The unbearable beauty of...
Okay, this is becoming a meme of sorts. We had parenting. We had not parenting. And now we’ve got grandparenting.
I couldn’t not share these reflections from my college professor, Dennis Dalton, on his sacred bonds with his grandchildren. He replies thoughtfully almost every time I send a newsletter, despite the fact that I took his class over 20 years ago now! A true legend at Barnard—often found outside the lecture hall of his Political Theory I or II classes long after they were over, chatting about anything and everything on a students’ mind, his raspberry beret perched atop his bald head. Sometimes that student would be an 18-year-old, earnestly grappling with the Platonic “examined life” (ahem, see Professor Dalton’s influence on the title of this very newsletter?!). Sometimes it would be an aging bookseller from the street’s of Harlem who heard about his classes and slipped in the back. Often it was me, of course, one of his biggest fans for life.
In any case, revel in these reflections on grandparenthood from a man living into his eighth decade who has loved harder than almost anyone else I know…
1. Mia, our first and oldest grandchild, arrived in the same year that I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. This terrified me because my father and grandfather both died of the disease and I had nursed them through the last stages, watching their agony, and I saw this as my inevitable future. I hadn’t calculated on the impact of Mia. The Manhattan therapist that I was seeing tried to ease my acute anxiety but nothing worked. The trauma seemed irremediable.
Then, as I gradually spent more time with Mia, a kind of calm came over me as I had never felt before. The therapist and I were both amazed to see me recover without meds. Today, Mia is 21 years old and the magic still works. Holding her in my arms brings a unique peace of mind and unbearable beauty.
2. On 9/11, Mia’s younger sister, still in the womb, was due to arrive in another two months, so her mother, Tammy, too pregnant to run, missed the ferry from N.J. to Manhattan; she commuted to her office on the 77th floor of the WTC second tower. As she waited for the next one, she watched on the news to her horror, seeing her co-workers jump to their death. This would have been the fate of both Tammy and her unborn child, Sierra.
I thought a lot about what this loss would have meant, based on the intimate relationship that I had already formed with Mia. I soon applied for leave from Barnard to be my granddaughters’ caregiver. Fortunately for me, their parents welcomed the free service, so when they moved for business to St. Croix two years later, the thought of my becoming separated from the girls was intolerable. Barnard was kind enough to grant another leave, and another, perhaps fearing that I would have an emotional collapse otherwise. If there are binaries such as agony and ecstasy, then they apply to my states of mind when I was or wasn’t near these two gifts of nature.
Sharron, their grandmother, and now my partner of 60 years, sometimes wonders why these spells weren’t cast earlier by our two sons. Can it be gender? I believe that in my case (and needless to say, such a mindset doesn’t apply to everyone), it must be a form of inexplicable chemistry that’s evolved among the three of us.
I’m blessed by what I don't understand, yet I know that it’s a beautiful blessing.
3. I had little training for being a sole caregiver at this age, so I trusted my pacifist instinct that there should be very few rules. This meant no “Time Out.” Because when a small child causes disruption, it’s due to confusion rather than malice, so it’s better to hold close rather than isolate.
Mia and Sierra, though, had different ideas about discipline and demanded Time Out for me, when they (usually Mia) judged me as being bad. This caused hilarious episodes when they arbitrarily sent me to my room where I waited until they gradually became bored with few fun and games to invent. So they brought me cookies and milk and we all resumed playtime in my Time Out.
They needed me to read stories and after all these years, (I’m now 83), what I miss most are their expressions as they listened, long before electronic devices plagued us, completely fixed on their fantasies. There’s often an awesome beauty to a kid’s world of imagination.
4. Shortly before I retired from Barnard, Shaun brought his little daughters to visit my political theory class. This was in a large auditorium of over 400 students. He sneaked in the backdoor with them, and pointed to me way up on the stage. We gave the students no warning that they would come, and the girls, never having seen the place before, didn’t know what was expected of them. We worried that they would be intimidated by a big crowd of strangers.
But as soon as they saw me, they immediately ran down the long runway, scrambled up onto the stage and leaped into my arms. There they stayed, unwilling to leave me. The audience reacted with gasps, laughter, cheers and tears.
Later, one student spoke for many in the class, saying that she cried because their hugging me so tightly evoked memories of the unbearable beauty of the special bond that she had once with her grandparents. This relationship is mysterious but some commentators on it have written that it’s sometimes sealed even through adolescence by a weird sort of alliance between us and their parents. This may come as a joke but there’s a truth to it, and now with Mia and Sierra in college, I can only hope that this intimacy will continue.
Last night I was hugged by my 45 year old son, the only one of my 7 children I have seen since Covid began. The tears arrived immediately after. I cannot imagine what it will be to hug my grandson who went from 7 to 9 since last we were together or my granddaughter who I have yet to meet and hold. Your professor's relationship with his granddaughters prompted as much sorrow as it did joy for what I am missing in life. This pandemic has more ways of killing us than just the virus.
I took this relationship from my father who wanted it badly and would have given his all to my children because his and my relationship was so troubled. Reading this I wish I could have back those years and could give them all this unhindered love. Alas.
Perhaps I can give my own grandchildren that gift, should my children decide to have their own.