May 28, 2023

Grief and the Little Sparrows (a personal post)

by Christopher Hirschmann Brandt

The “Little Sparrow”, Edith Piaf, sings a song I have always loved – and envied – “Je ne regrette rien” – she so staunchly insists that she regrets nothing. Whereas I regret so much. I regret thinking when I was young that I knew everything and therefore had nothing to learn from so many people and in so many circumstances – how much I lost! I regret not knowing my own mind and character better, so that I was often swept up without thinking, in emotions and enthusiasms I did not understand, and did or said stupid things. I regret being afraid to ask my father the questions I desperately wanted the answers to. And then he died young, and I will never have the answers. But above all, since my friend and lover Barbara died, I regret the fights we had. They were mostly due to misunderstandings I cannot even recall. Or they arose because of my own bad moods, escalated by my insistence on “my” independence. Of course Barbara’s moods and habits contributed to them as well, but could I not – (could we not both) – have been more patient, more understanding? Of course, I could have. But I was not.

Since her death I have known a grief deeper than I ever thought possible, and realized – at last – how much I loved her (and she me). Often, I have thought of her feeding the little flock of sparrows on the plaza at Broadway and 51st Street, and her joy at their intelligence – they grew to expect her around two in the afternoon. Her solicitude for others, whether human or animal, is one of the great lessons she had to teach. And she never tried to teach it, she just did it.

Yet in the midst of grief during this past year, I have grown happier – never before have I experienced such joy in doing the simple tasks of living and making theatre. Whether this has meant rehearsing a difficult role or cleaning the toilets, my life this year has been full of the greatest joy in the midst of the deepest grief. I have often wondered about this – why don’t I feel guilty for being happy without her?

Then I read an article about the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who says, apropos of a somewhat different situation, “’guilt” might not … be quite the right word. It’s a kind of sorrow that one [profits] at the expense of someone else.” So there it is: sorrow and joy can exist side by side. In fact one may not be possible without the other. Guilt on the other hand is a selfish emotion and stifles joy. I believe that is what has happened this year, and not just to me – amid all the sorrow in our theatre company at losing our beloved Barbara, we have come together in joy and made art.
So here’s a little poem of mine about those birds:

But what about the birds?
At 51st Street. The little flock
of sparrows waited for her
at two o’clock. They knew
she’d come, the uneaten half
of her sandwich in her pocket,
saved for the birds, the bread
of course organic because
they liked that better. She would
crumble the bread and give it
gravely to the sparrows, who
hopped and scooted and flittered
after it. She never spoke of
feeding them, only of how smart
they were, to know she would come
at two. She almost never
disappointed them.