One year after Olivia’s death, my teenage and adult children and I were playing a game called Imaginif, in which the players answer questions about one another. I was the subject of the question, “If this player were an insect, which one would she be?” The possible answers were louse, ant, wasp, praying mantis, butterfly, and glow worm. I guessed that they would say ant; after all, the ant is industrious, a good team player, and can carry up to 50 times its own weight. Surely they would say I’d be an ant. But, no. Those who knew me best said I’d be a wasp. Other than the foster daughter who wanted to become part of our family and deemed me a butterfly, the other children who had lived with and loved me for years knew me as a wasp.
My son Reed explained that a wasp builds a nest and will attack if you try to disturb that nest. Cedar said, “Mom, you can step on an ant and kill it, but if you try to get a wasp, you are going to get hurt.” Fern and Larkspur agreed: you don’t want to mess with the wasp. They’ll protect their nest at any cost. “You fight for us and make our lives better,” Reed commented. His brother agreed, pointing out that a family like ours needed a mother like me.
I was amazed at their agreement, and surprised to see that I carried judgments about wasps, ants, butterflies, and glow worms. Oh, how I wanted to be a butterfly or a lowly glow worm, if not a delight and thing of beauty in the world, then at least someone with the quality of domestic humility. But not a wasp. Anything but a wasp.
My children saw my waspishness as a good thing, my personality foundational to the success of our family; yet all I could think about was how ugly and terrible a wasp is, doing no good for anyone. I realized that I had been carrying negative judgments of myself for many years, that these judgments had led me to abandon parts of myself, and that I had not fully lived out my real self. At home, among long-time friends, and professionally, I had been myself and made it work. But at church, among Christian friends, I had lived out a self that had the power and industry of the ant, but not the fearsomeness of the wasp. That fearsomeness had come into sharp focus while Olivia lay ill and dying; the power of death and of my waspishness had frightened the weak-hearted away. I could see how and why I had lost one of my oldest friends and lost interest, too, in my churchified relationships: they weren’t real.
Olivia’s death heralded the loss of parts of my self that I’d carried for too long and that would do me no good where I was going. The negative judgments I’d made of myself in the past had resulted in my rejecting that self in part. Among church ladies, I had played the role of appeaser, helper, cheerleader, teacher, and even healer. I had won and maintained friends by playing the part of a glow worm, an ant, or a butterfly, when the entire time my true nature was, in fact, that of a wasp. A wasp: a fiercely protective, industrious creature you might use as the mascot for your athletic team or fighter jet squadron, one who intimidates through implied threat. In such a small body, a fearsome sting.
Before Olivia’s death, many of my relationships with women in the church had been based largely on my ability to give other women what they needed or wanted under the guise of servanthood, even though sometimes I wasn’t serving out of my real self. After Olivia’s death, and the day my children and I discussed wasps, I had to ask myself why I had been willing to settle for being useful to others rather than loving and being loved. Church friends who had been abandoning, shallow, or indifferent during Olivia’s illness and death had made me think deeply about what it actually means to be a Christian. Christ-ian: One who follows Christ. What judgments had I made about my own self that made me willing to compromise the only self I had?
By the time Olivia died, only my industry and usefulness seemed to redeem the more difficult aspects of my personality. And yet the Bible I claimed to believe said that I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), or, as Isaiah prophesied:
Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker– An earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, “What are you doing?” Or the thing you are making say, “He has no hands”? Woe to him who says to a father, “What are you begetting?” Or to a woman, “To what are you giving birth?” (Isaiah 45:9-10)
I had quarrelled with my Maker, often asking Him why He had made me thus. When it came down to it, and a life and death situation occurred, He stripped me down to my bare bones and showed me of what stuff I was made, what fearful and wonderful stuff. Fearful, like a wasp. Fearful, making you put your hand on your mouth in amazement. Wonderful and beloved. Cherished in every way. Loved for who I am, because God made me, and loves me. Thou art good, and Thou doest good. There was no mistake when He made me, any more than there was a mistake when Olivia was made, wonderful child, beautiful daughter. And yet I so harshly judged myself, was such an abandoning mother to my own self. No wonder I had an affinity with orphans: I was one.
I knew this, of course. I knew it all, but somehow the empty space where Olivia was, and the long stretches of time and aloneness her illness and death had carved into my life also gave me space to breathe, to think, and to be with my self. I was like a wasp, yes. As my pastor had said, I have a “formidable intellect.” I’d had something formidable about me my entire life, even though I didn’t mean to. God had made me with a lot of ability, intelligence, and energy, the kind that always wished to be male so I could do something with it. The kind that gets females labeled “bitch.” And I had judged myself as a bitch, a wasp, and any manner of ignoble creatures when, in fact, God had made me and I was His bride, and He loved me with an everlasting love. Like Lucifer, I had ascended to the throne of God and passed judgment on myself, even though there is only one judge and one lawgiver. Olivia’s death had cast me down from my high place. The year after she died, I was finally able to welcome the view from my lowly position.
I was weary of churgh-going and church ladies and preachers who scream at you from the pulpit. I was appalled at what passed for compassion among the people I’d attended church with, both because of the hypocrisy among these Christians, and also because I had no compassion for myself! I reeled in this state of disequilibrium for months, discombobulated to the nth degree.
Following Olivia’s death, I came to terms with my own hypocrisy and that of some of the people with whom I’d closely associated. I embraced my inner wasp and stung myself silly, over and over again. I forgave, reconciled with, and finally vetted those who had abandoned me when I needed them most. For a time, I hated them because I hated the part of myself that loved people like that, and because on some level I needed them to be everything I rejected in myself. It took awhile for me to let go lovingly.
After Olivia died, my wasp self was born again. Like the queen wasp who goes down into the ground all winter long and awaits the spring, I went down into the cold and dark. I waited, my buzzing wings and hateful stinger still. Quiet. Brooding. Waiting.
I came out a queen without no kingdom or subject other than my self, and I built a new comb. I sealed a thousand fertile things in the cells of my heart; they are still growing.
The Nandi people of Kenya used to paint themselves with white clay to signify their transformation into invisible ancestral spirits. After Olivia’s death, I became an invisible ghost in my deepest self, dreaming at night that I held my daughter as we both heaved with sobs, by day balancing checkbooks, planning menus, home schooling the children.
How did I heal after Olivia died? I never did. I went into a tomb, I was swallowed by a great whale, I was shipwrecked and cast into the tossing waves of the sea, and three years later I emerged, a creature once whitewashed, but now etiolated by life in the underworld.