Where to Begin

Today there is grief in the world, as there always is, but this time it makes the news, one terrible story after another. A shooting and a bomb in Norway. Another artist lost to addiction. A former professional basketball player dropping dead of a heart attack while in the early stages of pregnancy. Families walking for miles in Somalia, literally starving, with aid workers risking their lives to bring life-saving food. And for people in my hometown, a family killed in a flash flood. A husband and a father losing his wife and three daughters in a matter of minutes. I read these stories and scan the obits of the people who don’t merit a full-length news story; we ingest images and columns of information in the morning news as we chew and swallow our cereal or toast, drink our coffee and our orange juice, and then we carry on with our days. What else are we to do?

The story of the man from Laramie who lost his family went viral among my Facebook friends. I felt speechless with rage, numb and floating. I feel like this often as I care for Ronan, as the clock on his short life runs down, as I watch him change, lose head control, struggle a bit more to swallow his food (“There are five different muscles needed to swallow,” the oral therapist reminds us as she watches Ronan eat his prunes). When one reads about such tragedies our responses are always inadequate. How to connect with a photograph of bereaved people, their faces twisted with despair? How to understand what it’s like for a man to wake up in the hospital and be told that he is the only person in his family who survived? We cannot know one another’s grief, we can only try to witness it when the griever allows, but I thought about that man and his family all day as Ronan and I whisked across a delightfully rainy Northern New Mexico landscape, Barack Obama’s sonorous voice reading The Audacity of Hope as we twisted along the mountain path between Raton and Trinidad. Obama talks about the chronic restlessness endemic to our culture, this idea that we are always seeking, striving, going forward. I think there’s this impulse, but I also think people want to stop. They want answers. I certainly do.

I don’t think I will ever stop thinking about that man from my hometown, who lived with his family in the town I end up in that night – Colorado Springs. Scanning the comments on Facebook before I go to sleep that night at my friend Carole’s, I find this line: Talk about doomed!

I shut the computer and want to scream. People are so selfish in their responses to grief, so short-sighted, so unhelpful, so mind-numbingly ignorant. That man is not doomed. He is grieving a horrific, incalculable loss that when he lives through it, will have changed him. Before him is a road that will test him – already has – to his limits. But you know what else? Someday, certainly not any time soon, but someday, that man will laugh again. It will not be the kind of laugh it was before – it will be of a different depth and quality, it will have a different pitch and a more complicated texture. I cannot say what that man is feeling, but I can bet that it will be a long time before he owns his own mind again. But I understand at least part of his mourning keen. I imagine it as if I could hear his voice and I want to keen with him. I want to inflict cruelty on this cruel world. And I want his family back for him. I want people to stop blaming Amy Winehouse for her addiction, to stop saying things like “she had so much potential” as if this were her only real value to the world. I wonder if blond, blue-eyed men will now be targeted for special screenings in airports, and I think about St. Olaf College, where I was a student, where everyone, it seemed, had a relative in Norway, or had gone to Norway, or had blond hair and blue eyes. We are humans, mortals, we are all doomed, I think, every one of us, eventually. None of us knows how we will meet our end. If our country is plagued by restlessness than it is also plagued by a belief in the myth that we have any kind of control over what happens to us.

I get a physical reminder of this the next morning, back on the road and headed to Cheyenne, when I experience anaphylactic shock for the second time in my life: lips swelling up to my nose, throat itchy and swelling, eyelids beginning to seal shut. In the car mirror I look like a Botoxed, newborn kitten. I turn around and head to the nearest emergency room, where I make it just in time to be injected with a delightful, heart-hammering cocktail of Benadryl, steroids, and adrenaline. As the IV goes in, the doctor tells me that the cells of the body carry memory. In other words, if you have an allergic reaction once, subsequent attacks will be more intense and severe. The body knows, remembers, and is ready and able to freak out the second time around. Carole and Ed arrive to care for Ronan and we guess about the causes of the shock: bee pollen in the smoothie? Nuts from the day before? “Sometimes you can just suddenly get allergies,” the doctor says, as if I’d suddenly adopted a bad habit like smoking. But it makes sense to me. I feel allergic to the whole world and all the bad news in it. “Never get Botox,” Carole jokes, and we take a photograph of my messed-up face as insurance that I never will.

Carole watches the vitals screen behind me and gets concerned when the heart rate spikes. “Ooh, you’re a lightweight,” the nurse coos as she fits the oxygen mask on my face. When I was 18, I remember leaving my aerobics class after I started feeling funky, walking back to the dorm, struggling up the stairs, and calling out for my Ryann, my roommate. I remember looking in the mirror and laughing about how funny I looked, all puffed up like a weird red-headed fish, even as I was losing my breath and Ryann looked pale with fear. I remember the adrenaline shot and the sleepiness in the quiet rural Minnesota hospital; I remember being worried about finishing my Plato paper. Now, almost twenty years later, I’m worried that the quick rise in my heart rate means I might die, that the burn in my chest signals the end, and I don’t want to die in a regional hospital ER where photographs of nuns line the walls and where a warning in the waiting area lets you know that life will be saved NO MATTER WHAT and that abortions will not be performed. I don’t want to die before Ronan, which is something I had not once considered before this moment. At 37 I am much more attuned to the body’s fragility, much more conscious of the skinny-string moment between this outcome and another. If I’d left Carole’s house only 30 minutes earlier I would have been calling 911 on the highway, where there might have been ambulance-impeding traffic or no cell-phone reception.

Ed comes to sit with Ronan while I am prodded and injected and watched and SAVED, really, and I nod off into a drugged sleep. When I wake up in a state of wooz I see Ronan, sleeping frog style, across Ed’s chest, his soft mouth open, Ed awake but with his eyes closed. A moment of peace that is quickly interrupted by a woman rolling in on the other side of the curtain. Ronan startles but resettles. Ed rubs Ronan’s back and says “shhhh.” I hear the nurse talking to the older woman who is here after having a negative response to new medication. She repeats her birthday to about four different people within a matter of minutes. 8.13.39. 8.13.39 she croaks out. “Okay, sweetie,” says the nurse, or “okay, hon,” and I want to tell her that this woman born on 8.13.39 is not her sweetie or her hon. She is a grown woman with a name and a story. Her husband is trying to explain to another patient nurse about his wife’s medications. “Okay,” says the saccharine-voiced nurse, “since you have Secure Horizons insurance, I need you to repeat your birthday one more time.” Secure Horizons? Really? I’m awake now and I’ve unhooked myself from the oxygen and the heart monitor. Ronan is touching the stiff hospital sheet with a slightly trembling hand. “I’m going to I-Hop,” the husband says. “Do you want anything?” The woman’s voice is slightly wheezy, but she says, “Strawberry crepes,”  through a hiss of oxygen. Off he goes, returning 45 minutes later with a Styrofoam container of crepes that he helps her eat.

I think of the man from Laramie again. How he will be asked to begin again, even though he doesn’t want to. I think about how people will discuss him for a while, and talk about how tragic it is, and then they will forget about him. I will probably forget about him, too. But he will have to go on. And he is not so different from me, I decide, or from you. Nobody’s horizon is secure, no matter how expertly the insurance companies try to spin this tale. He is beginning where all of us, at some point or other, will begin. Like Odysseus, we will, at some point in our lives, rock up to some distant shore having lost everything: our family, our pride, our ambition, our physical strength, our ability to be consoled, our mental health, all our hope. Like the post-flood Noah, the world washed away, beginning again. Humanity is the definition of heartbreak, not one man’s horribly sad and horribly unfair story. It is the human story; it is your story. You make the mistake of thinking it is not at your own peril.

How to say this strongly, passionately enough. Although our individual stories of loss are different, we will all lose and we will all be asked to start over. To say otherwise is not only to disrespect that nature and quality of one man’s loss, but to reveal that dangerous short-sightedness. There but for the grace of God go I, people are fond of saying, as if a disastrous situation has ejected that person from God’s good graces. You are not going anywhere but for the grace of God. You are just going. It’s easy to take that distancing step, but much more difficult to be a witness, which is a vastly different enterprise. Sit and listen. Understand that you, too, are human. Be brave enough to look that fact in the face. You are doomed and you must go on: these two realities held in balance define everyone’s human struggle.

I could have died on the highway with my terminally ill baby in the back seat. Either way, I guess I’m doomed, and that Ronan is doomed, but perhaps no more than anybody else. I guess that I will also have to figure out how to begin again when Ronan is gone. That, too, is a human story.

On the way home we pass a fatal car crash between Denver and Cheyenne. The next day I buy a book and a 2012 planner, wondering: how many of these days will Ronan live to see? I walk by all the parenting books, the bargain books, the fantasy dragon books and stand in line with all the tourists in town for the big rodeo. I’m still itchy all over, hopped up on the steroids I’ll take for the next few days. Above the cashier is a picture of a boy, about six or seven, with dark curly hair, reading from his Nook. A boy in a nook with a Nook. Through the window you can see the green, leafy trees – a little boy in a New York City apartment, reading. He is the image of Rick as a little boy. I think of the Ronan I had thought would love to read, like his parents. I remind myself that my son is who he is and that it’s enough. My expectations of him would only serve me, not him, as all parental expectations, in the end, do. I remind myself that I’m practicing a new and different kind of parenting that’s not better or worse but that has value, even though people are always telling me how unlucky I am, how tragic we are.

John Calvin, my favorite thinker of the year, lost his children as infants. He soldiered on with his work, passionate and difficult and brilliant man that he was. As his biographer Bruce Gordon notes, Calvin didn’t give much of himself away in his work, so we don’t really know his feelings about this, although we can certainly imagine. I wish he had – a letter, a diary entry, something. But he was a medieval man, and probably not likely to pathologize his pain, to analyze it, to dissect it. People didn’t expect to live to be 100 in the 1500s. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a medieval universe – Tay-Sachs, of course, being thousands of years old, and there is still no cure, nothing to do except “make the baby comfortable.” And despite all the “progress” of this world, pain happens. Accidents happen. People die.

In the ER, life is precious – a Code Blue always ready to be called, defibrillators at the ready, but it’s also cheap. “You’ve got a bed on 20!” I hear someone call out. Nobody’s horizon is secure. But you still have to have one. You still have to get up in the morning and live. That’s the epic story of all our lives, the only real challenge worth worrying about.

After a big defeat, when Obama regrouped and decided to campaign again, he talks about getting in his car with a map on the passenger seat and heading out. I like the image, the impulse. He mentions no goal, no end point. Just a map as a rough guide to an unknown journey. But a beginning. So yes, we read about tragedies with our breakfast and then we go on. We begin again. That is what we’re supposed to do. It is not an easy story, for any of us, but it is the story of being human. The only story we have, and it’s the single story we all share.

6 responses to “Where to Begin

  1. Eloise Klein Healy


    Sorry to hear about your bad bee adventure, but I am heartened that you are a writer of prodigious gifts and a wonderful empathic system to back them up.
    Yes, everyday bad things come atnus with shock and fear. I wondernhow anybody survives–and some don’t, really talented “somes” don’t–but feeling one’s waynthrough it all is the only answer. You help me with that, and I thank you.
    Sorry, too, for all the “n’s” that appear between words here–iPad typing that I can’t correct unless I erase the whole comment.

  2. Alma Luz Villanueva

    Gracias…I just spent a few days with my oldest amiga who recently lost her youngest child, in her 30s, to cancer. Her prognosis was 6 months, she lived three more joy-filled years in spite of the chemo etc…an amazing spirit. She had her mother give her best friends thick coffee mugs with the words- “Life is good” on it. As we were talking, my friend simply said, “I will never let her go.” I agree, in the heart always.

  3. Stephanie Quinn Westphal

    Yes, yes, yes, Emily. We are humbled in the face of grief, our responses usually inadequate. Our compassion and empathy are all we can offer — that and our awareness that we are not immune, that we are all in the same story. I’m glad you were not too far out on the highway and that you had friends to watch Ronan while you were in the hospital. Thank you for your fierce writing, your brave heart.

  4. thank you Em. Thank you.

  5. So sorry to hear about the near-deadly allergic reaction. Because you needed one more thing to cope with. I used to think people who reacted poorly or strangely with dealing with loss and grief lacked humility. Now I think those people are just terrified and can’t admit. You are terrified, but you admit that terror. Some people can’t feel the fear let alone acknowledge it. That is one way to live. But I think it is a half-life at best. Sending love.

  6. Bearing witness here. Trying to make sense of it all: Ronan’s life is filled with so much love and tenderness. It is only innocence and beauty. So why is it so painful to bear witness? Why do I, a stranger who doesn’t even know Ronan, feel overwhelmed with pain when his life is filled only with love…

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