Scenes from Real Life, II; a.k.a. Perspective
Today's dialogues with myself, a drama in three acts:
Act I: Outside a filling station, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest"Forty dollars! For a single tank of gas? *&%$!!"
Act II: At the supermarket, several hours later, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest"One-hundred thirty dollars? For groceries? Are you kidding me?!?"
Act III: Driving through a fairly affluent suburb, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, 20 minutes later"What are all those people lining up for? Outside that Church? And most of them are children?"
Coda: Oh; I get it. The Wednesday night food bank.
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.
Domestic Bliss; Or, Scenes from Real Life
Mama Dorcasina and her adorable daughter are cozied up in bed, after reading a story. The lights are out.
Mama Dorcasina, lovingly: "I love you, Babygirl. Do you love me?"Resounding silence
Mama Dorcasina, somewhat plaintively: "Do you love your Mama?"Thinking, I know better than to set myself up for this....
Long, long silence.
Darling Daughter: "Ummmm......I'm eating my hair."
I keep bumping up against reminders of our fragility, the precariousness of our happiness, and our capacity for great sorrow.
1. A heartbreaking post
from Badger, on what should have been her beloved husband's 35th birthday.
2. A beautiful and brave sick little girl who needs help
3. An essay
by a teacher whose former student killed himself nearly 20 years ago.
Part of my university service involves a committee that occasionally has to deal with students who withdraw for unusual reasons, well past the official
deadlines. Often, these requests are the latest in a series of minor misfortunes, or a cynical attempt to manipulate the system so that the student (or her parents) can refuse to pay for the campus services the student refused or failed to use.
At our last meeting, however, we had to consider a withdrawal request made by the family of a student. This is against our policy, but occurred because the 19 year old student was under intensive psychiatric care, and unable to act on her own behalf. Her devastated parents, in addition to dealing with a child who had to be medi-vacked home after several days in local ICU, then had the burden of dealing with the university's myriad forms and requirements. I keep thinking of that family, sending their child off for a college adventure, seeing her return home broken and with no promise of recovery. So many psychological illnesses seem to take hold in late adolescence/early adulthood, and there is something especially poignant about such a tragedy happening just as the child is taking flight into his or her own life.
We are a very sympathetic place. We have caring faculty, with small enough teaching loads (and genuine enough commitments) to make personal contact with our students. We have unbelievable support services, for students and for faculty. We have all kinds of safeguards in place. But a few years ago, we too had one of those "how could this happen" suicides of a student. They are so fragile. So are we all...