Howard and I had been out that afternoon of December 20th buying a Christmas tree, and were just beginning the ritual of hanging ornaments upon it—one of my favorite activities of each year—when the Bernstein's close friend Nick Piombino called from their apartment in New York where he had rushed to comfort them upon hearing the news. I talked briefly to Charles, who wept at some length. Susan was unable to speak.
Now I suddenly knew that she had been suffering, suffering from something that, as her father expressed it in his eulogy at her funeral, "grabbed hold of her hand and would not let go, no matter how fiercely she fought... We know Emma was always fierce so let it not go unacknowledged that in her last moments she struggled fiercely and with all her soul against something more powerful than she had ever known. Emma showed the same courage in her last days as she did throughout her life; the courage that made her seem to herself invincible and to us indomitable – a blazing force of nature, a fiery comet that lit up our lives, burning so bright it sometimes blinded, sometimes scalded, burning until suddenly, catastrophically, the ball of fire that she was expired."
On the 21st, I again called the Bernsteins, this time talking to Charles' mother Sherry, as well as Charles, Susan, and their son Felix. All were suffering awfully, but Susan was clearly having the most difficult time of it, repeating, as I had the night before, "why? why? why?" The family was now faced with the difficulty of retrieving Emma's body from Italy. Fortunately, the head of the museum had had experience, in the instance of Peggy Guggenheim's death.
Lazarus: A Parable
for Emma Bee Bernstein
Now you are
To become E
've only begun
To uncover, slip
The blanket back
Before their eyes
To your size, speak
Against the old wives'
Tales told you
About this place, there's a door
A street. Everyone's hungry.
Meat the earth
With your feat!
It was not really about a death and resurrection for me at the time, but about the wonder of a child growing up so quickly before our eyes to become someone different from anyone in the past, a person who could represent sustenance of the human race through their acts, acts undefined by the past.
"I wish I could use some black magic, fueled by all our grief, and bring Emma back. I wish, like, Orpheus, I could go now to the underworld to call her back to life, as my trip to Venice now seems like a journey to Hades, travelling alone by boat to a dream-like world of water and labyrinthine streets in a vain effort to rescue her. And yet every day I think there must be a way, that of all people, Emma, like the Houdini she was, would find a way; only to have such idle waves of compulsive thoughts smashed on the shores of reality."
Emma, it is now clear, was being torn by the inner and outer self. On one hand she could describe her book as being "about gutsy young women across the American cityscape. It's about the past and the present, and it glimmers on the future. It's about the promise of the open road." And yet, as she revealingly wrote in her essay "What I Learned in School Today: A Soliloquy of Sorts," Emma felt an irrefutable pull between that gutsy future and her inner self: "All inner and outer life finds itself irresolvable," she writes. "Attempts at talking through the images and through words are always rendered through a web of misunderstanding; the requirement of a medium in all communication always necessarily dilutes and warps the message. ...[there is a] fundamental disconnect between our inner cognition and our image in the mirror."
I can’t help thinking of the line, “When one door closes, another opens,” and what that has meant to me in the past few weeks. One door has closed, just as all my doors were opening, all my lights turning on. And now to go through those doors is going to mean something entirely different. My path was disrupted yet has not changed. My destiny will have a loss in its memory, to be the background of whatever my foreground becomes. But I walk the path just the same, learning to embrace the shadows that follow me. Emma’s writings suggested that one must be despite polarities. One such polarity, life and death, is something that will be hard to ignore. Yet I will persist in my loving of Emma. Our love was never constrained to life and death, anyway, and it won’t start now.
How artists around me have understood this demonstrates how coping requires you to find the process that means the most to you. I sang at the funeral – “Everytime We Say Goodbye.” To the audience it may have been a comfort to hear a musical expression of their grief. To me it was a comfort to express my doors paradox: As I said goodbye, it was time for me to say hello, to announce myself as an adult to the over 400 people present and to sing in front of them: expose my destiny to them.
As pained as we all are about the death of this beautiful young woman, Felix, I suggest, is right. Despite those darker pulls on our souls, we must all move through that new door. As I tried to tell Emma in that long-ago poem: "About this place, there's a door / A street"; we each have no choice but to walk through the doors to our destinies.
Los Angeles, January 3, 2009
Emma Bee Bernstein in Venice
photographed by Charles Bernstein