Something very strange has been going on.
For about a week now, I’ve had Aria, my character from an (thus far) unpublished book, on my brain. Aria is one of my favorite female characters. She’s tough as nails…. but only until you get to know her. Then she’s vulnerable and more hopeful than she would ever openly acknowledge. At 663 pages and divided into three parts, the complete novel is immense. But it’s been awhile since I’ve re-read the story, so I’d forgotten just how immense it is. Each chapter begins with a quote…. some from my imaginary characters and some from real-life people. The chapter I read last night’s quote stabbed my heart as though it were a sword. It made me tired, and it made me sad. I wanted to analyze it, I wanted to “get to the bottom of it”…. but I just couldn’t. I’m working as a crew leader for my church’s Vacation Bible School this week and that takes more energy than two of me combined would have. So I was just too exhausted.
Except it’s stayed with me.
All day today, it’s been in the back of my mind. I read it again just a few minutes ago and felt my heart squeeze. And I know from experience that I won’t be able to let it go until I write about it, until I pull from it everything it makes me feel out into the open. It’s just who I am, and how I operate.
Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live
(For the record, in case you don’t know, Norman Cousins was a columnist and advocate for peace. He worked for different newspapers and wrote about things such as the first atomic bomb. He was a good guy)
Words are like snowflakes to me…..whenever I hear a sentence, it’s like the individual words in those sentences fall on me one at a time and not always in the same order they are presented. For instance, when I read the quote, the word that I was first struck by was “loss.” That word hits a nerve somewhere in my soul. “Loss” means “gone.”
My father was gone a lot. Sometimes he was in prison but other times he was gone by choice. He would just up and leave, with absolutely no warning. I remember once sitting by my mother on the couch, after coming home to find him gone again. She was crying and I wanted to say something to make her feel better—-but I didn’t know what to say. So I just sat with her instead. It was a sad thing and what I felt that time was sadness because I knew she was sad or worried or confused. I remember a couple of days before my Prom, he disappeared again. That made attending the Prom un-feasible; who could shop for a dress or worry about something as stupid as a dance when there wasn’t money for food on the table? He appeared a couple days after the Prom and I remember sitting with him over breakfast and he said, “if I had known when it was, I wouldn’t have gone away then.” That hurt my heart because it highlighted the fact he didn’t know anything about me, not really. I mean, don’t good fathers all know when their daughters’ Prom is? But, see, I’d lost him as a father years and years earlier. Today, in VBS, one of my pastors hugged his little girl and said, “This young lady gets unlimited hugs from me.” His daughter was smiling. It all hurt my heart. I have no idea what that feels like. I’m not any longer but I was once engaged and engrossed in planning a wedding. I’d toured possible reception venues and scheduled a date at my church. I’d ordered cute little Save-the-Date postcards. I’d come up with charts for where all the guests would sit at the reception. And then it dawned on me: who was going to give me away? My heart hurt. Definitely not my father—I don’t have one of those, not really. I didn’t have another male in my life, either, that could act as a father would. There would be no father-daughter dance and the realization broke my heart a little. It re-emphasized the loss.
The word “lost” implies that whatever it is that is missing holds value. A “lost” diamond ring is a big deal. A “lost” tooth is a milestone. A “lost” appetite usually indicates something is wrong, either emotionally or physically, in someone’s life. “Lost” weight usually means it’s time to celebrate. The word “loss” then carries with it emotion. Every time I read or hear the word “loss” or “lost,” it’s like a trigger is pulled in my brain that makes terrible memories and feelings and sadness shoot through my entire nervous system. Once I feel the weight of that emotion, another snowflake, another word, enters my mind, one by one, until I can see the whole sentence.
Death is not the greatest loss. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.
Why is that? How can that even be? If someone dies, there is no mending bridges. When someone dies, there are no second chances. When someone dies, it’s over. The relationship you had with that person undergoes the change from “is” to “was” and there’s no un-doing that. There have been a couple of significant deaths in my life. The first that I can remember was Mama O’s. Mama O was my great-grandmother and, with the exception of my mother and sister, she is the earliest memory I have of love. I was six when she died and, when she did, I was sure that something changed in me. I used to take her picture with me to school. I wrote her letters every year on her birthday. I vowed that my children would know the words to her favorite song. I grieved when relatives made the decision to tear down her ramshackle old house. The filing of the hole in her front yard hurt even worse. I was not okay with moving on. I was not okay with change. I was sure that both those things meant forgetting. My brother’s death was a big moment in my life. I remember walking into a room and seeing my dad sitting on the bed. He was crying. While I felt guilty for this for a long time, seeing him cry about my brother’s death hurt my feelings. I thought, “Do you ever cry because of me?” I watched my mom struggle with her belief in a God I knew she loved. I spent night after night praying that He would reveal Himself to her so that she wouldn’t lose her faith. My brother was dead, and that was terrible…. but the potential loss of my mother’s rock-solid faith scared me even more. I distinctly remember the feeling of relief that washed over me in tidal waves when I knew she’d turned a corner, and God was still God. I remember thanking Him and falling in love with Him a little because my mother still believed. And, most recently, my Papa died. I had not seen him in many years because of the emotional barrier that sprung up when I came forward about my dad. I felt betrayed by family members that welcomed him into their homes and lives but never thought it necessary to call and ask me how I was. It was impossible to visit without simultaneously running a risk of seeing my dad… or have every word I said repeated back to him. I felt unwanted and un-important. But….
But, once upon a time, Papa was quite possibly the only father-like figure I will ever have. I slept in a chair in his room when I was little. He was blind and chauffeuring him around Nashville helped teach me to drive. He wanted me to record my books on audiotape so that he could listen to them and he got one of my stories to a published author to read and critique. He was loud and brash…. but I always believed he loved me. So when my aunt and uncle told me that he was about to die, I knew I had to go see him. My sister and I nervously went to visit him at night, when everyone else had gone home. He had Alzheimer’s and had no idea who we were. That punctured a hole in my heart. As we left, what was the most painful wasn’t that he was going to die in three days…. it was the sense of overwhelming loss. Loss of a grandfather, of a grandmother; of cousins and aunts and uncles and family. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t see him again that was the most bothersome…. instead, it was the memories that had never been given the chance to fly; the conversations and funny stories he’d tell that I never heard because I was a third-class member of the family. It was all the loss that most hurt me.
Death is painful. It is a loss. I hope to be alive for many, many years to come and, as long as I am, I won’t see Mama O, Nathan or Papa again. I can’t call them on the phone or laugh about the difficulties of teaching them Internet basics. They are gone and, because their lives held meaning for me, that is a loss in and of itself. But the greater loss is all their deaths meant…. loss of security, loss of faith, loss of family.
I will never experience intimacy in the way I should. There will always be those few minutes where I have to consciously re-train my brain in order to relax. I will always feel that need to ask, “but is it me you want?” I will always have different motivations that make me live life in a way that not everyone does. Bedtime is still scary a thought to me because I don’t know what real, honest-to-God safety feels like.
“… the loss of what dies inside us while we are alive.”
A long time ago, innocence and childhood died. Trust was beaten into a coma from which it has not awakened some twenty-six years later: it is lost. Unwavering sense of security, it died sometime before 1985. And, each time something of such irreplaceable value dies, it sucks a little bit of hope out of me. I want another baby more than I want anything on earth but my ability to feel safe during intimacy died a long time ago; and that makes the dream of marriage or another baby extremely unrealistic. Black voids have eroded different rooms in my heart. I can pretend they don’t exist, I can cover them up with bright smiles and creativity and a thousand stories. But the loss becomes almost a tangible presence should I find myself alone with a man. So much has been lost….. so much has died. So much has been picked apart and patched up and ripped off and glued back on that I’m not the same person I once was anymore. Upon a time, I believed a knight in a shining armor would sweep me off my feet and, with a single kiss, erase every bad memory, every touch that was carved in anger, every nightmare that stole my dreams. I did. I believed that. I believed I would meet “the one” and live happily ever after, protected and passionate and happy, simply because he was “the one” and, therefore, instantly capable of making the scars a distant memory. Foolish, right? Today, I’m more likely to question your motives if you ask me to dinner than I am to notice how cute the dimple in your cheek is. Today, I’m more likely to be relieved than sad when the fact that I have two children to whom I am completely devoted scares you off. Why? Because of all the loss of innocence and trust and simplicity that life has beaten within me; because of all the loss that has made me erect enormous walls made of good hugs and happy smiles and quick quips that make truly getting to know me very difficult.
Death is the end of life…. but you’re dead, so it doesn’t hurt anymore. If you’re still alive and something monumental like family is taken from you, and you know it’s a loss you can’t get back…. you have to live with that for the rest of your life. You have to remember it every time the Fourth of July rolls around and people start talking about family picnics and reunions. I have a supportive and loving family; my sister and mother are wonderfully wonderful and my girls are my world. I could not have asked for more in any of them—and whatever is good in me probably would not have matured without them. For all of them, I am eternally lucky. But their presence doesn’t erase the absence of all that my brain knows should have been—it doesn’t erase the loss.
I think the greatest loss of my life has been security. Everything else can be traced back to that one missing ingredient in my life. I can try to overcome it. I can swear up and down that I do trust you but… if push came to shove and you were standing in my line of vision, chances are high I won’t let you get close to me because what you need threatens my safety in about a thousand different ways. As a result, I’m alone and hiding a dream so tight to my heart because I’m afraid that if I don’t, if I voice it, I will have to give it up too. As a result, I don’t have a father or many extended family members. As a result, I work crazy hard just to feel worthy of the time it takes for someone to chat with me. The nightmares, the scars that sometimes still drip blood…. all of it is ultimately a passionate search for safety, for the opportunity to catch for a moment the peace that true security might offer.
I’d really love to have some clever twist easily capable of turning this around on a dime. I like being upbeat and finding the sunshine through the rain. It gives me a reason to hope. All I have, though, is something that happened today during our church’s Vacation Bible School. One of our pastors leads the Bible story time. At the end of the lesson, he said that he wanted to give the kids time to pray for each other; he said he was going to demonstrate how to do that. He called up a child, put his hand on the child’s shoulder and said a prayer for the child, using the child’s name. He then instructed the children to break off into pairs, touch and pray for one another. I paired up with first a child that was without a partner and then with Alight. She asked God for me to never be sick again and my heart was pierced. It reminded me that, despite all the erosion, this heart of mine can still be reached. It can still be touched and it can still feel. It reminded me that sometimes I do still get swept away by good memories. Sometimes the sight of a creek or old tree makes me smile for no reason. It reminded me that life is about making wishes on the brightest star I see even if the star I see is the only one in the sky. It’s not about how much I’ve lost; rather, it’s on what I’ve gained. Not only two daughters but, also, a richer relationship with God. And maybe I have trouble trusting… but I offer to help whenever and however I can. I’m not afraid of getting my hands dirty in order to lift you up. If you’re homeless, I don’t care, I’ll buy you a meal at the local Wendy’s. One of the angels in my life was homeless. If you’re a drug addict, that’s okay, you don’t have any anything on my family history. I can still take your hand and laugh with you. You see..sometimes loss can be a blessing in disguise because it teaches us to be grateful. And to live each moment in its entirety. I am rarely at home. We sleep here, we eat breakfast and dinner here and, during the school year, we’re here for a couple hours to learn academics. But, almost every day, we get in the car and go somewhere. It’s fun…. but it also gives us time away from any distractions like the phone and the television to really interact with one another, to ask questions, to laugh and to learn how to handle disagreements (nothing like a car ride you have to endure together to learn how to settle disputes!). I’ve lost a lot. And that hurts in ways I still don’t really know how to express. But, the truth is, that same loss has forced me into really thinking about how I want to live, and why; it’s given me the incentive to carve out the kind of family and the kind of legacy I want to give my children. It’s given me perspective and taught me that there is really very little worth fighting over. And Scripture has taught me that rainbows cover the earth after a flood. And with those lessons learned, peace and love offer the remaining pieces of my heart a blanket of protection. And the assurance that, no matter what the night holds, morning is still just hours away.