Four years ago, a horrible accident shook my Upper West Side Manhattan neighborhood: A toddler sitting with her grandmother on a sidewalk bench was hit on the head by masonry that fell from an eighth-floor windowsill. The injury was fatal.
After a city investigation uncovered falsified inspection reports, the building was sold and extensively renovated and rebranded. The Department of Buildings also made changes to its procedures for facade maintenance enforcement. But few locals can forget what happened there. Anna Quindlen writes in “Nanaville” that she still gives the building wide berth when she’s pushing her grandson in his stroller.
Now the little girl’s father, Jayson Greene, has published a beautiful memoir, “Once More We Saw Stars,” about coping with the loss of his 2-year-old daughter, Greta. Needless to say, it’s heartbreaking. I read much of it through a blur of tears. But Greene’s book is also heartwarming, a valuable addition to the literature of grief and an answer to the question: How does one survive such a devastating tragedy?
The book’s title, from Dante’s “Inferno,” tips us off that Greta’s bereft parents will, in the poet’s words, “get back up to the shining world.” But “Once More We Saw Stars,” an outgrowth of a journal Greene began shortly after the accident, is a chronological account, which means there’s unthinkable pain before the arduous “path toward healing.”
Like Virgil, Greene makes for a good guide on this journey to hell and back. He’s a Brooklyn-based journalist and editor who met his wife, Stacy, a cellist by training, at the classical-music nonprofit where they both worked. After Greta’s birth, Stacy switched tracks to become a lactation consultant and nutritionist. Their story is not just of loss, but of their remarkable love, which helps them through this tragedy.
The first section painfully reconstructs the immediate aftermath of the accident, including excruciating hours at their daughter’s hospital bedside, surrounded by friends and family, after Greta was declared clinically dead. Greta had to be kept on a ventilator until recipients for her organs, which her parents agreed to donate, could be located. Greene writes movingly of his traumatized mother-in-law, who suffered leg injuries from the falling bricks: “her heartbreak is so acute it is like the sun — I can’t look at it.”
Aware that his story will reliably elicit shock and tears, Greene at one point bitterly calls himself “a rock star of grief.” But he also writes gorgeously of grief – from its initial “blaze” and ensuing “drudgery” to moments of transcendence. During a run in the park he had frequented with Greta, Greene writes about sensing her — and her loss: “Grief at its peak has a terrible beauty to it, a blinding fission of every emotion. The world is charged with significance, with meaning, and the world around you, normally so solid and implacable, suddenly looks thin, translucent.
At the park, he also begins to sense an “opening” that will somehow reconnect him with Greta. He and Stacy are forever on the hunt for such openings — partings in “the curtain separating us from her spirit.” In the absence of ties to any formal religion, they practice yoga religiously, the couple head to the Kripalu Institute in Stockbridge, Mass., for a workshop called “From Grieving to Believing,” and attend a local grief group.
At Kripalu, writer and grief expert David Kessler instructs that “a broken heart is an open heart.” Accordingly, Jayson and Stacy open themselves up to sessions with a medium — though Greene admits to skepticism: “What had our grief made us? Had we joined ranks with the suckers, the wide-eyed, the willfully deluded?”
We’re wondering the same when their quest for a spiritual connection with Greta takes them to a sanctuary in Taos, N.M., for people suffering deep grief. The couple spend what would have been their daughter’s third birthday participating in a tobacco prayer-tying ritual and a drumbeating ceremony meant to awaken visions. However strange, their spirit journey proves helpful.
Greene’s writerly skills are in evidence throughout this book. He opens with a lovely memory of the only time his daughter dipped her feet in ocean water, shortly before her death. Just as deliberately, he holds off for 200 pages before detailing their last day together, when he and Stacy, at their wit’s end with fatigue and desperate for a break, dropped off Greta with her grandmother. This explains his guilty, posthumous apologies: “I’m so sorry, baby girl . . . Your mommy and daddy just needed a weekend. If we hadn’t gotten overwhelmed you’d still be here.You have no idea how exhausted I would agree to be to keep you here. ”
Greene’s updates on Greta’s organ donations are disheartening, because the ones he mentions all failed. His report about the city’s findings regarding the building inspector’s negligence is similarly terse. (Did he and his wife sue for damages? He doesn’t say.) His aim is clearly to focus on the positive. A self-described optimist, he is wired for love and joy, and dismayed by the anger that still overcomes him at times.
He is also wired for fatherhood. Just months after Greta’s death, while playing with a friend’s kid, he writes, “I could feel my love for Greta seeking a transference point. I needed to care for and love a little person.” He and Stacy decide to have another child. Determined not to raise him in the shadow of grief or fear, their son Harrison’s due date gives them a deadline to pull themselves together.
It’s a life-affirming response to tragedy, as is their love — and this luminous book.
Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
By Jayson Greene. 243 pp. $25