My mother-in-law died 2 months, 2 days and 8-ish hours ago. Yesterday she would have turned 66. In her honor, our extended family spent the day on the shoreline of her hometown beach, all her babies and their babies ate ice cream and watched the boats pass by. This remnant gathered, in part, to disprove her fears. She feared we would mourn her to the point of disbelief, our anger and dismay driving us from each other and from the arms of the God she so adamantly pushed us into. Or perhaps, in her more honest moments, she feared the opposite, that we would forget her entirely, her pictures and memories fading into a collective dust and wiped thoughtlessly from our shelves.
Whether she feared annihilation or sainthood, I cannot say for sure. I can only say that my grief refuses either category. In those final days, despite her obvious deterioration, I still felt hope. The sun rose and the world kept up its frenetic pace, despite my ability to interact with it. I didn’t resent the sun then, but I do now. I resent that stepping out into the world means stepping into Splendor. I shielded my eyes against the perfect sky yesterday, watching the boats bob up and down in the harbor. God’s unfiltered happiness was too much for me. I couldn’t look for long.
I woke up this morning with a disjointed feeling again. As though each of my bones has rejected its socket, floating far enough apart that nothing can hook together, but just close enough to rub. They glide past each other, refusing to hitch in, refusing to coalesce into a useful vehicle that could actually get me somewhere. This makes it difficult to attend to small children who require wiping of tiny butts and tiny hands and tiny faces with only this broken, disjointed body to do it in. They keep wanting cereal poured and reading logs signed and the sunlight of their mother’s attention, even if that sunlight has dimmed.
As a therapist, we often ask our clients where they feel their emotional pain in their bodies. It’s a helpful centering tool used to bring us back to ourselves. Only, I feel that I need the opposite. I would like a minute outside of this broken body, enough time to get my bearings to figure out where it hurts. It hurts everywhereI want to say, but no one is asking.
I scheduled an appointment for this morning. I volunteer as a mentor in a program with the tagline “mentoring families out of homelessness.” We follow a simple model that believes community is a vital but missing piece in the response to homelessness, addiction and pain. It believes people need funding and programs as much as they need a friend. It, perhaps foolishly, believes someone as disjointed and broken as myself can be that kind of friend.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me”, my mentee texted me 10 minutes before our appointment. I know this language means she will not make our meeting since this is the third time she has bailed on me. Each time, I find myself angrier than the time before, for resources, time, babysitting, wasted. I’ve had to work to access the gracious parts of myself, embarrassed at how hard that work was. I’ve had to force myself to pause a day before responding to her, sure that only venom would spill out.
About a year ago, I took my girls out for muffins early in the morning. While we were eating at the counter, I saw a fight break out in the street between two women. The area has become a hotbed for those without bathrooms of their own since the parking garage keeps theirs open all night. One woman grabbed the other by the crown of her hair, dragging her into the middle of the empty street. She bent down and began rhythmically punching her face into the pavement. I was so shocked at the sight that I found myself in the middle of the street before I registered what I was doing. I heard myself clapping loudly and shouting maniacally, “Stop! Stop it! We don’t hit!” The royal ‘we’ absorbed through years of parenting five small children, a natural part of my repertoire. If I wasn’t so startled I would have been as embarrassed as the time I asked my friend, a grown woman, if she had to go potty.
As soon as I grazed the shoulder of the one doing the punching she recoiled away from me as though I were aflame. Her wild eyes regarded me as she panted. The other, younger one, seeing an escape, pulled herself off the ground and quickly limped away. The older one yelled after her retreating frame, “I don’t care what Eduardo said! He’s mine! You hear me?? He’s mine!” I tried to play it off later in the retelling to my husband as a lover’s quarrel. I knew he would lecture me for getting involved. But instead he looked relieved. “Of course she shot away from you” he said. “You’re white. She doesn’t want to go to jail for punching some nice white lady”. His response implied that she would not go to jail for punching an apparently not so nice brown lady that may or may not have stolen her man.
The sinking feeling I got in my gut when he said that washed over me as my mentee spoke apologies into my ear. “I’m so sorry” I heard her say when she picked up the phone. The apology felt genuine but reflexive. I didn’t doubt she was sorry, but what else is there to say? She messed up, and she automatically primed herself for punishment. Maybe she was truly sorry, or maybe she was reacting to punching the white lady. Maybe that was all I would ever be: the nice white lady that comes in with clapping and solutions. But I didn’t have solutions today. And I was too tired to clap, even if my disjointed arms wanted to obey me.
She paused, waiting for retribution. I breathed into the silence. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me either” I said, ignoring the last few minutes of robotic apology. I wanted to address the first thing she said, the truest thing she said. The truest thing for her, just so happens, is the truest thing for me too. “Today was really hard for me too. I get it.”
“I just feel bad” she went on warily, dipping her toe, testing the waters. “I know you got babysitting to meet with me, but I just couldn’t get out of bed this morning, I didn’t even take my daughter to school.” I thought about my own school run. I thought about my kids arguing in the back seat, kicking each other’s head rests. I remembered my four-year-old smacking the water in the hand of my 11-year-old so that it splattered all over the presentation board he had spent all week perfecting. I saw tears well up in his eyes as the 6-year-old and 8-year-old pulled each other’s hair in the far back. Before I could stop myself, I was screaming so hard, I knocked over my coffee and that made me scream harder. The rest of the silent car ride was no doubt spent counting the minutes until they could get out of my car. I didn’t take my kids to school because I am a better parent than her, I took them to school to give them a reprieve from my brokenness.
We talked for a bit about her troubles with her family. I told her about my spilled coffee, my voice still hoarse from yelling. “I understand shame” I said. “I get what it feels like to focus on all the things you do wrong. I get it. I just don’t know that it is helpful.” She was silent. “For what it’s worth, I forgive you” I said, “I hope you, and I…I hope we can figure out how to forgive ourselves.”
We certainly have covered more ground in other sessions than we did today. We’ve had more ‘success’ and more to document. But I don’t know if she’s ever let me in as much as she did today. Instead of anger—forgiveness, tenderness even, bubbled up like a fountain within me. The cracks of my soul left a wide berth, wide enough for grace to surface. For better or worse, I was broken too wide to contain what came out.
In attending to my own grief I’ve come to accept my broken state, that I am, for now, in pieces. This has allowed me to accept the brokenness in others. I’m slower to come in with my broom and start sweeping up the pieces, knowing now, how fragile they are, knowing how ill-equipped I am for re-assembly. Instead, I find myself pausing, examining their jagged edges next to mine, wondering if some might fit together. This seems like the way of Jesus, who never viewed wholeness as a necessity for holiness. Instead, He walked a pathway of brokenness to show us the way.