My mom died, earlier this week.
There’s no easy way to say that. There’s a starkness to it. A simplicity, and inevitability. There’s a reason why, when defending the universality and relevance of Shakespeare’s work, I typically start by saying, “Hamlet’s father died.” It is something we all have faced, or will face. Shakespeare faced it. His characters faced it. Now it’s my turn.
Though I talk a lot about my kids I rarely talk about my parents, and that’s not going to change today. They’re not Shakespearean characters, and it would be making this event all about myself to try and paint it as such. I know grandparents that are CEOs and sit on boards of directors. My mom’s purpose was much simpler. Drop her in the middle of a pile of grandchildren who would inundate her with “Look what I made!” and “Watch me dance!” and “I got a good grade on my report card!” and she would, forever and ever, tell each one how proud she was, and how much she loved them. And that was more than enough. I could say that we’re all going to miss that, and that will be true. But also … they know. People have faith in a variety of different things, but my children have never doubted their Nanta loves them and is oh so very proud of them.
So then let’s talk about Shakespeare. I’ve thought for a very long time about what I would do when this day finally came. I’m not going to dig through my archives but long time readers may remember that I have, in recent years, said goodbye to my own grandmother, and several aunts. So the question of how Shakespeare can bring some degree of comfort at a time such as this has come up from time to time. And here I am this week putting my own beliefs to the test. I believe that Shakespeare makes life better.
I’ve always known a quote here and snippet there that touch on this moment. There’s Cleopatra’s “Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have immortal longings in me.” Or Hamlet’s “I shall not look upon her like again,” if you’ll forgive my pronoun switcheroo. We could do this all day, grabbing a line here or there that catches a bit of the feeling that goes on. I hadn’t realized, until I found a link to that Bobby Kennedy speech, that “Cut her out in little stars and hers will make the face of heaven shine so bright,” could also work here.
Then there’s the longer pieces that allow you to pause for a moment and just kind of soak it in. That feeling that you want to just curl the pages up around you like a blanket. I found myself staring at Sonnet 60 the morning it happened:
Like as the waves make towards the pebbl’d shore,So do our minutes hasten to their end;Each changing place with that which goes before,In sequent toil all forwards do contend.Nativity, once in the main of light,Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.Time doth transfix the flourish set on youthAnd delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
No longer mourn for me when I am deadThan you shall hear the surly sullen bellGive warning to the world that I am fledFrom this vile world with vilest worms to dwell;Nay, if you read this line, remember notThe hand that writ it; for I love you so,That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,If thinking on me then should make you woe.O, if (I say) you look upon this verse,When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay,Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,But let your love even with my life decay,Lest the wise world should look into your moan,And mock you with me after I am gone.
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?