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.
The widows tended to be older than my mother by a decade or more. She had the edge on them, in terms of the time sheet, but these women were immigrant or first-generation Catholics, Italians mostly, who were lost without their husbands, not just emotionally: Some didn't know how to drive, most had never balanced a checkbook, none knew how to change a fuse. Still, what struck me was the way the women struggled so hard to get back to living, and how well they managed. The ones who weren't even trying were the men, the widowers, plainly compelled to attend the group by worried relatives. They were the tragic ones, spending their days at the cemetery, breaking down at the sight of the empty kitchen. They had no interest in life, and if someone had told them to drop dead, they would have been happy to oblige. I didn't even know how to rank them in the contest; they had quit before it started. I knew my father would have been more like them, without the taste or the talent to go on.
Most women are better at dealing with death, I think. Maybe it's because men often believe themselves to be independent, so the shock is overwhelming when they're proven wrong. Women tend to make the opposite mistake, dwelling on their needs more than their abilities, so the correction comes with a consolation prize. We were surprised when my mother suggested we quit the group, three or four weeks in. I don't know whether it made her feel better or worse, cheated or privileged. Had it worked already, or was it not worth it? We were our own group, getting bigger—my older brother was engaged. My mother proposed that we all take dancing lessons instead.