that was that.  Several months later I ran into him at a huge NYPL dinner honoring local authors… and I introduced myself.  I was pretty then--- dating a well-known writer, and Elie was charming and warm.  He called me several times when he'd got voicemail he was certain was intended for me… we talked a little, laughed a little… a New York connection.  I left that apartment, and the landline, 19 years ago.

Recently someone offered to take me to a restaurant-- they mentioned the name of a well-reviewed bistro in my neighborhood.  I rarely go out these days.  I've dispensed with everything but the barest supplies; I walk and drink my coffee black.  A little bit of hunger is good for imagination.  But the name of the place brought back an association. Years ago, a Goldman Sachs young wunderkind asked me to help him buy some art--- he needed me to see his new Park Avenue apartment-- unusual in those days for a young bachelor-- and of course he insisted on taking me to dinner first.  I cared little for these suitors back then, when I was a marketable human commodity…  but he was a friend of someone I liked, and I repped artists in those days, and was thrilled to help place their work.  So of course he was a little interesting and ivy-league smart, even though he would never have been my 'type'...and we drank some expensive wine, etc.  The bistro closed.. and our errand began.  Minutes after entering his massive apartment, the guy literally attacked me-- the term date-rape hadn't been invented. Yes, he professed his eternal love among other expletives… I can remember the way he smelled and his custom shirt…. the beautiful cotton… things like this cross your mind in these moments of extreme observation… like magnifications.  I had on a black Norma Kamali dress-- he was pulling at it like an animal… and somehow I managed to kick him in his balls and run out.   My dress was never the same, and that restaurant which remarkably has thrived over the years--  a personal taboo.  In my suede purse was a copy of 'Night'.  I lost it in his apartment, when my things dumped out… and I bought myself a 48-cent copy at the Strand ( they were common)-- my reading copy which I pulled out to look at after I heard about Mr. Wiesel's death.  And I recalled the incident.

In the context of life, this was nothing.  Children are abused and raped and beaten by relatives, parents and kind people.  Politicians profess benevolence and tip badly, yell at staff, have little compassion for neighbors.  And we are all so guilty of ignoring people in need.  Then again-- what good can we do? I spend days trying to help women who refuse and sabotage and self-pity and destroy and use me up.  Brilliant musicians and young guitarists make me cry with their talent-- and drink my sympathy down with their habits.  Does it bother me that this Goldman guy is one of the Masters of the Universe now?  Does his massive fortune make me crave revenge?  Not really.  I left his house that night and discarded the incident like a cigarette butt.  He has a paid army of lawyers on staff because he needs them.  These people commit petty sins and have them erased or charge and convict a dead pedestrian in a hit-and-run.  I have my pride and maybe he has the memory.  It hadn't crossed my radar until the mention of that restaurant triggered.  And then the Elie Wiesel connection.  I'd thought about his hideous tale of survival, the historic retelling, the way he became a sort of hero or symbol of this episode, and used his life to spread the memory-- the lesson.  At the time it had put things into a kind of perspective and helped me process my little violation.  Do I have a physical scar, a tattoo?  I don't.

It is well known that Elie Wiesel's foundation and personal fortune were decimated by the Madoff scandal.  Having built a sort of personal citadel based on his platform of survival, he was economically hijacked… suffered a late-life personal tragedy not of holocaustic proportion, but the irony of these Jewish charities being the worst-fated victims of the Ponzi scheme is double-edged.  So whatever Elie Wiesel did that may have been less than stellar in his final chapter of comeback seems less heinous to me.  He was old, he was tough-- had made some shocking choices in his youth in the camps, and confessed in his account.  His death was acknowledged by political leaders and dignitaries everywhere.  His moral status in history is assured.  The book will remain in its place of honor.  It will be read as a document, as a memoir, as a testimony of bravery and courage and survival.

The third irony occurred at the funeral-- a private ceremony on Fifth Avenue when mourners were startled by the sound of an explosion, attributed to a stray July 4th device or celebration.  Later on it was revealed that this was the sound of a 'random' mixture of chemicals in a container left in a plastic bag-- just yards away--  literally blowing the foot off of a young strong boy who minutes before was innocently exploring the park, enjoying a holiday with friends… when some hideous design of fate caused him to be in the right place at exactly the wrong moment-- one false step and his life was radically altered.

As Elie Wiesel was laid to rest in a civilized world, his coffin driven away in a hearse before rows of celebrities and famous men and women… it was a reminder that there is no guarantee of peace-- not anywhere, not for any of us.   No matter how good or evil we may be,  we are not safe… we can tiptoe through our lives or we can forcefully march through streets laughing and shouting… there are attackers and people with guns, and predators, and bitter victims seeking revenge… and there are accidents-- careless acts of preoccupied phone-texters or sleepy truckers or drunk distracted motorists who get behind their wheels thinking about their bed and end up in a line-up of coffins.  But there is no clear path for any of us and we can only try to kiss the dawn when we wake up, and cross ourselves when we step off a curb and a cab just misses us.  We marked another Independence Day and fireworks were displayed in peace… despite a few weekend gunshots and a poor ill-fated boy in the Park who will go on to win races with a prosthetic foot, I predict.  Catapulted into some version of forced heroism--  like Mr. Wiesel, in a way, he is forever changed.