Thursday, December 1, 2011

In the Vale of Tears

There are big events that provoke tears: loss, rejection, abuse, huge, unexpected disappointment. Some tear-jerking events are sexual: intense pleasure, mind-numbing violation, the pain of childbirth. The death of a loved one is supposed to provoke tears.

Then there is the shocking sting of tears that seem inappropriate, a lurid over-reaction to someone else’s tragedy. Tears like that seem undeserved (at least by the one who weeps). They are like sudden, unexpected orgasms – especially embarrassing if they happen in public. They are like water gushing out of the ground from an underground reservoir that no one knew was there.

Her name was Ann – not “Anne” with an e like the famous Anne of Green Gables. She was part of a small community of American academics in our town in Canada who all got together on American Thanksgiving.

I met Ann through my parents when I was a teenager and she was my father’s younger colleague. In time, I noticed that she didn’t really have friends.

Ann always seemed brittle, as though she would break if someone touched her. On the bus, where we often travelled to the university together, she would give me a brisk nod without words. She taught history, and often pointed out (after too many drinks in the home of the one who usually hosted the Thanksgiving dinner) that her parents had prevented her from following her first love by majoring in art. Apparently they thought history was a more suitably intellectual subject.

Once when the heavy topic of child sexual abuse came up in conversation at Thanksgiving, Ann said between gritted teeth: “How can you be sure that never happened to me?” She was chain-smoking, as usual, and she stubbed out her cigarette for emphasis, even though it wasn’t finished. I wondered to whom her question was really addressed. No one seemed able to look her in the eyes.

In her thirties, Ann married a local painter who had a reputation for being eccentric, if not downright insane. He created weird-looking metal sculptures. The marriage was over within five years, but she kept his family name for the rest of her life.

The three-story apartment that Ann and her husband had rented was cheap even by the standards of the 1970s, so I moved in with my current husband. The basement walls had big smears of red paint, presumably thrown there by Ann’s husband. We often came home to see lights on in the basement, even though I could swear I had turned them off. That part of the place had such a creepy vibe that I hated to go down there to do laundry. The washer and dryer never sat evenly on the concrete floor, and could shimmy into vaguely disconcerting positions, as though trying to give me messages in the private language of appliances.

My own marriage ended melodramatically when I escaped from house arrest with our three-month-old baby.

When my daughter was a preschooler, Ann borrowed a recent photo of her from my mother. Ann was taking a non-credit art class, and she used the photo as the basis for a drawing that she turned into a print. I wondered if Ann regretted her lack of children as much as she seemed to regret being exiled from the art world. I felt vicariously flattered that she chose to immortalize my baby girl in art, but the print itself didn’t impress me. I thought it lacked soul as well as technical skill.

The woman who always hosted the Thanksgiving dinners died of cancer, and my parents went into a nursing home. The circle of expatriates from the 1960s seemed to fall apart as a social group. I lost touch with Ann for several years, even though we were teaching in the same university.

Thanks to the efficiency of the university administration, every death, marriage and birth among the faculty is announced far and wide by email. That was how I learned of Ann’s death in her early sixties, when she was within sight of retirement.

My parents couldn’t attend the funeral, and I felt honor-bound to represent them – or to bear witness to the past. I had always planned to research and write something about the influx of American immigrants to Canada in the 1960s and ‘70s (before the U.S. government declared an amnesty for draft dodgers). Ann had been part of that wave, and I sometimes wondered (briefly) if my project would excite her and if she would want to be involved as more than an interviewee. But then I would remember that she was a pawn of Clio (the Greek muse of history, after whom Ann named her cat), not her lover.

At the funeral, I looked around for Ann’s relatives. I even asked a few of our colleagues where they were. There was no sign of them, or of her ex-husband.

The eulogy was given by the head of the History Department, who seemed to be making a recommendation: Dear God, this person has been a suitable employee, so please open the pearly gates for her. There was even a hymn (which all those present were expected to sing) about Sophia, the spirit of Wisdom, as a gift from God.

I looked around, and saw no signs of grief on any face. That did it.

OMG. OMG. The woman is dead, and this is all anyone can think of to say about her. Someone should be crying, dammit. Someone should be upset. I dabbed at my eyes with a Kleenex, and my tears flowed faster. Luckily, I was sitting near the back of the church, and I was able to avoid making noise.

I remembered having a similar reaction to the death of two gay men (a couple, not close friends) from AIDS-related illnesses within twenty-four hours of each other. One of them had been the treasurer on a board where I was the secretary. Number-crunching had been his day job as well. I learned at the funeral that he was younger than I thought (38 when he died, even though he had a receding hairline). That made my eyes wet.

Maybe I wasn’t entitled to mourn, in either case. Maybe my grief wasn’t personal enough. Maybe I should have sucked it up.

But dammit, someone should shed tears at a funeral. The dead aren’t coming back – at least, not in any recognizable form.

Someone once said that we don’t cry for the dead, we cry for ourselves. Be that as it may, I hope someone will pay a tribute of tears for me someday. I can already hear my parting song: “Please cry for me, Pasadena.”



  1. That's so sad. It reminds me of a scene somewhere in "A Christmas Carol" where Scrooge sees his own death and no one morns for him and he is horrified by that most of all. What a hard thing to die unmourned. I'm very glad that you were able to cry for her, maybe not even for her personally but all the people like her.

    "Eleanor Rigby
    died in the church
    and was buried
    along with her name.
    Nobody came."


  2. When the mother of one of my high school friends passed away, we went to her funeral even though she'd made it clear she hated us. There were maybe ten people a her funeral, and all of us were freinds of her son. The priest asked if anyone wanted to share memories. Not even her husband or son got up. That made me cry. Not for her, but for her son. At least he and his dad are best friends.

  3. I guess this is why some cultures have professional mourners.

  4. Garce, I thought of "Eleanor Rigby" too. ("All the lonely people - where do they all come from? Where do they all belong?")
    Kathleen, your presence prob. comforted the surviving father and son, so it's good you were there.
    Anonymous, I've often thought the same thing. There are few events sadder than a funeral attended only by work-related acquaintances who look as though they are at a staff meeting.

  5. Jean,

    I don't know what to say. This story is heart-wrenching, partly because it's so easy to imagine one's own impersonal funeral. I've wondered, sometimes, who would attend my funeral if I die here in Asia, away from my family.

    But maybe by that time, one doesn't care...

  6. This is such a sad story, but, unfortunately, may well happen more often than we'd care to think. I can certainly see how easy it is to think of "Eleanor Rigby," when reading this. I am so glad that you were there to cry for Ann. All the lonely people...


  7. Oh, this might interest all of you: there was a sequel to Ann's funeral. I saw a woman on the bus to the u. who looked so much like Ann that for a moment, I wondered why she didn't give me her customary nod. Then I remembered - it couldn't be her. Or could it? I never saw that woman before or since, and I have ridden that route for years.


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