A dear friend, back when my life felt like little more than one unexpected collision after the next, promised me that it wouldn’t always be like this.
Intellectually, even then, I knew they were probably correct. Life hadn’t always been this fraught and it made sense to believe that one day it could, would, resume a more typical cadence – simply day follows day rather than heartbreak follows heartbreak.
And yet, I remember feeling frustrated that the sentiment didn’t really help me in that present moment. Sorrow can be so deep it seems bottomless. Fear can distort your experience of the mundane so that every shadow feels foreboding, ominous.
The day after I had the medical procedure to remove the mass of cells that at one point in time had the potential to be my son, my child, I went to work as usual. I could count on one hand the number of people who knew what I had just been through. That morning, I widened my eyes every few seconds, pushing the tears that brimmed back behind my eyeballs, willing them to evaporate rather than pour down my face. I felt baffled by the protocol for ordinary, every day conversations and yet I knew I needed to make myself say something to someone. So I focused real hard on the first person I saw and thought of some small way in which I could summon good on this day. I uttered an imperfect expression of gratitude for that person and their work. I was aware of the randomness, of the puzzling degree of emotion in my voice. But it was easier to breathe after I was done. I had spoken. I had contributed something kind, something positive, something incongruous to the bitterness and bewilderment that brewed in my heart.
During maternity leave in the depths of my grief, with a baby whose persistent screams seemed to be articulating the angst deep within me, I would go walking through my town. With my daughter strapped across my chest and my feet moving steadily, I would pause to really look at each home I passed, finding one small detail that spoke to me. I’d appreciate the sea green shutters, the climbing vine, the well worn welcome mat by the front door. Each noticing took me out of my own mind, which was a ghastly, leaden place. There was scarcely enough distance between houses for my thoughts to resume their morose calisthenics. I had engineered a diversion that actually allowed me to escape the prison of my brain.
Time has not cast these anecdotes as examples of the power of positive thinking, but as reminders of how hard I had to work to find the good during a bad time. In many other moments, I wallowed, I shattered. If anyone had pushed me to be more grateful, to find the silver lining, I likely would have either punched them or just collapsed.
So while I am now on the other side where I can see the truth in that proclamation, where a string of uncomplicated days indicates that things can indeed find their way back to normalcy, I haven’t forgotten how useless this sentiment is to someone in the thick of it. And the truth is that while it doesn’t feel as hard as it once did, there’s a new depth to a day in which nothing truly horrible happens that comes from the awareness that tomorrow could once again shift everything, that life feeling manageable is surely a temporary state. So I inhale, willing my lungs to expand to let in a little more air, in the hopes that it will be there the next time a loss unforeseen takes my breath away.