Saturday, June 18, 2011

In Another's Words

There are so many moments when I have wished for more words to be able to describe this grief. Many times I have wished for greater command of metaphor and simile and other figurative tools to try and describe the indescribable. Perhaps my hope is that by being able to better label it, I might somehow better master it. Silly me. But I never stop wishing for better words.

So when I come upon other writings that seem to describe so well a particular aspect of this grief, this process, this life, I am grateful. I am grateful for the words I can never seem to find.

Last night, I picked up my copy of this week’s New Yorker, which has been lying around the house for several days, completely ignored. I opened to the table of contents and saw at the top a personal essay by Aleksandar Hemon entitled “The Aquarium” with a subtitle of “A Tale of Two Daughters.” Intrigued by both “aquarium” and “daughters,” I turned to the essay, and there saw yet a different subtitle, “A Child’s Isolating Illness.” What exactly was this essay about? I wondered. It took only a few sentences before I recognized the foreboding beginnings of a tale of a child’s life gone horribly wrong, beginning with what should have been a routine well visit to the pediatrician at the age of nine months. What follows is Hemon’s harrowing and haunting recounting of his younger daughter’s diagnosis and treatment for an incredibly aggressive brain tumor that would take her life in less than four months, when she had just passed her first birthday. I read several paragraphs and then skipped to the end, wanting to know how this would turn out before I kept reading. Once I saw the ending, I put the magazine back down, not sure that I could stand it. But this morning, I picked it back up, unable to resist the draw of reading another parent’s account of what it was like to watch their child die. I was looking for more of the terrible companionship that I have found in so many sad and often unexpected places since Hudson died.

I’m glad I read the essay and grateful for the words it gave me. Our experiences were very different in many ways (a prolonged illness, aggressive treatments, a much younger baby, an older sibling) but very similar in many ways (the moments suspended in time when terrifying news is delivered, a horrific ICU vigil, an unimaginable goodbye). And no matter what, there are some things about living through the death of a child that are universal.

I hope that Mr. Hemon won’t mind if I share the two passages that spoke to me most.

On relating to the rest of the world:

One early morning, driving to the hospital, I saw a number of able-bodied, energetic runners progressing along Fullerton Avenue toward the sunny lakefront, and I had a strong physical sensation of being in an aquarium: I could see out, the people outside could see me (if they chose to pay attention), but we were living and breathing in entirely different environments.

What a perfectly apt description. One needs a snorkel, or gills, to live in this world with me. No matter how much time goes by, a pane of glass will always separate me from the rest of the world. No matter how much time goes by, I will always feel like a creature alien to others, something others will often recoil from when they hear my story, unwilling or unable to imagine the horror of it. And no matter how much time goes by, communicating with those outside the aquarium will remain somewhat garbled.

On grieving the death of one’s child:

One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anyone. And Isabel most certainly did not earn ascension to a better place, as there was no place better for her than at home with her family. Without Isabel, Teri and I were left with oceans of love we could no longer dispense; we found ourselves with an excess of time that we used to devote to her; we had to live in a void that could be filled only by Isabel. Her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.

I know. Before you say it, I know. I know that many of you will read this and say, “But Hudson’s death DID do something for the world,” or “Your experience DID benefit others,” or “There ARE lessons worth learning.”

I know. I know all of these things. You don’t have to tell me. Maybe Mr. Hemon knows them, too, or maybe he will come to feel differently in time (his daughter only died in November 2010). But it doesn’t change the fact that those words, stark as they are, describe precisely how I feel. Because none of it, not one single bit, could ever be worth the price we had to pay.


  1. Thinking of you, Mandy. Hudson's death did do something for the world- but what she would have done for the world had her life not been cut so inexplicably short is even bigger than her lesson of One Good Thing. That is the great and terrible tragedy of it, and I am very sorry. Nothing, nothing is ever worth the price all of you had to pay.

  2. I will never be able to see anything good in a mother losing her child, a wife losing her husband, a sibling growing up without the brother or sister that should be alive.

    It is horrible, heartbreaking and cruel to miss a loved one so, so much that the pain is cutting ones soul into pieces.

    Mandy, I am so very sorry.

    Jana F./Singapore

  3. My prayers and my sympathy go out to anyone who has lost a child. That is a pain I cannot even fathom, and I pray to God I never have to. It hurts my heart to read that Mr. Hemon doesn't believe his daughter ascended to a better place, because indeed she did. She is in the arms of Jesus, in a place where there is no sin, no pain, no death, no suffering, no illness, no tears. I only wish he believed that, because I cannot imagine facing the death of a loved one without being secure in the knowledge that we would be reunited again. I will pray that his eyes will be opened and his heart healed.

  4. Heartbreaking. Why does everything need a silver lining? Some things just plain suck. xoxo, Olivia

  5. I ache for you. There is no reason a child should be taken from her parents' loving arms and I've always hated attempts at explaining such tragedies. Every lesson in the world could never be worth the pain of what you have lost, because what you have lost is immeasurable. Holding you in my heart.

  6. To the poster who wrote about Mr.Hemon's child being in Jesus' arms...

    I never lost a child but I know that it is exactly this kind of talk that would hurt the most. A child belongs in the arms of a mother, nowhere else!

    You have a right to your believes but please don't pressure others to feel the same way.

  7. Thank you for sharing these passages, Mandy. I have been reading your blog for a while now, and my wish is that you feel comfortable expressing everything that you are feeling, without any obligation to your readers to find the good in tragedy. I realize that part of the purpose of the blog is to attempt to find meaning in Hudson's death, and you have done a remarkable job doing just that. But I think you deserve the freedom to acknowledge how plain awful this is, without having to follow up with something you've gained or learned. I'm quite certain you were a beautiful soul before any of this happened, and you certainly didn't need to lose the person you cherished most in this world to become any more enlightened. As you've said, you and Ed both knew how lucky you were and didn't take anything for granted. I'm so sorry that couldn't have somehow protected you from such a loss.

  8. Thank you for sharing these passages, Mandy. I have read the entire article, and my heart is broken for the Hemon family's loss. I especially identified with the second passage you quoted, about the fallacy that suffering/grief is ennobling. There seems to be a theme in grief literature, etc, about how grieving can be the path to enlightenment, which to me seems like a pretty insignificant consolation prize. I don't want to be enlightened; I want my baby, in my arms, where he belongs.
    With some time, I have started to redefine what "enlightenment" means. It is starting to mean to me that even though my son is not where he should be (on this earth, growing up in our arms), I can still (sometimes) see that the earth is a beautiful place. Certainly it would be more beautiful if David, Hudson, Isabel were here, where they belong, and I would much rather they be here. If I could change things such that my child were still on earth with me, I totally would. However, there is still good and beauty in the world. Recognizing that is something you have inspired me to try to do, something you truly do, as evidenced by your conscious efforts to find One Good thing, and something that is often hard to do. I am becoming more comfortable with the fact that recognizing that there is still goodness and beauty doesn't mean that I don't miss David, or that I would rather he be here. I wish we didn't have to learn these lessons, and I still think enlightenment is kind of bullsh!t, but it helps to think about it in that way for me.