“I lost a child,” she said. “I thought I wouldn’t live through it. But you do. You learn to love the place somebody leaves behind for you.” Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver
Seven years ago, my first born, my only son, Jimmy, died of brain cancer at the age of 21. Although I continued to get out of bed every morning in the months that followed to make my daughter Molly’s lunch and see her off before my husband Dan drove her to school, more than anything I wanted to leave this life to be with him. I couldn’t imagine how to go on living with the searing pain of his absence, under the weight of my regrets and “if onlys.”
When I could no longer avoid the truth that Jimmy was dying, I went to see my friend Regina whose daughter had died of cancer 19 years earlier at the age of five. I wanted to know how I was going to survive, if I was going to survive. She told me she didn’t know how I would go on without my son, only that I would. That she would hold my hand and stay close. And she has. And I have survived.
I think we get the idea somehow that life is supposed to be easy. That happiness is a virtuous, attainable goal. When life gets challenging or miserable, we think we must be doing it wrong or that all those people on Instagram with the shiny, perfect lives know something we don’t.
I don’t believe that any more. You can do everything right, and it can all go wrong. You can dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s, work hard, be the most attentive parent on the planet, and your kid can still die. You can lose the people you need most, the ones you love fiercely, who know you in a way that no one else does or ever will.
I used to think Dan and I had figured out how to keep our kids safe, how to protect them from danger, how to navigate through the hard things. That we were smart instead of just lucky. When Jimmy’s pounding headaches started, I thought I could force them into submission with the right balance of mom research, modern medicine and sheer will. It took his brain tumor diagnosis to shatter the wall and enable me to see just how much suffering and death there is in the world. The way that we are all in pain of one sort or another all the time. That there’s no fixing, changing or bright-siding so much of what we happens to us. But I also learned that love is bigger than any grim, bleak stuff life can throw at us, just as writer Anne Lamott says.
Love is what helped me survive Jimmy’s death and find my way in the aftermath. Not the passive, pretty kind that stands on the edge looking down saying “I’m here if you need anything” or “Time heals all wounds” but the brave kind that marches right down into the pit. The kind that isn’t scared off by tears or silence. The kind that can sit with a broken friend and listen to her rage and sob without judging the bile that pours out of her. The kind that doesn’t look away.
There were days when this kind of love was in short supply or didn’t show up at all. When it felt like there wasn’t enough to go around. So I learned to find my way forward on my own. To trust that the love I needed would eventually appear. Death has a way of exposing people for who they are. Friends and family will let you down, walk off, behave badly. You learn to let go of the ones who wound you deeply, wish them well and eventually be grateful they’re no longer in your life. Although you can’t see it in the early days, there’s a peace and a beauty to this sorting. The gift of knowing who can be counted on, no matter what and who can’t and probably never could be.
So often we only see what we want to see instead of pausing to look and discover what’s actually there. Trusting that the love you need will show up is part of this. Believing the companions will come if you just hang on a little bit longer. That the connections you crave are out there. That they’ll weave the web of hope you need to survive.
Life is brutal. But it’s also holy and beautiful and full of kindness. The shopper who helps you pick up the runaway oranges when you knock the display over with your cart. The call center employee who makes you laugh and enables you get back into your online account when you can’t remember what email you used to create it. The nurse practitioner you’ve never seen before who asks how many children you have and says “Ohhhh ..” with a crack in her voice when you tell her your son is dead. Who pauses what she’s doing and bows her head in silence to honor the loss. Who looks you in the eye to acknowledge how shattering that must be and tell you how very sorry she is.
Like my friend Regina, I don’t know how I am surviving the death of my son. Only that I am, one breath, one day, sometimes one moment at a time. That it’s helped to look for a little bit of beauty or kindness every day. To relish the warmth of the sun on my face when I look up the bright blue California sky. To smell the rosemary growing in the front garden and listen to sound of the honey bees flitting from one pale blue flower to another. To feel the weight of my small black dog as he leans against my leg or puts his head in my lap. To wrap myself in the love of my most important people and remember what they’ve taught me: you don’t have to be whole to find joy. You don’t have to be whole to keep living.