I’d been holding them close every time I had to leave them somewhere, send them somewhere, or take myself somewhere other than where they were going to be. My daughters. Last night, as I stood in a zoo decorated with thousands of bulbs, a Christmas in New Jersey, the oldest, the one left behind, sent me a series of texts. She was waiting to picked up by one of our friends, and she was online, the screen lit up by the faces of four seven year olds and sixteen six year olds. She was crying. She wanted me to hug her younger sisters. She said she loved me. There wasn’t anything I could do from so far away, so I sent her what I could. This poem, by the late Jack Gilbert.
A Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
From REFUSING HEAVEN (Knopf, 2005)
I think of the photograph of Jillian Soto, waiting to hear about the fate of her sister, Victoria, a teacher inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, how among the twenty odd photographs I looked at that afternoon, this one broke my heart wide open. I think of the three sisters growing up together in my house. I look again at this memory from the summer just past, the girls going where I cannot follow. I can only let them go and hope their gladness overcomes the ruthless furnace of this world.