At least

 Image of Henrietta Lacks via  The History Channel

Image of Henrietta Lacks via The History Channel

Had the dementia not taken first her mind and then her body, last week—on December 14th—my grandmother might have turned 90. Would have? The counterfactuals are hard. The day she turned 80, when her mind was already failing but she was still living at home, babylost friends welcomed a living son into the world. I met him that very day, and I am fairly sure that I will always remember his birthday.

Isn’t it funny how memories get anchored? A personal connection unceremoniously shoves other people’s or nations’ traumas and triumphs onto our personal calendars to never again be separated from our own. I can’t tell you when MH370 disappeared without a google search, but I know exactly when Russia shot down MH17. Because they did it on my mother’s birthday.

And I can’t tell you the exact date of every gun massacre, but I don’t think I will ever forget when Sandy Hook happened. December 14th.

+++

My least favorite question—still—is How many children do you have?

I have to do that whole 5,000-factor calculation in real time. Where are we? What’s the tone of this conversation? How well do I know these people? Do they/will they interact with my living children enough that I’d need them to know? Are there little children listening to us now? The funny thing is most of the time, because denying A’s existence feels worse than every other option, I still land on “I have three living children” but it very rarely feels natural or graceful. Of course, my baby dying wasn’t natural or graceful, so why the hell would talking about it be?

It’s always a gamble. How will they take it? Will they even acknowledge that the phrase is odd? Will they ask? Will they just look puzzled for a split second and then push through? And if they do acknowledge, if they ask, then what? What this boils down to is, forever and always, can I trust that they can handle it? Do they have the grace, the maturity to acknowledge the gaping hole in our lives without trying to manage it, minimize it, make themselves feel ok about it.

+++

Ana Grace Marquez-Greene is one of the twenty first graders gunned down in their classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14th, 2012. She had this amazing singing voice. In her photos, she looks like she has things to say. She should’ve been 11 now. December 14th should’ve meant absolutely nothing to her family. Ana’s parents, like the families of others killed that day, have done incredible things in her honor and memory. They shouldn’t have had to do these things.

Ana’s mother, Nelba Marquez-Greene, recently did an interview with VICE News. About a minute and a half into the six-minute piece, direct to camera, Nelba addresses the natural inclination people have to find redemption in her daughter’s death:

“Do not 'At least...' my story. Redeeming that story is helpful to you. It’s not helpful to me.” 

+++

I hate 'At least...'. It fills me with anger. It’s callous and dismissive. It judges its subjects and finds us wanting, our grief excessive, our lives, such as they are in the aftermath of a tragedy, not up to snuff. Every time I’ve been on the receiving end of an 'At least...' related to A’s death or our lives since I’ve felt like a show horse—trotted around on a lead, my teeth checked, my mane examined. I didn’t sign up to be exhibited, yet here we were.

'At least...' doesn’t even have a consistent set of conditions that are universally believed to be in the good category. Friends have been subject to 'At least...' for the exact opposite things that I’ve been. Because it is never about us. It is always about the person speaking and their [lack of] comfort with grief. As Nelba Marquez-Green says, redeeming the story is helpful to them, not us. My grief is not the grief of a parent whose child has been gunned down, but this part of it, this feeling, boy do I ever share it.

+++

In the freshman seminar that I teach, we touch a bit on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the book about the very nearly forgotten woman whose cells gave rise to the first immortal cell line and enabled gazillion improvements to our health and quality of life, starting with a faster rollout of the Polio vaccine. The book invites us to acknowledge that those cells came from a real three-dimensional person, and not some amorphous woman who died a long time ago. I always start the discussion of the few chapters of the book that we read with the epigraph to the entire thing. It’s a quote from Eli Wiesel, and having to discuss it in class makes my students uncomfortable every time.

We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.

Signing up for my seminar, students don’t exactly expect to be discussing the inherent dignity and value of every human life. In that discussion, and in coming back to the quote throughout the semester, I hope to help my students develop some immunity against the very human desire to redeem the uncomfortable stories. It’s an uphill battle, and I am more than aware of it—humans thrive by making sense of the world around us, and redeeming stories, making a neat (even if objectively untrue) arc allows us to achieve the cognitive ease that we crave. And so I push against this need, hoping that some day one of my students will instinctively resist the desire to 'At least...' someone’s story.

+++

I don’t do well with 'At least...'. Not when it’s aimed at me, and not when I witness it aimed at another hurt or grieving person. It never ends well, and I end up stewing on it for days after. So here’s my new plan. I will take inspiration from Nelba Marquez-Greene. I will square my shoulders, look the person in the eye, and I will calmly say “Do not ‘At least...’ my story.”

You know what, maybe we should get some t-shirts printed. DNALMS is not the worst acronym in the world.

What questions/statements push your grief buttons? How do you usually deal with those?