Aigo, Aigo, Aigo

February 3, 2011

Holidays and Sundays (when we can swing it) are a bit of a ritual for my family. We always do the same damn thing. Everyone sits about, professionally Italian-American, eating some permutation of pasta, and we’ll usually talk about sports, or television shows. Sometimes we’ll kvetch about work – or examine S.’s overwrought college curriculum, or how M. is doing in his new job. My aunt and I will trade horror stories about our terrible students or beam and marvel at one who actually managed to learn something.

Dinner, in my family, is pretty conventional.

But dessert: dessert is when we talk about death.

Once the plates are cleared and the sanka brewed, we’ll pass around shingles of thick, buttery pound cake, and wrench at the anecdotally deceased like a flock of drooling vultures. Who’s dead? Who’s dead, or who’s dying? The hows and the whens and the whys of it all. And once we’re done, our bellies stuffed and our hands all ajangle with caffeine, and every corpse we know exhumed and examined, we’ll all identically purse our lips and shake our heads – the room of us a communal genetic pantomime.

We’re obsessed with death, my family. Which, I’m sure, is one of the main reasons I’m writing a book about funerals.

The funny thing is, though – we’re obsessed with everyone’s death except one: No one talks about my mother. Not for more than five minutes, anyway.

When my mother died, no one said a word.  We all withered in our grief, but we did so silently.

Sure, we would speak of it occasionally, and even now, so many years later, we will acknowledge her death in conversation from time to time, as our moribund coffee-talk often leads to errant, caffeinated eyes flicking toward the empty chair at the table.  But for a family so fixated on death (the obituary page of the newspaper, for instance, is passed among my family faster than a cold sore at a kissing booth) this one subject is met with a strange and pregnant quiet.

In the fourteen years since her death, the only grief I’ve shared with my family has come in fragments. Little chips of sorrow or longing or regret, each parceled out in small but powerful bits.

Like offering someone an Altoid.

I’ve always found it strange, this quiet.  These Altoids.  My family is overwhelmingly loud and boisterous.  We’re all in each other’s business.  We poke and prod and pester.  And we love the dead.  So why is this one body we all adored, one not excavated from the chalky obits, but one instead so present in its absence, the one we never mention?

Why is our grief so private?

Why do we treat our grief with the same awkward privation one reserves for shame?

I spent tonight amid the piles of research I’ve accrued for my book, and read for hours about Korean funeral culture and the psychology of their bereavement. I read about the nature of grief in a culture which always seemed to me, the polar opposite of my own. I read about death tonight. And did so, appropriately, over coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

My hands are exceptionally ajangle, right now. But my eyes, rather than falling on that empty chair, instead are scanning the rest of the table. And I find myself comparing what I’ve read to what I’ve known for the last fourteen years of my life. And it’s got me thinking.

My family members are jarring and emotive – firebrands and hand-wringers and wisecrackers. You know: Italians. We’re loud people. You’d think we’d mourn loudly. Rend our hair. Tear our garments. Talk and talk and talk about our sorrow through wet eyes and snotty noses. But we don’t. We’re quiet.

Koreans, I’ve always thought (perhaps/absolutely incorrectly) were more austere.  Quiet sentinels of taciturnity, every one.  I’ve come to believe this, of course, in the same way any American comes to know things about a foreign culture: I saw it in a movie, once.  But even in my own personal experiences – dinner, for instance, with the families of  Asian friends – I’ve noted this difference.  They’re quiet, compared to my family. 

(Of course, personal experience is just as dubious a metric as a movie – I’m sitting there like Schrodinger’s friggin cat, tainting the sample with my little observer effect hairballs. But still…)

You’d think quiet people would mourn quietly. You’d think a Korean family, wreathed in sorrow for their dearly departed, would mourn like stones. But they don’t. They erupt.

In his essay, “The Death System in Korean Culture,” Simon Young-Suck Moon writes: “At the moment of death, survivors cry as much as possible in their portrayal of grief… the normal wail is ‘aigo, aigo, aigo’ and a loud verbal lamentation follows.”

In another essay I learned that upon a loved one’s final breath, a male relative climbs to the roof of their house and waves an article of the deceased’s clothing in the air. And then he screams their name into the wind.

The night before my mother died, after returning home from the hospital where I saw my mother for what would be the last time, I turned to my father and said in a brittle voice, “I’m going for a walk.” My father turned his face to me. He kept his eyes on the front door. “Okay,” he said. He was giving me my privacy.

I walked through my neighborhood, past the houses, over a fence, and I wept quietly in a field. I wept for ten minutes. I haven’t cried since. That was fourteen years ago.

Oh how I wish I could have learned from this culture as a boy. How I wish I had called her name. Screamed it to the world one final time; woke the neighbors; set dogs to barking. How I wish I had the wherewithal to uncloset something of her’s, and wield it about my head, a flag of my sorrow and frustration. The semaphore of grief.

But instead I approach death in a way opposite to how I live. I mourn inert. I mourn like a stone. Because that is my culture. That is how my family mourns. I don’t blame them. I’m not angry. It makes me comfortable, that quiet.

But I hope the more I read and learn of other cultures for this book, and how they weave their loss into metaphor, the better I’ll come to understand myself. Not in how I am, but in how I am not.

And my deepest hope is that, once I am finished, once I peck that final punctuation, I will be more than what I am, and more than what I’ve lost.

Aigo, aigo, aigo.

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2 Responses to “Aigo, Aigo, Aigo”

  1. Kim Says:

    We all withered in our grief, but we did so silently.

    My family is like this as well.

    Over these past two weeks I’ve often wished I could be one of those wailers, one of those rooftop screamers.

    I was raised with a Midwestern sense of stocism that make overt displays of emotion difficult, and sometimes embarrassing. So my grief has been meted out in Altoid-like parcels alone in the car.

    Perhaps it is a nice bit of synchronicity that I am performing Hecuba on stage a week after losing my mother. I will portray a woman who suffered so much loss – and I will be able to add my own losses to Hecuba’s pile and wail about them, pull that schmatta over my head in grief and openly mourn.

    And then, when the play is over, keep the tin of Altoids in the car.

  2. Diane Says:

    Amazing post, Andrew. My family was quiet on the subject as well. My father took the British upper lip thing too far. When he rec’d the call that his mother had died, he hung up the phone, turned to us and said, “Well, the old lady is dead.” And that was that.


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