Thursday, August 13, 2009

Two Brothers

When I realized I was pregnant again, I figured I had nine months to adjust to the news and the new reality—and that Henry, then about two-and-a-half, who we planned to tell much later in the game, would have lots of time, too. I figured he really wouldn’t have to start dealing—whatever that was going to mean—until the new guy was born. Wrong.

We told him when I was about five months pregnant, the same night we made the phone call to friends and family. He seemed vaguely interested. We weren’t even sure if he absorbed the information, frankly, and speculated that we might have to tell him a few times before he got it. Wrong again.

When we picked him up from school the next day, Janet, one of his teachers, with whom Henry shares a lot of confidences, said: “I hear Henry is going to be a big brother.” Henry ignored us, and went right on playing Legos with a couple of the other kids. The next day, when we picked him up from gym babysitting, the sitters there said: “We hear Henry is going to have a little brother.”

Clearly, he took it in. And it became equally clear that, though we were trying to talk up big brotherhood as a thing that would involve superior capacity and lots of teaching-baby-stuff, poor Henry was anxious. Very anxious.

We had only recently started him on three full days of pre-school, which he’d been adjusting to very nicely. But suddenly, drop off became more agonizing than in the days when he’d started, almost a year earlier. He clung to me, he cried, he had to be pried off of us.

When we went to pick him up at the end of the day, he was fine, not ready to leave. The teachers assured us that he “got over” his separation anxiety within minutes. And they told us something else interesting: They see this all the time with soon-to-be older siblings.

Some, they said, breezed along the full nine months, oblivious, or happily anticipating their new sibling, only to freak out when the new one arrived. Others, like poor Henry, got anxious about what it all meant beforehand. Those kids actually do better after the new arrival, the teachers said.

I guess Henry has inherited my defensive strategy of anticipating the worst. On the positive side, I hope it means he’s okay when baby #2 arrives. On the negative, I hate, really hate, to see him stressed out and not know how to help.

I sort of threw up my hands awhile ago, and decided that I couldn’t anticipate or solve whatever was coming my way come November, so that the best stay-sane strategy was just not to think too far ahead. It’s worked for me, thankfully. But how do I help an almost three-year-old do the same?

One of my friends, in response to some of my how-do-you-handle-two? questions referred to me as the biggest sibling expert he knew. But that’s not really true. I’m really good at getting sibling loss, sadly. But as to what it means to have one, and how to raise them? Clueless.

And on one final note, I was telling Paul the other day that, when I thought of having a sibling, my thoughts were good—my brother was already present in the world when I arrived, and I thought he was the coolest thing ever, despite his sometimes ambivalence toward me. He used to say, with a meaningful glance at me: “My life was perfect for three-and-a-half-years.” (You can guess the age difference between us.)

But those were the thoughts of a younger sibling. Youngest sibling. I never really got it. Never saw my arrival from Ted’s point of view. Now I’m seeing it through Henry.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Hindu tradition recognizes sibling relationship

Wow. Check out this article about a Hindu ritual honoring the relationship between brothers and sisters. “The brother-sister relationship in Hinduism is quite unique. It is so pure you can’t describe it in words,” says one person quoted in the article. Very cool. More later.......

Movie review: Departures

I kept seeing this one—a Japanese movie which won the Academy Award for best foreign feature film—in The Quad listings and trying to get to it, but the timing during the day (my usual movie-going time) just wasn’t working. I was so happy when Paul noticed it, too, and suggested we use some sitter time to check it out.

Departures is the story of Daigo Kobayashi, a passionate cellist, with a dream job in an orchestra, who finds himself abruptly out of job—and in huge debt for a very pricey cello-- when the orchestra dissolves.

What do you do when your dream has fizzled and you’ve got to re-group?

You go home, and you look for another job. Daigo and his apparently unflappable wife, Miko, head to Hirano, in northeastern Japan, where Daigo grew up. Daigo has inherited the house he grew up in from his mother, who died while he was abroad some years earlier. (His father abandoned the family when he was a child.)

Daigo sees a job listing for handling “departures” that doesn’t require experience, and, assuming its some sort of job with a travel agency, figures he’ll apply. Turns out that “departures” was a typo. It’s the departed that he’ll have to handle.

The business is all about “casketing,” i.e. a Japanese ritual in which dead bodies are prepared for the casket, and, at the end of the ceremony, placed in the casket. And it pays really well.

Daigo, who has never witnessed a death nor been part of memorializing one, can’t say no. He’s enticed by the money and Sasaki, the endearing curmudgeon who owns the business, and he’s frankly too nice and well intentioned to find a way to back out of the situation. He ends up going along for the ride.

It’s a great ride.

Departures, like Ghosted, is a window into another culture’s approach to death. And it’s an interesting one. On the one hand, the ritual of casketing is truly gorgeous—a reverential process that involves symbolically wiping away the pain accrued during time on earth, dressing the body in burial clothes, and making the person up (if the family requests it), to look their best, before placing them in the casket. All things that happen here, at a mortuary, but behind closed doors.

Here you, and the family, who sit nearby, see it up close. You’d think that a culture that created this lovely ceremony would be better at handling these situations than we are. Nope, at least, not according to the movie. Turns out the Japanese are just as death-leery as Americans. Daigo is too embarrassed to tell his wife what he’s up to. He lets her assume he’s working for a travel agency. (There’s a predictable reveal and accompanying drama over this one.) And he's ostracized by people in the community who disdain what he's doing.

And the grief-stricken families are just as un-done and un-resigned to death as those we know. Each death, each family, brings it’s own assortment of heartbreaking and sometimes funny complications. The beautiful young woman, a suicide, who they discover, in the process of casketing her, is actually a man, leaving the two casketers in a quandary: make “her” up as a woman or man? The fight that breaks out, among the family and friends, over the question of who’s responsible for death of a young girl killed on a motorbike.

We see it all. So do Daigo and Sasaki. And we watch as people struggle to come to terms with their losses. Along the way, there’s a nod to the “ambiguous” ceremony-less losses in life—people, gone but not dead, and dreams, for instance—and how hard it is to wrestle with them, as well.

It’s all very real, and very touching. Ultimately there are many opportunities for one realization: It’s a privilege to be here, walking around, living our lives, and the death of a loved one, and even someone you don’t know well, is an opportunity to honor that fact both for the other person—and for yourself.

I left the movie humming with appreciation, both for the movie and my life.

Movie review: Ghosted

All I needed to hear about this movie was that it explored the aftermath of grief and loss and, of course, I was interested. (To anyone unfamiliar with my history, the loss of my brother when I was 14 left me with an apparently life-long interest in these topics.)

So, last Thursday, on a pre-school day when we should have been working, Paul and I caught the 1 p.m. show at The Quad. Ghosted is the story of Sophie Schmitt, a Hamburg-based video artist, and her lover, Aing-Li, a young woman from Taiwan. They meet when Aing-Li travels to Germany to visit an uncle, work in his restaurant, and uncover a secret about her birth.

We learn all of this in flashback. The movie actually begins the tale after Aing-Li’s death. We don’t know how it happened for quite awhile. Or why. All we know is that Sophie, who we first meet as she opens a video installation entitled “Remembrance” in Taiwan, featuring Aing-Li, is sad, confused and lonely.

Enter Mei-Li, a Taiwanese journalist who first appears at the opening, trying, earnestly, to cajole Sophie into an interview about her relationship with Aing-Li. Both women are drawn to one another, so much so that Sophie drops her guard and agrees to hang out with Mei-Li for the day, though she knows Mei-Li plans to write about it.

The day doesn’t end well. And so unfolds a push-pull storyline in which Mei-Li keeps popping back up in unexpected places, trying to investigate the story of Aing-Li’s death. For a while, it feels very much like a detective story—with the potential for an unexpected truth looming around the corner. Ultimately, it's about searching from both sides--the living and the dead.

And I’d love to say more about that, but I’d spoil the tension for you if I did.

I really liked this movie. There’s not a whole lot of depth or “ah-ha” to it. There aren’t any huge revelations about the nature of grief and loss. When the credits were rolling, I leaned over to Paul and said, “What I like most about these movies is the sense that they’re visual travelogues.”

It’s true. We see Taiwan. We see Hamburg. We see it from an urban perspective. And we see it from the perspective of strangers visiting those countries. It’s also a travelogue on death and lost loved ones from a Taiwanese perspective.

As I said, it’s not a huge movie by any means, not in financing or in its point. But I did really enjoy it—and I was only a tiny bit wistful about not having spent the time working (huge for me). I’m grateful to co-writers Astrid Stroher and Monica Treut (who also directed) for this small window on the way another culture sees loss.