“Home Burial”

Update: Most of you have proably already seen these, but Jonathan suggested two powerful takes on this from two thoughtful blogs: Neoneocon (who also suggests art can help us understand: at First Part and Second Part. Her current post is not unrelated.
Another site frequently (and justifiably) mentioned is Varifrank (also a blog worth reading in general.)

Earlier post starts here:
Robert Frost’s first son died, some put it “needlessly.” That is, the doctor was called but the cholera had taken too strong a hold; Elliott, only three, died five years into a 43-year marriage. Elinor Frost sank into a depression. The couple loved each other, apparently were faithful. But his biographers argue the marriage was never the same.

How could it be? The death of a child seems unnatural. Indeed, Anne Bradstreet’s poem mourns her grandchild; as the second stanza of the short poem makes clear, she seeks reasons for her grandchild’s death in a way she would not her own:

By nature trees do rot when they are grown,

And plums and apples thoroughly ripe do fall,

And corn and grass are in their season mown,

And time brings down what is both strong and tall.

But plants new set to be eradicate,

And buds new blown to have so short a date,

Is by His hand alone that guides nature and fate.

We understand this “why” is different from the “why” of a long full life concluded in a melancholy funeral, where tears at the life lost are mixed with laughs of appreciation at the life lived.

As Bradstreet implies, we accept as “natural” one death – for the other we need a reason, an explanation. Because that death is “unnatural,” nature provides less solace. How often have we seen someone bury themselves in work—pushing themselves hard? And then, as we talk to others or they say something in passing, we begin to see they are exorcising the demons – hoping that a life so filled with work (sometimes frantic, desperate) will push the demons out. There are many demons and we try frantically to still them in many ways – in work, in retreat into the home and in movement away from it, in drink or in pills, in compulsive attempts at control.

I suspect that sorrow is behind many “wrongful death” suits. Surely that little part that failed or that moment of confusion on our loved one’s part as they maneuvered that turn – surely that is too small for the horrible pain we feel. So we turn our pain to the more cleansing anger: that big company, that turn in the road, that loose bolt is at fault. The reason is bigger, elsewhere. Guilty, made to pay – order can be restored.

Ten years ago I taught a class angry, with divisions led by a fervent pro-lifer and a fervent pro-choicer. I’d told them they couldn’t write on abortion, but one wanted to write against parental notification. I thought she (and the class) could handle that. I couldn’t, so the class couldn’t. Her paper was inspired by a charismatic speaker she had heard. Campaigning against parental notification, this woman blamed the death of her daughter on such laws. (Fearing her parents’ reaction, the girl had crossed state boundaries, had a quick abortion and driven back. She developed an infection that killed her.) Of course, there were many steps toward this end: the couple’s choices before, during, and after sex; the level of communication with parents; the incompetent doctor who not only botched the abortion but apparently took little responsibility for its potential consequences; the blindness of the parents to the level of their daughter’s illness.

The mother (for reasons I suspect and can sympathize with) chose to concentrate on the parental notification law as cause. I certainly don’t know if my children would feel comfortable discussing such an act with me (my husband is the warm one). They might not – that is their answer to give. I am saying, it is a lot easier for a mother to go from state to state campaigning against parental notification laws, to start a lobby, to see herself as the victim of a law that took away the beloved child rather than to come to terms with that child’s decisions or her own, the complexities of relationships and of life. Some of my friends would argue that she just shouldn’t have had sex. My daughter would argue it was the lack of proper “health” education that would have made birth control an automatic part of sex. A system that requires no waiting period and allows abortion mills to hire incompetents might be another thought. Each step a misstep, it ended in tragedy.

Simple answers let her mother think, say when asked: my daughter died because of a law. We know people for whom life has become a whirlpool, sucking everything in to the great emptiness they feel—and sucking us in as we sympathize, as we try to take their perspective. Certainly there seems no way to argue—in a sense, the law did kill her and even if it didn’t, are we going to engage in rational, head-first arguments faced with such grief, the heart raw and open in front of us. What would we accomplish?

Violent death is worse. One of my mother-in-law’s good friends had a son who committed suicide in a particularly gruesome way. The next few years were spent in a psychodrama, with talk of his “presence” in the house; his girlfriends were sucked into the vortex – thinking they saw him, telling her they’d seen evidence, somehow, that he still drove the streets. He was dead. But I don’t blame his mother for blinking – I would. I suspect that it is this wild hope that impelled much of the Schiavo tragedy. I know it was different – she breathed in that bed. But when the mother used the word “vibrant” to describe her daughter, we understood – not about her daughter but about the mother, about how the mother felt, how she had dealt with her daughter’s long twilight life. And so Chris Nolan is not wrong (in some ways, of course, he would be) to link this great sad summer spectacle with the one now being played out.

We’ve seen people like Cindy Sheehan before – people to whom life has thrown up a mountain they just can’t climb. The grief or chaos or violence was too great for the psyche, so they stopped. And then they retreated – into pills or drink, their bedrooms or their jobs. These were ways to let some time pass until they gained the strength for that climb. Ms. Sheehan deserves sympathy – she wouldn’t have arrived at Crawford nor pushed arguments that are somewhat anti-Semitic and certainly wrong-headed and not at all rational if something hadn’t happened that she could not, well, handle is a good word. She didn’t become an advocate of a cause – she became a cause.

She mourns her son with a publicity & stridency that we recognize. The more others acknowledge the authority of her passions, the emptier she feels. Her demands escalate, her charges become hysterical. Consumed by her own passions, she has lost connection with the steadying influence of old friends and family. Now the people with whom she sits are ones drawn to her very extremity. They praise her and mean it – but it is that her—the woman she has become. That passion awesome, dramatic – they admire her politics but they also admire her. She validates their theories and they validate her grief. And now others have come to face off with her – with their own great sorrows and their own readings of life and loss. With our hearts we feel for her, but her arguments are weak, her understanding parochial – she wants our heads to accept her passion as proof. Because she is obsessed she thinks she’s an expert. Of course, such obsession clouds rather than clarifies thinking. Besides, in the end, her argument has nothing to do with Iraq, not really. She wants to own a mother’s grief – indeed, she wants to “own” grief in general – she doesn’t want to blur her thoughts with the Iraqi dead now, the trade center dead, the mass burials. It is her grief she knows. And we remember Frost, again, who with much sympathy describes just such a hoarding of pain.

Clearly not autobiographical but equally clearly informed by his own sorrows, “Home Burial” was published in 1915, more than a decade after his son’s death. In its dialogue between a bereft mother and her husband, she hugs to herself her sorrow, wants to “own” it and therefore the memory of their son. Perhaps this was an exorcism in itself. (He needed many; his children were not happy nor did their lives end happily.) It is intense, it is real – but it is also self-centered. The wife wants to be the arbiter of the sorrow – the owner of the passion. She wants to hate her husband – in her mind, he becomes the villain because he is the “other” – he doesn’t care, she thinks. She “feels”; he does not. She can define who she is, the “caring” mother by what she is not, the “heartless” father. The “other” validates her sense of herself, her sense of the importance of that child. Frost sympathizes, makes us sympathize, with her near hysteria but he also captures and helps us feel her husband’s inarticulate pain, his frustrated, tragic cry: ‘I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed./ I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.’

Home Burial

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: ‘What is it you see
From up there always — for I want to know.’
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: ‘What is it you see?’
Mounting until she cowered under him.
‘I will find out now — you must tell me, dear.’
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and a while he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, ‘Oh’ and again, ‘Oh.’
‘What is it — what?’ she said.
‘Just that I see.’
‘You don’t,’ she challenged. ‘Tell me what it is.’
‘The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it — that’s the reason.’
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound –‘
‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried.
She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
‘Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?’
‘Not you! Oh, where’s my hat? Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here. I must get air.
I don’t know rightly whether any man can.’
‘Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.
Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.’
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
‘There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.’
‘You don’t know how to ask it.’
‘Help me, then.’
Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.
‘My words are nearly always an offence.
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you. But I might be taught
I should suppose. I can’t say I see how,
A man must partly give up being a man
With women-folk. We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
Though I don’t like such things ‘twixt those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
But two that do can’t live together with them.’
She moved the latch a little. ‘Don’t — don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.
Let me into your grief. I’m not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably- in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be satisfied –‘
‘There you go sneering now!’
‘I’m not, I’m not!
You make me angry. I’ll come down to you.
God, what a woman! And it’s come to this,
A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.’
‘You can’t because you don’t know how.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand–how could you?–his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.’
‘I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.’
I can repeat the very words you were saying ,
“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlour?
You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretence of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t’
‘There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won’t go now. You’re crying. Close the door.
The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it up?
Amyl There’s someone coming down the road!’
‘You –oh, you think the talk is all. I must go-
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you –‘
‘If–you — do!’ She was opening the door wider.
‘Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will! –‘
(From North of Boston

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