The teary thing.

Dear friends,

So I told you the other day I had a million things running through my mind, and this is the third thing that is falling onto the page, one I never guessed I would share.

You see, I was reading Momastery the other day and I stumbled across this post from a year ago. I was reading Glennon’s story about Anna’s story, about death and fear and courage, and I cried and cried. And all the crying prompted half of the million-bazillion thoughts racing through my mind until I pushed them away because, geeeeeez, who needs a downer first thing in the morning? And despite the teary start to that day, my week turned out pretty darn great (a hard project completed, a financial reward, a lovely surprise from my oldest child).

And so by Friday, you know, I went to bed feeling happy. I closed my eyes and one sentence, 13 words that began with “When I was nine years old . . .” popped into my head. Just popped into my head and announced that I needed to rise. And so I crawled out of bed well after midnight and found my laptop in the dark and opened a blank document and filled it with a story that spilled out fully formed in a matter of minutes, 1,226 words that were born out of Glennon’s story about Anna’s story.

My story seems heavy, but don’t take it that way. Because I feel a lightness, a peace, an unshakable confidence in the power of love. One minute I was afraid and the next I wasn’t and I just sorta thought well, huh, this is different. And two years later, Glennon inspired me to dig deep and write it down.

With gratitude {for all the real Superheroes of the world, also known as Mothers},

Joan, who also has an unshakable confidence in the power of telling our stories

Witness

When I was nine years old, my maternal grandfather died in our bathroom. He had been on the toilet and something happened. I’m not sure what, something with his heart I think. I was in the living room engrossed in The Waltons when I heard my mother yelling for help.

There was no one to help. My maternal grandmother had suffered a stroke a few months earlier and was still recovering. She sat lame and mute on the sofa while I sat frozen nearby, both of us listening to my mother’s pleas.

“Please help me! Please call someone!” my mother frantically pleaded.  This was before the days of 9-1-1. I have little memory of making the call other than fumbling with the phone. I don’t even recall who I phoned – the Fire Department maybe – because soon enough they showed up. A long time later, two men in uniforms took my grandfather out on a gurney, a black drape over his body. It was late and very dark outside and I remember sitting under the harsh overhead light in our living room and staring out our front door, which had been propped open by the firemen and seemed like the portal to a darkness I would fear for a very long time.

The next day my mother sent me to stay with my widowed paternal grandmother who lived an hour away.  I loved my Gram but she was even older than my grandfather and as soon as evening rolled around, I became anxious. If something happened to Gram, I knew I would bear witness to her passing all alone. I don’t recall how I coped through the first night or two, but as the days passed on, I started inventing reasons to invite younger adults over or spend our evenings anywhere but alone together in my Gram’s house. I was terrified of being alone with old people after dark for a very long time.

Two years later, my brother died in his sleep at age 26. He was married and – for reasons I don’t to this day understand – his wife called my mother on the phone to tell her. Once again, my disabled grandmother sat mute and I sat frozen in our living room on an early Saturday morning as my mother absorbed the loss of her son over the phone amidst the din of Looney Tunes on our hulking console television.

I will never forget my mother’s wailing. She rushed to the bathroom and lost her bowels and vomited violently and screamed and retched like nothing I had ever seen. I cried and screamed, too, begging her to stop. She couldn’t stop.  I left the bathroom and went to my bedroom and shut the door. I have no memory of who tended to my mother – or my grandmother, for that matter — on that day.

A few years later, my grandmother, who had been failing for so many years, finally died at home, too. I was away at summer camp. My father – who I rarely saw — arrived unannounced in the middle of the night to retrieve me. All I could think of was “Thank god I got to miss this one.” My father had been drinking, and as he drove dangerously fast for more than two hours over the narrow and curving two-lane road back to my mother’s home, I recall wondering if death by automobile accident was preferable to other options.

And so, by the time I was a teenager, I had grown to fear death like no other occurrence, no matter how it arrived. I had been witness to its ravages, on the souls departed and the souls remaining, poor souls wounded and grieving, mute and wailing, young and old. I figured I might do anything to sidestep its grasp, from siding with God or bargaining with the Devil, to living healthy so as to delay its arrival as long as possible, to closing off my heart so that if it claimed another loved one, I wouldn’t feel it, wouldn’t fall into a shock, wouldn’t retch until my bones crumbled into a dust that choked me from the inside out.

***

It was Winston Churchill, I think, who said the only thing to fear is fear itself.  I got it, the very first time I heard those words in school. The fear could kill you too, he knew and I knew, more slowly, more deliberately than any real threat. Because despite the shock of losing three family members at such a young age, the rest of my adolescence and young adulthood were free of death or even hardship of most sorts, except the kind you carry around in your heart that you don’t want to hold and yet can’t release because even fear becomes an old friend after so long, a friend just waiting for you to turn your head so he can strangle you.

It’s funny to me how adult coping mechanisms are so similar to youthful ones, the bargains, the distractions, the rationalizations, easily conjured in age-appropriate expressions. I watched as family members fell prey to the kind of distractions that came in a bottle, or a needle, or a capsule and vowed to find another path. Mine became a particularly astringent kind of stoicism that bent to neither pleasure nor pain, a furious sobriety that could just as easily choke you from the inside out.

And then I had babies and the whole world changed.  I hid under my wings two beautiful and miraculous creatures, rendered so perfectly, so wholly sublime I thought my heart might burst like the Grinch’s from growing three sizes too big in an instant.  And oh my god I panicked. I remembered my mother and I panicked. Most people didn’t see it, but my husband sensed it, the way I fretted excessively over every fever, every cut, every potentially injurious speck that invaded their realm. When they lived through all their childhood illnesses and seemed to be safe and thriving, I invented nightmares to torture myself until I awoke in a fright because remember how I said fear can be an old friend and I seemed to need one in the midst of so much happiness that I worried couldn’t last.

***

Not long before my mother died, I held her hand and we cried together in a dark hospital room. We didn’t talk much, just a few words. We were staring down death together, as we had those times before, but this day calmly and quietly. She said she’d had a good life and she wasn’t afraid. Strangely, I wasn’t afraid either, for the first time. How had I blamed her all those years for frightening me so, and yet this time, she was leading me, helping me through it? Did she know, had she planned for this last gift to me of peace and courage? Her silhouette was so small, so frail, but she was a medal of bravery, burnished by life’s hard edges, glowing in the distant light from outside the door of her hospital room. We were looking from the dark into the light, a literal antonym of the portal etched in my memory on the first night I met death at age nine.  It was as if she was saying, “See, you can do it.  You can feel it and endure it.”

And I finally, wondrously came to understand that crazy retching love is not the thing to fear, not the thing that crushes you in the face of unimaginable loss, but the thing that sustains you and substantiates you and buoys your injured soul across the Sea of Healing until you are able to swim alone again.

My mother taught me that. It just took me many years to understand the lesson.

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Comments

  1. afterthekidsleave says:

    Beautiful post, Beth. Thank you.
    Karen

  2. Stupendous

  3. Joan Marie you have honored us this morning with your witness. Thank you for your trust and for the honesty to be found in these words both wrapping around and offering up your truth.

    I think of myself as a recovering Church Lady. Without getting involved in the hows, whys, or wherefores I will share in response one tiny bit of knowing I have taken away after years of struggle with faith and faithful people. The most important two words in scripture: “Fear not”.

  4. Simply.. Awesome.

  5. Reblogged this on Fly On the wall and commented:
    Simply.. Awesome, read and weap and feel you soul grow with just a little more acceptance of life, death and loss x

  6. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil: For thou art with me….
    Thank you for a beautiful post.

  7. This post resonates in my heart. Thank you for writing it so beautifully and sharing it with all of us.

  8. Wow. That is so incredibly beautiful. I too felt my heart grow 3 sizes bigger when I had Jack and Margaret. Amazing post about loss and love and survival!

  9. Wow. Terrific post.

  10. Oh my. Incredibly beautiful.

Trackbacks

  1. […] know a little something about Ashley’s parents’ pain after watching my mother lose an adult son. Still, in spite of everything I think I know about grief and heartache, I find myself with few […]

  2. […] blessings — the unlimited capacity of the human heart for hope, healing and reconciliation. The teary thing. ? Debt of Gratitude Joan, aka the Unaquilter "I've never been to heaven, but I've been to Oklahoma." […]

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