The hyper awareness of my own mind and thoughts after my two friend's death is in stark contrast to my sense of deep loss yet peace after my Grandmother Elizabeth died. I am lucky, just lucky very lucky that I have not had to deal with much loss that is close to the bone. My Grandparents are the only people that I was very close to who have died, and both died, while at the end of a long and complicated life, at the end of a long and complicated life. If you see what I mean. My friends, on the other hand... Michelle died in her forties of metatastic breast cancer after five years of battling the disease. She left behind a husband two young children. Carrie died this week of complications from the brutal surgery of her ovarian cancer, complications that I cannot begin to let my mind truly approach, the details being so terrifying and upsetting that I do not let myself dwell. I find my brain returning there, anyhow, despite my protestations, hovering over a distant and blurred image.
When I was twelve or maybe thirteen, I read Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the series of Anne of Green Gables, and definitely the most dark of all the books. War has come to Anne and her family. Anne's son is terrified of war, and death- but most of all, of suffering. He is a sensitive poet and not brave at all, he tells his sister, not the kind of man who can face what he imagines to be the utmost suffering, the bayonet. He cannot bear it if he is called off to war, and yet, just as in life, he is called anyhow. He goes, and is killed. But not before finding peace. Not before finding he can do the thing that could not be done. And this is my lifelong fervent desire- to find a place of internal peace and meaning so fortified and true that nothing can kill it. Lifelong desire? Yes. I have always remembered- not forgotten and then remembered at a later age, but simply never forgotten- one day in elementary school. I was playing tether-ball on the courtyard and the sky was overcast. There were, as always, throngs of kids around me, playing ball and four square and running. I stood still and let the tether-ball swing round without hitting it, for at that exact moment, watching all my running moving living classmates, I had the impossible but absolute realization that one day, every single one of them was going to die. Every. Single. One. This is how it echoed in my head. I saw the courtyard empty. I realized that the only thing that might be left of where I was, one day, was this overcast sky above my head. And I was filled with the desire to find the secret to life- how to live so that your impending death cannot make you feel like nothing.
You can see I was not invited to many parties.
For a few horrible years I struggled terribly with a fear of death, until one day, I was not afraid of simply death- a new fear had taken place in my mind, one that I can now see was parallel with the emotional suffering I lived with, a fear of suffering and early death. So now I was afraid of two things, whereas before I was only afraid of plain old endless eternal death. Thank God I was a reader and thank God my parents gave me access to not only all and any books that filled our home, but as many books as I cared to take from the library. Books were the only light in that endless tunnel. I could read about how other people feared the exact same thing as I did, what they went through and most importantly, what they learned. I wanted to understand what made some people able to face life's worst with their own best. I wanted to understand how I could do that too.
Carrie had died. She died at 42 and was a single mother to one beautiful boy named Gabriel. She was a wonderful mother and a good friend. She suffered, physically and emotionally. It is very important here that I explain that I cannot speak for most of Carrie's experience. We were friends but not best friends, and although I heard much from her in writing about her experience, I am sure that is only a drop in the bucket of what she felt and thought. I cannot honestly say what she went through, because as a writer I am all too aware of how we pick and choose what we reveal. I am not writing about what Carrie did or did not do and would feel gross in doing so. I am writing about how her death has affected me. Were Carrie and I very close, I think this timeline would be different. For me, it was the doppleganger of what is presently almost my worst fear in life- to die when my children are still young, to suffer, and most importantly to me, to be afraid. No- to be terrified. Of course I recognize fully the complete banality of this fear, the commonality. My fear, Carrie's fear, is most of our fears. I have lived in fear for most of my life. I do remember some years in the beginning where I was not afraid. I remember that peace. But most of my life, I have been afraid, and later in my childhood and all throughout my pre-teen and teen years, I was deeply afraid, all the time. When I saw Carrie suffering, I wanted to stop it. Half of this was because I wanted to stop it, and half of this was because I wanted her to show me how to do so.
That incredibly selfish and self absorbed desire was aborted immediately as I recognized it. You see how many times I have written ' I ' in these words? That is because as you have realized, despite the fact that Carrie died, my puny little mind is still revolving it around me. My heart, my spirit- no. I pray for Carrie and her son and her family off and on all day. But my mind, trying to grasp the enormity of her death, flails around like a fish on land. I can only hook my brain into what is alive, and that is my memories of Carrie, which are stored in my brain, and my own thoughts and feelings about mortality.
After my grandparents died, I had none of this. I did not feel selfish, nor do I remember constantly relating their deaths to other things or mulling over them, trying to learn something or understand something. This is because I was at peace with their deaths. I can wrap my mind around dying old and loved. But when faced with the overwhelming truth of what happened to Carrie, my spirit quakes.
I want something solid to hold on to. I have been watching The Tudors, and happen to be right at the moment in time when poor doomed Queen Anne Boleyn and her falsely accused lovers are all executed- beheaded. As Anne wailed in horror and despair watching her brother being murdered from the Tower of London, I wondered what peace there could be to be had there. I know it's possible-for some. Other people have faced as much and found peace and courage. Sometimes I wonder if it's possible for me to find this kind of deep inner peace, because I have no deep faith in God as I understand it/him/her, and my brain has been wracked with fear and sadness my entire life. Just today I read an article in NPR about a new study showing what we already know, which is that children who have great trauma and fear have brains that do not process fear normally. They end up, essentially, afraid of everything.
In place of a wonderfully shored up brain and a deep religious faith, I will have to put my strong belief in love and it's powers and meaning, the actions of my life, and a study in those who came before me and learned what I am still learning. Death or suffering reminds me, profoundly, of why some choose to make their life about learning how to be alive, while the rest of us run around trying to make a life out of much ado about nothing with moments of meaning. When faced with the worst of the human experience, we want solace so badly, but can we find it if we put no time in looking?
Do I believe that if we just try hard enough, we can always overcome suffering? Of course not. Maybe that is our destiny as human beings, but we aren't there yet. I imagine the worst, and I cannot imagine how I would 'overcome' it, to such degree that it has to be put in quotes. But. It is, and always has been, my deepest instinct is that alongside the greatest terror and horrors we can imagine ( which, nowadays, are expansive ) there is also a river that runs through it, some kind of access to a great belonging and peace. If that is annoyingly obtuse, I apologize. You are the recipient of merely the contents of my inferior brain and what I can pull forth from my heart, and if you find it paltry, imagine how I feel. But I refer back to the teachers, many of whom- all?- were furious, fucking furious at being put in that role. Nobody wants to be a fucking TEACHER. We don't want to suffer so others can learn their lessons. We want our lives as they are- beautiful and messy and painful and awkward and weird and lovely and joyful and horrible and exhausting and interesting and all of it- in private. Not to be Angelina and Brad, a lesson for everyone else on how to survive in a bubble. But those people are there, and I watch them.
Madonna Badger. I don't know if you know of her, but she is the mother of three beautiful little girls who are all now dead. Her three girls died in a house fire on Christmas a few years back. I saw the news report at the time and filled with the awe and horror that probably every parent felt seeing that news report. Somehow I found Madonna on Twitter and followed her. She wasn't on Twitter anymore so I don't know why I followed her. She hadn't posted since her daughter's deaths. But at some point, she did, and she linked to her FB page, and she followed me back, and I have been 'watching her' ever since. For a long time, she barely lived. She was almost brain dead. I think of how your heart can be stunned still by a virus, and sometimes, the doctors will say the heart muscle died, when really it's not dead, it's temporarily paralyzed by the virus. When tragedies too big to process happen to people, it seems like this happens to the brain. Madonna moved in with her good friend at some point, and just stumbled around the house for months, a year, just holding on to life, barely. After a long time more, she ventured further, on the road and eventually into town. Stumbling around but around. Finally she reached a point where her brain started to wake up, just a tiny bit, out of the constant enormous suffering. Lately she's been posting pictures on her Facebook page. She's been giving out gifts in orphanages in some part of the other side of the world. She's hugging the children. She's riding an elephant. She's talking about love.
Part of me imagines the worst and wants to erase every fucking word I just wrote. Because see, immediately with that kind of horror I feel a rage at the facts of life. The facts of life as Carrie knew them were, among many others, that she got cancer and died young, being forced to leave behind her young son. What if, I wonder, those were my facts?
" When the mind thinks of death, it looks at it and calls it something to keep from experiencing what it- the mind- really is. Unless you know that death is equal to life, you'll always try to control what happens, and it's always going to hurt. There is no sadness without a story that opposes reality. The fear of death is the last smokescreen for the fear of love. We think we're afraid of the death of the body, though what we're really afraid of is the death of our identity. But through inquiry, as we understand that death is just a concept, and that our identity is just a concept too, we come to realize who we are. This is the end of fear. "
" Did you have a foot before you thought of it? When there is no thought, there is no foot. When there's no thought of death, there is no death. "
" Everyone can accept death. Everyone does. There's no decision in death. People who know there is no hope are free. The decision's out of their hands. It has always been that way, but some people have to die bodily to find out. No wonder they smile on their deathbeds. Dying is everything they were looking for in life. Their delusion of being in charge is over. When there's no choice, there's no fear. They realize they're home and that they never left. "
-all quotes Byron Katie
These are the quotes from a book by Byron Katie I read weeks ago. These are the kinds of ideas I like to torture myself with. I don't know what I think about it, and I can't yet make my brain really slow down enough to process these thoughts in the deep and thoughtful way that they require, but I do believe there is a lot to be gained from thinking about these things, from reading about things I don't understand or even agree with, and from watching the teachers, reluctant though they may be.