The summer of 1961 was not a happy time in my life.
Two weeks after my high school graduation, my maternal grandfather died. My mother and I had lived with her parents during the Second World War while my father was overseas, and so this grandfather was the first male role model of my life, and I am said to greatly resemble him. He loved baseball and boxing and fishing and his grandchildren, whom he endlessly spoiled. A station agent for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, he was a master of the telegraph and the semaphore and the switches, of the giant mixers and the rumbling chutes and the section gangs of the coaling and watering station, and of the railroad intersection, that were in his charge. He was larger than life, one of the genial giants of my childhood, and his death left a huge empty place in my world.
Six weeks after his death, my parents, my sister and I moved away from the town where I’d done most of my growing up, among grandparents and uncles and aunts and a swarm of cousins, to a town on the other side of the state, far beyond Sunday dinner commuting distance. There I knew no one and, since I would soon be going to college in yet another town, I had little time and few opportunities for making new friends. I missed my high school friends, my uncles and cousins and aunts, my grandfather. I missed in particular the Ford dealer’s daughter, the first girlfriend I’d “liked-liked,” as kids today put it. I thought she liked-liked me, too; then her letters became newsier and less frequent, and I heard she was keeping company with the doctor’s nerdy son, that hovering nuisance.
The last half of the summer of ’61 was a time of loss and loneliness, grief and boredom. I was facing a future made even more uncertain than futures usually are by the summer’s losses and disruptions.
Yet, strangely enough, my memories of this time aren’t unhappy. Without friends or familiar places, I spent most days by myself, reading and listening to music — Dostoyevsky and John O’Hara, Rachmaninoff and Brahms and Gershwin, and Andy Williams singing “Lonely Street.” I took long evening walks, exploring my new town. Walking along the airport road one night, I saw the runway lights come on and then a small plane come spluttering down out of the dark sky to a safe landing. Whenever I turned off the mower after mowing the lawn, those comedians, my parents, would applaud from the dining room window, and I would bow.
To ease my boredom, my father got me a one-week job with a feed dealer in a nearby town, helping to build an automated chicken-feeding operation. I learned how to pour cement and make exact measurements, and earned a dollar an hour, the highest wage of my life. I remember the kindness of the dealer’s family during the week that I stayed with them; his wife made pancakes, my favorite, on my last morning at their house. The day before I left for college, I went with my family to Pilot Knob State Park, where, from the observation tower, I saw a far green landscape and hundreds of monarch butterflies fluttering toward the southwest.
I remember this sad time in my life knowing that the future actually turned out well: I found a home away from home at college, made several lifelong friends, met the young woman who would become my wife and the mother of my children, discovered my vocation. I even put down roots and found another lifelong friend in my family’s new town in the course of two memorable summers working for the city paving crew.
Yet even in the summer of ’61, not knowing this future, I was hopeful, moving on, exploring this new life, learning to live with loss, my new experiences all the brighter by contrast with the constant, slowly receding grief and loneliness that I felt. I was learning, without yet being able to express it, that loss is an inevitable part of life, that, sooner or later, we lose whatever we love, a person, a town, a time in our lives.
We grieve, we cope, we move on — “Roll with the punch,” as my mother said that summer, dealing with an even greater loss than mine, the death of her beloved father.
The loss I was learning to deal with that summer is a common theme in literature. Thus Tennyson: “ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.” And again: “Though much is taken, much abides; and though/ We are not now that strength which in old days/ Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are”;
And Wordsworth: “Though nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower,/We will grieve not, rather find/Strength in what remains behind.”
Or Job, facing the loss of everything but his nagging wife: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
We can avoid loss only by not being attached to anyone, any place, anything, until we become like Ebenezer Scrooge, sitting alone in his dark, cold house on Christmas Eve.
I was reminded of this time in my life while reading Joshua Rothman’s New Yorker article on David Benatar, an “anti-natalist” professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town. Anti-natalists believe that human life is so full of misery that it would be better not to be born. Faced with the fact of having been born into a world of misery, a person can behave responsibly only by not bringing children into such a world, hence the anti-natalist designation.
Benatar cites the obvious miseries of this life — pain and illness and death, grief and loneliness — but then he pushes the envelope of misery to the point of self-parody:
“[Benatar] provides an escalating list of woes, designed to prove that even the lives of happy people are worse than they think. We’re almost always hungry or thirsty, he writes; when we’re not, we must go to the bathroom. We often experience “thermal discomfort” — we are too hot or too cold — or are tired and unable to nap. We suffer from itches, allergies, and colds, menstrual pains or hot flashes. Life is a procession of “frustrations and irritations” — waiting in traffic, standing in line, filling out forms.” [New Yorker, Nov. 27, 2017]
I’ve always felt that the pleasures of satisfying hunger and thirst, not to mention going to the bathroom or scratching an itch, more than compensate for their discomforts. I’m sometimes inclined to agree with Benjamin the donkey in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” who said that God had given him a tail to keep off the flies but he would prefer no flies and no tail. Yet how much fun would a fly-less world be, a world without lamb rogan josh or a cheesy chicken enchilada to satisfy our hunger, or a cold beer at the end of a long, hot bike ride?
It’s harder to deal with the greater miseries of this life. I would never seek or welcome the grief and loneliness that I felt during the summer of ‘61, yet any random day of my grandfather’s company was well worth my weeks of sadness at his death, while my loneliness and sense of loss were more than compensated for by the remembrance of my hikes and tennis matches and drive-in double features with the Ford dealer’s daughter.
There is a degree of loss, of course, that becomes overwhelming and irredeemable: I think of a refugee child floating face-down in the Mediterranean surf, a fellow human being who has lost family and home and community and, almost at its onset, his very life. Yet it is our own more common, less devastating losses that enable us to sympathize with and to help those who have lost everything.
Though as a parent I can’t imagine a worse loss than the death of a child, I have known of bereaved parents who have over time come to value life more highly than they did before losing their child, to see their lives, and the life of their lost child, as gifts. A friend whose grown son died of a congenital heart defect told me how deeply grateful she had come to be for the years she had with him.
We lose what we love, inevitably, and the only way to avoid loss is to love no one and nothing, a cure far worse than the disease. So learning to recover from loss, even to get some good from loss, is an important survival skill that every child should learn and that, in these days of helicopter parents and participation trophies and parent-collaborative homework, many children are denied.
I remember how hard it was to watch my own children fail and lose and grieve, and how hard-hearted my own parents seemed to be when they left me to deal with bullies and failed algebra tests and lost towns and friends and girlfriends on my own.
Years later, my mother told me how hard it was for her to see me facing loss and loneliness, and how necessary it was, according to the wisdom of those times, that I learn to deal with them on my own, without her intervention. In those years she was dealing with the loss that every successful parent knows, and that I’ve come to know with my own children: the loss of a dependent child to maturity and independence.
Better to learn to deal with loss sooner, on the cusp of adulthood as I did, rather than later, in the middle of life, with no parents to ease the way or grandparents to show us the path. Grandparents give us, among many other gifts, an early, often our first, experience of death and grief. Their loss prepares us for the inevitable losses of grownup life, for the sympathy and the compensations that make these losses bearable, and, eventually, for the loss of our own lives.
As the poet said to the child Margaret, grieving the loss of summer in the falling of leaves: “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for.”