January is loaded with emotional landmines. Eddie, my first husband, died in the month of January.
Last week, I saw a billboard that showed five images. The first four were the same image of the same house. The fifth picture showed the house demolished, a heap of rubble. The caption read, "No one remembers the day before."
And I can't. I can't remember the day before Eddie came home following a routine physical and stated, "They found a spot on my lung." At the time, I didn't know what it might mean. But we found out. Two years later, he died at Methodist Hospital in Des Moines.
I just moved back to Des Moines a couple of years ago with my husband, Jack, after being away for nearly twenty years. As much as any place, it feels like home to me. And I had not been back to Methodist Hospital since that Thursday morning in January 1986, the morning of Eddie's death
But this past September, my friend and co-worker, Bridget, had surgery at Methodist, and I wanted to be there. That morning, early, as I turned that familiar corner at 15th and Center, I got in touch with my younger self, that long ago young wife and mother in her early thirties. I realized just how young I was-- and how alone.
I parked in the vaguely familiar parking garage, and walked through the maze of buildings to the other side of the campus where Bridget was having surgery. I arrived in time to visit with her for a couple of minutes, then settled myself in the waiting room with her family.
I looked around the room, conscious of the decor, and the feel of the place. Thankfully, nothing seemed familiar. Besides, this wasn't about me. I stayed until Randy brought word that Bridget was through surgery and in the recovery room. Then I excused myself and headed back through what felt like miles of hallway toward my car.
When I hit the familiar stretch that took me past the elevators to 6th Floor North, a wave swept through me--a wave of sadness and nausea. Of acute loss. Of trauma. After more than twenty-six years, it caught me completely off-guard. I wasn't really even thinking about it. But my body knew.
Recently, a young friend of mine spoke of acknowledging the deep well of grief he carries. Until recently, he has actively worked at denial. Conscious that the grief is there, he does everything he can to hold it at bay.
"It's like trying to hold beach balls under water," I reminded him.
He knows, but he's also afraid. Because grief is big, and it feels like it can swallow you up; totally engulf you. And it does, for a time. He knows, too, that it doesn't come at your convenience, and it will stop you in your tracks when it arrives.
I told him about something that helps me with grief: In the Great Sermon (Matthew 5), Jesus said that we are blessed when we mourn. Blessed. Because we will be comforted. In fact, it's the only way to receive comfort! Also, I've noticed what happens when I hold off mourning or try to escape it; to not feel. I get a little edgy and fierce. I try to control more stuff, like other people's lives. I do it, I notice, to relieve my own anxiety. Good grief.
There are lessons, too, that I learned through Eddie's death. At the time, I decided that I wanted to avoid grief at all costs. It didn't seem fair. I didn't want to feel depressed. I'd been through enough, right? At the time, I remember saying to our friend Marvin, "I've been grieving for two years, now. I think I'm done."
"No," he assured me, "You haven't even started to grieve." (This spoken by a man whose wife had died of cancer the year before.)
Still, I managed to outrun my grief for about eighteen months. My life, after all, had been put on hold for two whole years. I had catching up to do. (You wouldn't believe all the things I did during that time: moved, remodeled a house, started back to school to finish my education. Full time, of course. ) Ack!! Somebody please stop me!
And then I hit a wall. That wall turned out to be grief. And the great compassion of God. The grief turned out to be everything I had dreaded, it's true. And God's compassion was a complete surprise. I've always been grateful not so much that God got me through that grief, but that God taught me how to grieve. Because once I made room for grief, albeit against my will, my heart softened. I discovered a deeper capacity for empathy and compassion, and I became less fearful of everything. I discovered that sorrow, when sorrow is grieved well, becomes sweet.
And so, why, after twenty-six-and-a-half years, should my body remind me, once again, of this terrific loss? Here's what I think: It serves the purpose of showing me that what happened to me really happened. I saw, experienced and felt on a deep level the impact of that two-year window in my life. Which is absurd, of course, because it's a whole layer of my life--a lifelong "window."
Also, the memory serves to integrate who I am. It anchors me in my own, personal, unique life experience, and helps me to remember that powerful something that changed me at the core, and altered the course of my life. (A re-membering in itself, after so much of life felt torn asunder.) It moved me toward and through a permanent step of growth. It also allowed me to discover that, as human beings, we are able to hold acute pain and acute joy at the same time--which is at the heart of what it means to be fully alive.