Short Story Month, Day 21: Amy Hempel
"In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried" by Amy Hempel
I've been sitting on the posting of this story pretty much the entire month because anyone who loves short stories but hasn't read this one doesn't really love short stories that much. Everyone who learns fiction writing is taught this classic, so just about nobody needs to read my thoughts on it, but I figured I could save this for a day when I'm short on time and stories in my backlog.
Neither is the case today, though. I'm posting it because it's a story that is personal to me, riddled with details that I find significant. For example, I grew up across the freeway from the titular cemetery (where Al Jolson is actually interred in a sarcophagus above ground, but "buried" has a better ring to it). I didn't know that until I read the story in college. The first time I ever stepped onto its grounds was for an essay I wrote, printed in the first issue of the Hipster Book Club, the book review website I used to run. In the essay, I wrote about grief and literature and how it related to my father, who resides a few miles down the road, in the cemetery where Ella Fitzgerald is interred.
I mention this because my dad's birthday was yesterday. I could've posted this story then as a tribute to him, but he wasn't into birthdays. He never wanted money spent or attention given to the passing of another year. In life, he would've given me crap for even the hint of a fuss on the actual day, so I wrote this on his birthday and chose to post it the day after.
As for the story itself, I'll just go with this: Grief, especially grief that begins while a loved one still lives, is hard to explain to those who have never experienced it. Sympathy from those who don't understand this grief can often be misguided, and when that's pointed out, people take it personally and accuse us of being ungrateful (see: negative reactions to portions of Emily Rapp Black's memoir The Still Point of the Turning World). I think, though, that this story gets a lot right about how complex such emotions are. Grief, whatever the context, always feels so foreign and confusing. Whether I'm grieving or trying to comfort someone who is, I always feel like I'm doing things wrong, that others are doing things wrong, that everything and everyone is just wrong wrong wrong. But that, I've come to realize, is exactly how you do it. You grieve however it comes to you, even if it comes out seemingly horrible to everyone else, even if it feels wrong or inadequate or over the top. Grief is a show of love, no matter how it manifests itself. And no matter how a person reacts, I hope we can all take a step back from the anger and frustration and forgive ourselves for the ways we show love when we're at a loss.