Someone I love is nursing a broken heart. “I wish I could skip this,” he said, and he asked me what he should do to help him heal.
“Take excellent care of yourself,” I told him, and I meant it. I talked about eating well, about taking care of his body, about surrounding himself with people who are affirming, about doing the things that feed his soul. It was solid, practical advice to follow in a time when he felt the energy to do few of these things.
I believed it. I even drafted a piece about it to share with you. I still believe it.
But there is a time for everything.
I tossed in the middle of this night, cradling sore wrists, my outward sign of inner struggle, and praying without words, waiting for the light. And then I got tired of waiting and got up.
Last night a stranger called who needed a favor for our mutual friend. A friend with a generous heart and contagious laugh and a house across the street from mine. A friend who, I learned then, had just unexpectedly, so shockingly, lost her youngest daughter.
“No!” I yelled into the phone at this stranger, involuntarily. I hung up and sobbed into Daniel’s chest, wracked with vicarious pain for my friend, for her husband and their children. Minutes later, I found myself at her kitchen counter combatting opportunistic fruit flies and sugar ants while the dogs stretched their legs out back. Someone must have been loading the dishwasher when it became obvious it was time to go. I finished the job and sprayed down the counters and sink to eliminate the springtime pests and laughed through my tears at the absurdity of the gesture.
I remember frantically hacking away at dead tomato plants in the garden the night our neighbor died. As if I could protect her husband from further grief, as if I could fix any small part of something so unfixable. Of course I couldn’t. But I also couldn’t help but try. My grief compelled me.
And maybe there will come a day for my friend where taking care of herself seems practical, but surely that’s a long way off. For now, it’s a job too big for one person. It is a job for her people. The tribe she has cultivated will interlock fingers and carry her and her family. They will wipe counters and fold laundry and sweep her floor and make sure she eats; they will care for her children and cry with her, and—most importantly--they will not flinch at her pain.
My friend asked me to share the news that she couldn’t with a friend of ours, a French woman it would be impossible not to love. I showed up unannounced at her door and she ushered me away to privacy where I stammered out the story. “Oh no!” she wailed, over and over, clutching me. And after a few minutes I wiped my eyes and got back in my van to collect my oldest child from her afterschool club where beamed with pride as she showed me her Lego creation. My eyes welled again as I watched her.
I have often said that one of my great struggles in life is to be fully present in every moment, for my family, for my friends, for myself. But presence brings with it such beauty and pain and they are often so tightly braided that they are inextricable, indistinguishable. And it can be excruciating.
Tonight, my van full of children was hit from behind, hard. We all hit our heads; they cried immediately. I rushed to the door to check on them, to comfort them, and the tears sprung to my eyes too quickly. My hands shook as I exchanged information with the contrite young man who hit us. Aside from the initial impact, he has given me no trouble. It will all be taken care of.
As I eased us back on the road my eyes filled again; with gratitude for our safety, with irritation that this day had brought one more emotion to carry, with exhaustion.
Later, after feeding my children a frozen pizza and recording them as they opened meticulously packaged gifts my sister had sent to ask them to be in her wedding, I tucked my smallest child into bed. He asked me to sing a song and I choked on the words,
“May you grow in your own, sweet way
And blossom more every day
And follow the music in your soul
May there be time for you to grow.”
I'm reminded it is a privilege to watch these children grow, one I have all too often taken as a right or even a burden. Not tonight.
I closed his door and swallowed the lump and Daniel and I sat intermingled amongst our daughters to tell them the sad news.
“She must feel a lot better now, in Heaven,” our younger daughter said, remarking over the things our small friend, who had fought through so many limitations in her earthly body, might do in Heaven, like speak. “Oh, Mommy,” Emerie said, “What do you think she’ll say?”
“We did what we would do in France,” she explained, when I told her how beautiful her gesture was. “I hope it wasn’t clumsy.”
Sure it was, of course it was, and as it should be. As I grow the more I find that beauty is so often nestled in, tangled up, intermingled with the pain. It always has been.
Maybe sometimes the healing will come in taking excellent care, but other times it will come by merely being present in the pain we wish we could skip. May we not flinch at each other’s pain. May we let our grief compel us—to presence, to kindness, to friendship, to faith— and may we find the beauty that is tangled somewhere in the midst of it all.