March 13, 2016

DANBERG BIGGS | SUITS

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My grandfather’s casket was not as heavy as I expected. It was dark brown, or maybe it wasn’t; I’m not sure. The night before I had tried to read one of his books, thinking this would be one of those moments that someone else might want to write about in their book. I would read this academic essay on the twilight years of the Soviet Union, and hear this familiar voice, which would call from the letters of the page, reminding me of who I had lost. But I couldn’t find my grandfather in a chat about glasnost, so I just sat watching his daughters sort through his postcards, and his books, and his hats.     

The suit I was wearing had been purchased the day before from a store called SUITS. It’s a place, I found, where men in khaki slacks will sell you a boxish suit that discreetly hides the ‘Made in’ label neatly tucked on the inside of the sleeve, rather than on the back of the collar. Prior to that hurried Friday afternoon purchase, I had never owned a suit, and this was not a good one. But it was my suit, which felt masculine in a way that I was okay with.

Waiting to be momentarily handed a coffin, I realized that there was a vast range of motion that would be off limits in this ill-fitting man-suit. If asked to lift anything from the ground, or move it to a higher altitude, I would have to politely decline, citing the likelihood that it would rip every fiber of cloth on my body. Fortunately, unlike the role, which I would later play, of ‘male relative who holds the Torah over his head during a Bat Mitzvah,’ this did not require any such feat of athleticism. So I briefly held my grandfather’s casket, then handed it off to two men with granite faces, who I still do not know.

On that day, though, I did not know how to mourn. A man of failing health, my grandfather hadn’t been an active presence in my life for years. There were the memories I had of him through the haze of childhood, but he was more a thing of stories from the mouths of his children. Sitting in a pew, I bombarded myself with memories — conversations and smiles. But much as I wanted to feel his death like it had left a hole in my every day, it just hadn’t.

Instead, I felt his loss through a set of relationships. It was my grandfather, who, simply by being such, was of the infinitesimally small percentage of people who would care if I broke my leg. He was also a person whose death would make my mother cry, so that would make me cry as well.

Feeling this type of grief is something I’ve felt guilty about for years. When you hold a person’s coffin, or even a candle at their vigil, you want to be able to articulate the reason why you grieve, even if it is only to yourself. It didn’t feel like enough to say, ‘well he was my grandfather.’

Standing in the grass last week, surrounded by thousands of mourning students, I began to feel that guilt creep back. My relationship with the president consisted of exactly one encounter. Were we to have met again, I’m quite sure she would not have remembered by non-descript white name and face. And what a massive distance there is between a student and the powers that run their university. So often, the relationship that I’ve felt to exactly this woman, for whom I am deeply and honestly grieving, has been fraught with a sense of alienation and frustration. So who was I to stand there and call myself a mourner?

An answer, which I offer with a huge amount of uncertainty, has to do with the depth of the relationship that a student has with those above them and those around them. Simply by virtue of being the president of the university I attend, and a remarkably thoughtful one at that, she cared about my wellbeing. It was of paramount importance to her that I should be able to succeed, and that I have the university experience that I wanted. So too did she care about the people around me, and the community that they comprise.

She also matters to the people around me. Some more than others — those that knew her feel her loss as something even more immediate — but her presence, and her loss, meant something to my community. To lose her was a shock to that system, and thus to every individual within it. In a manner that is rarely seen, the roughly 20,000 students who are associated purely by geography and similar studies, were a connected and sensitive community.

I don’t expect anyone to ever ask my why I’m grieving, but it’s still important to have an answer. ‘Because she was my president,’ sounds flippant and callous, but I think it’s exactly right. The source of our sadness, for those of us who had some personal distance, is that there is a special relationship between those who are students and those who let them be students. I don’t know if that’s a reason to take solace, but it’s probably a reason to mourn.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at red243@cornell.edu. The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester. 

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