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Life After Breath

By Sabrina Eager

Art by Sabrina Eager

On the day that my grandfather ended up in the hospital, I watched the sunrise with five of my closest friends at Acadia National Park.

In the weeks before, I could think of little but the state of our nation: our breaking — or really our broken — democracy, the injustices we cannot seem to prevent, the people we cannot bring back to life. At the time, over 200,000 Americans had already lost their lives to COVID-19. Our country was mourning inspiring public figures such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Representative John Lewis. We were channeling Ginsberg’s dissents and Lewis’s “good trouble” to express our grief for the Black lives lost at the hands of the police. Amidst all this loss, I often found it hard to breathe. But for the first time in what felt like months, sitting out on rocks carved by thunderous waves, looking at the first bit of sun to reach any part of the United States on that day, I felt at peace. It was as if the sun brought with it a glimmer of hope.

It wasn’t until I got back to the house that I got the call from my mom and heard the news about my grandfather. He passed away two days later.

The last time I saw my grandpa (or papa as I call him), it was December of 2019. Before the world went into disarray, my whole family traveled down to Florida for Christmas vacation. On one particular night, aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents all gathered around a few too many bottles of wine and one too few platters of coconut shrimp to celebrate another year of being together as a family. The restaurant had live music, a singular man on the piano playing oldies hits, and we danced alongside the seniors who frequented the bar. I remember looking over at my grandpa and seeing how happy he was to be surrounded by the people he loved, by the family he created with my grandmother.

The brain works in funny ways though, because I cannot seem to remember much else of that particular vacation. Perhaps I do recall my papa driving my mom and I to the airport, kissing us goodbye and saying that he would see us at the latest in June for his eightieth birthday. But maybe that memory is just a concoction of the dozens of times he drove us to the airport to wish us a safe flight and remind us that we would see him soon.

The only time I have driven from my grandparents’ house to that airport since though, I was traveling home from his funeral.

Loss and grief are never easy. I recently read the New York Times article “My Best Friend Is Gone, and Nothing Feels Right,” from the Modern Love section. In it, author Jared Misner writes “If grief is the price of love, I am unable to pay.” To that I respond, if grief is the price of love, how am I supposed to ever stop grieving? Now, I cannot seem to write anything that is not about him. I cannot get the sound of his laugh out of my head. My internal stream of consciousness now sounds like his voice. I keep thinking of all the times I should have called to tell him that I loved him over the seven months between the start of COVID-19 and his death, when the virus kept us apart. But more than anything, I keep thinking of all the milestones he will miss in my life, all my future successes that won’t lead to a phone call where I hear him on the other line saying “I am so proud of you.”

While my papa did not die of the virus that has been haunting us for almost a year, his death was not unrelated. My papa cared about the lives of individuals more than anyone I have ever met. He observed how our government treats and mistreats its people, how it prides itself on its commitment to opportunity, then locks the door just as you’ve entered the waiting room. Frankly, I believe the strain of our imperfect union broke his heart.

And my grandpa had a very big heart. He loved everything from golf to classical music. He spent hours sitting in his office either watching the latest golf or tennis match, or wearing the market’s newest and best headphones, listening to composers whom he described as individuals who had no choice BUT to write music. I remember standing in Millennium Park with him in Chicago. While all the tourists swarmed to the iconic mirrored bean sculpture, he directed his attention to the musicians rehearsing in the nearby Pritzker Pavilion. Every meal he ate was his favorite meal; every trip he took was his favorite trip. But more than anything, he loved people. He wasn’t Mr. Social Butterfly by any means, but he had a deep understanding of the human condition, and wanted more than anything to use this knowledge to help people.

My papa, Laurence Simon, was a psychologist. He was a therapist, a thinker, a writer, a philosopher, a teacher. He was one of the best teachers I ever had. In his final years, he dedicated much of his life to reflecting on his career as a psychologist in his book Psycho“therapy” and The Stories We Live By. In it, and in conversations with me and the rest of our family, he talked about how every individual has a story. He believed in the power of these stories in therapy; once we know where we come from, we can understand who we are today and be okay with our progress in this world. He struggled with the direction of the field of psychology today, how it treats itself as a medical field, how the English language and our society’s lexicon don’t have words to accurately describe the “doctor-patient” relationship of a therapist and a person in therapy. He felt that psychological diagnoses place people in boxes, naming individuals as “mentally ill” or wrong in some way, in need of medication. Instead, he felt that we all as individuals are each unique products of our own stories, of the “stories we live by.” Rather than thinking of the mind as a noun, something to fix, he thought of it as a verb. He would always say to me “we don’t just have minds, but we mind.”

All people on this earth, including people like my papa, are the bearers of their own stories. Their own histories. Their own legacies. And when they pass, these legacies are passed onto those of us that know their stories. Even after their breath leaves their body, their death cannot steal the life they breathed into us over the years. While I may never get to hear my papa tell his own stories, I can go read all his old books, listen to his recorded radio shows, replay the words he told me that live in my memory. He may not be alive, but his spirit will be alive for however long I can carry out his legacy.

I admittedly am not an aspiring psychologist like him, but I hope to live a life using the power of storytelling, which I learned from him. I have developed my own passions for literature, where I analyze narrators’ stories to understand how we all as human beings choose to tell our own stories and how we as readers or listeners can empathize with others after hearing their stories. If everyone could view the world a little more like him, through his psychological lens, maybe we would be able to understand not only who people are as individuals, but how their stories have guided them to the present day. Now I have the power to share this perspective — his perspective — and hopefully widen the perspectives of others through literature and storytelling.

If only he could see me and be proud.

So, I have a proposed change to the idea that “grief is the price of love.” I know that my grandpa would want me to be happy and carry out his love of learning, his love of loving, his love of helping people using stories. He wouldn’t want me to sit around grieving for long enough to account for how much I loved him in life. In a way, I do not even have to think of him as gone, but rather existing in the form of legacy and memory. Instead of paying for love with just grief, let’s say that the price of love is the sum of both grief and remembrance. Maybe that’s just what I need to tell myself so that I can get out of bed and get back to doing the things that would make him proud. Who knows, but at least it provides me with some glimmer of hope for a brighter tomorrow. Just like another bit of sun breaking over the horizon.

May his memory be a blessing.

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