When I’m upset I clean. There is something calming about putting order to whatever chaos surrounds you to order your mind and heart. I’ve learned not to talk then, not just because I’m a whirling dervish, but because my evaluations are ill-formed, often baseless, and imprecise. While when rational I usually learn what I believe by talking it through, when strong emotion is involved I have to wait for the chaos to ebb away before my mind will work.
So I clean and cry and wait.
Last night one of my sons’ friends hung himself from the monkey bars in a children’s park a few blocks away. He’s slept more times than I could count on my family room couch, and I can still hear the lilt of his voice as he tells me how much he likes my pancakes, “Mama Atkinson.” I can still feel the excitement emanating from him as we posed the boys for their senior prom pictures, hands mannishly gripping the lapels of their rented tuxedos as they tentatively threw their shoulders back and grinned self-consciously. His face coming up the stairs, rubbing sleep from his eyes, curly black hair tousled, is as real as my own children’s sleepy morning appearances. I can’t wrap my mind around the finality of those memories. My heart is broken and it’s pouring out of me like water.
A few years ago friends spent tense weeks waiting while a reservoir was combed for the bodies of their son and his wife. Their boat had been set upon by a sudden, unexpected storm, capsized, and they had begun swimming to safety with their companions, including another of my friends’ children. They did not all survive. The hunt for their bodies was a cathartic month in which others long missing were found, bringing closure to several other families. Then finally, they were found.
My friends were married after he had had a family, and she joined him to finish raising them. Many well-wishers, knowing this and likely searching for something to say of comfort, consoled her that “at least they were not her children.” She was dumbfounded, likely numb from shock and protected from further wounding, but speechless sometimes at the attempts others made to patch this gaping wound with plastic bandaids.
She was wise. She never let her emotions shift to blame or anger or guilt. She was just sad, and maintained her focus on being sad for as long as sadness bubbled up within her. Often, in the weeks and months that followed, she would suddenly sob, curled over as she wrung it out, and then wipe her eyes and go on. Her grieving was transparent and organic and invited anyone who wanted to share to simply cry with her. When I stood in front of her in the winding line of the wake, I struggled for something to say, and realizing I couldn’t fix this simply mumbled, “I love you, Judy.” She threw her arms around me and sobbed again, then smiled as she pushed herself back and squeezed my shoulders.
I was freed from fixing. It’s been easier since to simply cry. I had often despaired that I cannot not cry when others are. Someone pointed out some years ago that I have the gift to “mourn with those who mourn.” I hadn’t ever considered it a gift, but now I’m less inclined to grit my teeth or curl my toes to staunch the flow of empathy.
So I’m curling over, wringing out, and going on, empathetic with myself. Waves of loss surround me as fountains deep within break open, and for the moment it’s all I can experience. Then loss ebbs and I feel that my life could be normal again, that something is predictable and sane. No one I know would think to say that “at least he’s not one of my children” and I thank God for that.
In the meantime, my kitchen is clean and I’m waiting for the ebbing of the chaos and the settled peace of grace.