Every Last One
A few days ago, I finished a book that scared me spitless.
Very few books are capable of doing this. Even “The Holocaust” by Martin Gilbert, that infamous, graphic and oh-so-sad book that rocked my world, didn’t scare me. Even really sad books like Donahue’s Room or The Book Thief don’t scare me. Frankly, it’s kind of hard to scare me. I mean, seriously, what could possibly scare me worse than the things I’ve already experienced and seen?
Anna Quindlen managed to do it. Scared me spitless.
I have harbored a great respect for Quindlen for years, ever since, long time ago, I read her book Black and Blue. That book pretty much traumatized me, and has haunted me for years. I studiously avoided reading anything else by Quindlen because Black and Blue gave me a really good glimpse of the kind of breath-taking emotion she’s capable of evoking in me. But then… I decided to read one of her more recent works, Every Last One.
And got scared spitless.
In this book, Mary Beth Latham is a mother to three teenagers and a wife to a doctor. She is the quint-essential mother—at least, in my opinion, she is. She’s their friend, but she’s also their mother. She’s attentive, she’s a good listener and she cares about who her kids’ friends are because (and this is only my guess) she knows that her friends’ are a good way of staying connected to her own kids’ lives. Her daughter, Ruby, is seventeen and has been dating a boy that has been a friend of the family’s since the kids were small. Ruby decides to break up with this boy and when she does, small cracks start to show in the family’s “all-American-ness” that culminate in a terrible act of violence that leaves Mary Beth reeling. The rest of the book is, in essence, about coping and learning to live in the midst of tragedy.
Quindlen’s writing can almost seem boring because the pace, at first, seems way too slow. Then you realize that she’s doing it deliberately because that’s the pace of life and, if you’re able to stick it out, you discover that one day bleeds into the next and then that day bleeds into the next, and it’s really all just a monotony of getting up, eating, working, worrying and going to bed only to get up and do it all again the next day. The pace of life is slow. Then something catastrophic happens and life, pretty much, freezes. At least, it does for you. Everyone else moves on, but you’re trapped in a fog. And, while you’re in this fog, life lessons eventually become crystal clear—lessons that, while life is good, you don’t see or understand or, maybe, simply don’t acknowledge.
In the book, one of these “life lessons” that Mary Beth comes to realize concerns her children. She writes a blood-curdling line. Paraphrased, this is it: “I realized that, when the kids were little, I didn’t believe in the worry. I plugged up the outlets because I was told to but my kids were never REALLY going to be electrocuted. We were seatbelts because it was the law, but my kids were never REALLY going to get hurt in a car crash. I didn’t believe in the worry.” Then she goes on to say, in essence, that no matter how good of a mother she was—it doesn’t matter. Tragedy and pain and sorrow visits every family, no matter how good of a parent one is. I can be the best mother in the world, I can make sure that my house is “childproof”, I can be the safest driver on the planet, I can teach them all the “right” things. But I can’t stop some idiot from driving drunk. I can’t stop a terrorist attack, and if I believe that terrorists won’t attack Nashville, TN, I’m deluding myself. Did you know that it is actually possible to surgically implant a GPS-like device in your kid so that you know where that child is at all times? Obsessive as it sounds—I kind of understand it. But just knowing the location of your child doesn’t mean you can keep terrible, awful things from happening to her.
Bottom line—no matter what I do, I cannot guarantee the safety of my girls. In the end, this was the point of the book Every Last One. Quindlen even comes right out and says so in the “Discussion with the Author” at the end of the book.
I’m not into self-delusion as much as it may be assumed.
I’m a realist more than I am an idealist. I can handle the truth.
Furthermore, it’s not like I didn’t already know this. Of course I did. My city suffered a severe flood not too long ago and I distinctly remember feeling that my safety and that of others I cared about were out of my control. Hurricanes. Tornadoes — we’ve seen our share. Turn on the news and it can produce some rather terrifying nightmares. It can also induce OCD—check, double check, triple check the locks; pay for an alarm system. So I already knew that I can’t protect Breathe and Alight from everything. Not only natural disasters, but I can’t protect them from every human on the face of this earth. As much as I believe in and cling to the good in all people (it’s been my lifeline), I realize there are evil folks out there. I know, very clearly, all the bad things that can happen. So the book didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.
But Quindlen doesn’t offer much hope. She doesn’t try to explain why tragedy occurs (probably because there is often no explanation). And she doesn’t assume that things will “get better.” In fact, the end of the book isn’t particularly satisfying. There is no “happy ever after”, there is no “magic cure’ and there is no sense that “time heals” (in fact, she says, it doesn’t. It merely passes).
I’ve always liked to believe that, when bad things happened, they happened for a reason. But that justifies it only when the one hurt is me. It does not help when it’s my kids or my family. Hurt them, and I really don’t care about the “good” in it. My job, my whole sense of purpose, is being a mother to my two girls and the number one priority in being a good mom is to make their safety and happiness my top priority. Nothing is more important. If I ever get started on a cleaning spree that goes beserk, all I have to do to stop is remind myself that I don’t want my kids’ memories of me to be cleaning; I want their memories of me to be playing with them. I work very hard to make sure that they know I love them, and that I like them, and to keep them happy and safe. Quindlen was telling me that it was all for naught. That, sooner or later, they’re going to be hurt and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it.
Again, I knew this but… still…. it scared me spitless.
I started coming up with more OCD-mom-like plans of attack against the world. I’ll be the slow driver everyone hates. They won’t be playing at friends’ houses unless I’m there, too. No school, for sure. Homecooked meals so as not to risk all the potentially fatal diseases lurking in the bacteria that’s just waiting for my kids in the form of happy meals. Not only an alarm system, but a light system too. Maybe video surveillance of my neighborhood. And, on second thought, that implanted GPS-tracking device isn’t such a bad idea. I mean, if I knew where they were, I could put a stop to terror right fast. I’ll interview personally every woman, man and child who wants to be a part of my kid’s life. No more walking anywhere alone in our church because, after all, evil idiots exist everywhere. As painful as it is to me personally, no longer will I see the humanrace as a good and positive thing: instead, all you people are out to hurt my kids and, therefore, you’re my arch enemy — even if, up to this moment, I’ve thought of you as my friend. Trust…. that’s where it all starts to rot. We offer trust and if we offer it enough times, long enough, we get burned. Who once said, ‘The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. The trick is to find the ones worth suffering for.’ The only ones worth suffering for are my girls and family. If you’re not part of that—then I can’t trust you. Oh, and also, we’ll wash our hands no fewer than fifteen times a day, we’ll drink three to four glasses of water and also get a meal that contains all five food groups three times a day because I can’t rule out the stupid fact that my enemy may come in the form of a virus. As for the terrorists—maybe we should move to some remote village because terrorists only really attack major cities and political symbols. I mean, they COULD attack the cabin that sits in the remote mountain ranges, but chances are, we’d be okay. I have to rule out Disney movies, too, because, after all, you did know that there were subliminally suggestive scenes that only kids saw in the movies Aladdin and The Lion King, right? I didn’t believe it either until my Bible teacher, one year, brought the movie in and showed it to us. Bet you money kids knew it all along, though. So—have to nix poor Disney. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m thinking that living on some Amish plantation or something sounds like the smartest and safest idea.
I mean, people, I started panicking.
But, then, as I was driving and thinking about all of this, a quiet voice whispered gently, “And that’s why you believe in Me.”
Scriptures tell us that He won’t let the least of us stump our foot against a rock. It tells us that He’ll hold our hand. It promises us that He’ll watch over us as we sleep. It doesn’t promise us that bad things won’t happen to us, or to our family. That’s kind of sad. But if we can keep our focus on Him, peace will shadow our lives and, even when bad things happen to us and to those we love, we’ll be able to bear up under the weight because we’ll know we aren’t alone. The problem in trying to be SuperMom or Super Spouse is that we end up becoming an island—responsible for every bad thing and every good thing that happens to everyone we care about and we end up forgetting ourselves, thinking we don’t need someone to take care of us, we don’t need help because we’re the provider, we don’t need our hands to be held because we’re strong. All of those are lies that ultimately trap us—unless we remember that we’re only as strong as grace allows us to be. When we’re supported, and can rest in the assurance that we’re loved, then we can stare evil in the face without breaking. Furthermore, as cliche as it sounds, tragedy really does build character, and it really does broaden one’s horizon. Tragedy has a way of building bridges across hearts — when there’s a national crisis, it does not matter what race you are, it does not matter how old you are, it does not matter what language you speak; if you are an American citizen, then you suddenly care about those strangers in Florida, or Utah or California or Alaska. You near death and suddenly people come out of the woodworks from all sorts of places to offer condolences and to support you when you thought you had no one. It’s easy to think we’re invisible, it’s easy to think we’re unimportant. But we’re not; the truth is that we’re being watched by someone, somewhere, all the time.
Our children depend on us to keep them safe. True story. But, even more than that, they trust us to love them and care for them and respect them. If we do that, then all the scary unknowns of all the tomorrows can be bravely and compassionately faced. Every last one.