To A. This isn't written for you. You don't need to take care of me over this one; this is written for myself, and it is how I cope. I love you forever.
I remember when I was small, not understanding why the adults around me were so serious. Everyone talked about how hard life was, and I thought that was a sign of how ridiculous adults could be.
That says a lot for how good a job the adults around me did, on the whole, caring for me as a child, and what a happy childhood I really had.
But I also remember when I learned for the first time about death.
I was about eight years old. My parents had been away for the weekend, and they'd left us overnight with our babysitter's family, which had been all right except for the fact that the sheets all smelled funny and, in the middle of the night, the world was very gray and I was very homesick.
But when they picked me and my younger brother up in the morning, about halfway home from the babysitter's, they broke the news to us. Probably my parents had spent some time carefully working out how to let us know, in the way that would produce the least trauma: our friends' Hal and Mark's father was dead.
Hal and Mark were our best friends: Hal was a year younger than I was, and Mark was three years older. They lived right across the street from us, and we were in and out of each others' houses and yards all the time. I probably knew the inside of their house better than I knew my own.
I laughed. Literally--I laughed out loud, because I knew perfectly well that my parents were lying to us.
People you know don't die. Not real people. Not real people's fathers.
Somehow, I learned he had died of a heart attack. I learned (or did I just imagine?) that he'd died in the kitchen, that he had fallen to the kitchen floor, and died.
I can no longer remember anything else about that kitchen. But I remember the damn floor. I suppose I never looked at it the same way again.
That kitchen floor was the beginning of my learning curve.
So here I am, forty-nine, almost fifty, and I'm still learning. I no longer laugh at the lessons.
Some leave memories I cherish, though it would be hard to explain why to anyone else:
I remember getting a phone call just after I'd settled in to bed one night when I was in my thirties, mom of a young child, still living in Vermont. My closest friend and coven-mate called to tell me his mom had died, and would I please come over with his other friends and keep him company?
We played Trivial Pursuit until the small hours of the morning. Nobody really kept score; it was just a way of being there without being... too much there. It was right at the time.
I remember being with my mother when her own mother was dying in a nursing home in Maine. We slept in more wrong-smelling sheets--Peter and I in the guest bedroom, my mom in my grandmother's own bed. Shortly after I woke up from a nightmare in the deep of the night, the phone rang. My mom answered it, and I was with her when she took the call.
She and I stayed up until the sun rose, she wrapped in a quilt made by her grandmother that she'd taken from a box at the foot of the bed. She may have shared it with me at times... I have no idea what we talked about, but I vividly remember the sight of her long, slender bare foot, pink with cold, peeking out from under the blanket.
And I remember the sound of that silence--like the sound you get when you brush the rough surface of porcelain with a finger. The sound of grief in the air, potent and without words.
I am so grateful to have been with my mother that night, for the intimacy of the grief she let me see and share with her. I'm more grateful that I had that memory within me when, last year, after my mother's near-fatal accident, I sat beside her hospital bed in Maine.
I remember my father, on that nightmarish trip last November. There is something surreal and outside of time about the inside of a hospital at night anyway, even without the fear of bereavement and the terrible quiet beeps and hissings of an ICU around you.
I remember taking my father's hand, after a brief visit to my mother's room. She--my amazing, bionic, athletic and unstoppable mom, stopped by the impact of that car, surrounded by metal and machinery, her knuckles suddenly seeming impossibly large in hands suddenly much, much too thin. She sent us away at one point, to keep us from seeing her pain when they had to move her.
I'm not sure it helped my dad not to be there. He had her pain in his bones at that point, ground into him where it was cold and unchallengeable.
When I took his hand, and we walked down the hallway to the little waiting area off the ICU, I felt a very, very fine tremor, not just in his hand, but all the way into him and through him, like the sound of a Tibetan singing bowl just before the sound can register, maybe. Or like the sound crystal makes before it shatters.
I took my father's hand, and he was old. For the first time ever, more even than his cancer had made him, I saw my father old. My father, giant not just of my childhood and his grandchildren's, but of men and women he trained and led and befriended and worked with. My father has always been a large man, not just in height, but in charisma, energy, imagination.
I wish I could tell you somehow what I felt when I took his hand.
I felt the truth. He's dying. We're all dying. It's just a matter of time. And... the hurt of it is too big to hold in or to let out or to make peace with or to make war on. All we can do is tremble, like he was doing, with that very, very fine tremor.
Life kills us. And grief stays with us, etched into the heart like lines on glass, even when the terror and the fear have passed. My mom's alive. My dad is healthy and strong. But we know something we didn't want to know.
Figuring this out now, at almost-fifty, is a bit like starting to get the roof on as winter sets in. But I'm getting it, bit by bit: life hurts, the people we love get sick or go crazy or do terrifying things with terrifying consequences, and sometimes they even die on us and leave us alone to grieve, the most impossible thing of all.
Here's what I've got for comfort; here's what I've picked up, scraps to carry me when it gets bad:
Nothing is ever lost forever. I don't know if I believe in a heaven or an afterlife, but I think that, somehow, I've been blessed to look into the River of Light. It's always there, flowing through the roots of things. I came from there, and I'll go back there, and so will you. I don't know if I'll be me, or if you'll be you, but we'll be there. This I know... experientially.
There is always joy. You can't defeat death, fear, grief. The terrible things keep happening, and they really do just get harder and harder as we go along.
But there really is always joy.
The worst year I have ever had in my life was about seven years ago. Fear and anger are a terrible mixture, and I was awash in them, almost helpless against them.
And my best friend adopted a son--not an infant, but a young man of five, with the most amazing, intelligent black eyes. I met him within days of the placement, and I remember the look of hope (and maybe a bit of fear) in his eyes. And the overwhelming tenderness in the eyes of my friend and her husband.
While my life seemed to be in ruins, the next few years I held that boy's picture, and eventually the pictures of his siblings, over my heart, like a plaster holding that organ together. My friend's joy carried me through my own grief and pain, and I learned a truth: make your life large enough that, when you are in despair, you can look up and find some corner of your world where there is cause for gratitude.
In fact, that's one of the main lessons for surviving grief:
Find the gratitude.
Not for the grief. I'm not saying that--I'm never saying that. But for whatever else there is to be grateful for.