Friday, June 17, 2016

Push Away the Unimaginable

Alexander Hamilton is having a moment these days as his political life is center stage in the ridiculously popular Broadway show Hamilton: An American Musical.  In one particularly heart wrenching moment, Hamilton and his estranged wife reunite after the tragic and sudden death of their son. Their post-tragedy life is narrated in the song "It's Quiet Uptown".  Hamilton's sister-in-law opens the song:

There are moments that the words don't reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you're in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down.

If you are lucky, you will never find a tragedy that strikes your family covered by the media, leaving you wide open and vulnerable to the opinions and assumptions of the world wide web.  I lived through that in February when I lost my cousin Len, his wife, and their four children in a tragic accident in their home, a carbon monoxide leak that swiftly and quietly took each of their lives.  

It didn't take long.  It didn't take long at all for the internet comment sections to explode with armchair quarterbacks who unequivocally asserted that such a tragedy could never, would never happen to them and they couldn't imagine how it could happen to anyone for that matter.  They couldn't comprehend, probably refused to comprehend that the names in the article were people who had an extended family and friends who would replay every moment that led up to that night; how any one of them would have filled that house to the brim with carbon monoxide detectors, would have swept up every person in that house during that storm when the winds howled and the lights went out and brought them to their own homes where there was light and warmth and safety.

I have seen the same thing play out in the news when a 4 year old climbed into a gorilla enclosure at a zoo, when 5 cyclists were quite literally mowed down and killed by an erratic driver in my hometown, to a much larger scale when the gun control debate roared back to life after the Orlando massacre, and most recently when a 2 year old was taken by an alligator at a Disney World resort beach.  One common refrain...

Not me.  Never me.  Someone else.  I'm smarter, savvier, more diligent, more alert, more prepared than [ ]

And then we collectively push away the unimaginable...

If she had kept her eye on her son.  If only the cyclists had been on a trail.  If only more people had guns.  If she had read the signs.  

If only he had installed a carbon monoxide detector.  If only that generator had been outside.

If only.

Social media and media in general has been made available to everyone, but I don't think it's designed for everyone.  I've seen my friends grow increasingly anxious and nervous about how they work, how they parent, how they love their spouses, the world around them, the dangers, the risks, the pain.  I worry about that for myself too.  To this day, since Aurora, I have never been able to sit in a dark movie theatre without scanning the room for the nearest exit and who looks out of place, who's sitting alone, who shouldn't be there.  And here I sit, 22 weeks pregnant with another child I'm bringing into a world that no longer offers me a peaceful night at the movies.  What business do I have bringing more life into this world?  A child that I'll fear for in a zoo or on a beach in Florida or farther into the future, in his elementary school, on a bike or in a club?  That's the soul of a woman, isn't it?  For centuries we've brought babies into worlds filled with war, inequality, slavery, violence and life keeps on flowing and we do our best to equip our babies for what's ahead and then we let them go.  Women have been doing the unimaginable since women have been on earth.

In October when this baby boy comes, I will have successfully divided my heart in three pieces and sent it out into the world where I am no longer guardian of it.  Becoming a parent seems like the most unimaginable task you could undertake and parents who have lost children like my aunt and uncle would do and have done anything to prevent anyone else from going through that same pain. Whenever I see my uncle, I look into his eyes.  They've changed.  I see him searching for joy in whatever place he's in and when he finds it, and he laughs, his eyes crinkle up at the sides and the sound of his laugh fills the space with the spirit of his son.  He tells Len's story with every laugh, every goofy joke, and every hug.  When the laughter subsides, the glimmer in those eyes fades and I can see him shift and adjust to once again be the soul of where he stands and simply be present for all of us in his company. He steels himself, braces himself for the wave of grief that may crash upon him at any moment. But he stays present, he stays in the moment because for the moment he allows himself a bit of joy.

I imagine my ancestors spending nearly the whole of their lives in the same small village or town, being sheltered from anything going on anywhere else.  Current events were limited to the square footage of that space. Tragedies were balanced by the fact that most days were uneventful, boring even.  I fast forward to today.  If you look for it, you'll find tragedy in every second of the day.  The internet has exposed us to every sadness, death, war, and inequality and when we let them all in it quite literally envelops us in despair.  It's crippling.  The moments when you're in so deep, it feels easier to just swim down.  I don't blame us one bit from trying to distance ourselves from tragedy. Our brains can't possibly process the sheer volume of sadness this world throws at us.

It's here that you might expect me to tell you to go out and look for the goodness in the world, go find the heartwarming stories, look for the helpers.  Make no mistake, when you look for the bad you'll find it and when you look for the good you'll find that too.  But what if you stopped looking for either?  Look for only the good, you'll forget that people are still suffering, the world is in need; look for only the bad, you'll forget that the world is filled to the brim with caring people influencing change.  My advice?  Stop looking for either. Wherever you are, be like my Uncle Phil.  Be the heart of that space and hold that space with the people who share it with you.  Then build strong and sturdy boundaries that allow you to stay informed, but keep you grounded, prevent you from being crippled by fear or delusion. Turn off the TV, set down the phone and go put your bare feet in the grass and remember that you are a passenger of this earth in this time, for better or worse and do your part to make it better.

This weekend, we'll take our boys to the drive-in movie theatre to see Finding Dory, we'll do a normal family thing on a normal night surrounded by other families escaping to the movies. Hopefully for the span of time we share together, we'll all forget about the sadness, about the pain that wraps this world up like a thick black cloak.  We'll hold space together under the stars watching a movie together.  As the sun goes down, Trevor will point out the constellations to the boys, we'll look for shooting stars, I'll look for signs of my cousin, I see them everywhere.

In the movie Finding Nemo, this sweet and brief exchange sums up parenting quite perfectly:

Marlin: I promised I'd never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That's a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

We can't promise our children that nothing will ever happen to them without preventing anything from happening to them.  So we do our best, we love them, we teach them and then we let them go. Unimaginable?  Yes.  But we do it and life keeps flowing on.

And we all just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming.