Tuesday, March 28, 2006

No Rewards

No matter how much we try not to, I suspect that those of us facing (and then living through) real tragedy, however it is defined, get most of our energy from a sense that things have to get better. We're so conditioned, however we try to talk ourselves out of it, to feel that there is some fairness, some justice, some--dare I say--reward for the superhuman struggle we engage in every day. For a while, when dealing with a terminal illness, it works to operate on a kind of dynamic of hope/denial. We get through this, no matter how difficult, because some deep unconscious part of ourselves can't accept that our efforts are futile--because then what? If we accept fully that diagnosis of "terminal," we risk acknowledging that nothing we do will ultimately make a damn bit of difference to the outcome (which is not, of course, saying that it is meaningless to the patient, or the relationship, or our sense of who we are as compassionate and committed--I'm not suggesting that what we do is meaningless).

But I would guess that everyone who has been in my position--or one like it; I'm an equal-opportunity sufferer, here--has had to realize at some point that he or she was operating as if the universe gave a goddam about the pain we, or our loved one, was enduring. Even when things were the worst, I had these irrational moments of optimism about it "being over"--only to realize that "over" was going to be worse (but not really comprehending what that would be like). Maybe it's my personal pathology, but I think I got through my husband's illness and death like the "good girl" I have always been, expecting (oh so irrationally) that there would be some reward for my job well done: i.e., he wouldn't really die, or single motherhood wouldn't be so bad, or someone would appear to jump in and take care of me.

It's not like that. Four months after my husband's death, I am feeling the creeping tendrils of despair. I am lonely all the time. Not just because I am alone, but because the only person I want to see, to talk to, to have around is not there. Not anywhere. Having a three-year-old means, too, that the solaces of the "truly" single (losing myself in alcohol, movies, and trashy novels, since I'm too old and sad for casual sex) are unavailable to me.

Maybe this is what grown-up life is supposed to be like: no joy, no companionship, and work, work, work to stave off the forces of entropy and chaos.

I know, I know. I have a beautiful daughter. Check. I adore her. Check. I have a great job, and some degree of financial stability. Check and Check. These things are not trivial, as I well know. I have supportive colleagues, family, and friends (Multiple Checks). I had ten years with the finest man on the planet. (10 more checks). So have I used up all my rewards? If so, how do I learn to give up hope?

One of the most powerful (and most cited) moments in Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking is when she realizes that her refusing to get rid of her late husband's shoes is based on her gut-level, irrational belief that he will be coming back, and that he will need them. I got rid of my husband's clothes, and packed away the mementoes. But only sometimes do I really understand, at all levels of my being, that he will not be coming back. No matter how good a job I do at living my life. No rewards.


At 5:31 PM , Blogger bitchphd said...

Somehow this resonates for me because I was teaching Clarissa today and we were talking about the ways that it's a real tragedy, and Richardson's loss of six of his daughters, and whether this folds into the novel, and how looooong and drawn out it is. And I was trying to explain to them that this wasn't somehow the *opposite* of his own losses, which happened very quickly, but perhaps a kind of mourning because every death is individually important and world-changing and earth-shattering, and that perhaps part of what he understood, having lost so many children, was that it isn't about numbers or time or "getting over" things but that each loss is individual and forever.

At 6:54 PM , Blogger Laura said...

For the longest time after my sister died, I would not get rid of my answering machine. No, her voice wasn't on it, but I thought she might call and for some reason that was the only answering machine that could take her call. Completely irrational.

I spent a good chunk of the day today talking to a colleague about the deaths we'd been through. Neither of us knew about the other's suffering. He asked me if I ever didn't think about my sister (it's been almost 20 years). I said, sure, during a regular day. But there are so many moments when I do and I miss her--still. It was kind of nice to talk about it with him and to hear him talk about his father.

I guess I would say, no, there's no reward, but often things get better. But there will always be a sense that something's missing. At least that's the way it feels for me.

At 8:50 PM , Blogger Terminaldegree said...

The finality of this loss is so hard. I lost a dear family member years ago. About two years after she died, I gave a music recital. I walked out into the church where I was performing, bowed to the audience, and saw Her. Sitting just where she used to sit every Sunday, too.

It was another woman who looked just like Her, of course. But for one brief moment I was so elated to see Her again that rational thought disappeared.

It was a tough way to start a performance, but yet comforting, too, in an odd way.

I hope some day the memories will bring you comfort rather than this aching sorrow.

At 9:04 PM , Blogger Yankee T said...

Oh, dear, Dorcasina, I'm so sorry. Just the recent loss of a very old, very sick mother left me so bereft...I cannot imagine the no reward-ness of your current state. I wish I could help. You are on my mind, all the time.

At 7:23 AM , Blogger snickollet said...

Over and over in my life, I feel like I have cursed myself by saying, "Nothing I do will be harder than this. If I make it through this, I will have the strength to make it through everything." Sometimes I feel like this thinking has earned me nothing but punishment from the universe, a kind of "Ha ha! We'll show you, little girl!" kind of retribution. First I thought Peace Corps would be it, nothing could be harder. Then came graduate school. Then came moving to a new city with no job and few friends. All of that sounds so trivial now, because then came finding out that my husband has a terminal illness.

For me, no loss could be greater, no blow so hard. I'm done taunting the universe: after this, I don't need to be thrown anything more difficult, because now I truly understand emotional pain. Well, OK, the real pain will be my husband's loss. But when I read things like what you have posted and see my fears expressed by someone else, I know the pain will be there.

I, too, have plenty of wonderful things in my life: twins on the way, friends, family, work. And I'm truly grateful for them. But that doesn't erase the pain of loss, even a loss to come. Like you, I get through by thinking that things have to get better, they simply must. Otherwise, why go on?

This has gotten long--probably really should have been a post at my own blog rather than a comment here. Please just know that you are in my thoughts, that you do deserve a good turn, that there should be some reward, even if there's not.

At 8:17 AM , Blogger OTRgirl said...

The first year after my mother died the emotions were completely overwhelming. It took midway through the second year to understand what had happened. In that first year it was like I'd be walking on a beach and suddenly be swept out to sea by a huge emotional wave. I'd end up swimming in overwhelming amounts of whatever emotion (despair, anger, depression, sadness, bitterness, etc) for a while before I could identify where I was. Once I did, somehow I would end up back on the shore for a brief time before the next wave.

In the second year of grief, the water of grieving diminished into a constant river. I knew where it was, could choose to get in it or get out of it, but it no longer took over every waking and dreaming minute. Over time that river became a stream. Still present, but mostly manageable.

Though I know it's cold comfort, your despair right now is 'normal'. Having a little person to care for in the midst of this makes the 'work' of grief (feeling what you have to feel) much harder.

Sigh. It's just words. I wish I could come over and mop your kitchen floor for you. Or babysit so you can go wallow in a book for a while.

At 1:22 PM , Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

It has been almost five years since my sister died. Yesterday I missed her terribly in the middle of the Denver airport. I just deleted a long explanation, I'll put it on my blog instead.

I'm sad to say there is no reward for this suffering, only that it adds an extra layer of experience to your personality so that some day you can help someone else understand what is happening to them.

At 8:46 PM , Blogger Moreena said...

"No matter how much we try not to, I suspect that those of us facing (and then living through) real tragedy, however it is defined, get most of our energy from a sense that things have to get better."

Absolutely. And the way that sense is expressed is so varied. Whether it's denial about the actual state of affairs or a suddenly intense religious conviction or a whirlwind of activity to fight...whatever there is to fight.

I wish that I could offer you some reward, something. But I'll just offer instead my thanks for reaching out to my family and my fragile girl.

At 5:50 PM , Blogger Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Oh I love writing comments years later.

I had some princess thing -- that if I was a good wife while he was dying, the universe would pop in and take care of me in the unimaginable afterwards. When my expectations were inevitably diminished, I hoped for, at least, pity and cash.

It was much more fun to get back in touch with my libido -- a good coping strategy, and one that led to marriage and a new settled life again. (crossing fingers).


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