Woke up after a very intense estrangement dream in which I was demanding Dan choose his career or me. Telling him that he simply could not have both. There was a longing and aching that stayed with me after waking. It was hard to get up.
A friend of Dan’s sent me some quotes from a very sad article in the New Yorker written by a grieving father who lost his little baby girl to a rare form of cancer.
These sad words clung on to the feelings already there while I made breakfast and sang songs. I seem to be always singing songs.
Audrey and I sat on the balcony a bit because it was a nice morning- she at her water table and I with a cup of coffee and the rest of that New Yorker article that I found in my own copy which unfortunately, usually goes untouched. The writer’s descriptions are evocative and I recognize many of them- the moment that “divided our life into before and after.” Driving through “traffic that existed in an entirely different space-time…where everything turned quite leisurely away from disaster.”
The friend had warned me that perhaps I shouldn’t read the article because it was so devastating- but rather, I found it nurturing like comfort food- I highlighted favorite sentences and paragraphs with a purple crayon of Audrey’s.
The author talks about how most of us live in denial of our own death but eventually “as we mature into our mortality, we begin to gingerly dip our horror-tingling toes into the void, hoping that our mind will somehow ease itself into dying.” Great sentence. He also mentions his own “compulsively catastrophic imagination.” I relate to this, but think now- maybe it’s not compulsive so much as realistic and an active, healthy imagination.
One sentence I highlight and reread is this one, “I had never felt so close to another human being as I did that night to my wife,” in reference to the long night of waiting while their infant underwent emergency surgery. I am envious. I know that illness and death of a child puts immense emotional strain on marriages and even ends them, but I didn’t have anything like this in this tragedy- no one to really feel close to or walk through the valley with. That is the thing with a spouse dying. Others rally around for a bit, friends, family- but no one, absolutely no one, is really in the trenches there with you- you cry alone for the most part- the void of your spouse’s comfort in this grueling hour, overwhelming you.
The writer has a hard time dealing with well-wishers full of platitudes and what he calls the “supreme platitude”: God. He prohibits the hospital chaplain from coming near them.
I think about this for a while. It sounds angry and bitter and like someone who had no previous history with a God to consider him no more than just a platitude. But at the same time, I know what he means. When pastors and people came and sat by my bed that first “day after,” I felt they had nothing to offer. As a devout Christian for many years, I already knew the verses coursing through their minds…but they were the ones, they didn’t “know” what I now knew. That sudden tragedy and death of a spouse is far worse than you can imagine in your nightmares and there was no verse or prayer that could alleviate even a drop of the pain and shock I was in. I did let them come though. I did ask them to tell me where Dan was. They did answer with certainty and shaking heads, at least they fooled me.
The paragraph the friend had sent me was this one:
“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 better place 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.”
A new organ. Yes, this is true.
I can’t judge another’s grief and I notice that this writer is still in the first year of the process- even earlier than I, but mostly what I feel here in this grief-filled paragraph is the anger and rage about the injustice of it all. Yes, it does feel like this- like it is completely senseless and meaningless. No, there is no way Dan’s death will ever be redeemed here on earth. I have had that same thought- that no, God- I’m sorry- there is absolutely no more blissful place for Dan than with his wife or daughter. But to say there is no experience here that could benefit anyone seems a bit shortsighted and inwardly focused- as grief naturally is in these months. Others will suffer. We go before them. The only people who have been able to offer me even sparks of hope are the ones who went before me. Not even because they’re living great lives, but because they’re simply alive. Sometimes that is enough in those early days when you keep repeating, “I don’t know how I’ll go on…” “Eat yogurt- that worked for me when I couldn’t get anything down,” they say. “Look for butterflies,” she tells me. “It’s going to be hard for a very long time.” They are honest.
And no, there is no ascension to enlightenment- nothing noble about having tragedy forced upon you- and no way dying tragically earns one salvation. At least that is not the theology I know. “You’re so strong,” “I don’t know how you got up and spoke,” “You look good.” No, I’m not strong. I’m numb and in shock and haven’t eaten in ten days- that’s how I got up there and spoke. I don’t look good- not when my face contorts into the expressions of sorrow I alone see in the bathroom mirror before me.
Enlightenment is too kind. But there is a brutal knowing. Noble it is not. But there is something there now that was not there before. Earning salvation. I think I’ve tried that most of my life. Now I hear it’s a gift.
When I came back in later to see if my brother in law had called- he was to stop by one more time this morning- I saw I’d missed a phone call. A voicemail. A message from the company I had used to get a small life insurance policy for Dan six months before he died. Since I handled all of that stuff, I guess they had my contact info as his. “Hello I’m looking for Mr. Daniel Cho. Hi Daniel, this is — from –. I’m calling to update your beneficiary- it’s very important to do so about once a year. Please give me a call back when you get this message. Have a great day Daniel.” This guy sounded like one of those computer recordings but he was a real person. I cringe.
Snack time- Uncle Brian will be by in a few minutes- he’s at the cemetery visiting “Dan.” Audrey is excited to see her Uncle again- she loved having his attention the past few days.
I check my email and see a message from someone I don’t know. The leader of the widow’s dinner group I’d attended only twice before it became too energy -sucking to get there and leave Audrey with someone- has given my information to another woman who also couldn’t make the dinners but attended once. She has two small children and lost her husband in 2009. She tells me that Audrey and I are in her prayers and if I need to talk to anyone, she is there. “no experience that could benefit anyone,” I think of the NY article and its strange juxtaposition with this email within the same hour.
I look at the clock: it’s 10:11 am. This is how the days are- saturated with this thing- this rich and hideous thing.