Grief is Another Country
I have nothing to coherently substantive to say about the Newtown tragedy, at least not yet.
I’ve lost much of today thinking about the parents, which has pretty much frozen my brain in place.
It’s a cliché, but still, absolutely true: there is no loss like that of a child. To my great good fortune and deepest fear, that’s a catastrophe I do not know.
But I did see it up close. Without belaboring personal details (and a story that is not mine alone), my father predeceased my grandmother. She lasted months only after that calamity, and that’s all I’m going to say about that for now.
But it’s the utter wreck that such a loss wreaks on those it touches that I’ve been turning over in my head all day. John caught a lot of that with this post, which I read this morning, but that just made me think on it the more. At some point during the day, it came to me, a stray wisp of memory — some words that I had once encountered that I half recalled to be as close as anything to give voice to something of what parents feel in these circumstances.
Decades ago, some years after we lost my dad, I capped a wholly undistinguished college acting career with a bit part in one of the lesser Shakespeares, King John. Even Bill’s second tier work has flashes of seemingly impossible insight delivered in otherworldly language. Act III of King John erupts in such a moment, at the point when Constance, believes her son, Arthur, has been doomed to murder at the order of King John. I looked it up and here’s what I found:
Lady, you utter madness, and not sorrow.
Thou art not holy to belie me so;
I am not mad: this hair I tear is mine;
My name is Constance; I was Geffrey’s wife;
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost:
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
For then, ’tis like I should forget myself:
O, if I could, what grief should I forget!
Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal;
For being not mad but sensible of grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be deliver’d of these woes,
And teaches me to kill or hang myself:
If I were mad, I should forget my son,
Or madly think a babe of clouts were he:
I am not mad; too well, too well I feel
The different plague of each calamity.
Bind up those tresses. O, what love I note
In the fair multitude of those her hairs!
Where but by chance a silver drop hath fallen,
Even to that drop ten thousand wiry friends
Do glue themselves in sociable grief,
Like true, inseparable, faithful loves,
Sticking together in calamity.
To England, if you will.
Bind up your hairs.
Yes, that I will; and wherefore will I do it?
I tore them from their bonds and cried aloud
‘O that these hands could so redeem my son,
As they have given these hairs their liberty!’
But now I envy at their liberty,
And will again commit them to their bonds,
Because my poor child is a prisoner.
And, father cardinal, I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven:
If that be true, I shall see my boy again;
For since the birth of Cain, the first male child,
To him that did but yesterday suspire,
There was not such a gracious creature born.
But now will canker-sorrow eat my bud
And chase the native beauty from his cheek
And he will look as hollow as a ghost,
As dim and meagre as an ague’s fit,
And so he’ll die; and, rising so again,
When I shall meet him in the court of heaven
I shall not know him: therefore never, never
Must I behold my pretty Arthur more.
You hold too heinous a respect of grief.
He talks to me that never had a son.
You are as fond of grief as of your child.
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!
–William Shakespeare, King John, Act III, Scene 4
My thoughts and all sympathy to the families of those now burdened with grief, or, as it is customarily said at such times in my Jewish tradition, “may they be comforted wtih the other mourners of Jerusalem and Zion.”
Image: Anthony van Dyck, Family Portrait, 1621.