Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Do You Want Crying?: Death Becomes Us -- But Only With Tears on the Side

I get it. I do. I could never condone taking someone else's made-up sob story and passing it off as your own in order to elicit sympathy from your boyfriend, but I sort of understand why Hannah went there at the end of the latest episode of Girls, my favorite of the season so far.

Her e-book editor died, and she was a jumble of mixed emotions to no emotions, and everybody was calling her on it. Ray wanted her to be so distraught that she had to take the day off. Adam wanted her to need his support. And his sister Caroline wanted to witness at least one teardrop explode when she told Hannah a made-up story about a little girl in a tiny dress who died of muscular dystrophy.

But who are they to tell Hannah, who are they to tell anyone, how one should grieve, or that one should grieve at all? Hannah being Hannah couldn't resist making herself the star of her editor's death, so she went around telling everyone that a "close friend" had died. But in fact, David Pressler-Goings was merely an aside on Girls (a memorable one, thanks to Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Rabbit Hole director John Cameron Mitchell's gay-fabulous portrayal of him), a glorified cameo-character, a business associate, one who hadn't even warranted an invitation to Hannah's 25th-birthday party in the previous episode.

A former People magazine editor recently died following a year-long battle with lung cancer, and I surprised myself by dwelling on it in my head for several weeks. I couldn't believe how deeply her passing affected me. She and I hadn't been particularly close, and she'd edited me exactly once during our days at People (She called my description of a track on a Catherine Wheel album "unfathomable," which immediately became one of my favorite words), but we'd reconnected in recent years when we both were columnists for the now defunct (and merged with Forbes.com) website True/Slant.

Her death moved me a lot more than David's nudged Hannah, but neither Hannah nor I actually suffered a loss. A person we knew and worked with died, and for Hannah, he had been in the present tense as recently as the day before, but we didn't actually lose someone.

I'm no monster, and I'd like to think that I'm not cold and callous either, but if I found out that the guy who was about to publish my book was found face-down in the Hudson River ("right by Chelsea Pier, just floating there") after he didn't show up for our morning meeting, you can bet your bottom dollar that one of my first three questions would be the one I was asking myself while watching that opening scene of Girls' fourth episode of the third season: What about the book?

I've been there before. Not exactly in Hannah's earth-tone shoes, but I've found myself wondering what would happen if someone I was doing business with were to suddenly up and die. In fact, I wondered this as recently as last year. The subject of my death what-if is alive and well, and our business deal went off without any funerals, but if he were to pass away in an untimely fashion in a month or two (heaven forbid), I'd be surprised, maybe sad even. But I'm pretty sure I wouldn't shed a tear.

After all, I didn't cry nearly 13 years ago after the mother of a good friend of mine found his body in the bathtub with his throat slit. (Don't stop me if you think you've heard this one before, for unlike Hannah, I'm about to repeat my own story.) I was crushed, especially since we'd had a huge fight on Fire Island over the Fourth of July weekend a few weeks earlier, and the last words I'd ever said to him were "Fuck you!" as I stormed off to catch the ferry back to civilization.

I didn't find out about his death until a day after it happened, early one Sunday morning in August, when I received a phone call from the NYPD. The officer on the other end requested my presence at the Grammercy Park station. He had a few questions to ask me about my friend, he said, calling him by his full name, which sounded strange because I never used it, always shortening it to just the first three letters.

I knew it had to be pretty serious, or he would have interviewed me by phone, and he wouldn't have referred to him using six letters instead of three. My friend lived recklessly, so aside from the fact that we had been estranged for weeks, the phone call didn't take me completely by surprise. I wasn't, however, expecting the worst. When it arrived, it was delivered in the most awkward way: "I'm afraid that your friend is no longer with us."

The cop wouldn't offer any specifics, but he was questioning everyone whose number was stored in the deceased's mobile phone. "Were you close?... When did you see him last?... Was he into any risky behavior?..." I tried to answer his questions as succinctly as possible without invading my late friend's privacy. I was still trying to process his passing, so despite the dire line of questioning, in my mind, he was still out there somewhere, just missing.

I knew I was a suspect and that I wasn't doing myself any favors by being so calm and unemotional. Where were my tears? I tried to make up for my lack of waterworks by wearing what I thought was the appropriate facial expression for such a moment, settling on the look of shocked confusion you might have if you were to open your front door and the person on the other side of it greeted you with a slap across the face. I adjusted my tone of voice and my body language (slightly slumped, head bowed) to match the darkness I was feeling on the inside. A black cloud was hovering over my heart, leaving my soul overcast, on the verge of swelling with rain. But the showers never came, not on the outside.

The next day, I went to work, business as usual. I was despondent, like a zombie going through the motions. My colleagues were sympathetic, but had I not told them what had happened, they might not even have known that anything was wrong. My boss told me to go home, and I said I wanted to work. I wonder whether they thought I was incredibly strong, or heartless for holding it together so well.

No one called me out for not being inconsolable, but I scolded myself enough for all of us. So Hannah's disapproving Greek chorus, their judgmental decree on what grieving should sound/look like was all too familiar to me. Hannah has shown that she's capable of being a compassionate friend indeed, as recently as two episodes ago, when she rented a car and took a road trip with Adam and Shoshanna to pick up Jessa from rehab. So even if she doesn't have the florid words to convince Adam that she'd be crushed if something were to happen to him, I have no doubt that she would have mourned appropriately (in the eyes of her friends) had it been someone close to her whose body had been found floating in the Hudson River.

Her reaction, actually, wasn't that different from that of so many people after September 11, which happened just weeks after my friend's passing. I lost track of how many of them, the ones who weren't in New York City who presumably felt left out of being at the epicenter of the grieving, tried to insert themselves into the tragedy by offering stories about the friend of a friend of a friend who used to date someone whose cousin used to work in the World Trade Center, or by explaining that they very well may have been on that American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to L.A. that crashed into the North tower, but they'd had to cancel their vacation and stay home in Florida.

People do and say strange things when dealing with tragedy, and rather than telling them how they should be grieving, judgmental friends should ask themselves what gives them the right to police how someone else grieves. Are they wondering how their own death would go over with the non-griever should, heaven forbid, they be next to go?

Geez. Not even Hannah Horvath is that self-involved.
Post a Comment