They grow up. They leave home. And then, of course, they come back. They return bearing bags of dirty laundry, stray socks, T-shirts you’ve never seen before, strange cords for charging various digital devices. They are different, in a way you can’t put your finger on. Taller, yes, but that’s not quite it. Bigger in some other way; deeper, with knowledge that won’t be shared with you. They are clean shaven (because they know you love that). They wear their hair short by choice — now that you’re no longer the one saying, “You need a haircut.” They use words like “fundamentalist” and “metaphorical” and are eager to test your knowledge on constitutional amendments and C.S. Lewis. They want to know your thoughts about original sin, and whether you can still scan a line of poetry. They realize that you will be of no help on the paper they have to write analyzing the thematic and rhythmic structure of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” They are hungry. Really, really hungry. You go through a dozen eggs a day, a gallon of orange juice, a gallon of milk. They spend hours on Facebook. Their rooms, pristinely vacant these last months, are instantly in shambles. You are not the least bit tempted to pick their jeans up off the floor. They want you to watch clips of the Daily Show at midnight, and you do, even though your bedtime lately has been closer to 10:30 than 12. (Well, admit it, you’re often in bed even earlier than that.) They ask for the car keys, and you’re happy to hand them over. When you say, “Be home for dinner,” they don’t even protest. (They appreciate your cooking!) When they’re running late, they text, to let you know. Their friends come over. . .and seem genuinely happy to see you — eager to talk, hang around in the kitchen, tell you about their lives as they eat your food. They say “thank you” for the meal and put their dishes into the dishwasher without being asked. You hear the thwack of ping pong balls in the basement, cries of victory, deep laughter. You don’t tell anyone what time to go to bed, or worry about what they’re doing down there after you’re asleep. You wake up at four, in a dark and silent house, and allow your thoughts to drift. The very thing you once took for granted — two boys asleep in their own beds down the hall — has become rare. You used to think that you would never get “your” life back, the one where you got to choose how to spend your own time, or what to watch on TV, or how loud the music in the car should be. But of course, it’s been your life all along, and those little boys were always on their way out the door, growing up and growing away from you, even as they were pressing your buttons and driving you nuts and forgetting their homework and not brushing their teeth. You wonder if you paid enough attention, if you cherished those days enough, if you ever really grasped the fact that your life was always in the process of turning into something else. You don’t want to be too hard on that younger, more impatient self. But you are perhaps a little wiser now, more attuned to the moment, how precious it is. And so you don’t mind being awake, listening to your husband’s gentle breath rising and falling beside you, the dog’s soft snore, the wind tossing the bare branches outside the window. Everyone is home, glad to be here. You give thanks for that.
And the words surprised me. “Stop. Just stop.”
I lay quietly in bed for a while, letting the instruction sink in.
Grief is still new territory. Well-meaning friends ask, daily, “How are you?” and I pause, tongue-tied, unsure how to respond. How can I explain that, though life is apparently back to “normal,” no place quite looks like itself? Everyday things feel strange, my own inner landscape foreign and fragile. My thoughts veer between scattered and obsessive, so that I can’t trust my own heart — fine one moment, ambushed the next. What am I to make of emotions that are so misplaced and unpredictable that each day feels like its own new roller coaster ride, twisting and turning through an unpredictable course of peaks and plummets. I have no idea how I am.
What I do know is that there is a hole right at the center of everything. And I’ve been been circling around its rim like a dervish, trying in vain to fill that terrible, empty place. As if by reaching out to every single person in need, reconnecting with every old friend who’s fallen out of touch, answering every email in my in-box, grabbing for dear life at every friendly hand extended in my direction, I might somehow manage to dispel the darkness and avert my attention from the void.
This is my brain on Concern Overdrive: If I’m busy and distracted enough, perhaps I can escape the sadness. If I’m needed enough, and if I’m helpful enough, perhaps I can strike a bargain with pain: give more and do more, in order to feel less. And if I can throw enough stuff into that dark chasm, perhaps it won’t seem quite so deep anymore. So, I’ve been keeping busy. I’ve gone to yoga class and book group and out to lunch with friends. I’ve hosted house guests and visited my mom and driven to see Jack on his birthday and baked bread and written sympathy notes and read friends’ kids’ college essays and put on dinner parties and taken walks and edited papers and written recommendations and read manuscripts and returned phone calls and donated money to good causes. It’s all a bit of a blur. I wonder if I’ve babbled, or acted weird, or been inadvertently rude. I honestly can’t remember. Part of me has been visible, present, making an effort; but another part of me has been absent altogether, out to sea, riding the dark waves of sorrow and confusion.
I’m not sure where yesterday’s firm voice came from, or even who it was that spoke the word “stop” to me with such conviction. But I was just awake enough to get the message. To struggle, to feel sad, to know loss — this is all part of life. And so I paid attention to that knowing voice, and today I remind myself to be quiet and still instead of frantic and preoccupied. It’s a challenge, to give this time of death and transformation its own mood and space. And yet, I don’t want to run from what is real. Not when my soul is urging me to turn inward and to settle into some peace with what is — this human mystery that is, after all, as natural as day and night, sun and moon, summer and winter.
A couple of weeks ago my son Jack wrote me a note. Somehow, at the time, I managed to read his words without absorbing the simple wisdom he was trying to offer. “Feeling sad isn’t a waste of time,” my eighteen-year-old spiritual teacher suggested. “You shouldn’t try to distract yourself from the sadness, it’s going to come out one way or another. And the longer it is before you start to feel it and process it the harder it will be.”
We learn, as Roethke observes, by going where we need to go. And sometimes, we learn by staying where we need to be. Right now, I sit at my kitchen table, watching the skies clear after a night and morning of driving rain. The clouds lift from the mountains like luminous shrouds, dissolving into light.
As always, I find comfort in the view beyond my window, and in the pages of the books I love, the words of the poets, priests, and seekers who have journeyed through and survived their own dark nights of the soul. “Sorrow will remain faithful to itself,” John O’Donohue reminds us.
“More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.”
“But listen to me: for one moment, quit being sad. Hear blessings dropping their blossoms all around you.” – Rumi [continue...]
White vinegar, Citrasolv, and water. This is my cleaning solution of choice, and cleaning, it turns out, is about all I’m good for these days.
There are plenty of other things I should be working on, so many tasks left undone over the last few weeks, while my heart and hands and attention have been elsewhere. I’ve lost a friend and also, I realize now, a clear sense of my own purpose. She needed me. I was there. How simple is that? It’s been just over a week since she died, and now, of course, it’s time for the rest of us to keep going. Except that I can’t quite figure out where I’m headed.
I’m home again, but it’s hard to focus, hard to even care much about the to-do list. Here in New Hampshire, the leaves have all fallen from the trees, and the world beyond my kitchen window looks as stark and barren as my own inner landscape. I don’t want to go out to lunch with friends, or work on my book proposal, or write that speech for next week. Cleaning, however, feels wonderful. And so I dust, I vacuum, I wet-mop the floor. Things really do look good enough. But I can’t stop myself. I grab a pile of soft rags — Jack’s beloved old cloud sheets from when he was ten, ripped up now and stuffed into the rag bag — and get down on my hands and knees. The smell of vinegar and orange soothes my senses. It’s a relief to do something with a visible outcome, to feel some measure of accomplishment somewhere, to transform all this love and heartbreak into a job that supports our life in the here and now. The sun pours in. The floor gleams golden. My tears flow, and the soft cloud-sheet rags wipe them away. This is work I can do without thinking, work that satisfies some deep yearning for all that is constant and familiar and necessary. Someone needs to get the crumbs out of the cracks, the smushed raspberries off the counter, the scum out of the sink. It might as well be me.
Life, death, and everything in between — it is all such a mystery. For today perhaps it is enough just to be at ease with things as they are. Perhaps it is simply time to cry and clean the house.