The Little Grief Alongside the Big

Stella’s 4th birthday is this week. In the lead up, I think it’s the first time I’ve really missed excess since sheltering-in started. I want to make her feel obscenely celebrated. I want streamers blowing in the breeze and little birthday hats perched atop giant toddler heads. I want chaos and beautifully-wrapped birthday packages torn to shreds. I want a thousand kids running around our courtyard, tackling one another for crappy pinata candy, faces covered in chocolate cake. 

The funny thing is that I never really loved any of this stuff in the before times. When Maya turned four, I let her invite four friends and we pretended it was a blow out, when really it was a glorified family dinner. I liked the smallness of it. Right sized for her size and mostly introverted personality. My loathing for pinatas is pretty legendary; we all know it ends badly no matter what. 

But Stella is different--she’s a lover of humankind, the kind of kid that will lean her head against the screen of the window upstairs longingly when she hears anyone in the yard behind us talking and shout out, “Hellloooooo down there! I’m up here!” 

She’s the one I take to parties with me. John is shy and doesn’t like to drink. Maya is shy and doesn’t like her body to be, at any point in the night, not also touching my body. But Stella will disappear into a crowd of adult legs mingling in a kitchen and not return unless she really, really has to pee and can’t find a potty. (And maybe not even then.) 

Last Christmas, when we went to our dear friend’s house for a party (they are known for their parties, where good wine flows freely, Italian food is in abundance everywhere, and things usually end late and with dancing), Stella upstaged an endless toast about the real meaning of Christmas by taking off all of her clothes in the middle of the living room and doing an experimental dance performance in her Thomas the Tank Engine underwear. 

She’s that kind of gal. So you can see why, in this moment of so much smallness and separation, I ached for her to have her excesses.  

Instead, she got our Friday night tradition with some flare. Movie night for the five kids who live in our cohousing community (The Lorax--her timely choice), pizza served with careful diligence from inside of our house, one slice at a time, to our neighbors so as to minimize germs, and homemade chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting and sprinkles. While the kids were briefly hypnotized by the movie, we toasted our eldest community member, Louise, who turns 82 this week. We spoke of her endless evolution, her unfailing kindness, her wisdom about pruning. 

The night ended with a very tiny, very raucous dance party. Robyn and Alicia Keys and the Trolls World Tour soundtrack (the last track is actually a banger). We’ve trained one of the little ones, almost two years old, to say “slow jams,” and request “Boys II Men”--a sheltering-in success if there ever was one. One neighbor, who has survived cancer this year (and so much else), danced alongside us. I knew there was a hard-earned smile under that mask; I could see it in her beautiful eyes. We even ended by 7:30pm, right before the inevitable full-scale toddler meltdown.  

Seems like she still had a pretty good time.

As the girls and I read our final books of the night--Ramona Quimby, Age 8 for Maya and yet another Spiderman story for Stella--Stella’s face grew long and she said, “I don’t actually want to grow up.” 

Maya said, “You have to Stella. You only have two choices: either you grow up or you die.” 

Leave it to my philosophical six-year-old to keep things real. But really, she’s right. And grieving these littles excesses (what used to be, the pinatas and the abundant potlucks and the giant amoeba of kids running around) and registering how good life can be anyway--this is growing up. This is what we are all called to do in this moment in a thousand ways. 

Importantly for me--a fixer, a doer, a skilled wielder of an eye-rolling #firstworldproblems within my own head: we must acknowledge the little griefs. I needed to register that there was a picture in my head of what my daughter deserved and I couldn’t give it to her. I don’t know when I will ever be able to give it to her again. And then there’s this: she’ll never turn four again. The moments that are happening in these, our pandemic-time lives, aren’t re-livable. And that made me sad at depths that surprised me. 

Is it death or COVID or unemployment or hunger or police murder or state violence. No? Most certainly not. But that’s irrelevant. The big losses exist alongside the little ones, and it’s not indulgent to acknowledge them all in proportion. Some of us have weathered big grief this season. All of us have weathered little ones. My hunch is that if I let myself feel the little grief, I will be better at showing up for the big grief--in my own life and in the lives of my friends and fellow Americans.

I’ve been sad a lot in this strange season, and I find myself saying to people, “I just feel really depleted,” and blame it on the endless childcare smacked up against work. That’s true, but in my heart I know it’s something else, too. It’s physical exhaustion mixed with a floating, intermittent sadness, the depths of which I’ve rarely touched before. Grief: sometimes attached to a particular thing—specific, finite—but more often like a fog that moves through me and around me. Such deep disappointment about what is and what might be. Enveloping. Ineffable. But no less real.     

When one neighbor told Louise that she was his favorite person to prune alongside, she beamed and told us that her own father was a master pruner. Louise looked six feet to her left at our dear neighbor, sitting in a folding chair with her one-month old baby, and said she’d been imagining what this moment was like for her own parents 82 years ago, holding her as a brand new human. 

Life is like this--generation after generation, losses big and small, enveloping and finite. Sometimes we pick an apple off a tree before it’s ready, so that the rest of the apples can live. Sometimes we stay home, bear disconnection, mourn some festive chaos, so that our neighbors can survive. We grow up in this way. We survive, and reckon with the real state of things, and dance, even if in small doses, together.