Photo: Nina Subin
Most women are better at dancing. On the rare occasions when my mother prevailed on my father to join her on the dance floor, the five of us—three boys, two girls—would laugh as we watched him lumber back and forth, counting out the rhythm like it was math homework. Dancing was not what my father was built for: silver-haired, 62, twice the man—nearly literally, at times—he was as the 135-pounder who joined the Marine Corps in World War II. Bronx Irish, FBI agent, 15 years older than my mother. Survey the room, identify the threat: Who's here? What do we got? He'd rather face off against the crowd than join it for a Lindy or a two-step. Forget about a waltz. Steady on his feet, but not light.
When he died, my mother asked us if we would go to a "bereavement group." It was a sudden death, from a heart attack, and the family was devastated. None of us were eager to go, but all were willing, for her sake. My mother is a psychologist, and maybe she felt she should have a taste of her own medicine, or at least give it a try. A church basement setup, overwhelmingly female in attendance. There was a mood of compassion and also a hint of competition, an unspoken reckoning of who had been cheated more of the allotted three score and 10, as if it were a zero-sum game. Sitting there, among the bereaved, I began to think of it as a kind of unpartnered dance contest—who here had lost most?—and resolved to judge them fairly.
In the grief competition, the highest and lowest scores were clear from the outset. Most of the members were widows, so the woman who was mourning her father and the woman whose only child died stood out. The loser was a middle-aged woman, happily married with children, whose father had died peacefully, after a long life—two years ago! What did she have to complain about? She was taking up a seat. At the other extreme was a woman whose daughter led a life of such tragedy—multiple chronic diseases, loveless until she met a man who jilted her at the altar—that it seemed to redefine the boundaries of bad luck. Understandably, the daughter did not have the sweetest disposition, and the mother bore the brunt of it for decades without complaint. One day, she finally lost it—just once!—and said, "Why don't you drop dead?" And her daughter did, the next day. The game was over, as far as I could tell.