I wrote a short email to my friend after learning that she and her husband had recently found out he has brain cancer. Her equally brief response held all the confusion and helplessness such a discovery brings. She said: “If you could quickly write a book that explains how a wife is supposed to accept this that would be great.” A grimacing smiley face followed.
I wished I could. This particular situation has not happened to me in my life, but other similarly tragic or unfair things have. Most recently, my ex-husband died suddenly and I am without a manual to tell me how to act. Sad? Nostalgic? I just don’t know. When it happened, I needed a book to tell me when to cry, where to pitch in, when to hang back. I fumbled around the best I could and still have trouble managing my emotions almost three months later.
How, then, does one attend to a tragic turn of events? Some people live a life of faith with a benevolent god and lean heavily on the understanding that some things are “meant to be.” It’s all part of a plan or heavenly will and the strength to deal with it springs from that faith. I have never been able to believe like that, but I am glad for those who can. In fact I marvel at it; for me it’s like watching someone bring beauty to a canvas out of a palette of paints or glide effortlessly across ice on two thin little blades. It’s an admirable gift, but it’s not my gift. Believing that all my grief will be taken care of once I enter heaven doesn’t help me out in the day-to-day dealings with tragedy and sadness.
Everyone deals with terrible and threatening events in their own particular way. After about twenty years together, my husband Angelo and I have reached a place in our relationship that finally looks like it might last. To say we have suffered our ups and downs doesn’t do justice to the earnest effort we’ve exerted in making our marriage work. Due to the tons of baggage that often accompany a second marriage, there were times when I wasn’t sure we would make it. Then, a trip to Italy transformed Angelo's outlook and the last six months have been a startling and surprising difference in the way we manage our relationship. We always thought we were making it work, making sense of our relationship. But, now it’s different in ways that neither of us even dreamed it could be. We are experiencing our marriage, our relationship, in the way each of us always worked toward. We wonder how in the world we could have spent the last twenty years letting it exist the other way. If we dwell too much on that loss, it could be detrimental, but it can be difficult not to be angry or even resentful of all that lost time.
One of the ways that helped me make sense of it, though, was to remember a quote from the movie Shadowlands, the story of the relationship between CS Lewis (Jack) and Joy Davidman. Towards the end of the movie, after Joy’s diagnosis of cancer, Jack and Joy are talking about how they will deal with her death. She wants to talk about it now; he reassures her he will be able to handle it when the time comes. But she wants more than that; it can be “better than that.” She says, “the pain then is part of the happiness now. That's the deal.” She was looking ahead, to her eventual decline and death--culminating in asking the unanswerable question: why?
There is no answer, really, no reasons to explain terrible things. There is no reason why children get beaten to death, earthquakes ravage towns, families go homeless or husbands get brain cancer. My own issue seems small compared to what others deal with, the pain others endure, but for me, right now, it’s pain in my life. Because I am lamenting our squandered years (and probably because of my ex-husband’s recent death) I am experiencing a high level of vigilance about Angelo's health and well-being. When he didn’t text me for three hours one afternoon after he set off on his eagerly awaited trip to IKEA, I imagined him lying by the side of the road, victim of a car accident. He was fine...just excited to be at IKEA. I am so afraid that the happiness we are enjoying will be taken away. But if I let fear help me make sense of what our life is like now, it will only be me who is taking away this chance we have.
And so we make meaning of our lives. With all the tools and skills and feelings and understanding that exist in our body and in our being right this minute. Whether or not that includes God or the Universe or another higher power or infinite energy, we decide how our life makes sense. It was silly of me to imagine Angelo dying by the side of the road, absurd and unreasonable. But I let a little of that in for just a minute because, for me, it is like Joy’s quote. She was anticipating the pain to come and acknowledging that pain would allow the happiness they were experiencing now to be meaningful. For me and Angelo, the time we wasted is painful, but it is in the past and it is part of what we are experiencing now. The happiness now is part of the pain then.
I don’t think we are meant to “accept” loss and tragedy. They come into our lives both suddenly and with advance warning. They wreck everything in sight and thrash about without prejudice--loss and tragedy impact everyone, no one is immune or safe from it. It’s unfair. I believe the only protection is love, however that manifests in each individual’s life, and the meaning we give to each of our experiences. How could it ever make sense that we lose someone we love so much? It doesn’t. Humans make sense, arbitrary phenomena does not.
If I could write a book for my friend, I would want to fill it with real things she could do to deal with this unimaginable blow. A recipe for coping, with actual ingredients and steps to follow. Instructions, helpful tips and time-honored strategies that will walk her through every minute of fear, vulnerability and sorrow. But, that book isn’t written by others--it is ours alone to write. How could I tell her what to do? The truth is, she will know what to do. Her fear will turn into courage and her sadness will turn into strength. She already has her book. We all do.