So much of life is light. We all carry a flame, but there was one little flame that lit my whole world. (How is it that such a young small person who lives such a short life could make such a big light?) But she is gone now and it is dark, and my own light is doused to embers. It feels so empty. And so I live by the light of our friends and family. Their breath keeps my embers glowing. In some ways, life has been so unfair to me, but this is not one of them. The day after Hudson’s death, my friend Lisa posted on my Facebook that she “found a place of peace tonight shortly after 7pm, gazing at Hudson's photo praying for a miracle, when clarity came to me that her life--however short--has been a miracle, and that we're all blessed to be part of a community that surrounds her, and you, and Mandy, with so much love.” She’s right (I keep finding myself saying that in response to the wisdom of my friends). Mandy and I are blessed by the people in our lives. Their love has found its mark and I want them to know that.
And I am most blessed to have Mandy. I cannot fathom being in this time – or any time, for that matter – with any other person. At times it feels like we are clinging to the bottom of a capsized vessel in stormy seas, and it is her voice and soft touch that keeps me present and holding on. And even though we are both adrift together, she still remains my magnetic north.
So much of life is also water. And grief often feels like drifting and floating (and sometimes drowning). I guess it’s no surprise that I find myself wanting to be near the water as much as possible. A few weeks ago, I went to visit my friends Claudia, Cal and Chuck in North Carolina. Claudia runs a retreat center on beautiful farmland near a small town called Mebane. She lives in a cozy house filled with the art and love of her friends, and the front of the house overlooks a small farm pond. It was a clear day, and you could see on the water the reflection of the sky broken by the occasional cloud and the watchful cedars that line the southern bank. After a yummy lunch, Claudia and I were drawn to go for a swim. We hopped in while Cal basked on a small dock that jutted out to the pond’s deepest point and Chuck roamed the land nearby. After taking a few laps, Claudia and I started floating on our backs, our arms to our sides, spinning on axis around each other like binary stars. It smelled like home, like the organic red clay of the North Carolina Piedmont. I rested my hand on my belly and felt myself breathing; my body rising and sinking into the sun-warmed water with each breath. Claudia noted that if you breathe just right, you can float forever with very little work. She’s right, of course. The breathing. It’s a foundation; a fundamental of staying afloat. I am adept in the water, but at that moment, I just wanted to float with my people among the comfort of our gentle ripples. It was – they are – exactly what I need.
* * *
A number of times, I’ve thought about Aeschylus’s famous quote on suffering (Robert Kennedy used a slight variation in his memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr.): “[E]ven in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.”
This quote is commonly understood to mean that suffering brings wisdom, but in some ways, it is about the acceptance of suffering. And that is related to the lesson that keeps hammering me with every drop: that life is simply unfair and there some things you cannot control, and to survive, you just need to accept it. The drops look like this: Hudson as she was when I first arrived at the emergency room - splayed out on a hospital bed just staring off into space while two or three doctors and a crying Mandy hovered worriedly over her. Her bed being rolled into the intensive care unit, the useless antibiotics flowing into her arm. Her reaching for her mother – and her mother’s palpable desire to hold her – while the doctors held her back. The somehow gentle yet cold mechanical embrace from the tendrils of life support equipment after she fell into a coma. The way her eyes did not move during her brain death exam. The limp warmth of her body after she was taken off life support. And then there are the contrasting sister drops: Hudson’s involuntary smile as we swung around the kitchen singing Wagon Wheel. The way she paused in anticipation just before I snatched her up when we were playing run and hide. Her reflexive “No” that sometimes came out with a question mark. Her earnest look while trying to sing along to Row Your Boat or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The famous Easter egg picture: her hand proudly showing the first egg she found at her first – and only – Easter egg hunt, her giddy, infectious smile commanding all attention. Sometimes, it pours.
But here’s the thing. I don’t need this lesson anymore. I was mired in it when I was a gangly 13 year old and everyday after school my mother would make me roll up my sleeve so she could check my undersized forearm for needle tracks because she was convinced that I was a 7th grade dope addict and that my sisters were prostitutes and my father was plotting to kill her. She was losing her mind and I was deep in the midst of losing her in a painfully drawn out way. The loss wasn’t slow – time was slow. Crazy stopped the clock while her sanity raced away. It’s the same with grief. There is always plenty of time to listen to the drops and to contemplate the stolen days that would have inevitably raced by.
Before my mother’s mental illness, you could describe her in ways similar to Hudson – beautiful, vivacious, and intelligent. There is a great photo of her taken by her cousin when she worked as a journalist in college. It’s an 8 x 10 black and white of her laughing at something off camera. She’s gorgeous - she could have modeled – and there is a light in her eyes. But in some ways, my mother was my first child. So much of my youth and young adulthood was spent trying taking care for her - although I did a lousy job taking care of her since I was mostly learning how to take care of myself. And like with my real first child, I watched her die in a hospital bed surrounded by beeping instruments. She was finally taken by cancer, when I was twenty-five. The actual cause of her death was internal bleeding. Right before she died, she kept crying out for water.
It’s the grief for the loss of Hudson that owns me now, not the grief of losing my mother twice. But these losses, they run together. They have to – they are conjoined by love and life incomplete and utter unfairness. My friend and co-worker Grace popped into my office a couple of weeks ago and asked me if Hudson came to play with me at night. Grace lost her mother a few years ago and now her mom visits her regularly in her dreams. They have normal conversations about every day life. I had not then and have not yet dreamed about Hudson. I want to so badly, and Grace said that it would come soon. But as it would go, a day or two after Grace’s visit, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in a very long time. I was a finalist in one of the American Idol/America’s Got Talent shows and it was the day of the final decisive show. There were five of us, and we all showed up to the auditorium a few hours early to prepare (it was Beatles night, but for some reason I was singing Bohemian Rhapsody). My mother dropped me off in her burgundy Dodge Shadow and I realized I was wearing the wrong suit and I didn’t have my sheet music. I was completely unprepared and feeling panicky, and my mother – who seemed somewhat with it – promised me that she would go back and get her stuff. She left, and I waited. And she never came back.
It’s transparent that this dream was about my mother, but actually I think it was more about Hudson. She’s not coming back either, as much as I wait, as my dreams without her tell me every night. I would do anything to have her back. But I can’t. And although I’ve already had a life time to get used to the dripping, and to accept it, it still hurts like hell.
But what else am I to do other than to be. My friend Tony has created an internet based public art project – WDYDWYD. It’s a participatory project that invites anyone to artistically answer the question, “Why do you do what you do?” It’s a brilliant idea and elicits some really creative and poignant submissions. Many are in the form of self-portrait photography, as would be mine. I’m outside. It’s sunny and I’m standing in front of a body of water. Pinned on my shirt over my heart is a photo of Hudson – the Easter egg photo. My left hand is by my side and it holds the black and white photo of my mother. My right hand is in front of me, an open compass in my palm. Somehow, the words “Because the world is unfair enough already” are scrawled at the top of the photo. The bottom reads, “And there are some things we can control.”