I started reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion today, on the plane. Beautiful, heartbreaking and so so true. She keeps coming back to the refrain:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
And she tells her story, her husband's story: a massive heart attack that probably killed him instantly as they sat down to dinner. She tells countless other tales that belong to other people and they all echo that same bewildered sentiment "...and then-gone."
These are all stories where the person is now gone, but I'm clinging to the "life as you know it" part as what's disappeared in my life. One day, we were chatting on the phone about menu choices for the wedding in July, abstractly planning my next trip to Seattle to shop for wedding dresses and wishing for better weather to bike rides. And then, everything changed. The week before Mom got sick, I went to visit a friend for the weekend who had recently been visiting many people in the hospital. I became acutely aware of how lucky I am, how I've never had to sit in a hospital waiting room and fear for someone I love. How I couldn't even fathom how to identify with that life of uncertainty. I felt the gratitude of knowing my little nuclear family was healthy and whole. Six days later, I was on the phone with that same friend, the only person I could bring myself to call. And I wondered: had I known this was coming? Had those moments of gratitude really been premonitions? If I hadn't felt so smugly secure, could this have been avoided? Magical Thinking.
Didion researches grief, contrasts it with mourning and spells out the process that is innate to every human being (and many other species, too). I have always loved the Jewish mourning tradition of tearing something, that ritual where you have to hold on tightly to get a grip, then destroy and let go. We all go through this in some form or another, at many different stages of our lives. And I can't mourn my mother right now-she's very much in the picture, fighting to gain strength, eating more each day, enjoying friends and family and bacon scones. So I mourn the loss of normalcy. Of living my life in New York without guilt. I mourn time lost with my family when I'm away and I mourn time lost with my friends and Gary when I'm in Seattle. I mourn the hours of sleep, the hours in the gym, privacy, cooking, worrying about something frivolous like a menu for a party.
It's amazing what you worry about when you don't have anything to worry about.
And then I stop the pity party and celebrate the gifts we have been given. What an honor, in the months before embarking on my marriage, to witness the strength and devotion of my parent's union. What a privilege to spend time with people who want to come daily to visit my mom, who have built a safety net and hold it taut below my family, ready to catch any one of us should we falter or fall. What lessons I have learned in the hospital and home, watching the people who devote their lives to healing, comforting and care taking.
I am working on ignoring, or talking myself out of, the magical thinking. The bizarre rituals I have adopted since this diagnosis: only wearing my mom's socks, for example. It is physically impossible for me to wear my own socks, and yet I realize that this really holds no bearing to her getting better or getting worse. But I can't stop. To me, not wearing her socks is a betrayal of some sort that I can't identify, but feels wrong. (I do wash them all, by the way-this isn't some sports superstition thing). There are others, too, and it feels good to read that other people have adopted other ridiculous things like this to help them cope. It's not just me being an obsessive compulsive wack...though there definitely is some of that, too...I think we cling to rituals or explanations or magic to provide solace in the unexplainable. It's too frightening to know and accept that things are random, uncontrollable and temporary. But what really provides the solace is what comes out of the uncontrollable. The choices people make to stand strong when it's easier not to. Watching my mom refuse to be a victim, hearing her enjoy the moments she does have, instead of mourning the things she has lost. Maybe by March 26th, I'll be able to not wear her socks. They probably won't go with my dress.