On metaphors of grief


It wasn’t a drunken whim or a slumber-party dare.

Devil’s Pool: where Cresheim Creek runs into the Wissahickon. (Photo by Axcordion via Creative Commons/English Wikipedia.)

It wasn’t retail therapy for a midlife crisis.

No, the reason I found myself in a South Street piercing parlor on a March afternoon, pricing gemstone studs for my left ear, had everything to do with metaphor.

I had been saying the Kaddish — the Jewish mourners’ prayer recited daily for eleven months following the death of a loved one — since my father died last April. And that morning marked my final utterance.

The week before, I’d had a chat with my rabbi about the meaning of the Kaddish. We don’t say the prayer for ourselves, she advised; we say it to ease the spirit of the deceased in its passage to . . . well, to whatever you believe comes next.

So that morning, I’d run to Valley Green and murmured the Aramaic rhythms — yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba — amid the squawks of geese and the burble of the creek. I cried a little as I pictured my dad’s generous spirit wafting downstream, joining an ocean of souls.

It’s difficult to talk about grief without trafficking in metaphor: sorrow as a leaden cloud, or a coarse veil, or a long slog through mud, viscid and mapless. But my father’s death had been so literal: blood and breath and heart thudding in its hutch of bone until the moment it stopped. Language felt flimsy and inadequate to describe the experience and its aftermath.

Prayers and actions

Much of Jewish liturgy transposes speech for the actions that, in ancient times, made tangible our guilt, anxiety, gratitude, or loss: in lieu of slaughtering our choicest goat and dashing its blood seven times on the altar, we recite Yom Kippur prayers for repentance and transformation.

But it was physical ritual that spoke loudest to me after my father’s death: the ripping of the small black ribbon I wore for the first 30 days; the trowel of earth I shoveled into his grave; the shiva period during which we suspended our daily routine and stayed home, cushioned by family, prayers and endless deli trays.

I thought of a woman I’d met who lost a pregnancy in the fourth month and, afterward, had the baby’s name tattooed over her ribs. That made sense to me. I felt marked by losing my father. Now, as the anniversary of his death inched closer, I wanted to make that mark visible.

Infinite Piercing

And that’s how I ended up sitting edgily in a black recliner at Infinite Body Piercing as Frankie Pistone opened what looked like a tackle box with my just-sterilized earring and a shiny, slightly curved disposable needle.

I’d done my homework, and this piercing parlor had gotten rave reviews for cleanliness and competence. The shop front had the vibe of a hipster-punk jewelry store; instead of engagement solitaires or wedding bands, the cases featured nipple rings, nostril screws, septum retainers and studs to decorate any inch of pierceable flesh.

Frankie, a guest piercer from Ohio doing a week’s rotation at Infinite, was a walking advertisement, with septum rings, plugs in his stretched earlobes, multiple cartilage piercings, extravagant tattoos and a Braille of raised pink scarification lines on his forearms.

Frankie’s online bio said he was drawn “to the physical and spiritual aspects of the [piercing] subculture.” Sounded like my guy. “The first time I did a navel piercing, it was for a woman who was so self-conscious about her body, she didn’t want to lift her shirt,” he told me as he swabbed my ear with something cold and wet. “She was so nervous. But after I did it, she felt really happy and proud; she didn’t want to put her shirt down.”

Compared with some of the options on Infinite’s menu — a piercing of the clitoral hood or insertion of an ampallang, a horizontal barbell right through the head of the penis — my request was pretty tame. Still, I had to decide: would my hole go in the outer helix, the curved upper part of my ear, or the fleshy lobe? Who knew the ear was so richly landscaped, with a lexicon of curves and crannies: conch and daith, tragus and antitragus, a geography of cartilage just waiting to be lanced and jeweled?

A reprise of sorrow

Who knew that grief would linger in my body, so unconsciously inscribed that, even before I glanced at the calendar on any given day, my pulse and breath ramped up, recalling exactly how vertiginous and panicky I felt a year ago this time. As my days of saying Kaddish dwindled — fifteen more, six, three, one — my stomach clenched, my body stiffened in a reprise of last spring’s sorrow.

I didn’t explain any of that to Frankie. I just sat there, shaking a little and trying gamely to chat about the Picasso exhibit at the Barnes Foundation, while he changed latex gloves three times (those reviewers weren’t kidding about cleanliness) and asked if I trusted him to examine my helix and choose the most appealing spot.

I did.

“Take some really deep breaths,” he instructed, his voice gentle as a yogi’s. When the pain came, it was hot and quick, a fine, flaming arrow. “The worst part is over,” Frankie said, and deftly slipped the earring I’d chosen — a gold-pronged ruby stud — into the throbbing puncture.

Give it time        

His after-care instructions were simple: soak the piercing twice a day in a solution of distilled water and sea salt. Don’t touch it. Don’t twist it. Don’t sleep on that side for a while. Cartilage is slow to heal. Give it time.

Ah, yes. Like grief. And there, I’d slipped into metaphor once more. I wanted to bleed a little, to hurt a little, to feel pierced by something sharp and sudden. But after the initial shock, what remains, always, is the story, pain transmuted into words.

Each morning and night, I take a look: there it is, crimson punctuation mark against my skin. I think about my father with a grateful ache. Then I measure an ounce of salted water, lean to the left, and wash my wound in a little cup of tears.

Our readers respond

Laurie Schenker

of Miami, FL on March 17, 2016

That was a beautifully written article, almost like a flowing song, the words strung together so well. Thanks for that... and I felt all the same feelings for my mom and your dad.

Frankie Pistone

of Strongsville, OH on March 17, 2016

Anndee, I had no idea you were grieving at that time, but I did feel an energy that made that experience different from any other I had that day. I would first like to say that I am so sorry for your loss of your father. I have had great loss in my family as well. I bear the marks of those losses in the physical form as well; it is a kind of coping for me personally, and I am so grateful that, when you chose to make that step, I could be a part of it. I wanted to let you know that you are not alone in this tradition.

This article is beautifully written. It was a pleasure meeting you, and I wish you all the best.

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