To the list of Things For Which I’m Grateful, add: not being the person responsible for operating on my 104-year-old grandmother’s femur.
Alas (thankfully), such a person exists. And alas (miraculously), Grandma Edith, ever her charming, social (if oft difficult) self, is currently recuperating from a bedside fall that broke her (104-year-old!) hip in a rehabiltation facility across from the top of Central Park.
So it was that, during a two-day trip home, my mother and I followed a visit to her (and her harem of heroic nurses, all nicknamed mamelah) with a walk through the Park’s Conservancy Garden. Established by some set of Vanderbilts, it’s one of those idyllic urban oases you can’t quite believe: bridal parties take pictures, tourists herd families, hardened Manhattanites read the Arts section and library books.
And, people sit and have Real Talk. There were a pair of them: on a bench, a man and a woman, vaguely young, maybe British, with a relationship I couldn’t discern. There were tears, clipped voices. We passed them twice: strolling through the manicured hedges and circular stands of flowers I can’t name. Both times, I had to strain not to slow down, turn back, gawk–wonder: what are they fighting about? Who are they? What’s their story?
The next evening, at the East Village after-party for the wedding I’d come home to attend, I shared the anecdote with a pair of fellow guests.
What was that? I asked them. Why was I so desperate to know what was going on with two people I’d never seen before and would almost certainly never see again? What is it that makes us so compelled by strangers drama?
It’s about connection, one said. The other agreed. We want to know we’ve felt the same thing.
Do we? I asked. Or do we want to know that we haven’t? Don’t we want to know other people’s pain in order to feel better about our own?
Or: is it both at once?
On the flight home I began reading Eve Ensler’s memoir of illness, recommended recently by a dear friend. In one chapter, she describes the “cancer town” of Rochester, Minnesota–where, in her experience, wig shops dot corners and waitresses double as therapists.
“I cannot say,” she writes, “if cancer town was a comfort a horror.”
I’ve been to exactly three places in Rochester: a dive bar where an ex played a rock show; a hotel restaurant; a parts factory owned by a friend’s dad. But the phrase struck a different kind of chord. It struck at that familiar tension and fluidity between two emotions that I felt surface in the park. And in other moments, too.
Just from the weekend, this one: watching the handsome, elderly, wheelchair-bound black man in the elevator of the Mt. Sinai Rehab facility who, likely due to stroke, couldn’t speak the word seven and had to strain to press that white round button himself. I can see the young man in his face, I thought. He could be anyone; he could be me. The horror.
And this: sitting, hours later, at a Bloomingdale’s makeup counter while a stunning young woman (having transformed a simple lipstick purchase into a full-on makeover once learning that I was en route to a wedding) narrated her latest episode of male disappointment. I waited for him for three hours, she told me. What does he think I am, a goddamn drive-thru? The comfort!
In each of these interactions, I felt a simultaneous sense of relief and alarm in the recognition of likeness.
As many do, I often say and think that illuminating our connectedness is art’s most important purpose: that we need art to remind us, again and again, how we all share the same constellation of feeling. That our hurts and troubles aren’t unique. That we aren’t alone.
We can’t be reminded enough.
All of Frank O’Hara’s poems or Alice Munro’s stories or Mark Rothko’s paintings won’t ever fully satisfy that urge—to know our sameness. It is the ultimate comfort.
And, yet, as Ensler writes, it is also a horror: to see ourselves in the dark places. In the faces of the elderly or ill, in the struggles in other people’s relationships; to recognize our mortality, our smallness, our sameness, our relative insignificance.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to reconcile those two poles. But that one sentence from Ensler’s book was a reminder that I can’t. That our responses: to places, to each other, to the English gardens and strangers’ arguments around us, is often fluid and elusive and layered.
Our experience, I often need to remind myself (and, generous reader, sometimes you), is packed with contradiction; the sense we make of it must be as well.