If you look at my nightstand, you’ll see a few things: a baby monitor; a glass of water; a pen; a pair of glasses; and… books. I have books in the bottom cubby: everything from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed to Where the Crawdads Sing to almost every Elisabeth Kubler-Ross book. I have books stacked on top of the nightstand, too: two devotionals; a journal; a Bible; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Gmorning, Gnight!; and many other titles about grief, suffering, and death.
Last year, so many people bought me books. Each one was thoughtful and allowed me a glimpse into how people were processing what was happening to us. Books are my love language, and whenever things in my life have seemed insurmountable — a baby who won’t sleep; a friendship on the rocks; a poor decision made; a college major in question — I have turned to a book. I decide which book to read based on how I’m feeling. Some of them, I’ve reread two or three times. Others, I have been reading for over a year. Many, I am in the middle of, and come back to occasionally, joining the conversation of the words on the page as easily as a conversation with an old friend.
This weekend, I read a slim book from my nightstand library titled More Beautiful than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us by Steve Leder. I underlined, starred, question-marked, and annotated that thing like crazy. But the passage that resonated with something in the basement of my soul was this passage:
“I once heard a lecture in Jerusalem by a rabbi who was the youngest child to survive Auschwitz. The most chilling thing he said was that there were no children in Auschwitz. No matter what your age (he was six), you became an adult as soon as you walked through the electrified barbed-wire fence. There were no children in Auschwitz.
Your don’t really become a grown-up until you suffer some sort of real and deep pain. This means that some children can become adults at six and some adults can remain children well into their sixties, until their parents die, or their own body fails in some critical way, or their child, the light of their eyes, succumbs to disease or death, or their life crumbles during a divorce or a business or moral failure.”
This passage made me think of so many things. Barb and Randy, of course. Who have outlived their child, and how unnatural and harrowing that must feel. It made me think of Trish and Scott. Of my niece and nephews.
It made me think of Jake, who is already an old soul and is forced to think of death and its place in life, and how he is paradoxically angry and incredibly empathetic. This passage suggests that Jake became an adult at four years old. Part of this makes me sad to the point of despair; and part of it makes me so thankful that Jake will always have Jeff’s death as a point for comparison to realize that he can and will go on after pain. He has learned a life lesson far too early in his little life, and yet – because of it – he is light years ahead of his age cohort, and Jake has the ability to turn this into something meaningful and compassionate and kind.
And it made me think of myself, and when I became an adult. It was far before Jeff was diagnosed. I think I became an adult around the same age as Jake, when I started to learn that I had no father… that the spot for a father on my birth certificate was blank. That my mother, try as she might, couldn’t be available – emotionally, physically, or financially – with any consistency; and that, years later, she would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder.
I have always felt like an old soul. Sometimes I resent it: I don’t always want to be the adult. I don’t want to accept that my struggles aren’t as important as helping other people with theirs. But most of the time, I embrace being the adult. Because – if for no other reason – I simply have no choice. If the choice is between acceptance and resentfulness, then there really is no choice at all.
Being the daughter of a parent with a mental illness is – I would guess – arguably as hard as being the person with the mental illness. For most of my childhood, I thought I wasn’t enough — that my mom was going out on dates and shopping and making promises she couldn’t keep because I was doing something wrong. Why couldn’t she stay at home with me, instead of going on a date? Why did she go shopping and buy all sorts of things, when she told me we couldn’t afford other things? And why would she promise me, year after year, that we would ride the dinner train — a train that rode the tracks next to my house so often that it became white noise — when she never intended to put that promise into a plan of action? Was it me?
I remember being in a vehicle (was a limo? a car?) on the way to my mother’s second wedding. Maybe I was eight? Ten? She looked beautiful in her white dress, and she was attentive and completely engaged with me. As I remember it, we were the only two passengers. It all felt very intimate and important.
The route we drove was familiar: it was the exact route I rode to school every day. I had gone to that church nearly every Sunday since I was ten months old. I had spent nights and days at the school attached to that church. And it was the same church I would drive to — many years later — to attend my own wedding.
But I felt sick. A huge rock had settled in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t want this day to be happening. I didn’t want my life to change: why couldn’t we all live at home with my grandparents forever? My mom was marrying a man who was nice enough to me, but I also knew – intuitively, implicitly, and without the words to express it – that it didn’t feel right.
I needed confirmation of something… anything. I asked her the only question I could, even though I knew the answer wouldn’t be what I wanted.
“If I asked you not to marry him, would you stop? Would you stop today?” I asked. I felt like my entire identity rested on her answer.
And I don’t even remember what she said. I think it was some response that tried to reassure me, while also acknowledging that this day was going to happen.
I remember posing for pictures. I remember being at the reception and listening to “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks. I remember all of my family members being there, even extended family, and feeling more alone than I could ever remember being. I so badly wanted my mom to take me home, sit with me on the couch, and watch a movie with me.
But that didn’t happen.
That marriage lasted three months. She married four more times after that, and versions of that same drama – self-doubt and loneliness included – played out in older versions of myself.
Not having a sibling compounded the confusion, hurt, and anxiety of having a mother with a mental illness. Loving as my family was, I often processed things alone. I could have talked to my family about it – and I did sometimes – but as a child, I didn’t have the words for all of it.
So you can imagine my surprise when I found out that – two years after I was born – my mother had given birth to another baby. My mother told me about it at some point, and I give her credit for always being matter-of-fact when talking about my father and the second baby. She gave him up for adoption, an act of true love and courage and selflessness the likes of which I’m not sure I’m even capable of. But that created another unknown: somewhere in this world, I had a father, who may or may not know that I existed. And now, somewhere in this world, I had a half brother, who may or may not know that any of us existed.
I would imagine these people. Every daydream I had as a child was about these two people, and what life might have been like, had things been different, and we all lived in one house like a “normal” family. Did my dad have brown eyes like me? Did my brother? Did they like mint chocolate chip ice cream as much as I did? Would they think I was cool or pretty or smart? What would my brother and I have fought over? What would we have bonded over? Could I have confided in him? Would he have made things less lonely?
I have never doubted that my mother loves me. And that’s the thing about mental illness: the person becomes a prisoner in their own mind. Their heart knows what it wants — my mother loved me and wanted me to be happy. She knew that I was her priority. She could have aborted me, but she was brave enough to have me. But her heart was controlled by her mind, and her mind didn’t have the capability or the medication or the coping skills to follow up on what her heart knew to be true.
And so, I think I became an adult when I was very young.
When my grandma was sick and then dying from lung cancer, it felt like the earth was on the verge of breaking into fissures at any moment… that the ground I walked on was no longer trustworthy, and it was only a matter of time before a huge hole opened up in front of me, and swallowed me whole.
But I had suffered before. And even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I survived her death, and even went on to be happy again, because I had done it before. All of the coping skills I learned as a child of a parent with mental illness were actually a priceless gift.
And when Jeff was sick and then dying from bile duct cancer, it felt like someone had taken a hanger, stretched out the curved parts, shoved it down my throat, and was twisting it around my stomach. I would cry alone on my kitchen floor, wishing to become just like the small puddles that formed when a rogue ice cube was forgotten and left to melt. Whatever I felt with my grandma – whom I loved almost more than anyone in the world – felt small in comparison to the despair I felt when Jeff was dying. It seemed completely reasonable to hope for a meteor to hit the earth and kill everyone. My world was ending, and an apocalypse seemed only fair: if Jeff couldn’t live, then nobody should. I remember saying to my aunt, “I don’t know how I will ever be happy again.”
This is the part where I’m supposed to say, “But I am happy. I laugh. My kids are a wonder. We went to Disney World and Lake Geneva and Beaver Island. We have family who loves us. Minus having Jeff around, we are a ‘normal’ family.” And most of the time, for ease of conversations in passing, this is what I say.
But the truth is that I was right: I will never be the same kind of ‘happy’ that I knew before. The ‘happy’ I feel now is something deeper: one of appreciation and empathy. One of solidarity and joy. A ‘happy’ that can only be felt through experiencing an earth-shattering, apocalyptic, catastrophic, life-altering loss like the one we experienced when Jeff died.
The ‘happy’ I feel now rides shotgun to the deeper emotion that drives it; ‘happy’ is the training wheels for the bicycle of something bigger. And it is a hard-wrought realization and consciousness that puts you in fraternity with others who have suffered, and you realize there is no bravery in the traditional sense. There is putting one foot in front of the other; of, some days, simply existing because there is no other choice; and of a consolidation of acquaintances, priorities, and values that has nothing to do with hubris or shutting people out, but everything to do with humility and keeping people in. Suffering puts a flashlight on the important things in life, and everything not in that little circle of light just isn’t as important anymore. Happy is easy. Appreciation, empathy, solidarity, joy… those take effort.
My confusing childhood is not unique. By other measures, my childhood was blessed. I did not walk through the barbed-wire gates at Auschwitz. Instead, I lived a privileged life: I had access to healthcare and a good education. I was spoiled and adored by every adult in my family.
Being a widow is not unique. Even being a young widow is not unique. I have learned this through my experiences: many, many women and men in their 30s or 40s, with young children, have lost a spouse to cancer.
Even the way I’m grieving is not unique. I read books and poems – some written recently, some decades ago, others centuries ago – about loss. My experience is not the same, but neither is it that different from every human who ever lost someone they loved.
I have humbled myself to life, God, and suffering. I can say this with conviction – and also without ego – because I am simply one person in the rest of human history who has lost someone she loved. I am unique, but my experiences are not.
I have accepted that I will suffer again. I will not catastrophize the mundane, waiting for the next shoe to drop. But I will acknowledge that I am not immune to the randomness of life. Last year, when so many people – including me – asked, “Why Jeff?”, I couldn’t answer it. Now, I would reply, “Why not him?” We are all human, and to be human is to be made of matter that will decay and die, and the sooner we all realize it, the sooner we can release our grip on the lie that death exists in our peripheral vision.
Becoming an adult started when I was very young… too young, by most measures. But maybe when suffering happens to children, they are more willing to be humble because they have less to prove. And perhaps because I began these lessons when I was so young, a small part of me has always existed that knew life would go on.
I would not have chosen for my mother to have a mental illness. Mental illness is not a gift. I would not have chosen for my grandmother or husband to get cancer. Cancer is not a gift. But the suffering endured from those experiences has allowed me to make choices that are my own. And as I look around at my imperfect life, I have to admit that I’m so thankful that I get to live it.