Monday, September 7, 2009

The Place We Cannot Breathe

Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

(Ecclesiastes 7: 3-4)

Today marks the first anniversary of the day that my wife discovered a lump in her left breast. Since last year’s Labor Day, I have watched Allison undergo two surgeries, eighteen rounds of chemotherapy, and thirty radiation treatments. It was only last month that the whole year-long process finally came to an end.

Because I was needed at home to take care of Allison and our two kids, it was almost impossible for me to take the time to visit my sister, Carla, who lives in California, and who was diagnosed with ALS almost two years ago. I have watched from a painful distance while my beautiful and irrepressible sister has all-too-rapidly lost more and more control over her own body.

This has been the year that I became acquainted with sorrow.

I have learned two things this past year. First, I have come to know first hand the sustaining power of faith. To watch the two women that I love most in the world suffer the way they have, and to be helpless to rescue them from what they’ve had to endure, has been unbearable. At times, I have been deeply depressed. Throughout this year I have had to find a way to keep going, despite the desire to pull the covers up over my head and disappear.

I am a psychotherapist and my job is to care for people who are in emotional pain. I would take care of people all day, come home to take care of Allison, be the primary caretaker for our kids on those days when the nausea was so bad, my wife could barely lift her head off her pillow, and try to maintain for my kids an energy and a routine to make sure that their lives stayed stable and secure. When I could, I would try to be there for my parents and my brother as they worked to come to terms with their grief over Carla’s illness.

I tell all this, not to complain or feel sorry for myself, but to give a sense of how completely overwhelming it all was, and how impossible it was to manage all this on my own meager emotional resources. What kept me going through all of this, as I said, was faith. More precisely, it was the practice of faith that I found sustaining and nourishing. Prayer, meditation, lectio divina, weekly attendance at church—these activities often left me refreshed, re-energized, and even, at times, happy. I have come to understand that faith is not so much a system of beliefs, as it is an engagement with life and its source; a relationship with God that you work on, as you would with any relationship. Through my practice of faith I have discovered a place where I am not alone, where I am enlivened, where I am restored.

The other thing that I have learned is the truth of the verse quoted above from Ecclesiastes. Sorrow, or grief, as paradoxical as it may sound, is a more certain path to happiness than is mirth.

This verse is not saying that it is wrong to be happy, or to laugh or have fun. It is saying that as a means toward a full and honest engagement with life, mirth is insufficient. Mirth as an approach to life tends to deny the struggle and the darkness that is a part of being alive. As a result, those who rely solely on mirth become more susceptible to that darkness. The reason this is so is because difficulty and sadness come into every life and mirth is simply unprepared to do that kind of emotional heavy lifting. The capacity for sorrow or grief, on the other hand, does not deny the possibility of happiness. On the contrary, grief can teach us the preciousness of life and, therefore, it creates the possibility for true joy. Here is how the poet, David Whyte, images this idea:

The Well of Grief

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief

turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.

One of the things that I admire about both my wife and my sister, is that they have the courage to confront their griefs and, as a consequence, they are two of the most vital and joyful people that I know. At her last doctor’s visit, Allison was told that her status was N.E.D., that is, no evidence of disease. She is trying, however, to learn how to live in her new reality as a cancer survivor, a reality that will require her to be ever vigilant about her health for the rest of her life. Grief and mortality are realities from which she will never be completely free, even at those times when they recede so far in the background as to almost disappear.

ALS is a fatal disease from which my sister will not recover. She faces her reality with an honesty that is raw, heartbreaking, inspiring, and frequently funny, in her amazing blog, called Carlamuses, that chronicles her experiences. This is how Carla describes life with ALS:

“You aren’t either in an untenable situation that you can’t imagine anyone else being able to bear, or in a situation where your circumstances allow you to see what a miracle life is and what a blessing it is just to be alive, sucking oxygen on this gorgeous planet. They both exist for me everyday, albeit the percentage of frustration has definitely increased as the disease has progressed.”

If there were a way for me to take away the sufferings of either of these amazing women, I would do it in a second. But that is not possible. What is possible is to not hide from my sorrow and grief over them, because to do so would be to hide from them as well. By allowing my grief, I also allow love to be present. And I allow myself to be present to the two of them right here and right now. Yet, even though I believe that the capacity for sorrow gives one access to joy, it does not mitigate that sorrow. Suffering is still suffering. It does mean, however, being more completely and authentically alive. And though it may seem an obvious thing to state, I think it needs to be said that while we are living, it is so important to be alive.

1 comment:

Carla Zilbersmith said...

It's so beautiful to read you baring your soul. I love your blog but I love it even more today. I'm so sorry for the shitty year you've had and I think it's amazing how you've been such a great husband, father, and brother in the midst of this maelstrom. I've noticed that lately you've been blogging more. Keep it up. I love reading your posts. I love you so, so much, baby brother.