To pay more attention to what is not said than what is said.
You are not your pain. You are not your wounds and scars. You are better things. You are possibility and promise, hope and healing, day dreams, favourite books and favourite songs. You are the people you love and the people who love you. You are hope and change and things worth fighting for.
I needed this reminder this week. =)
So, what happened?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Life. Everything.” And she asked more, but I did not tell her more. You can’t go through life like this! is how one friend put it to me, and I did not say anything to that but in my head I said, watch me.
And I’ll tell you what I worry about. I worry that I’ll always be like this. That that young, happy optimist is forever dead and this is the new me: slyer, yes. Smarter, maybe. But with a cruel streak, and with some sort of inability to trust others. Almost like being handicapped. I worry that there’s no getting better from this, and I worry that my nature has gotten the better of me. And I worry that if there was ever a time to make better choices, that time is up.
“A real woman always keeps her house clean and organized, the laundry basket is always empty. She’s always well dressed, hair done. She never swears, behaves gracefully in all situations and all circumstances. She has more than enough patience to take care of her family, always has a smile on her lips, and a kind word for everyone. Reblog this if you, too, have just realized that you might be a man.”
WE ARE NOT allowed this. We are allowed to be deeply into basketball, or Buddhism, or Star Trek, or jazz, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to “let go of,” to “move on from,” and we are told specifically how this should be done. Countless well-intentioned friends, distant family members, hospital workers, and strangers I met at parties recited the famous five stages of grief to me: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I was alarmed by how many people knew them, how deeply this single definition of the grieving process had permeated our cultural consciousness. Not only was I supposed to feel these five things, I was meant to feel them in that order and for a prescribed amount of time….
WE LIKE TO say how things are, perhaps because we hope that’s how they might actually be. We attempt to name, identify, and define the most mysterious of matters: sex, love, marriage, monogamy, infidelity, death, loss, grief. We want these things to have an order, an internal logic, and we also want them to be connected to one another. We want it to be true that if we cheat on our spouse, it means we no longer want to be married to him or her. We want it to be true that if someone we love dies, we simply have to pass through a series of phases, like an emotional obstacle course from which we will emerge happy and content, unharmed and unchanged.
After my mother died, everyone I knew wanted to tell me either about the worst breakup they’d had or all the people they’d known who’d died. I listened to a long, traumatic story about a girlfriend who suddenly moved to Ohio, and to stories of grandfathers and old friends and people who lived down the block who were no longer among us. Rarely was this helpful.
Occasionally I came across people who’d had the experience of losing someone whose death made them think, I cannot continue to live. I recognized these people: their postures, where they rested their eyes as they spoke, the expressions they let onto their faces and the ones they kept off. These people consoled me beyond measure. I felt profoundly connected to them, as if we were a tribe.
It’s surprising how relatively few of them there were. People don’t die anymore, not the way they used to. Children survive childhood; women, the labors of birth; men, their work. We survive influenza and infection, cancer and heart attacks. We keep living on and on: 80, 90, 103. We live younger, too; frightfully premature babies are cloistered and coddled and shepherded through. My mother lived to the age of forty-five and never lost anyone who was truly beloved to her. Of course, she knew many people who died, but none who made her wake to the thought: I cannot continue to live.
And there is a difference. Dying is not your girlfriend moving to Ohio. Grief is not the day after your neighbor’s funeral, when you felt extremely blue. It is impolite to make this distinction. We act as if all losses are equal. It is un-American to behave otherwise: we live in a democracy of sorrow. Every emotion felt is validated and judged to be as true as any other.
But what does this do to us: this refusal to quantify love, loss, grief? Jewish tradition states that one is considered a mourner when one of eight people dies: father, mother, sister, brother, husband, wife, son, or daughter. This definition doesn’t fulfill the needs of today’s diverse and far-flung affections; indeed, it probably never did. It leaves out the step-relations, the long-term lovers, the chosen family of a tight circle of friends; and it includes the blood relations we perhaps never honestly loved. But its intentions are true. And, undeniably, for most of us that list of eight does come awfully close. We love and care for oodles of people, but only a few of them, if they died, would make us believe we could not continue to live. Imagine if there were a boat upon which you could put only four people, and everyone else known and beloved to you would then cease to exist. Who would you put on that boat? It would be painful, but how quickly you would decide: You and you and you and you, get in. The rest of you, goodbye.
For years, I was haunted by the idea of this imaginary boat of life; by the desire to exchange my mother’s fate for one of the many living people I knew. I would be sitting across the table from a dear friend. I loved her, him, each one of these people. Some I said I loved like family. But I would look at them and think, Why couldn’t it have been you who died instead? You, goodbye.
…What was there to do with me? What did those around me do? They did what I would have done — what we all do when faced with the prospect of someone else’s sorrow: they tried to talk me out of it, neutralize it, tamp it down, make it relative and therefore not so bad. We narrate our own lesser stories of loss in an attempt to demonstrate that the sufferer is not really so alone. We make grossly inexact comparisons and hope that they will do. In short, we insist on ignoring the precise nature of deep loss because there is nothing we can do to change it, and by doing so we strip it of its meaning, its weight, its own fiercely original power.
…I packed my possessions and stored them in my stepfather’s barn. I took off my wedding ring and put it into a small velvet box and moved my mother’s wedding ring from my right hand to my left. I was going to drive to Portland first and then leave my truck with a friend and fly to LA and take a bus to the start of the trail. I drove through the flatlands and Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota, positive that I’d made a vast mistake.
Deep in the night, I pulled into a small camping area in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming and slept in the back of my truck. In the morning I climbed out to the sight of field of blue flowers that went right up to the Tongue River. I had the place to myself. It was spring and still cold, but I felt compelled anyway to go into the river. I decided I would perform something like a baptism to initiate this new part of my life. I took my clothes off and plunged in. The water was like ice, so cold it hurt. I dove under one time, two times, three times, then dashed out and dried off and dressed. As I walked back to my truck I noticed my hand: my mother’s wedding ring was gone.
At first I couldn’t believe it. I had believed that if I lost one thing, I would then be protected from losing another; that my mother’s death would inoculate me against further loss. It is an indefensible belief, but it was there, the same way I believed that if I endured long enough, my mother would be returned to me.
A ring is such a small thing, such a very small thing.
I went down on my hands and knees and searched for it. I patted every inch of ground where I had walked. I searched the back of my truck and my pockets, but I knew. I knew that the ring had come off in the river. Of course it had; what did I expect? I went to the edge of the water and thought about going back in, diving under again and again until I found it, but it was a useless idea, and I was defeated by it before I even began. I sat down on the edge of the water and cried. Tears, tears, so many kinds of tears, so many ways of crying. I had collected them, mastered them; I was a priestess, a virtuoso of crying.
I sat in the mud on the bank of the river for a long time and waited for the river to give the ring back to me. I waited and thought about everything. I thought about Mark and my boat of life. I thought what I would say to him then, now, forever: You, get in. I thought about the Formerly Gay Organic Farmer and the Quietly Perverse Poet and the Terribly Large Texas Bull Rider and the Five Line Cooks I Had on Separate Occasions over the Course of One Month. I thought about how I was never again going to sleep with anyone who had a title instead of a name. I was sick of it. Sick of fucking, of wanting to fuck the wrong people and not wanting to fuck the right ones. I thought about how if you lose a ring in a river, you are never going to get it back, no matter how badly you want it or how long you wait.
I leaned forward and put my hands into the water and held them flat and open beneath the surface. The soft current made rivulets over my bare fingers. I was no longer married to Mark. I was no longer married to my mother.
I was no longer married to my mother. I couldn’t believe that this thought had never occurred to me before: that it was her I’d been faithful to all along, and that I couldn’t be faithful any longer.
IF THIS WERE fiction, what would happen next is that the woman would stand up and get into her truck and drive away. It wouldn’t matter that the woman had lost her mother’s wedding ring, even though it was gone to her forever, because the loss would mean something else entirely: that what was gone now was actually her sorrow and the shackles of grief that had held her down. And in this loss she would see, and the reader would know, that the woman had been in error all along. That, indeed, the love she’d had for her mother was too much love, really; too much love and also too much sorrow. She would realize this and get on with her life. There would be what happened in the story and also everything it stood for: the river, representing life’s constant changing; the tiny blue flowers, beauty; the spring air, rebirth. All of these symbols would collide and mean that the woman was actually lucky to have lost the ring, and not just to have lost it, but to have loved it, to have ached for it, and to have had it taken from her forever. The story would end, and you would know that she was the better for it. That she was wiser, stronger, more interesting, and, most of all, finally starting down her path to glory. I would show you the leaf when it unfurls in a single motion: the end of one thing, the beginning of another. And you would know the answers to all the questions without being told. Did she ever write that five-page paper about the guy who lost his nose? Did she ask Mark to marry her again? Did she stop sleeping with people who had titles instead of names? Did she manage to walk 1,638 miles? Did she get to work and become the Incredibly Talented and Extraordinarily Brilliant and Successful Writer? You’d believe the answers to all these questions to be yes. I would have given you what you wanted then: to be a witness to a healing.
But this isn’t fiction. Sometimes a story is not about anything except what it is about. Sometimes you wake up and find that you actually have lost your nose. Losing my mother’s wedding ring in the Tongue River was not ok. I did not feel better for it. It was not a passage or a release. What happened is that I lost my mother’s wedding ring and I understood that I was not going to get it back, that it would be yet another piece of my mother that I would not have for all the days of my life, and I understood that I could not bear this truth, but that I would have to.
Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do. It’s what I did then and there. I stood up and got into my truck and drove away from a part of my mother. The part of her that had been my lover, my wife, my first love, my true love, the love of my life.” —
Someone on my Tumblr dashboard posted a link to this crushing Sun essay by Cheryl Strayed, which feels a little like drowning and a lot like the confluence of every sort of love you have ever felt and / or lost in your whole long life. In other words, it is more than worth your time to go read this glorious piece in its entirety.
Thanks and apologies to whomever posted the original link which I can no longer find.
I cannot imagine loving my mother so fiercely. Great writing here.