A few more thoughts on context:
What do you think of your god now? a friend asked me, the summer that Dan was ill. This god, he implied, who had attacked the brain of a smart, witty, person, who had rendered motionless a man who had skittered up and down the pyramids at Chichen Itza while I watched from the ground.
Put on the defensive, I was too weary, too wary, to talk about God’s plan or to point out that even garden-variety Episcopalianism says of course you are grieved by the illness of your loved one, of course you miss him or her profoundly when they die. But faith, and a spiritual practice and history, also allow you to see your little life in a larger context . . . part of a continuum.
While Dan was in hospice at the hospital I was told that a counselor would meet with me there at a certain time. Let’s call her Irene. She was at least my age, with a cap of salt-and-pepper hair and a no-nonsense attitude.
She sat down with me and began our conversation by saying, “You’re probably wondering why this happened to you.”
Dan was just hours from death, but I, at least, didn’t know that then. All I knew was that after four months of being plucky, of dealing politely with people who were clueless about us, I was losing patience. I didn’t snap at Irene, but it was close.
“No,” I said, “I’m not wondering that. Dan and I have lost four friends to cancer in the last five years. Three of them were in their forties and one was in his mid-fifties, just a year older than we were.”
|Cemetery, Zen Mountain Monastery|
I didn’t describe the two couples we knew, both of whom had lost a young child—still in the single digits—under tragic circumstances. I didn’t explain to Irene, that was when I learned that being middle class didn’t keep you safe.
Nor did I mention to her a friend who lost his only son and his only brother in a small-plane accident. Or discuss with her my high school years, when two boys I knew died, at different times. No drugs, no alcohol, just tragic accidents. My first funerals. I can still see their mothers: one could keep her chin up; the other had to be helped from the church.
I didn’t want Irene to think I was obsessed with death, but all of these are part of my backstory.
“I feel many things,” I told Irene, “but I don’t feel singled out.”