28 January 2014

The Invisible Persistence of Grief

If you cut yourself while chopping onions in the midst of dinner preparations one evening, or if you burn yourself on the oven as you remove a tasty cake, someone might see that you favor a certain finger, or she might see that you've a nasty blister on your forearm. Perhaps she might even ask, “Oh! Did you hurt yourself?” She might wish you speedy healing or remark on how nasty the injury looks. My son is a chef, and his fingers and arms are full of scars from cuts and burns. One can trace the errors of his profession on his hands and arms. I have a scar from a hysterectomy, one from the time I burned myself with the iron. It is easy to see when someone is physically hurt and, for many years, to watch the healing process.

When the hurt is emotional, it’s more difficult to track and even more difficult to understand. All of us deal with disappointment and hurt on a fairly regular basis. We have arguments with loved ones, we miss out on chances and promotions we’d counted on, many of us suffer from chronic ailments that have the potential to interfere with our enjoyment of life. But we soldier on, for the most part. Then there are bigger hurts: divorce, debt, problems with children, losing jobs, or traffic accidents, for example. These kinds of burdens take a bigger toll. Some people never recover from them.

Finally, there are those devastating losses such as losing one’s home or experiencing the death of a loved one. These tragedies are like those major physical injuries that change a person. They are like the surgery that results in the removal of an organ. A person is never the same. But we often think about these events, when they happen to someone else, as being a lot like physical injuries. Eventually, a person gets “over it,” right? Observers can’t trace the “scars,” and the days go by rather quickly for those on the outside. They may even think, “Well, it’s been two years already. Things must be getting back to normal!” But they never do.

I've experienced sadness before, just as all of us have. I've been divorced twice. I lost a job once. Both of my sons had serious (but short-lived, thank goodness) problems while they were teenagers. My stepmother had Alzheimer’s, and now so does my mother. My dad died just months after I moved back to the U.S. from Australia. I have health problems that promise only to get worse. Those I have learned to deal with. I’m not generally a morose person. Then 2011 dawned.

In July that year, while visiting family in Houston, our house burned to the ground. It wasn't like those times you see on the news when people sort through the rubble and find cherished photo albums and souvenirs that miraculously were saved. We lost everything. Oh, I did find some books that were packed tightly in a box that were only singed and reek of smoke. My husband found some of his medals he earned while serving in the Marine Corps. (I never found mine from my U.S. Navy service.) But we lost baby photos (ours and our children’s); I lost all the letters my husband ever wrote to me, since the 1970s. He lost photographs he’d taken in Vietnam and during a Mediterranean cruise. When my dad died, I bought a lot of his furniture at the estate sale and furnished our house with it. Jewelry, original art, family heirlooms, his daughters’ childhood relics, my husband’s gun collection worth thousands of dollars.

Something like that changes a person. We like to visit antique stores and go to auctions. While looking things over, I often remark, I used to have something just like that. Once my younger son said, “Mom! You always say that!” I replied, “Because it’s true.” These days, we’re in a brand new house we built. It is full of furniture, jewelry, even some artwork. Friends and family sent me copies of a few of the photographs I thought were gone forever. And of course, I had some photos in “the cloud.” But now, it’s all become blurred, and I sometimes wonder, when I think I’d like to use a certain tool or wear an item of clothing, or share a photo with someone, “Do I really have that; or was it one of the things lost in the fire?” I met a man last weekend who said his house had burned to the ground 25 years ago. “You never get over that,” he said.

Then five months later, as if life hadn't smacked me around enough, my older son was killed in a senseless traffic accident that wasn't even his fault. One moment, we were planning to drive to Georgia to spend Christmas with him, and the next moment he didn't exist anymore. One day, I had two successful, handsome, loving sons, and the next day I had only one. I live that moment over, again and again, when my husband got off the phone and tried to find the words to tell me what had happened. And once again, there is this painful, tearing, destructive, almost audible break in my heart. There is no memory in my life that is more vivid, besides the moments my two sons were born. That changes a person. You never get over that.

But I’m not physically hurt. I have no scars. (Except I can see the circles under my eyes because I haven’t slept well in two years.) Most days, I’m pretty cheerful; I do my job (because I love it and because people are counting on me); I cook, clean house, do laundry, because these chores don’t “do” themselves and my husband has enough to do. I have helped him raise two orphan kittens in as many years, and we got a puppy. Because life goes on, and curling up in the fetal position and crying all day won’t bring my son back. Because when I do surrender to the overwhelming grief, I know how disappointed John would be that he might be the cause of that. I carry on.

And sometimes people mistake carrying on for “getting over it” or getting better. And that is a mistake. Most days, it takes all my concentration to get up, get dressed, and go through the day as if things were going well. So if you wonder why I don’t phone, why I don’t get out more, why I don’t visit, why I don’t take up a hobby, why…just why, I’ll tell you why. Because I am moments away from reliving that moment when my husband stood before me and said, “There’s been an accident.” I’m imagining my firstborn son, being propelled off his motorcycle, flying through the air, and hitting the windscreen column of a damned minivan with his chest, landing face down on the cold, wet pavement, his aorta cut open, and the life and love rushing out of him, hundreds of miles away from me. I’m here at home trying to remember if the green sweater that I thought I’d wear today is one I really have or one that is a pile of ashes, blowing around the Waco landfill. I’m having an internal argument with myself, trying to find the fortitude to get up and do the laundry, buy groceries, or look forward to a holiday. I’m trying to be present and cheerful because I still have a successful, handsome, loving son, and I don’t want him to see me fall apart. Because I’m his mother, and I’m stronger than that.

So I’m sorry if I don’t call or have somehow failed in my relationship with you. But this is the new me. I’m not sure I like her very much, and we’re working on that. But what you cannot see, that I see when I close my eyes, is the giant scar that is the transection that separates life before the fire and John’s death and after the fire and John’s death. This scar is where the cosmos reached in, as deftly as any surgeon, and broke my heart. And I offer this meditation not just for me, but for all of us who are struggling to live a normal life in the face of overwhelming grief – for my neighbor who lost her husband, for those folks in Bastrop who lost their homes the same year we lost ours, for my aunt who has lost two sons, for the families of those who died in West last year, for my ex-husband’s niece who lost her husband, for my friend who has been in and out of the hospital since October last year…this is for all of us. We didn't choose this; it happened. We carry on. But don’t imagine that we will ever get over it. Life will never be the same.