Open the door. Step into the endless hallway where there are no doors (yet). Stand there. Wait. Minutes, hours, days, months, maybe even years, however long it takes, until another door opens. And trust that there is always another door. Step inside. Accept that your imperfect life is good enough, that you are not broken, you are “becoming” and what you are becoming is brutally real. Resist running back to the door that swings inward with its splinters and heavy dead bolts.
Don’t force it. Not today. Stand in the dark (feel what it’s like to be buried alive). Breathe. It hurts. Breathe anyway. Fake it ‘til you make it. Wear the Mask—smile like a killer. Mimic “right” expression—“Killer smile,” (split the words: Kill Her, Smile) (why not, she’s dead already). The part of her that helped her smile is gone. No one will notice. The Mask hides all. Be “Okay.” Move on. It’s been nine months. How long do you need anyway? Here comes the chatter: take a pill, take the edge off, take a beach trip (piles of books would do me good); so and so lost her son, it leveled her, I know exactly how you feel (you couldn’t possibly); everything happens for a reason, maybe something you said?
This dark feels like the dark that wakes me from restless sleep. What now? What’s the Plan? I had everything under control (distant laughter). I made lists, (Plan A and Plan B in case Plan A failed and became Plan B), met clients, argued law, wrote books, knew my kids. I did everything right. I followed the Rules. I surrendered. I surrendered ….everything.
What now? I’m half expecting God to answer. But I know he doesn’t work like that. So I pick up my phone (really). The screen lights up the dark. I speed dial my girlfriend. No answer. I call my parents and immediately hang up. The realization hits too hard; when a child hurts she reaches out, she goes home. Mine will never reach out again. Frantically, I dial more numbers and hear voice mails and busy signals until finally, I stop. And listen. And pay attention. Soon, the door cracks open.
What happened to your son? It’s a fair question. The “what” of a tragic “Event” is always morbidly fascinating to the Listener, but retelling the story somehow leaves me cannibalized. Mere words only compartmentalize the pain, make it palatable and unbearably Normal …for the Listener. And in the end, the Story I tell is not mine (it’s a diluted version of The Truth because The Truth is too awful to report; it makes others squirm. And lets face it, no one knows why “bad things happen to good people” or what exactly God’s “Plan” is when a child is taken first).
What happened to my son is simply this: he was spirited away and now I’m free falling over a cliff. The End. Only it isn’t The End. The End is Never Ending.
Somehow life continues like some kind of apology. So sorry for your loss but….got to go. Traffic jams, dockets, legal briefs, deadlines, clients, crimes. Time. It keeps passing. Tidy closure is mere illusion. Learn from this experience, a judge echoes the response most Helpers give when their words are so inadequate. But he says it to my client, as if his crime is an experience. As if he can go away for years and learn what it means to be human again, to suffer, to feel– anger, regret, remorse, forgiveness.
I want to go away for life.
He comes to me sometimes in my dreams, whole, the way he was as a child with his wide, mischief grin and brings me a circular box wrapped in socks. The gift card, written in sloppy orange crayon reads: “I am fragile, handle with care.” Wind picks up; the box is light, too light, as if what’s inside is already empty.
“Careful,” he laughs. “If you break it, I can’t make another one.”
And I realize in that moment as he stands there in Reverse Land or wherever we are in this strange dream dimension that I don’t need to open his gift. He’s already given it to me: I am his mom
Ann Rice wrote about Vampires, monsters condemned to darkness, immortal creatures with strangely human qualities, beset with loneliness. Her fictional demons came to life following the tragic death of her daughter when she “looked around and realized [she] was nobody and nothing. [She] wasn’t even a mother anymore.” Her Vampires personified grief, beasts forced to live Undead and shuffle through darkness waiting for dawn so they could finally sleep. But sleep is not escape, it’s delay and fresh awareness that living Undead is, after all still living.
“The trick is not to mind it, to live anyway, despite the pain,” Grief speaks to me. (Hey, if Rice can talk to Vampires…)
Tough, I mind it. I mind it. I’ve not learned “the trick.”
“Practice being still.” Grief closes her eyes.
Quiet my mind. Okay. Breathe. Focus. Meditate.
I like the idea of meditation the seduction of silence but my “OM’s” feel forced and my mind still races. I close my eyes and wonder if anyone still sees me? Is this how Vampires feel when they shut the lids to their coffins–trapped between worlds, unable to leave, left to experience the rest of their lives Undead?
“I’m not doing this right,” I tell Grief. “I don’t feel any better.”
“Give it time,” she says.
“The “time heals all wounds” platitude?” That’s it? I want a refund.
“Try silence in intervals. Five minutes at a time. Practice will make you stronger.”
Notice Grief didn’t say “strong” she said “stronger.” I don’t feel strong. I feel like a whisper, like for the first time my outside matches my inside.
“This is how I see you,” a client once sent me a charcoal drawing of a Warrior Princess. I actually looked up the definition: Warrior, “a brave fighter.” Princess, “a woman of high rank in her profession.” Recently, at a writing event featuring one of my books, a stranger remarked that I resembled “an Ice Princess.” The Warrior part of me must have finally hardened.
“You’re panicking,” Grief says.
Of course I’m panicking. I don’t like this new Being I’ve become. I don’t accept this living Undead as an Ice Princess.
“Practice being still.”
Breathe. OM. Breathe. OM. Nothing is happening. I’m feeling nothing. Geez, I can’t even breathe right. How did I do this before…before I lost my child? Think calm thoughts, like the Ocean, yes! Somewhere in the Cooke Islands, beautiful crystal blue, with slight froth. Wait, don’t Tsunamis happen in the Cooke Islands? This is doing nothing for me.
“Sometimes doing nothing is doing something.” So wise that Grief. Maybe I don’t need to fix this today, tomorrow. Maybe I just need to be. I just need to be in my pain, to be this right now, whatever this is. Today, instead of sitting with my legs crossed, eyes closed, pretending to be still, I hiked into the Red Rocks and practiced silence for thirty minutes. I just listened. Wind shivered through the pine tops and when I looked up, it was like hearing the world for the first time.
“Safe House” in CIA speak means refuge for defectors “coming in from the cold.” Spies, criminals, “hostiles” and people in danger of being exposed surrender inside to their new Normal, a world so quietly foreign. They begin again, anonymous. They seal the door and become Anyone, anyone but who they really are. There is great relief in reinvention. I too, wish to defect, come in from the cold. But in my Safe House tenderness seeps in and shows me my son. There is a knock at my door, soft at first, an almost inaudible tap, tap, tap. I’m not ready. But the door cracks open and darkness, like a pressure lifts. In blow butterflies. They fill the white spaces and skim my shoulders and cheeks, gentle as a kiss. They don’t live very long—less than a month (and only then if no one brushes up against their wings) but they have the most beautiful life, full of bright colors and flight. They are at once connected and detached from their surroundings, they flutter into darkness with such delicate grace, leaving behind an imprint.
Excerpts from The Vault: I’m Still Here
One morning as I drive to work I catch my reflection in the rearview mirror; a face stares back at me but I don’t recognize me, the light behind her skin has burnt her to coals. Could I have changed so much in just a few months? Will I look like myself again when this is over? And if this is never over whom will I look like? Author, Glennon Doyle, calls this kind of change—the change that occurs when you sit inside your own pain—revolutionary: “[w]hen you let yourself die, there is suddenly one day: New Life. You are Different. New. And no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot fit into your old life anymore.”
This is true; I don’t fit. I have put myself back together completely differently.
And yet I’m still here. My nineteen year-old court appointed client is “The Block Monster.” He murdered a mother in front of her three sons while she read to them Maurice Sendak’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are.” The story of a little boy whose mother sends him to bed without dinner is really about a child’s rage, his reaction to his mother’s emotional absence and the darker, neglected parts of a child’s psyche. The Block Monster’s mother asks for her son’s forgiveness, “for being his mother, for not knowing his dark thoughts.” For not accepting that a mother may never know her own child, that her child may be unknowable to her, may not want to be known and may ultimately be the stranger she fears.
“I’m still here,” she writes the judge a letter. “Still just figuring out how to do this….”
“This” is ambiguous. Grief is ambiguous. People ask, are you “Okay?” The alternative is scary, different and primal. It’s Not Okay to be “Not Okay.” The Block Monster took a mother from her sons (they are not Okay); his mother lost him (she is not Okay). I lost mine (I am not Okay). But I’m still here…. Still figuring out how to do this…
“Forgive me,” the Block Monster’s mother writes. “I am not myself anymore. I just lost my son.”
Like me, she is falling awake.
Trauma is a special kind of insanity as each day the mind (dis)members what remains and reconstructs a “New Normal.” In the months following the loss of my son I continued working as a trial lawyer; incredulous that I now lived a story so foreign to my former life. I wrote other people’s stories; told other people’s versions of “who dunnit” but I had the right to remain silent. Didn’t I? I stood at the podium, my heart ticking loudly like a bomb. The room spun. The judge’s voice faded to white noise as I detached from my body barely registering the chain of inmates, the deputies on guard and the chatter, chatter, chatter of butchered words.
For seconds I drifted into a thin gray space then slammed back, stunned and shaken.
“What happened?” the cardiologist asked me the next day. After I nearly fainted at the podium I made an appointment to have an EKG. I was the fittest person I knew, weight lifted regularly, never ate a “bad” carb. “Are you under a lot of stress?” the doctor continued. “Because it’s not uncommon for people under extreme stress to have severe panic attacks.” He prescribed a heart monitor (the irony was not lost on me). I now wore my heart in a box, on the outside of my suit. Wires sucked my chest.
And yet I still tried to do my job: suit (check), court (check), jail ….(f**k!)
Visiting inmates in The Lower Buckeye Jail is a special kind of job hazard; the cells are underground. Access is through a tunnel. The elevator to reach the cells is padded. There are two. The first chamber drops attorneys into a long windowless corridor of white linoleum tiles. It reminds me of a scene out of the movie, Boys from Brazil; there is an old fashioned phone stuck to the wall at the end of the hall “in case of emergencies.” The “emergency” is being there in the first place. The second set of elevators opens into several connecting hallways with locked steel doors. Behind those are my clients.
I started “visiting” inmates through a television monitor because stepping into a padded elevator was no longer something I could do. It wasn’t part of my “New Normal” because frankly it was never part of my “Old Normal” and now that I wore a heart monitor the box went crazy when I stepped inside the vault. I was a “liability” because I now wore my heart and my insides were reflected on my outside I was no longer “allowed” to enter into a dark, heartless hole.
“I have some good news,” the cardiologist reported after thirty days. “No major issues with your heart. You won’t need surgery. But there is some unexplained liquid surrounding the chamber, a small leak, as if something inside seeped out.”
I’ve made a living as a (ghost) writer;
I will be a ghost in my son’s life.
He will haunt mine.
And in the end, I will wonder
who’s life I really tried to save?
It’s nearly impossible to write about this which is why I’ve placed it in The Vault, [My Vault] a large underground chamber [of secrets] used for storage. It’s where I keep my darkest pain. But This—the loss of my son, I can’t keep there anymore. He was too beautiful a soul; he deserves to be known. No, he didn’t “pass away” in the traditional sense [though that might have been easier] but he did die shortly after his eighteenth birthday. If I had known I would only have eighteen years would I have done anything differently? No. Except to beg for more time. When he left my life suddenly, I didn’t experience the five stages of grief, I bypassed all of them and went straight to depression, deep fog dense depression, waking up most nights, heart racing, tears streaming down my face until one night a tiny voice whispered: Repeat after me: he was loved. He was loved. He was so loved. Amen.