Through my school years, I saw kids who were really good at a particular thing: drawing, singing, playing the trumpet, running, gymnastics, soccer, etc. For me, I was very good at Language Arts. That is, I could spell anything. I had a weird sixth sense about what constituted correct grammar. I was a talented reader. And I could write stories. Therefore, when my school had a regional spelling bee, I entered with enthusiasm. After a grueling tournament, it came down to me and Cheryl…my nemesis. The word was ‘chieftain.’ At the eleventh hour, I froze. I couldn’t remember whether or not the “i before e” rule applied in this case. I racked my brain, and finally spelled it c-h-i-e-f… and then misspelled the second syllable t-a-n. WRONG!!! And Cheryl knew it as soon as I had done it. She smiled at me with a smug twinkle in her eye, and with her bell-tone voice, spelled it correctly for the win. I could not believe I lost!
I went home that day, and licked my wounds, at once sad, angry, and ashamed of myself. I moped around all weekend until my mother had enough of my sour face and told me to stop feeling sorry for myself. She explained that feeling sorry for oneself was an unattractive trait that I needed to quell and control. Furthermore, feeling sorry for oneself was a waste of time and did nothing to improve upon the thing that created the self-pity in the first place. Her advice was to study, become a better speller, and, most importantly, accept that sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. It’s a fact of life. No one likes a spoiled sport. I took what she said to heart, and found that what she taught me that day about winning and losing and sportsmanship and hard work and being gracious no matter triumph or defeat was true for the most part. But now, I have begun to rethink my mother’s wisdom, or rather, I’m wondering if it applies in every circumstance.
My husband is slowly dying as the Monster tightens its grip on his aching body. The Monster is also murdering my father. It’s a quiet murder, painless, like putting someone to sleep before killing them, but it’s murder just the same. And now, our little fur-baby Shih Tzu may be the latest victim of the Monster’s rampage through our life. So much sadness. Unbearable sadness. I am lost for words, and when people ask, I have begun speaking in clichés: “I’m hanging in there,” or “I’m managing, thanks,” or “It’s been tough, but we have to focus on the positive.” I nauseate myself.
To be honest, it’s not fair! I’m so angry at everyone and everything. I just want to be left alone. I don’t want to talk to anyone or answer an endless stream of the same questions or be smiled at in THAT way: it’s where people smile, but you see the sadness in their eyes, yet they try to encourage…present a brave front…and they have no words to offer. It’s the smile that says, “Your husband is dying, and I’m very sorry, but here’s a pleasant smile for you.” How can that be said with a smile?? I know I sound unreasonable…but then, nothing in my world is reasonable right now, so…
It’s not fair!! How can this be happening to us? I was a good wife to my husband—a dutiful, old fashioned wife, who cooked for him, washed his clothes, baked cookies, and canned homemade jam from the berries I planted in the garden I made. And our little dog!! She ate the best food, drank clean water, was walked every day of her life, had a spa treatment every two weeks, had regular checkups with her doctor, and even saw the doggie dentist. Shih Tzus can live healthy lives at 15 years old; our Ming Li is only 11. It’s not fair. Meanwhile, about a 90 minute drive away, my father lies in his hospital bed, gravely ill, already dipping the toes of one foot in the cool peaceful waters of Eternity. Beside his bed, his wife of 56 years, my mother, sits vigil, staring at her once bearlike husband’s sunken cheeks in dismay and disbelief. Utter bewilderment. “What does this mean?” she asks me. “What will I do?” And I don’t know the answer to her question any more than I know the answer to my own. Indeed…whatever shall we do?
And I am sorry…very, very sorry…for me. It’s a feeling difficult to explain. There is definitely a childish component that shrugs attention off angrily and shouts out a petulant “Go away!” I have a terrible urge to scowl at people, which is puzzling because a smile is so characteristic of me. Or was. I don’t want to share or play nicely. I have terrible feelings of rage, like sudden electric surges that overwhelm me suddenly while I am loading groceries into my trunk in the busy Super Store parking lot. “Why are you people so happy?? Don’t you know the world is ending?? Look at me!! THIS is what the end of the world looks like!” No one cares though…it’s not their worlds ending. Just mine. So, yes, I feel sorry for myself. Someone’s got to.
Neither do I feel obligated to offer excuses for my newly adopted peevishness—my self-absorbed “woe is me” because I know something far greater is happening to me now. Pema Chodron wrote in her book When Things Fall Apart, about a concept called “maitri” which means “loving kindness toward oneself.” She said that she had taught often about maitri and “developing from that the awakening of a fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and the pain of others…that we could step into uncharted territory and relax with the groundlessness of our situation” (ix). There are two things that struck me in what Chodron wrote. First, that becoming compassionate to my own pain is linked to feeling compassion toward the pain of others. If I don’t feel that I deserve my own compassion through a life altering tragedy like this, how will I ever allow it for someone else? Won’t I become more of the “suck it up and take hold of yourself!” kind of martinet, and less of the one who holds open her arms and offers an embrace? Now I can say “I know how you feel” and that these words will bear authentic meaning to another anguished person. Because I have learned this one absolute truth: there is genuine comfort in sharing with someone who knows how you feel.
The second thing that stood out to me was that we can relax in “groundlessness.” My mother’s bewilderment is normal. My inability to filter my feelings right now is also normal. My fury that the Monster has come and invaded my lovely little life with my lovely husband in our lovely little home with our lovely garden and our lovely little dog is so fierce that it bubbles up in me like hot lava and threatens to vomit fire on everything. Some days I just want to watch this horrible world with its horrible diseases burn to the ground. I’m so angry I can barely contain it. I want him back the way he was. I want him back without pain. I want our dreams back. I am so incredibly, unfathomably sorry he has to die! And I am so sorry for me…for the horrible, unavoidable inevitability of the coming grief. My breath stops short just thinking about it. Oh God, it’s so not fair!
I walk about in a red cloud, feeling that I am cut loose with nothing firm to hold to. I struggle and flail toward anything that seems solid, only to be disappointed every time. This is the truth about groundlessness: there is no firm thing to hold to, there is no comfort from the thing causing grief, and you have no control over anything…not really. But I have found something out…all of that is okay. It’s actually normal to have a feeling of groundlessness. Here’s the thing, it’s not my job to be in control of what is uncontrollable, and to keep trying to control it is, well, nuts. Also, I should stop seeking for anything that is going to give me comfort while my husband dies, because if such a thing existed, what kind of love am I to him? Love is all or nothing at all. “Kind of” loving is like being “kind of” pregnant…you either are or are not. And that is why there is no firm thing to hold to, because that firm thing, that foundation, is crumbling beneath my feet. My sister said that someday I will find a new normal, but until that day, I will die inside. Harsh and accurate.
Therefore, you who are fighting the Monster, and waiting for it to kill everything you love while you watch helplessly. Go ahead and feel sorry for yourself. It’s okay to break the childhood rules about being a good sport. You don’t have to lose this fight gracefully. You can be the sorest loser you can be, cuz it’s not fair! It shouldn’t be happening to you. If you feel like being grumpy, be grumpy. The Monster is visiting Death upon your house…anyone would be angry. As long as you hurt no one, release yourself to your anger, pain, and self-compassion. Feel this freedom at least. Let yourself drift in groundlessness because the laws of the Universe insist that you must return eventually to Earth, and when you land again, it will be at the start of something new. I have no other comfort to offer.
I will leave you with some parting thoughts from the late great Maya Angelou:
When I think of death, and of late the idea has come with alarming frequency, I seem at peace with the idea that a day will dawn when I will no longer be among those living in this valley of strange humors. I can accept the idea of my own demise, but I am unable to accept the death of anyone else. I find it impossible to let a friend or relative go into that country of no return. Disbelief becomes my close companion, and anger follows in its wake. I answer the heroic question ‘Death, where is thy sting? ‘ with ‘ it is here in my heart and mind and memories.’