The Power of Being Seen: A Life that Matters, by Hanna Perlberger
We showed up early for the graveside burial. Aunt Sabina, “Shaindel,” was the last survivor of the miniscule remnant of my husband’s family that survived the war. My husband was born in Poland at the tail end of the war and spent his childhood years at Bergen-Belsen, which was hastily refurbished after the war to be a DP Camp (Displaced Persons Camp) housing the hundreds of thousands of Jews who could not go back to their countries of origin, who were barred from reclaiming their homes and their lives.
We were early, and as we stood alone we noticed something was wrong. Very wrong. Aunt Sabina was being buried next to her husband, who had predeceased her, but there was no headstone or marker of any kind on his grave. We located the groundskeeper and asked the whereabouts of their daughter who had died a few years ago. “Oh, yes, she’s up on that hill over there. There’s no marker or headstone for her either.” The only person who knew the burial sites of the family was the groundskeeper? “How could this be? In America? In America, who does this? They’re in unmarked graves? Like they didn’t exist? They didn’t matter?” My husband was incredulous, shaking his head, painfully thinking of those of his family who were shot or gassed, their throats slit, burnt to ash or shoveled into pits. Later, watching Aunt Sabina being lowered into the earth, losing his last living link to Europe, I think my husband felt displaced all over again.
I habitually read headstones when I walk through a cemetery. You can infer a lot by the dates, the inscriptions, the ornate monuments or simple markers. A baby, whose life was never lived. A grandmother surrounded by family members. Sometimes the inscription reads, “beloved husband, father, son, brother, friend”, commemorating a life of connections on all sides. “I see you,” I silently whisper as I walk down the rows.
Don’t we all want to be noticed, to be witnessed, even after death, even by a passing stranger? Don’t we want to be observed? Don’t we want witnesses to our lives? Aunt Sabina’s son, who had been his mother’s sole caretaker for years, faced a worse challenge than round-the-clock care. Alone now, no family, no job, no social or spiritual life, he was facing the despair of living an unobserved life. Who would know when he came home, when he went to bed, when he woke up… Who would be his life witness and shield him from his existential isolation? Who would be his observer? To whom would he matter?
We are hard-wired for connection. It’s the basis of well-being. When we disconnect and isolate ourselves, we can get depressed and then apathetic. Sometimes the most painful loneliness is when we are in a relationship or situation which should nurture us, but doesn’t. Who feels more hopelessly alone, for example, than someone in a marriage that lacks compassion and connection, suffering the contrast between what “could be” and “what is”.
My husband has a strange but endearing habit. We work together, but for a few years we worked in separate locations. We would have coffee together in the morning and then he would head out to his center city office (while I got to luxuriate in my bathrobe in my home office). Usually, within 5 minutes of his leaving the house, the phone would ring. I would check the caller ID and sure enough, it would be my husband, calling just to say, “Hi”. “Umm, yea, I’m pretty much the same as I was 5 minutes ago. Yea, not much new here. Yea, I’m still in my robe. Are you good? OK, I love you too, sweetheart.” We are connected and interconnected. When I make him coffee, I add 1 packet of sweetener, because that’s the way he likes it. When he orders pizza for dinner, he always brings back a container of hot peppers, because that’s the way I like it. He knows when I am only pretending to listen. I know when he is hiding his worry. He knows my breathing patterns. I know his childhood wounds. He understands why I worry about the future. When our kids say something funny or wise, we look at each other with knowing smiles. We are each other’s observers, the witnesses of each other’s lives. We take up space in each other’s hearts and minds. We notice and we see the good in each other. It may sound boring, but I want my routine comings and goings to matter. I want someone to notice when I can’t fall asleep or wonder why I am up so early, or why I am nervously eating again even though I had dinner 30 minutes ago. Simply, an observed life matters, and when we observe each other, when we stand witness to each other, seeing each other fully, and loving what we see, we matter to that which matters most. We can never feel the despair of isolation and disconnection, and we can never ever be displaced. We are finally home.