Those in the circle know we can’t predict when our feelings will be stirred, when a memory – sweet or bleak – will rise to shoot its trace through our veins. In the same way, we can’t predict when other people will approach to tap directly or indirectly into our pain.
There is a risk in returning to the world while learning how to survive loss: the risk of discovery, of being caught in public in the midst of private pain. Some in the circle don’t ever fully return to the world. It is easier to remain in the shadows, only partially known, never fully accountable for our feelings – or our recovery from loss.
This loss, the loss of a child, is brutal. It is something most only visit through cautionary tales in movie theaters; it is nothing we ever actually expect or even dread. Losing a child is so contrary to the normal course of experience that none of us truly consider it as a possibility. It is always someone else’s sad story. We faithfully tell our children to look both ways before crossing the street and assume it will never happen to us.
But when it happens, it blind-sides us. It takes down our lives, our careers and habits. It tears down our sense of self, distorting our identity, and it damages our sense of trust and faith, sometimes irrevocably.
And this is what we understand. All these things become known. We come to expect certain feelings, certain forced encounters, and we learn the instinct of avoidance, learn the cues of when to take cover. Learning ways to avoid falling into the range of someone else’s grief becomes part of how we survive.
So I was unprepared for the student who approached me after class, the boy with the learning accommodation papers to sign. I had signed such papers before; I knew the drill.
I didn’t know to take cover.
He was diagnosed three years ago. He knew he was “one of the lucky ones.” His sister had provided the bone marrow.
He was jug-earred. I had noticed it earlier but now my eye went to his narrow neck, the sharp jaw. His skeleton, that stark sign of vulnerability, was still visible.
But my own vulnerability was not. It was well hidden as I flatly stated, “You had leukemia.”
By then I had already done the math: He had his transplant the same year Camila had hers. And here he was, a spectral standing before me, holding papers only I could sign.
I spoke the appropriate words and alluded to my understanding. I had been a caregiver to someone who went through a similar illness, I told him. I have an idea of what you’ve gone through, I said. You are a survivor, back in school. I congratulated him. I signed his papers.
As he was leaving, as I turned to erase the white board, complex tears I couldn’t identify blurred my vision. I literally didn’t know what to feel.
I remembered the discussion Camila and I had had about her career: She told me if she couldn’t act, she could direct. If she couldn’t dance, she could choreograph. She would stay in her world of theatre no matter what.
Then, in that empty classroom, all of her suffering came flooding into my mind: the pain, the procedures, and the pills. All the pills.
And in the midst of this flood came my daughter’s face: cool, calm, composed. She was simply herself, her strong self.
I was not prepared for her death. Imagine that: While she was in the hospital going through a hail-Mary cord-blood transplant, we kept walking together every day, laughing and talking and planning. We filled her hospital room with hope and we never doubted her ability to survive.
I was never thinking of life without her, never wondering if I would lose her. I could not, I reasoned, so I would not.
I was as unprepared for her death as I could possibly have been, more unprepared than seemed likely. We had been fighting death on a daily basis, after all. We were toned, honed in, focused and fighting a deliberate fight every day. We became so accustomed to the horrors that we nearly came to scoff at them.
When I walked back into the classroom, I found a part of myself again, a familiar axis. But it has brought me a new lesson: As I am concentrating on survival, it is reminding me of something more. Life is not, after all, simply an act of survival. It is an on-going act of engagement.
After the board was erased, I gathered my books and headed toward the door. Just before leaving, I turned to scan the classroom. This was my portal back into the world. What were the chances that the world would so soon demand I face some other mother’s child who had survived?
This whole time, as I have quietly constructed my survival, as I have carefully chosen my turns and found my path – this whole time, life was coming toward me, having its own calendar and its own agenda. I am neither a fatalist nor a person of faith. I believe in only one thing: The power of the human spirit. I saw it in my girl, in her finest moments as a human being. And sometimes, if I’m being honest, I see it in myself. I have the power to survive – and life, it seems, is ready to remind me of the common bonds of experience and our capacity to care.