Leper

Leperous Job

Four years, four months, and eight days. 

This is how long it has been since my husband ended his life.

This is how long it has been since my husband ended my life.

The mercy of the first year of grief was the numbness. I sleep-walked through twelve calendar months. When I began to stir from the opiate of grief, memories came up like photographs in a screen saver: Disorganized, disembodied, disconnected.

I preserved a sense of household normalcy through strength of will and habit. Friends and family were supportive, but I could not be comforted. Deeply ashamed, I would not tell strangers how my husband died. I told partial truths, “He had Parkinson’s Disease.”

He committed suicide. He died by suicide. He killed himself. He took his own life.

We were Christians and Catholics, among whom one would expect to receive mercy, but where, more often than not, judgment is harsh and more liberally dispensed than in any gathering of sinners. I learned to shut my mouth and my heart.

Year one passed by.

ico1

Year two was worse than the first. Old schisms and fissures expanded. Brittle relationships buckled and failed. Someone whispered he was the good one. Another said you’ve changed too much and unfriended me on social media.

She’s a bitch. She’s a sorceress.

She’s too liberal now.

He was the good one.

I stopped trying to explain myself.  I drank more wine.  I wanted to die.

ico1

During the third year, a leprosy of my soul set in: Nerve damage, a loss of vision, the bloody stump. A corruption made visible, emblems of decay and pollution, weakness and sin.

“Unclean! Unclean!” I rang the leper’s bell.

Stay downwind; stay away from us. We’re not like you.

Don’t associate with them, their dad killed himself.

Something is wrong with that family.

I learned why Jesus associated with whores, thieves, tax-gatherers and sinners. I drank vodka tonics at the bar. I learned to make the perfect Bloody Mary. I stopped going to mass.

ico1

At the end of the fourth year, my friend died. She who was at the births of my twin daughters. She who was like a second mother to them, a daughter to me. She who communicated the love of Christ better than anyone else I’ve known, other than my husband. She who carried me through the years of grief over my daughter’s death, over my husband’s death.

Daddy, Mommy’s asleep and won’t wake up.

Daddy, I can’t wake Mommy. 

She who had three young children ages two, six, and eight was dead on her daughter’s sixth birthday, a Happy Birthday banner strung across the fireplace.

Life and Death

Once upon a time . . .

My child died.

We had almost recovered, but then—

He was diagnosed.

He grew ill.

He wasn’t himself.

He had a wreck and nearly killed a man.

He lost hope.

He ended his life.

He ended my life, and then—

My friend of 24 years died.

ico1

The process of suffering gone to decay and degradation has a name in alchemy: fermentation. Fermentation is a two-step process that begins with the putrefaction of a child, the hermaphroditic child who resulted from the conjunction process.

Pay attention here:

A union occurs, a marriage, a conjunction.

A child is born, a whole and glorious child, the fruit of this union.

But then, the child becomes diseased and dies.

The child putrefies and rots.

ico1

Once, I was blessed, O so blessed.

I married the love of my life and received every good thing.

Every wish I ever wished came true.

But then, my husband became diseased and died.

And now, I putrefy and rot.

happy_birthday

Suggested Reading

Alchemy: The Great Work

Von Franz, Marie-Louise. Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Toronto, Canada. Inner City Books, 1980. Print.

I am Vampire

The Bible tells the story of twin brothers Jacob and Esau, estranged after Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright and received the father’s blessing of the firstborn son. At the end of their long estrangement, Jacob and Esau met again. Genesis 33 tells us that Jacob saw Esau approaching from the distance with 400 men and, afraid that Esau would order his men to attack, arranged his household strategically so that those most precious to him would be the most likely to escape. Most Christian translations say that when Esau met Jacob on the way, he ran and “kissed him on the cheek,” but an accurate Hebrew translation is more sinister and surprising, as well as being upheld by rabbinical teachings and Jewish tradition: The rabbis teach that Esau fell upon Jacob’s neck and bit him, vampire style!

I’ve been interested for a while now in the current American preoccupation with vampires, which began roughly around the time that Anne Rice’s Lestat series became best sellers (1976), and has culminated with the Twilight series in print, and True Blood on HBO. Esau’s legendary role as a would-be vampire would be disconcerting had I not done as much reading and mulling over these brothers as I have; but I keep returning to the New Testament admonishment that spiritual folks should not allow themselves to develop a character like Esau’s, or to let an Esau thrive in their midst. “See to it,” Paul wrote, “that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau among you, who sold his own birthright for a bowl of soup.”

What is a vampire, if not a person whose birthright–his experience of being fully human–has been lost? What is a vampire, if not a once living person who succumbs to another blood sucker and must afterward live off the literal lifeblood of others, having no remaining life of his own? Isn’t this the perfect metaphor for our somnambulent American culture with its reality TV, true crime best sellers, celebrity tabloids and gossip magazines, thinly-disguised Facebook and MySpace voyeurism, and constant inane tweets where meaning must be communicated in 140 characters or less?

Life is Tweet

Recently I’ve been in several different social settings in which I noticed people sitting together eating, at the theater, and even at sporting events while texting or tweeting furiously, or otherwise engaged with their cell phones. This behavior amuses and appalls me at the same time. I wonder if people are conscious to what they’re doing? And what are we doing, if we are not trying to infuse ourselves with life from others when we text message and update our Facebook status in the midst of crowds, at restaurants where we’ve met friends for dinner, while watching a DVD with friends or family? We have this great treasure of human spirit in these temporal bodies, such wondrous possibilities of becoming and being, but so many squander it by living in the shallows. Even in the midst of other people, many will seek to escape life in the moment, with the people who are present.

Anne Rice has said that she wrote her vampire series during a time in her life when she was without God, alone in a universe of fellow dead, and that the anguished cry of her spirit was given voice through her vampire series. That her work resonated with millions of Americans–her books have sold over 100 million copies–does not surprise me. We are a generation of people to whom God is dead, from whose major religions all numinous symbols have been removed, for whom “mental health” simply means being undiagnosable and well-adjusted to a culture that is spiritually and psychologically ill.

Voodoo

I have a particular fondness for the work of Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross because of her model of grief, and find that regardless of how great or small the loss I’m experiencing, her model serves me well by reminding me that my reactions are normal and to be expected.

By now, most of us know the stages of grief she observed among her dying patients: shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Of course, one doesn’t have to be dying to experience these emotional and intellectual reactions to the death of something in our lives. Whether you’re in the ticket line and have someone cut in front of you or whether you’ve been diagnosed with metastatic cancer, you will most likely go through many of these reactions to a loss. The size of the loss isn’t as relevant as the fact that we can be so predictable in our responses along the path to acceptance.

voodoo1 by you.

Take, for example, an event to which my husband and I found ourselves uninvited.  I discovered that several people in our family had been invited to a function from which we’d been excluded, and my first reactions were a sinking heart (“Oh, no!”) and “realizing with a start” the facts of the situation—the reactions of shock and denial. This was followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. From this example, you can see how the grief we experience over our losses, whether small or great, takes a worn path.

If you’ll think about the last reaction of shock or “Oh, no!” you had, you will probably be able to play your initial “Oh, no!” reaction forward and see how it ended in some sort of acceptance, even if only a grudging one. You may also be able to accept that nearly every “oh, no!” reaction is part of a response to loss.

Many times we don’t acknowledge our losses as we go through the day, and finally erupt by day’s end in some surprising way because we’ve been unconscious to our own suffering. I’ve found that the more aware I am of the losses I experience throughout the day and the claims I have that back up my sense of loss, the more I am able to contain myself rather than projecting my unsolved mysteries outward.

voodoo2 by you.

Cheated

cheat (v.):

1. to defraud; swindle. 2. to deceive; influence by fraud. 3. to elude; deprive of something expected.

Some years ago, my husband’s grandfather died, leaving his heirs land and other property worth millions of dollars. Before his death, my husband and his granddad had walked this land that had been in the family since the Land Run, and his sweet old granddad told him, “this part will all be yours, the home place, your great-granddad’s homestead too, because I know you’ll care for it.” He put his property into a trust and retained his two most trustworthy sons to administer it.

About a year after the trust was established, my husband’s grandfather went into a nursing home. While he was there and still in his right mind, one of his two trustee sons was murdered by vagrants passing through the area. Now only one son was left, the son who later developed Alzheimer’s and could not be relied upon in any way. And then my husband’s granddad died, and the remaining sons took charge and cheated my husband out of his inheritance as we sat by helplessly, in spite of having hired attorneys and gone to court and spent four years trying to litigate our ways out of being cheated.

It’s especially painful when someone you trust, like, or even love cheats you. As King David said in Psalm 55, it doesn’t bother you as much when it’s an enemy who cheats you, but when it’s a family member or friend, someone you trust, someone you’ve gone to church with, someone who has lived under your roof or with whom you’ve been intimate–oh, my. Oh my, oh my. When one you broke bread with cheats you, one who “dips his bread with me” at the table as Judas did with Jesus, then you know you’ve been cheated.

line2 by you.

Everyone has been cheated or will be cheated at some point in life. Everyone has had someone else make a promise they later broke. Everyone has been on the switch end of the old bait-and-switch cheat. Everyone has felt cheated by life or the universe or circumstances, when we don’t receive what we expected, planned, or hoped for. You marry someone you thought you knew, and six years later you discover he’s had an affair. You raise your children with every value you can muster, and when you finally have an empty nest and can look forward to a comfortable retirement with your spouse, your oldest child is diagnosed with schizophrenia. You have to raise your grandchild. You get cancer. You finally retire and go on the world cruise you both always dreamed of, and your husband dies in Ireland, on the first leg of your journey. Your child is born handicapped and you learn you will always have to take care of her. Or, as actually happened to a friend of ours, the healthy kidney is mistakenly removed and the diseased one left. “You’ll have to be on dialysis unless a donor is found,” they said. At some point or another in life, everyone is cheated or feels cheated. Being cheated is loss.

Even when they haven’t actually been cheated, everyone feels cheated from time to time due to expectations. Psychoanalyst Karen Horney wrote at length about expectations, which she called “claims,” and their use by wounded folks. She said that we often have unspoken expectations and go through life imposing them on others without getting enough reality checks to discover whether or not our claims are, in fact, reasonable. What is owed is the stuff of psychology and religion.

What do you owe me? What do I owe you? What did I give you, and what must you give me in return? How do the laws of reciprocity, of sowing and reaping, apply?  Is an outcome, a hope, a dream, an expectation, a contract, a covenant something I should be attached to? Or does all attachment lead to suffering, as Buddha taught?

Can a person ever be truly free of expectations? Ought we be? Is being free of expectations a worthy goal? What do we do when we’re feeling cheated, or when we have, in fact, been cheated? What can we do afterward with our feelings of sorrow, humiliation, shame, astonishment, and anger?

Tribulation is Treasure

Writing about my daughter’s death has been disturbing. I’ve found my sleep upset by difficult dreams, even escher5 by you.though they also always contain some symbol of transcendence. I’ve been carrying around a weighty sorrow and disappointment these past few weeks, probably not all arising from her death. But it’s simpler to think that it’s all about that particular sorrow.

Putative Summer

My former son-in-law and I were talking about the trying summer we’ve had, which began with his father’s suicide. He had an email from an attorney addressing his “putative” claim to part of his father’s estate, which was ridiculous because under our state laws his claim is in no way putative. His claim is actual. But, because of the email and the way our summer went, we’ve dubbed this The Putative Summer. It was summer, all right, but we experienced few or none of the usual joys of summer, just funerals and grieving and disturbing questions.

Our Putative Summer made me think about things I don’t want to think about, much. I’ve carried around a tennis-ball sized knot right below my heart for some weeks now. Writing about how I’ve “healed” has, ironically, pushed me back to that place where

The whole head is sick,
And the whole heart is faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head
There is nothing sound in it,
Only bruises, welts, and raw wounds,
Not pressed out or bandaged,
Nor softened with oil.
(Isaiah 1:5-6)

We seem to have consensus that people integrate their great losses and griefs and go on with their lives, for escher4 by you.the most part. But there may also be unresolved grief, delayed grief, chronic grief, distorted grief, somatized grief, and interferences with grief. Parents who have lost a child may rush to conceive another child or adopt one, replacing the lost child and thus sealing the fate of the unborn with a weight too heavy for a baby to carry. They may make shrines to the dead in their homes, or may become bitter and angry. Marriages end. There is no doubt that for some, there is no “healing,” no return or progression to a state where there is no longer any infirmity arising from the loss.

Putative Friends

What I think about most is not how I healed, but how I changed after Olivia’s death. I changed in such profound ways that I completely abandoned some of my former habits and some of my former relationships. This is not unusual, for only the stout of heart can stick with a friend who is suffering so acutely. As for the bereaved, we wonder why, before the loss, we put up with any fair weather friends. One of my closest friends hurt me deeply as Olivia lay dying. The way she treated me felt like utter abandonment, even though she probably didn’t intend it. Even though we later made peace, I ultimately decided that she was not a friend worth keeping. I would not have escher3 by you.made this decision earlier in my life, for in olden days I willingly put up with relationships that lacked balance or reciprocity.

When a family member later appropriated this once-close friend as a mentor, I inwardly wished them both the best but knew beyond doubt that I’d never trust either of them again. In A Companion Through the Darkness, Stephanie Ericsson writes that we are at our most vulnerable when in deep mourning. This is when the dark-hearted show themselves:

They emerge at fortuitous times, usually when we are at our weakest, because evil will never seek an equal opponent. It is the hyena who waits until the prey falters before it moves in for the kill. […] It is inevitable that evil will rear its head when death visits. In-laws never speak to us again after the funeral. No explanation. No reason. Just silent blame and cruel desertion. […] Many of us who expected our families and friends to stand by us at our darkest hour found ourselves attacked instead. […] I found that everything I thought I could count on, I couldn’t. People I thought cared for me, I discovered hated me. People I never knew cared for me came through as beacons of light.

The most grievous losses have a way of dividing silver and dross through betrayals. I determined to have less dross in my life, and more of what is precious and lasting.

Putative Values

Like many others who have lost children, I changed most in my thinking about what matters. In The Worst Loss, Barbara Rosof writes that the majority of bereaved parents say that their values shifted dramatically escher1 by you.after their child’s death. Their dedication to “the conventional markers of success-promotions, a nicer house, more money and things-all mattered much less to them after their child died. Their commitments changed as well” (258).

Before Olivia died, I was more committed to fostering the growth of other peoples’ real selves than my own. This changed as I became more of my true self after she died. I had held onto God through the most terrifying experience, and He had made marvelous to me His lovingkindness in a besieged city. While this steeled me in my innermost being, it also compromised the patience I’d had with ridiculous people in the past. I became sick to death of hypocritical Christians. I stopped going to church for a year, and stayed home and worshiped God on my own. Some mornings, while my husband took all our children to church, I stayed for an hour and a half on my face on our bedroom floor, my heart rent in two.

My true self sprang out of the head of my old self after Olivia died. She was my teacher even in death, and I think that it has taken every bit of eight years to make sense of what happened. A place that had never been hard in me hardened and became immovable under the developmental demands of middle age and the tutelage of sorrow.

I don’t have time for foolishness any more. I hear the clock ticking.

. . . any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
Neither can we call this a begging of misery,
or a borrowing of misery,
as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves,
but must fetch in more from the next house,
in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors.
Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did,
for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.
No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it,
and made fit for God by that affliction.
If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold,
and have none coined into current money,
his treasure will not defray him as he travels.
Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it,
but it is not current money in the use of it,
except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.
John Donne, From “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions” (1623),
XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris

%d bloggers like this: