On Jolts and Strengthening the Core

Tragedy comes jaggedly. It jolts you into a new awareness of the life around you. Just minutes before you were bumbling along in the usual manner, easily disturbed by trivialities – a cart in the checkout at the grocery store with more than fifteen items in it, a driver who didn’t signal to move in front of you. An unkind word. An unexpected bill. Then the jolt of tragedy, and new perspective is forced on you.

It’s a kindness that tragedy is nearly always unexpected. It would be impossible to live in the moment if you knew tomorrow your loved one was going to die. Your grief would be extended and the time remaining would be tainted.  I guess I’m grateful you can’t see that shit coming. It’s like falling down when you get older. Falling is no big deal when you are under the age of 40, but after that, shew-eee. It’s alarming as all get-out. Personal history tells me that at least once a year, gravity is going to win and I’m going to take a tumble. It’s always a shocker though. I tend to fall up stairs while distracted, which is not so bad, not a lot of distance to drop. My eighty-eight-year-old Mom falls with monthly regularity and breaks her bones in the process. The latest topple featured three of her ribs losing an argument with the bathtub. She gets angry with herself for the mishap, then stoically bears the indignities of strangers picking her up and other strangers mending her. She’s from another era, lived through people bombing her house in WW2 and travelled the world, but none of that helps her now, none of it stops the jolt of falling. Makes me want to take up yoga and strengthen my core.

The jolts come from other places too. There seems to be a lot more tragedy these days than there used to be. I’m becoming immune to being shocked, it comes from so many places. It’s losing its jolty-ness. I’ve hardened my heart and my core for the most part. Globally, there’s always a natural or ego-driven disaster somewhere in the world. Nationally, the insanity stemming from Washington, DC is a constant barrage. My old home state of California is on fire. Again. Locally, we live in a big city so I pass by car wrecks daily and move aside for fire engines. We live near a hospital, so I hear ambulances and helicopters hurrying there with their precious cargo at all hours. It wears on me, even if the news of tragedy is no longer very shocking. I yearn for a cottage in Northern Maine with a view of Canada from my front door, the sea shushing over black rocks, the cry of gulls above replacing the sirens. Away from all the fear and pain represented by those wailing sirens.

Sometimes, though the jolts hit close to home. You’re never ready for them. No amount of training can strengthen your core for them. This weekend contained one of those. The dearly beloved son of a friend was killed in an accident. He was just a little older than my oldest boy and was a brilliant saxophonist. This was the friend I talked to when my older son thought buying a motorcycle was a good idea and I wanted good arguments to throw down when I went to talk him out of it. She shared that her son rode a motorcycle, and that she was always a little worried about him on it, all the time. And then the news this weekend. Her son lost his life in a motorcycle accident.

I read once that a grief shared is a grief halved. I don’t think that applies to your kids though. When I read this terrible news via my friend’s beautiful, graceful post on Facebook, and understood that she had just lost her oldest boy, I flashed on my boys when they were young. Their gaze as newborns taking in the world for the first time, their joy at eating cake on their first birthday. Swing sets and waterslides. Parks, looking at dappled summer skies through the leaves. First days of school. That fraught process of growing your child that requires trust that they will come home intact from the first day of school, the first sleepover, the first road trip, the first trip to another country. There are so many goodbyes, and then – one of them – unfairly, unbearably – one of them becomes the unexpected final one. My heart ripped for my friend as what had happened sunk in. My next thought was incredibly selfish. Fear that my child might be next. Followed by a desire to help, to fix, to make it better for her, and then gut-wrenching inadequacy realizing there is literally nothing you can do for a parent who has lost their child. Too soon, too young.

How do you survive something like that, after raising your child past fevers and disappointments and joys and showing him there are no monsters in the closet or under the bed? I can see my way through the pain of losing a pet, a relative, or a friend. I’ve done all those many times in my 57 years. I can even see how you get through losing your spouse. But not my child. It’s just not right, outliving your children. Yet it happens all the time. In African villages of disease and hunger, at Sandy Hook, on a drunken Friday night after a football game, on a team bus trip, on the battlefield, in a hospital room after a valiant fight.

The price of love is pain. My instinct is to lean in to my friend, yet simultaneously I don’t want to intrude. Ungraceful, without the proper words, silently for now, I share her pain. I share it as a parent who loves her children fiercely, knowing the gutted hollowness I feel is less than an eyelash worth of what she feels. I will go to the memorial, I will let her know I love her. And I will hug my boys a little tighter tonight, even if they are too big for it now. And call myself blessed.

photo credit: mcGill.ca

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