Loss is easy to find.
It’s everywhere you look, if you’re looking. Losing the game, losing a friend, losing your cool. Whatever’s no longer meant to be, gone. Or if you’re not a believer in fate, then statistical probability at the very least: you can’t win ’em all. We chalk it up to another failure, another why me, we stare down into that hole, regret knocking at our door, wondering what might happen if we lean too far forward.
Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. — Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
It’s a new year, and I made all these resolutions I’m sure to break. But the one thing I want to work harder at is seeing the silver lining, looking at the glass half-full, rather than shattered on the floor. Loss is a tough nut to crack with this perspective. There’s nothing more universal, the common thread of grief that binds us together even as it tears us apart. And even if you’re not Debbie Downer, it’s everywhere you look: accidents, illness, bad luck, ready or not, here they come.
Sometimes, tragedy strikes even when you most expect it.
A year ago, we lost my mother. She was sick for a long time. Smoking for 40 years = lung cancer, you don’t need algebra to understand that. My family’s grief was (and is) no different than anybody else’s, it was just our turn up at bat, facing the fate we all share, that the body gives up soon enough.
Our last conversation, pre-occupied long-distance. My mom, “I’m too tired tonight. Talk to your father.” No big announcement, no warning that this call was, in fact, different from the rest, just my promise to call Sunday, which ended up being me getting on a plane instead, because she passed on Saturday. And so, that inconsequential call was anything but, because we would never talk again.
Silly me, this whole time I thought I was in control.
The funeral. The flowers. The I’m sorry’s. The what-the-f*ck of it all. Is this a dream? The memories: first lessons, Mom teaching me how to tie my shoes, before Velcro saved the both of us. How could she not BE? The silence, after, the funny notion of back to normal when that road remained unpaved. She used to get upset if we didn’t talk every few days. Why isn’t she calling me now? She loved her nights at home. How could she not find her way home now? Is wherever she is so amazing that nobody wants to return? The part-time atheist in me suggests, maybe she no longer exists. Faith and proof, two sides of the same coin, though whether you call heads or tails, it’s still an un-winnable game.
Where is she??
In the aftermath, my family asked each other lots of questions too, some of which had answers. Is she better off? Yes. Do we want her back in that prison of a body? No. Doesn’t time heal all wounds? TBD. And of course, the biggest questions only required single words: How? Why? I begged God for answers but He never called me back. So Google became my new best friend.
Is there an afterlife?
I grew up Presbyterian, so I already knew the stock answers that cleared up nothing. But now, a new urgency. I must know, but of course, even with 18 million results, Google is no better off than me. I hold on to my hypothesis, my amateur merging of science and religion: we come from stardust, so to stardust we must return. Nothing can be created or destroyed. Right? But something I grew sure of, with death, something goes missing. The body is not the person. The eyes. Something missing implies something went somewhere, which implies she does still exist. With this shoddy analysis I cling to the hope that someday I will see my mom again.
A year passes. My dad hangs on. The train keeps moving, even if you miss your stop. You can’t mourn forever, though some days I feel like trying. I get the news. A friend, 38, heart attack. Gone. A friend of a friend, 35, colon cancer. Soon enough, gone. A cousin of a friend, heart attack on Christmas. A stent, and a second chance. The music stops and if you’re unlucky, the chairs are all taken. That terrifies me, though these days it would be easier to count the things that don’t scare me over the things that do.
When did death start becoming normal?
Though, strange new things also occur: perspective, wisdom, for friends struggling with their own fresh loss. I hear myself: I’m sorry. I understand. It will hurt, until it doesn’t. I’m no longer the new kid on the block. I know how this goes, so now, it’s my turn to help.
Maybe that’s the last, great lesson from my mom: Even the worst things can have a purpose. I’ve learned empathy. How’s that for a silver lining.
Some other observations:
1. Grief unites us. I’m closer to my family. Geography still separates, but we call, FaceTime and text more than ever, if only to complain about the weather.
2. If time doesn’t heal all wounds, it at least softens them. A year later, it doesn’t hurt as much. And the good memories linger.
3. Let go of the past, plan for the future, live in the present. I fail at this daily, but I work to appreciate the moments we have.
4. Part of us leaves when a loved one passes, but part of them stays. Maybe not here, physically, but a presence nonetheless remains.