Wednesday, February 20, 2013

When the bough breaks


This is a brief tale of loss, of the possibility of learning to survive each day we are given, even if it is a horrible one. It is a reminder of the hideous potential for grief in anyone’s life. 

In my last column reflecting on the ups and downs of the past year, I ended with a cheery message to 2013: “Bring it on!” Well, it did.

Just yesterday in a venue at the Presidio in San Francisco, I spoke words of remembrance about a fine young man I have known since he was born, the son of my life-long best friend. Handsome, articulate, charming, talented in music, fluent in at least four languages, a scholar and instructor at Rice University, this young man had always considered me his “Aunty Jo.” His departure from this world was a shock to all and obviously a devastating blow to his parents. I won’t go into details about his passing; it is enough to say that the world seems dimmer without his wit, whimsy and brilliance.

This particular tragedy struck me in different ways than have many sad events I have witnessed. Just a year and a half ago, I celebrated my friends’ (the ones whose son died) wedding anniversary at their daughter’s home. The accumulation of active, committed and shining guests astounded me. While my friends are not ostentatious, the guests at this event had become friends through their years of devotion to the San Francisco Ballet, the San Francisco Symphony, University of California, Berkeley, and many other cultural icons. I admire their committed and active lives, their concerns for issues beyond their front door and their gracious love and support for friends and family, and I may have even thought that I wish I had chosen the path that placed me among such luminaries, such warm and caring people.

It isn’t fair that such bad things happen to good people. It isn’t fair that parents should experience the loss of a son or daughter. I used to remind my girls when they complained that something wasn’t “fair” that life would not always be so. A convenient platitude at the time, those words seem meaningless in the face of the grief I see.

Friends have noted that I am too empathetic and emotional about many things—news reports of innocent women and children gunned down by forces of war beyond their control, the image imprinted in me of a parent running to find his child in the recent Sandy Hook school shooting (who had indeed been one of the casualties), the babies I have seen on my travels around the world who are abandoned, ill or hungry—all of this knowledge becomes part of my consciousness, but eventually I turn it over to acceptance and to gratitude that I have escaped these traumas—that those I love are safe. This time, though, it feels almost as if I am the stunned mother. Sitting with my friends for a couple of days in their home, so close to anguish that I cannot assuage, was an experience I can’t erase. Every parent’s nightmare indeed! As it is, this emotional loss feels like Hell in ways I haven’t experienced. I have lived through many sad episodes in my life, but never one this destructive to my soul.

I also thought about how little things that bothered me before seem so silly now, like being insulted by a crotchety old man yelling at me over a free parking place, complaining about my sore feet or whining about being “too busy.” We probably go on about our daily lives unconsciously ignoring the shuttered windows and closed homes encasing the grief of our fellows. 

Bad things should happen to other people! This time, even though I am not one who lost my son, I feel this direct and unimaginable hit on my beloved couple. I am “there,” but I don’t have to awaken to the intensity of their loss. All I can do is live by what I have framed as my late-life mantra: Love the people you love and show them so when you and they are here on this earth. The hardest part of the lesson is that then we must let them go.

Tomorrow I attend my granddaughter Goldie’s first birthday party: loss and hope in a weekend are seared in my memory.


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