Progress report

Four months ago, I wrote on this blog that grief takes time. Now, just over a year after my dad’s death, I can reaffirm that statement: grief takes time. It’s worth repeating, because our society promotes the myth that you’re done with grief in a few weeks, or, if it’s really bad, maybe a few months. Which brings up an interesting anecdote about the mathematician Paul Erdos, told by another mathematician and reported in the book The Man Who Only Loved Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth by Paul Hoffman (New York: Hyperion, 1998), pp. 143-144:

“‘I was walking across a courtyard to breakfast at a [mathematics] conference,’ recalled Herb Wilf, a combinatorialist at the University of Pennsylvania, ‘and Erdos, who had just had breakfast, was walking in the opposite direction. When our paths crossed, I offered my customary greeting, “Good morning, Paul. How are you today?” He stopped dead in his tracks. Out of respect and deference, I stopped too. We just stood there silently. He was taking my question very seriously, giving it the same consideration he would if I had asked him about the asymptotics of partition theory. … Finally, after much reflection, he said: “Herbert, today I am very sad.” And I said, “I am sorry to hear that. Why are you sad, Paul?” He said, “I am sad because I miss my mother. She is dead, you know.” I said, I know that, Paul. I know her death was very sad for you and for many of us, too. But wasn’t that about five years ago?” He said, “Yes, it was. But I miss her very much.” We stood there silently for a few awkward moments and then went our separate ways.'”

In this anecdote, Wilf represents the typical attitude of our culture: get over your grief quickly, and five years is certainly too long a time to feel sad over a parent’s death. But consider that Paul Erdos was born a Jew in Hungary in 1913: while he was able to leave Hungary, he lived through two world wars and a Communist dictatorship; many in his family were killed by the Nazis, and his father was imprisoned in a Siberian gulag; he was blacklisted from entering the United States during the McCarthy era because he was from what was then a Communist country. I think there’s something in American culture — particularly upper middle class (i.e., college educated) white American culture — that wants us to believe that life is perfect, and wants us to reject anything that challenges that belief. Erdos had a more realistic understanding of life, an understanding that was not predicated on denying real problems, and so he felt free to feel very sad about his mother’s death five years after she had died — to the awkward bewilderment of Herb Wilf.

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