Narrating Loss, Boston And Beyond
The losses in Boston this week -- both the losses of life and the losses of limb -- left me in a still, quiet, contemplative place, the state I enter when a loss is so total that the only refuge is the bitter truth. In these moments my resistance falls away, and I experience something that is deeper than grief. I experience the surrender and deep release that comes when we let go all hope, and accept things as they are: That the loved one is gone. That the leg is gone. That they’re not coming back.
The loss of limb has particular resonance for me. When I was fifteen, my dear friend Kitty was diagnosed with bone cancer. It cost her a leg, in an above the knee amputation -- and it nearly cost her her life. Nearly two decade later, Kitty got cancer again. This time breast cancer. It took her uterus, her breasts and, after a failed bone marrow transplant, her life.
Watching Kitty lose her leg opened me to the deep truth at the bottom of all resistance: that there are something that can’t be fixed, some things that can never be redeemed. When you lose a limb, no matter what comes after, you will never get it back, you will never be made whole. Other losses are like this also; amputation just makes it visible.
I've thought about loss a lot in the years since Kitty lost her leg. Aside from losing my father when I was twelve, the casualty of nasty custody and visitation dispute that would separate us for the rest of my childhood, Kitty’s amputation was the seminal loss of my young life. I lost my innocence and Kitty, in a loss far greater than my own, lost her leg. Until then, I’d imagined that we could recover from anything. This despite having suffered great, if invisible, losses of my own. Even after Kitty lost her leg, I trained my attention on the good news: Kitty hadn’t died as the doctors predicted; she did get on with some semblance of her life. Then Kitty called me one day in our early thirties to tell me she had breast cancer. The journey that followed ensured that the center, my seat of denial, would not hold: there are losses that are permanent, things that cannot be made whole.
What I remember of my conversation with Kitty that day: That I told her I was sorry, and if she ever wanted to talk about death and dying, I was there. I don’t know where that thought came from. Even less do I know why it came out of my mouth. But those words were the right one. Two weeks before Kitty died, she called me. It was Friday, Thanksgiving weekend. We’d been playing phone tag for several days. It was a rare day when Kitty had enough energy to talk. Talk we did. For two hours. It was the last conversation we would ever had, a conversation in which she asked me about death and what happens when we die. And I answered her. I spoke with certainty. My esoteric beliefs echoed her own. I did not know if my words were true, only that they were an offering she needed, a light on a path that she would have to travel alone.
When I heard about the bombings in Boston I thought of Kitty. The reports of people losing their legs catapulted me back to the days when Kitty was battling phantom pains, to the night when I carried her on my back into the spa where she was doing rehabilitative exercise, to our last conversation, that Friday after Thanksgiving Day. Kitty was ready that day, she was ready to exit this world. The things that had given her life texture and quality were gone. She couldn’t sit and look at her garden. The mere act of sitting there made her too tired. She awaited her death. It came. Friends who were there in the hour of her passing told me the story of how Kitty shot out of here like she was shooting out of a canon, while they read to her, from The Tibetan Book Of The Dead. She’d already fallen, through the trap door at the bottom of all our grief, into the deepest layers of surrender and release. When Kitty died, she took flight.
Kitty was cremated as she had wished. I spoke at her memorial service, in her mother’s church in our Southern home town. Driving home with my mother, I struggled to make sense of Kitty’s suffering. There had been so much, it had seemed so unredeemed. My mother threw me the only life raft she had. She offered that perhaps the meaning of Kitty's suffering lay in what it taught those she left behind. “No,” I answered, “what was the meaning of the suffering for her?” In the end, that’s what we want to know. We want our losses to mean something for us, to redeem us, to somehow unleash our gifts. It’s a narrative that ameliorates our grief. If you believe, genuinely believe, that it is God’s will, that God has a plan, that your suffering is amended by the gifts it allows you to give, then the loss becomes more bearable, it seems. But there are other gifts, gifts that can only be gotten by looking a thing in the eye and seeing that it isn’t God’s will, that there is no plan, that sometimes tragedy befalls us just because. The gift we gain when we face our sorrows straight-no-chaser is the gift of clarity. And from clarity descends peace.
I’ve thought a lot about my mother’s offering on the day of Kitty’s memorial. She’d pulled from her arsenal a palliative, something to soften the blow, whereas I just rent my clothes. What I learned from the renting is that healing comes at the end of all our resisting. It comes when we accept -- whenever we’re ready, whenever we can -- that a thing is so. That it is so, and we do not know why it happened, and that, in the end, it won’t be all right. I learned how to do this from Kitty when, years after her death, I sat down with her sister Martha who told me stories of how, after the amputation, Kitty would scream through the night, “Give me back my leg.” She told me how, before she lost her leg, Kitty was poised to set the world on fire and how, afterwards, she was a diminished version of herself. It’s not the thing you would have noticed, Kitty is one of the most luminous people I’ve ever known, but the losses weren’t superficial. She took the GED because walking up and down the stairs at our three-story high school caused her prosthesis to rub the skin of her leg raw. At college at Mount Holyoke, in the years, one presumes, before the Americans With Disabilities Act, Kitty fought to ensure that there would be full campus-wide access for people with disabilities. She never got to date or just be a woman with two legs. She was eccentric, but I don’t know if she would have been had she gotten to keep both her legs. She adapted, she was an artist and an eccentric who made art from old prosthetic legs, but adapting by definition means that we’re not the same. It means that we’ve had to make do and that we’ve managed to.
Losing her leg changed Kitty forever, as it will change the people who lost their legs this week in Boston. Like Kitty, they’ve entered a land that any of us could enter at any moment: the land of the disabled. I know from sitting with Kitty in her loss, and in the corner of her grief that she opened to me, that it is hard terrain in a less hospitable land. And this is what loss is like. It hobbles you. It takes something away. And the things it takes away, you can’t get back.
My wish for the living victims of Monday’s attack and for the survivors of those who died is that they will accommodate themselves to the new land in which they live. And yes, I wish them palliatives, for as long as they need them, but mostly I wish them surrender and grace and peace.