For a few years I expected the worst. Justin would be late from work and I’d stand at the window looking out at the desert, certain he was dead. When he traveled I would imagine if he didn’t return. I realized I didn’t know anything about chunks of our shared life. He tracked our finances. He knew how to fix a wobbly chair. He planned our summer vacations. For years I expected the worst but continued to allow the kids to climb, jump, run and bike fast. Now the fear that my spouse or child might die is a fear that keeps quiet, but during my early motherhood that fear would swell to a point of certainty. If I called Justin and he didn’t answer, I began to cry. The afternoon I saw my two year old daughter had opened her bedroom window by standing on a little chair and was sweeping dust off the sill with her hand, I went cold. I didn’t shout but I held her tightly, feeling dizzy at the thought. We found a way to lock the sliding window and screen.
I might have expected the worst because I understand that the worst can happen to people. I was Polly Klass’s age when I saw her picture on People magazine at the checkout. I was twelve or thirteen when I read The Diary Of Anne Frank. I heard about an Olympic runner in Bosnia who trained despite having to dodge bullets. I learned about mental illness. I read about the Holocaust. I didn’t understand Rwanda. My great-grandmother told me her mother and infant brother died in the flu epidemic and when her father could not raise his remaining two children, he gave my great-grandmother and her brother to a couple who provided, but were not warm. The worst can happen to people.
And people live through. Continue. During those early years of motherhood, two things happened that started to shape my relationship with fear, suffering and grief. Midway through a difficult pregnancy, my friend Liana gave birth to her third son who lived one hour in the hands of his dad. That is now seven years ago but the memories of Liana on bedrest, and the phone call that told me she’d lost her son, still turn my heart. A few days after she was released from the hospital, I stopped by a cafe to pick up a coffee and saw her a moment before she saw me. She was sitting at a table waiting for her husband who was inside with their boys. She was empty armed and blank faced. The mercy was, Liana didn’t try to rearrange her features to make me okay. The second thing that happened was my parents’ neighbor Rose died weeks after a cancer diagnosis, leaving her husband and eight year old son. I did not know Rose well, but I knew she loved her son, wanted another baby, was excited about homeschooling. One summer I talked with Rose in my mom’s kitchen, encouraged by her straightforward faith in Christ. But when Rose died, I ached with shame at how much I worked at love, how uncertain I was at parenting. I ached with fear I might die before I learned how to love my children simply, sacrificially.
The following few years I practiced more honesty in my faith, more neediness. Motherhood was a catalyst to surrender, heart change, fuller joy. Fear subsided as I learned my identity in Christ, as I preached to myself the great care the Father has for each of his children. But fear also subsided as I witnessed others suffer loss and walk sorrow.
I am still finding a way to say this next part. During this past year I imagined myself inoculated against those losses we count as worst: spouse or partner, child, body. I am so comfortable with my ordinary suffering. The low grade depression like a background hum, ready to swell or lessen with the roll of my month or year. The pains of having much and so managing or neglecting gifts, like hiring help with housework, deciding where to get take away, sorting a closet full of clothes, or choosing what to do on a wide open Saturday. I like my ordinary suffering. I have witnessed others’ suffering. I have empathized and entangled. I do not want to wash my child’s dead body. I do not want to kiss my husband’s dead body. When I stepped into a conversation about suffering and grief with Sabrina, she surprised me by saying God does not give us more than we can bear: a platitude I would not say to any bereaved person, she could say within the year her husband died. She carries so much. She is as loved as I and we are both held in the Spirit, but when she said that I thought, Well, there you go. I can’t bear it. That single truth summed up my supposition that God understood I could be near grief, intercede, care for others, but that I am also ill prepared to suffer anything more than a lifetime of mild depression.
All of us are ill prepared to suffer anything more than a lifetime of mild depression and some of us can barely handle that. While I pretend proximity to great loss might inoculate me against great loss, the better comfort is this: we all suffer, we all lose. I move toward and away from this thought but find such comfort in the connectedness of my experience and yours, the lack of anything new under the sun, the truth that we all suffer, we all lose. I do not need to stand at the window waiting my turn. I am allowed to live with peace and joy. I surrender fear. Let my husband go away from me and return. Let my children bike ahead and arrive. Let me run alone at dawn. Liana and Sabrina live and grieve and live. Rose grieved and died. I hold what I have. I cannot do more today.