Grief and things
I wrote this essay more than three thousand days ago. Just sharing because, well, it’s Tuesday evening.
Certain nights become etched in one’s memory, like hearts and handprints drawn in wet cement that eventually become permanent. Often, time appears to take away the sting, but then the vision comes back strongly, ferociously. It is safest to just say that things advance and retreat, and no amount of time will change that. That’s what I have to keep reminding myself, so that I never expect this to be easier. Some days I am steadier than others. Some days I can listen to certain songs without crying, other days I can’t. I remind myself that any response is alright.
In my family, we never spoke of death before it hit us. Any mention of the possibility of death of a loved one elicited shushes and heads shaking back and forth. We must not speak of this, the gestures seemed to say. Things are different now. It appears that very suddenly, without anyone’s consent, life was split in two: into “before” and “after.” “Before” means the times I remember prior to January 25, 2006. “After” refers to the twists and turns life has taken in the last year and two months, ever since that one night two days after my twenty-fourth birthday when I realized that I may be picked up off my feet, thrown high into the air, and left to tumble back to the ground with all the fear evoked by such falling.
The memory of the night it happened is burned into me. I truly believed that my mother would live much longer than her 44 years. I realize now that to have expected that was probably foolish of me. No one ever knows when it will happen. It is far better to appreciate every day as a gift, with no guarantees. That night I was lying on her bed, reading her notecards. Outside her window, the salty water fell in waves to the ground, shifting the sand back and forth, back and forth. I remember how I stood up when my father’s call came, tense and edgy. About a half hour before I had been seized by some unwelcome feeling in my chest, my heart beating faster and with dread. I remember how I fell to my knees when he told me. His first words were: “You have to be strong,” and he was crying. “You have to be strong for everyone else.” Telling all my siblings happened suddenly I think, and the house seemed unsteady, as if we were being rocked by the waves crashing on the shore outside. I remember looking at the tiled floor and I could swear it was moving, slowly, side-to-side as if the entire house were perched on a seesaw or rocked about on an unsettled sea.
Our immediate reactions were individual and yet strangely communal. Some of us were nearly quiet, intellectually accepting but emotionally devastated. Some of us didn’t believe it, and we uttered words like, “It’s not real; it wasn’t supposed to happen this way.” Some of us moved violently, shaking ourselves through each corner of the house, as if we’d turn a corner and find a place that had yet to receive the news. A place where this could possibly be a mistake.
One of the most striking things to me was the realization that nothing outside of the circle of people surrounding me had changed. As I bore the news to each of my five younger siblings, and when I spoke to my husband, I realized through the fog enveloping us all that our physical surroundings remained the same. As we all made the necessary preparations to leave that night for Atlanta where she had passed, I noticed that nothing had changed but us. It did not seem right. Our lives had changed in an instant, yet the world looked the same.
There is no ladder to climb up out of grief. It is not a linear sort of healing leading away from despair toward peace. Grief comes and goes, in fits and stages. At times grief is a sudden roller coaster one never agreed to ride. Other times it steadies itself underneath one’s skin, moving rhythmically to every corner, burrowing out from the heart into the tips of fingers and toes. And I have become aware of another personification of grief: a hole. A hole in the ground I move about constantly throughout the course of my day. Sometimes I am scared, and circle the precipice hoping I do not slip and fall in. Other times I live wherever I am, and I move about knowing exactly what is there, but without fear of being consumed by it. Other times, I am unsteady and fall in, spiraling back into feeling the loss, remembering the night it happened. And sometimes, I send myself in willingly, and come out less afraid.
It is so difficult to remember her and not think of the loss, but I try to remember the time we had rather than the time that was taken from us. I try to be grateful for the 44 years of her life, and the 24 years I knew her. As a family, we hated movies that lead you along splendidly until at the very end, someone suddenly dies. We especially hated movies in which the mother dies, although we never truly thought that life would imitate art. We most often chose films for their ability to be an escape. We always chose laughter over tears or most kinds of seriousness. My mother once said that if she could instill anything in her children it would be a sense of humor. Since her passing, I have realized the incredible healing power of laughter. How prophetic for her to have realized that humor would be her greatest gift to the children she introduced to the world, because it would help to bring us peace with her unexpected exit.