The last time I came through Chicago’s O’Hare airport was in June 2011 while en route to Spain. At that time I was in a fugue of grief. Time was a trampoline; every step forward was followed by an awkward leap in an unexpected direction. I had been offered a residency at an old farmhouse in Mojacar, and I took it. Overcome with guilt, but also fueled by a desire to write about Ronan, or death, or the afterlife, or all things possibly connected to and by Ronan, I got on the plane, landed in Spain, took a taxi to the end of a dusty road and wrote like a madwoman. I wrote hundreds of pages in a matter of weeks. I had very little sleep, almost no rest, and the only social interaction I experienced was the awkward hour when the other artists and writers met in the dining room to eat the incredible dinner that had been prepared for us. In other words, a luxurious if slightly manic few weeks that felt like weight lifting for the inner life. I wrote through most nights, crying out the window at the dim lights blinking sporadically in the shimmering distance. I pulled at my hair. I did jumping jacks and yoga in my room to spend any remaining physical energy. I spent hours in a hard twin bed with my face pressed against the wall, weeping and sweating and cursing a God I don’t believe in. I spoke in full sentences to only one other person – an Israeli poet I bonded with one night after dinner when we had a discussion about King David. Amir was (and still is) writing an epic poem about the Biblical king’s life. As we talked we looked out over a hill where an artist had constructed a statue of a “facsimile Jesus” with a cartoonish smile painted on his carved wooden face. He’d been crucified on a skinny tree, his wooden arms spread wide to the sunset fizzing on the horizon. We both agreed that the sight was so silly and absurd and grotesque that it made us want to weep and laugh at once. A few nights before I was scheduled to leave Spain I called my friend Emily in London and begged her to come and spend time with me before I truly lost my grip. After she arrived she took one look at me and ordered me into her rental car. We drove along the coastline, stopping for meals and glasses of wine and cigarettes on the beach. We talked and talked and then for long stretches we were quiet, the kind of quiet you can have with a person who accepts you as you truly are, no matter where you are or what weird little ways you might be manifesting at that moment.
On this first day in October 2012, just a few months away from the end of another year, I’m in O’Hare again. The visible trees through the airport windows have already shifted to yellow and begun to fall. Airports are always teeming with children, and a year ago the sight of each one of them would have felt like a fierce elbow jab to the solar plexus. When I was on the way to Spain I had started an essay that I was working on in O’Hare, and like everything I wrote in 2011 I was compelled to finish it: brimming with ideas, words, a hypergraphic mess of a woman stumbling around and asking weary travelers if they’d seen an electrical outlet, holding up my computer as if running out of power would be a catastrophic event, which mentally, it might have been. I couldn’t stop writing. I haven’t stopped, but today I’m sitting on the ground in yet another O’Hare terminal, preparing to board a plane to Zurich. I am still a mess (who isn’t?), but I am no longer hysterical, and when I am hysterical, it doesn’t lasts for hours and hours. One hour once a month seems to be the new pattern, the new normal. I am an altered person, a new person, both better, I guess, and worse, I suppose, than I once was, than I used to be. My life is not exactly the way I’d like it to be (is anyone’s? And how do we know? How would we recognize our “right life” and how long would it last?), but I feel closer to the person I’m trying to be, which is a person who is not governed by fear, even if it’s impossible, even unreasonable, not to live alongside it. Living the biggest, fullest life possible is a responsibility I believe has been given to me because Ronan never had a chance to make any decisions about what kind of life he may have wanted to live. Not everybody believes this; some people think I’m full of shit, others believe I’m selfish or crazy or just plain bad. Some people wonder why I’m not still weeping in public. Some judge me, say it’s inappropriate or even “unfit” that I might experience moments of happiness, that I might laugh, that I might live, drink wine, see movies, go on dates. It is interesting to me that people expect grievers to lose themselves with the one who is dying or who has died, although this, too, would also be judged. Is the desire to say Oh, how tragic, and then pretend that the precariousness of life can be repudiated, as the thinker Judith Butler suggests that we all desperately desire because it feels like an easier mental route and one we mistakenly believe will distance us from the mortal danger we’re always in? Some people don’t want to see a grieving mother on a dance floor, or laughing with friends in a restaurant, or holding hands with someone in the street. Is someone who is beaten down somehow more relatable? More palatable because the reality seems more distant from the life they’re living? I wonder. Most of the time I try not to care; I’m too busy trying to live.
2011 was the year that everything changed, and in 2012 everything is still changing. The last time I flew overseas I was hunched in a corner, waiting until the last moment, until the final boarding call, wondering if I should turn back and just forget the whole thing. I swallowed my tears with the power of my mind, my mouth dry, my stomach empty but uncomplaining. Today I shared the single outlet with a friendly woman who was also on her way to Zurich. I offered her some of my cheese plate and slurped down a bottle of chocolate milk, my favorite traveling beverage. I bought expensive perfume and Chanel lip gloss with a ridiculous name – troublant – in the duty free store. I chatted with the Russian saleswoman and we talked about the new nail polish colors (black and plum and deep pink). She showed me some glamorous handbags. She talked up a new anti-aging cream. I sampled too many perfumes at once and left the shop smelling like a fancy toilet. I eyed the cigarettes on the way out, wondering if I should bring a pack to Emily in London but then thinking she might have quit or wants to quit. A newborn was screaming in the gate area and it didn’t make me wish I could push my head through the glass of the terminal and jump. I chatted up an Arabic-speaking toddler. All of this happy-spirited interaction seems proof that you can get used to anything. Any deep sadness, any great triumph, any shattering blow, any expansive happiness – all offer possibilities for growth and the necessities of adjustment. This is what human beings do if they want to survive. It turns out that the heart is rubber bandish, stretching and snapping back, and much stronger than it looks or seems. I wrote the book that began on this blog for Ronan. I want the whole world to read it; that’s why I’m going to Europe. That’s why I’d go anywhere. And to those who would prefer the tragedy, who would find it more appropriate to see the forever weeping; to you I say that whatever melodramatic display you may expect, whatever behavior you’d like to anticipate, regulate, judge, mitigate: you cannot have it. If you have not lived it, you do not know it, and I hope you never do. I hope your crucible to a different life is a gentler one, a more survivable one. I hope you never know this loss. I hope you never have to learn these lessons in this way.
Back at O’Hare, I’m reminded that all passengers, everywhere, are boarding the same plane in the same direction. How we adjust to this reality is as unique as the swirls and dips of our individual fingerprints. How do we do it? We live, we dream, we continue to love even after the idea of love seems a distant dream. In other words, we kick on or we give in. It’s a simple set of choices for a complicated situation.
This newness, this new life, this mix of hysteria and calm, of gratitude and anger, of love and fear, comes to me most vividly in dreams, although it also happens, thankfully, in my lived life. Before I left for Zurich I had a dream that I had returned to Antigua, Guatemala, a place that was an image touchstone for me – and a comforting one — shortly after Ronan was diagnosed. The streets, the people, the sun, the language; it was like visiting the set of a place I hardly knew but yet understood on a much more intuitive level. In the dream I am sitting on the ledge of a ruin not far from the plaza. The sun is strong but pleasant. Clouds move quickly through the sky overhead. In an alcove above me I can see a worker sleeping. His boots are unlaced and his hands are folded across his stomach. An old bandana covers his eyes from the sun and he is snoring. Dust floats up from the ruins and mixes with the pale sunshine. I am wearing sandals, and someone I love is feeding me cherries, a fruit I don’t love, but in this moment they seem irresistible and necessary, the taste somehow completely new. I place one in my mouth. The flesh is firm but soft at the bite, terrible and sweet. The person who loves me keeps hands that are strong but not insistent on my shoulders; hands that ask for nothing but what is unfolding; hands that truly hold. I feel, as that moment opens, so truly alive that I am surprised that the world doesn’t burst open: a perfect mix of bottomless sadness and heart-swelling joy. I am filled with a complicated hope, which may be, I believe, the essence of love.