On this date 42 years ago, I lost my grandmother. Granny was my mother’s mother, the only grandparent I can remember. Jessie Watkins was an ample woman with cat-eye glasses and old-style house dresses in floral prints, in many ways a perfect exemplar of the stereotypical grandmother. She lived in a aqua blue-and-white house trailer in a trailer park occupied mostly by seniors on the far west side of Columbus, just across I-270 from Westland Mall. She was my primary babysitter when my parents had functions to attend, which was actually pretty rare, but we often visited her place to help out and just visit, maybe watching an episode of the Rockford Files on her black-and-white TV. Or she’d show me how to embroider or crochet, pulling supplies from the narrow first bedroom in her trailer, where she kept her stash. I remember the jars of buttons, the scraps of fabric, the bits of lace and rick-rack, and especially the yarn. She was seldom without a bag of yarn and a project. Our home featured a huge granny square afghan she made us, in black and vivid colours, as well pillow covers in a pinwheel swirl pattern to match.
She had spent much of her life as a widow, losing her husband, Harry, many, many years before. About a month before her death, she had gone into the hospital for gall bladder surgery, where some sort of growth–I remember they called it a fistula–was discovered. Even though I was only eleven at the time and the visiting age for patients was 12, I was tall for my age and of sober disposition, so I was allowed in a few times to see her, but not in the last couple of weeks. The last thing she sent me had been on her food tray at Easter–a foam cup from an egg carton with a chick made of cotton balls, a little like this one:
Having that last small token helped me through her funeral and beyond, as I mourned and then came to accept her death. I kept it for years, the last tangible sign of a long life well lived, until at last, it disappeared; I can’t quite remember when.
I think anyone who’s acquainted with basic psychology is probably familiar with the Kubler-Ross model of the five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Even though the model has faced considerable criticism over the years as not being based on actual scientific studies, I do think there is truth in the model–although it’s not a linear progression that people pass through in predictable fashion, but instead a cycle where the various “steps” can occur–repeatedly–in any order. I think it’s most useful in describing the most common ways in which grief can be expressed. And we now know–especially now–that grief is something people struggle with not just when loved ones die, but any time change results in the loss of something special, something they trusted or had taken for granted.
In the past few weeks, I’ve probably cycled between all five stages of grieving what has been lost, even though the world is still in the very early stages of this crisis and we’re not really sure yet of just what will be lost. That makes for an odd kind of anticipatory grief–grieving for the future. It’s probably the thing that keeps my sleep most unsettled. I am fine for the short term, the day-to-day, hunkered down in my house and doing my part to help stop the spread. But I find myself having a certain amount of difficulties watching just about any movie or TV show, particularly any of those I grew up with or set within a period I can remember, without grieving. Right now, I’m working my way through the German series Deutschland 83, which is not only full of the music and fashion of that era, but also the Cold War nuclear tensions that I worried about just about every day during my teen years. (It’s easy to forget that). As I wrote about a few days ago, I have found myself thumbing through old yearbooks, recalling that time when a life I have known to have been generally good still lay before me.
I turned last night to music to provide a little catharsis and discovered something I hadn’t expected. I listened to Shostakovich’s autobiographical String Quartet #8, op. 110, a work that in the past has moved me to tears. Most memorably, I listened to it late one night at the final Pennsic I attended, sitting by the lakeside, thoroughly drunk, as the date flipped over to August 9, the day Shostakovich died in 1975. There was something more, though, in that act, the feeling that something–I didn’t know what at the time–was ending, and that I would not pass that way again. (This has proved to be true–I am unsure I will ever tread the paths of Cooper’s Lake again, and if I do, it will be vastly different.). I could listen to that quartet from the perspective of looking back, moving through the entire process and acknowledging it.
I couldn’t do that last night. My eyes were a little moist during the first movement, but then the frantic second movement sonically stabbed me,over and over and over. I actually repeatedly flinched. This was not cathartic at all–these were my fears addressing me in real time. I was not in the right headspace for tears–what was closest at mind was fear and anger. It was in the middle of the fourth movement that I accidentally hit a button on my phone and stopped the music, just short of the bar and a half of actual silence in the piece, and it hit me. Those five stages of grief? They’re all right there, in the five movements of the work. The first movement, which presents the composer’s DSCH motif in the opening bars–a motif that will tie the entire quartet together, representing the composer looking at his life–that movement is denial. Those notes are repeated over and over, along with a quotation from Shostakovich’s 1st Symphony, composed when he was in his late teens–as if to say “this cannot be happening”–much as I have gone back to those yearbooks. This is where my eyes became a little moist.
And then, the anger of the second movement–the one I could feel viscerally, almost as I was being stabbed–Wendy Lesser calls it ” anxiety-ridden, almost hysterical”. There’s a melody in there taken from another of Shostakovich’s earlier works–one written in memory of his best friend–that is sometimes thought to represent Jews forced to dance on mass graves before being shot during the Holocaust. And the DSCH motif keeps getting repeated,, frantically almost like the composer pleading for help. Then, the third movement: what Lesser calls a “creepy, dissonant waltz” –but less frightening – “there is not so much to lose now that death has become familiar.” Here we have the bargaining stage, as we do a little dance with our fears (to the main theme of Shostakovich’s 1st Cello Concert). And then onto the fourth movement–or depression in the grief cycle. This movement has two incredibly powerful quotations of sweet, poignant melody that keep getting interrupted by three short notes played on all instruments–a knock at the door, dropping bombs, whatever–but an interruption to the interior focus as the sadness finally flows forth. The DSCH motif falters in this section, becoming more and more tentative, boiled down to a single held note–a lifeline, as it were–and then all falls silent for a brief moment at the end before the fifth movement begins. This is where acceptance begins. The DSCH motif modulates, there is a flowing quality to the expression of the themes, interspersed with moments of calm and silence. There is no sense here that something has been snuffed out, as in the fourth movement; instead, there is a feeling of moving forward, of calm, of breathing.
This, I think, is why I found the entire work so moving that summer night in 2018 where yesterday, I could not emotionally engage beyond the second movement. I suspect I may only be able to return to full enjoyment of the piece after we are much further down the road. Perhaps the universe was telling me something when it was taken off the program for the March 8 concert where I was to have heard it played live. I expect that when I finally get to hear it, it will be special. And the significance is not lost on me that one year ago today, I was in Columbus hearing the string orchestra version of op. 110 played by Pro Musica. I dare not plan for where I will be in a year now–but there is hope.
And I remember this: I am about the same age now as my mother was when she lost her mother. For her, close to 25 years more of life still lay in the future, plenty of time to move towards what David Kessler calls the sixth stage of grief: Finding meaning–a way to honour and cherish the memories and to begin to heal, understanding that the scars will still remain to remind us of our survival, and of what we have learned. I hope–for me, and for the world–that we acknowledge that this will take time, and that for the time being, the feelings we are having are normal and in some way necessary.