La Pieta

In 1978, my father’s parents took me on a four-week tour of Italy, Switzerland and Monaco. I was 14 and generally forgive myself for sleeping through Nice, though given a second change, I’d swill some coffee, prop my eyes open and beg Grandpa to swing around the block a few times.

We went to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It’s not enough to say there’s nothing like it but the point in important. It’s vast and sumptuous and gilded and endless and candlelit and every few feet the tourist finds something he or she saw in an art book or heard about in a class somewhere. Everyone’s seen reproductions because the originals have raw power and unmistakable voltage. Our tour group through the Vatican was small that afternoon. When we came to Michelangelo’s Pieta, I didn’t just stare. I felt that sculpture ripple through me, body and soul. I felt its agony and grief, its tenderness and devotion. Four hands grabbed my shoulders and lifted me off the ground. Without any conscious thought, I’d walked toward the Pieta, and the Swiss Guard moved to intercept me – with spears. When my feet left the ground, the spell broke. My grandfather shook me.

Tata: What? What’s happening?
Grandparents talking at once: What are you doing? Did you see the guards? Are you okay? What’s wrong with you?

I had no recollection of trying to touch the sculpture, but such is the power of the image that I was not standing and looking, I was moving to comfort the grieving mother. So they told me. All I remembered was a tidal wave of loss. What the hell, I was a kid, and trying to comfort a statue is the amusingly futile gesture of the century. Woo hoo! “Cheer up, Mom! He’s touring the Holy Land as a headliner!” But I won’t blush when I think about the empathy at the root of this moment. It is not weakness that permits us to consider the feelings of others but strength; it was not too long before our trip that Grandma had started talking to me about a daughter lost in infancy. The Pieta was no abstraction, and I was starting to understand there could be no greater pain than the loss of a child.

There’s some adult carry-over from this moment, razor-sharp and subtly silly: I can’t even watch Disney movies in which children are separated from their mothers. Dumbo and Bambi as a double feature could put me in the Carrier Clinic. Sophie’s Choice made me toss my waffles. TV movies about Marilyn Monroe’s childhood cause me to weep inconsolably. Everyone’s got a soft spot, and this one’s mine. So you know where I’m going with this: when I see Cindy Sheehan’s face, and I think about her losing her son, and the depth to which her pain must fill in the hollow spaces and bring her to the surface we see, I know that in her position I might drown. I might never wish to see daylight again but she does. For this reason alone, when her detractors speak ill of her, they shame themselves. For this reason alone, Centrists and the Left must embrace her, comfort her, quit the equivocating and think less about our fears. When we are afraid to be seen as passionate seekers of justice we surrender to those who obstruct it, and we are seen for what we are: cowards unworthy of our fierce history of brave resistance.

Must we shame ourselves this way?

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