I’m a doer by nature. I make bread and cake and babies. I work, I clean things, I push hard. I often see myself on a journey for the dimmer switch in my life, trying to find the balance between the side of me that approaches life with the energy and productivity of a coked up CEO, and the part of me that crashes like a junkie because of all that movement. As much as I crave stillness and quiet in my days, they rarely stay overnight.
Reflecting on this past year, there was no real time for stillness anyway — there were too many new things happening. We moved cross-country, built a new house, opened a new practice, re-planted five kids in new schools; we made new friends and established new routines. There was no shortage of doing to be done. And when is there really?
Almost exactly a year ago, at the same time that all this newness was surfacing in my personal life, we discovered that my best friend, who we moved here to be closer to, had cancer.
In her pancreas.
I still remember the burn in my ears when she told me the results of the biopsy. I can actually still feel it.
“It’s called adenocarcinoma.“
“It sounds like a Latin dance.”
“It’s cancer. The Patrick Swayze kind.”
It was like a slow-motion movie moment. I remember sitting down on my bed, as if someone had just said to me, “You should really sit down and brace yourself.” This was a new that trumped all news. Life and death in a vicious and carnal pasodoble right at our front door.
The news was terrifying, an unforgiving fluorescent spotlight on our youth and our innocence… my dimmer switch would wait.
I was with Leah almost every day. And when I wasn’t physically with her, I was still there. I was always there. We traipsed through medical mazes, talked about fear and faith. We talked about food, ate a lot of food and listened to good music. There were surgeries, post-ops, chemo-runs, CTs, babysitting, phone calling, meal cooking, house cleaning, fact finding. There was a constant rush of kindness, support, mercy and humor… but stillness, not so much.
Now, a year after her diagnosis and a month and half after her death, the stillness has got a vice grip on me, with no apparent signs of let-up. In the place of dozens of daily urgent phone calls and texts there is now “airplane mode ON.”
In the wake of her death, I feel the stillness pushing down on me like barbells on my chest. Sometimes it’s so heavy that it forces me into a supine position, and simple functions like lifting my arms or washing a cup require great effort. Last year I couldn’t stand the quiet spaces, couldn’t bare to be still for too long. I was afraid to feel too much lest I tango with emotions so full of fire they would surely have burned my inner bulb.
Now, all that has changed. I can sit for hours and just think. I pick ideas apart, flirt with old memories; laugh at random moments. I feel sadness and loss and pain. I cry easy and often. I feel disbelief – a sort of perpetual WTF? – loiter in my mind. I think about the hope we had, the plans we made, the faith, the will and the drive that we possessed. I remember how tangible all that was – and I marvel at how much life we lived in just one year.
Last year, for function’s sake, I folded up my own doubts and fears like origami. It wasn’t so much a choice as it was a necessity. It’s not that I was unfeeling, or out of touch, just very aware that I needed to be strong in order to be the support person I needed and wanted to be. Movement of body and of mind kept me buoyed and I figured the day would come when I would unfold all those stories, all those moments – iron them out and see them again.
Blessedly, I’m not sad all the time. I get stuff done. Everyone in my house gets fed (eventually), the house gets cleaned (eventually); we play, and smile, and joke. But I certainly keep a different pace. Waaaaaay slower than I ever have. It’s as if my inner light is turned to its lowest setting – I’m not exactly in a dark place, just a very specific and dim hue. It’s in this light, this place of slowness and stillness – this place of grieving – that allows me time to think and begin to digest this massive, massive thing that happened here this past year. I believe the experts call this “processing.”
There are definitely times that this process drives me to the back alleys of my mind, where I pick fights with the local hoodlums that frequent my head — fear, doubt and anger, mostly. Other times, I soar in picture-perfect moments, and I see sunsets, and angels, and heaven. Sometimes I feel her next to me and am absolutely certain that I know what she would say if she was there. Grief can paint some pretty vivid pictures.
Like last year, around Rosh Hashanah time, when I addressed the notion of the Book of Life, it became so very real to me. Thank G-d for a tradition rich with symbolism. It helps. I saw earmarked pages, highlighted passages, well-worn binding, and I smelled book smell. The pursuit of life in that Book took on epic meaning – as I suppose it’s intended to.
I remember praying with the force of a she-wolf protecting her kin. My ears were perked, my eyes sharp and keen – I was snarling, foaming, growling for life, for her, for me, for us, for everyone. The stillness that is in me now doesn’t afford that kind of energy. Instead I find myself panting quietly on the warm pavement, tuckered out from the effort of last year.
This year, when Rosh Hashanah rolls around, I’ll connect and I’ll beseech, but it will be from a quieter place, a lower flame, with a wounded and humbled heart.
I remember hearing that the blows of the shofar are each little broken pieces of the same heart, that together all those broken sounds find peace and wholeness with each other.
New year, this is how I come to you.