Phonics of Grief
by Shira Buchsbaum
“Children shouldn’t die. But sometimes they do.”
When things explode on television shows and the sound goes dead and all that’s left is that ringing – that swelling buzz sitting just far enough inside your ear that you can’t shake it out no matter how hard you try – I wonder who in the sound mixing room experienced a real explosion to ensure that what they’ve rendered is actually grounded in some reality.
The closest I’ve been to an explosion is a car crash in Megan Alhuwalia’s big gray van on my way home from school. I was 10 years old. I was reading Janet’s Planet, a book about teenagehood and drugs and sex and other things I had wispy ideas of but wouldn’t know how to picture beyond stale dialogue and stiff imagery until years later. A lady in a red car rammed into the side of the van as we sped along one of those busy strips of pseudo-highway lined with big office buildings and ramps to real highways, crunching the van’s heavy sliding door (which never opened the same way thereafter) and launching us into a screeching arc that echoed inside my head for hours.
The other closest I’ve been to an explosion was when we visited a volcano in Hawaii when I was five. That was the trip where ants crawled on my leg in the hotel pool area and I screamed so loudly everyone on the blazing hot white pavement turned and stared at me. That was the first time I remember feeling embarrassed. I don’t remember the island or the name of the volcano, but I do remember watching my mother pluck two pieces of basaltic rock from the ground, shushing me as I asked if that were allowed. (It was not). The rocks became paperweights in her home office and I decided to take a geology class in college because I love the way running lava breaks through its own shell as it cools and spreads.
On our way home, our plane flew by a volcano so high it pierced the clouds. I wondered if you can hear explosions over the roar of plane engines, but just missed my chance to find out. It erupted the next day.
I am a camp counselor, and this past summer I had 89 kids – 44 girls and 45 boys aged 15 and 16 – and every day I woke them up and ate with them and laughed with them and solved their problems and yelled at them not to go down the giant waterslide on the hill in the middle of a raging thunderstorm but secretly was proud that they recognized moments that make perfect summer memories and refused to let go. They did the same thing with me at the end of the summer as we all sobbed because who knows how much longer we can all come back to camp and be kids and run around in space leggings and tutus and big yellow rain boots and to be fair, we all are still kids – I was a child in charge of other children, most of whom are now taller than me – but they’re more kid than I was. And they’ve got more time.
College. This semester I enroll in Rocks for Jocks (and there are indeed a lot of jocks in the class). I have to go to the open office hours of a dean whom I have never met, and I am nervous because I don’t like walking in unannounced but she’s warm and has a good handshake and a really, really wide smile. She can’t help me with what I need, but we chat anyways for a long time about her kids (“twins and a spare”) and I don’t even think to mention that I have 89 kids of my own. Nor do I mention that I’m at this weird point in my life where I can remember (clearly and fondly) the pubescent fierceness that doesn’t die when you go to bed, but wracks your dreams with sweeping hypotheses about why the world is the way it is, and every day you spout flames until your mom asks you to stop badgering her with messy questions and to quit searing the dinner table with so much insipid angst. But I haven’t quite outgrown my questions or the vivid dreams or the dinner table racket. I tell her (the dean, not my mom) that I want to work with children, because I love children, because children are these as-of-yet un-cracked orbs of potentiality that remind me of the good things in life, and looping conversation leads her to suggest that I pursue a joint ~~Masters in Social Work and Judicial Degree~~ after graduation.
Her smile is still wide when I shake her hand goodbye but hours later all the positivity about my potential future slips into the ether upon 1) receiving a four-word text message that shatters my understanding of invincibility and 2) realizing how I could pursue sound engineering if I could just figure out how to splice the eerie vacuum of post-explosion silence from my throbbing head into a computer program.
The chain of communication reflected the convoluted procession of information characteristic of camp – I heard from one of my campers who heard from another of my campers who heard from her sister who was in a bunk with the sister of the boy, who was also my camper, and now I’m telling my best friend who calls Owen, the assistant director of the camp, who replies “I’m going through Customs right now, but I think I know what you’re going to say and yes, it’s true.”
Among the “moments I grew up,” a written list of evolving adulthood I keep in the notebook my mother gifted to me at the beginning of the year of college I took Rocks for Jocks and tried to figure out my life, are
- Adding “doing laundry” to my regular schedule
- Being able to resist eating a second cookie
- Watching Local Hero
- Josh calling me to tell me he’s not coming back to camp
- Looking at Grandma and wondering when she got so old
- Learning to put myself back to sleep
- The first time Dad didn’t know the answer to my question
“What does woebegone mean?”
Really, really sad.
“Is heaven real?”
Mm, not in the way you’re thinking. People don’t live in the sky when they die. But people still live in your heart.
“There’s someone in your heart?”
No, that’s a saying.
“How big is the Universe?”
Imagine an empty white space. Now imagine a black dot in that space. The black dot spreads and expands and almost fills the white space, but then the white space expands too. And that keeps happening.
“What happens when stars die?”
Well, some of them just give out and become really small, cool balls of gas. And others expand and eat up their Solar System and then they contract and become really small, hot balls of gas. And others explode and leave lots of gas and dust and colors in big clouds.
“Dad, why do children die?”
The staff know, and the kids know, and I know that this isn’t something I was trained for. Because camp orientation teaches you how to deal with homesickness and bullying and sexuality and is a 10-day pre-camper party where we all bond and make posters and get pumped for the greatest itty bitties in the world to populate that expanse of hilly green fields for seven weeks.
We don’t talk about death at camp because kids don’t die. The only time it’s mentioned is the day before the kids show up, when all 150 staff members gather in the Rec Hall and collectively sweat in the stifling wooden room (because even though there are windows, there is NO air circulation in that building). Paul, the director of the camp, stands up and tells us about the only time any kid has ever died on camp grounds. 2004. Hannah Lee. Heart condition. Nothing we could have done.
Sound can only travel through matter, but because outer space is mostly an empty void of black dotted with little happenstances of condensed plasma and lucky rocks and gas balls whizzing around said plasma, if you had a front row seat to the death of a star, all you’d hear is the same inaudible heartbreak emitting from my father’s mouth that moment I grew up.
I guess in the grand scheme of experiencing devastation, cutting the sound makes sense. Even though light travels faster than sound (so when you’re watching your world come crumbling down, the image kicks in sooner than the audio), some things are so loud that they just knock your hearing right out of your head. Suddenly the world is silent and all that’s left is the relentless hum of your regularly muted thoughts, now unmarred by the whirring cacophony of everyday life.
I wonder if suspending myself in a vacuum would numb the pain, so I hole up in a library for hours but the social expectation of remaining quiet doesn’t silence the sound of my wracking sobs so when my boyfriend asks if I’m okay I lie because how do I verbalize that my ability to process auditory waves dove after I stood too close to that blast and now I’m surrounded by wisps of what I once held to be true in an otherwise empty black dot that keeps expanding while I stay nowhere?
Somewhere (out in space or in my own head? When did they become distinct?), I’ve been left with my thoughts, and I think it’s the not knowing that really scares me. The not knowing if he was riding home on his bike or if he pushed someone out of the way from a car or if he popped too many pills or if he had a preexisting condition that none of us knew about. But his mom said they didn’t know how it happened either, which could be sad parent speak for “we don’t want to tell you.”
Here’s what I do know: he was a history buff, and he loved singing, and he always had a book in his hand. He was 16. He was quiet and goofy. When my costaff and I made handshakes with every single kid, theirs was the coolest. He deserves more than clichés and metaphors. My parents told me to write all of that down in a letter for his parents, but I wrote this instead. And something tells me that meditations on grief and childhood and lost opportunities aren’t what mourning parents need right now.
Here’s what I also know: when I was 16, I wanted to go to Julliard because I loved singing (I did not apply to Julliard). I was dating a boy who was not good to me (I have since defriended him on Facebook). Before I finally trudged through them, I cried about the SATs on a somewhat regular basis (I took it only once and it never again crossed my mind). I scorched the dinner table every night, I was a supernova threatening to explode, I was untouchable fire, uncrackable brimstone, weak metaphors and pubescent wonder and extraterrestrial fear. Invincible, lucky, funny little happenstance of a being. And I thought I would get all the time in the world to do all I needed to do:
To cool down, to spread, and to break out of my shell. To realize that throwing myself into a vacuum doesn’t ease me of the chill-inducing sound tragedy makes when it reverberates into the ether, its energy rippling silently across space. To learn how to live with questions that leave only the crackling microwave of transmission over the phone line as you gape. To accept that we’re all recyclable and when our Sun expands and consumes our dust, this is grief no one will hear.
In Memoriam – M. DeMarco
 You might get charred in the process. Bring sunglasses. Better yet, do not actually place yourself in the vicinity of an exploding star.
Shira Buchsbaum studies Anthropology and Creative Nonfiction at Brown University. She is both intrigued by and apprehensive of the prospect of growing up.