So here's another post about books. I was glad to see that Glow in the Woods has a new "bookshelf" on their website with a list of several recommended books specifically about baby loss. I won't be writing about any of those here (although I've read most of them--I read so many in the weeks immediately after we lost Eliza, as though one of them would tell me the secret to getting her back. None of them did.). Instead, I'm going to write about other kinds of books that I've found helpful.
This week: Resilience by Elizabeth Edwards.
Mercy. If there is a woman who defines resilience, she's probably Elizabeth Edwards.
This book was written after her sixteen-year-old son, Wade, was killed in a freak car accident from which his passenger limped away with nothing but a sprained ankle.
It was written after she found out the cancer that had responded well to her initial treatments was back. With a vengeance.
It was also written after she (and everybody else in the world) found out about her husband's affair with what's-her-name.
In some ways, I think Elizabeth Edwards is proof that if you are untouched by grief in this world, you are incredibly freaking lucky. Because bad things don't happen to people who deserve them. They just happen. And to some people, they happen again, and again, with terrible variety and equal senselessness.
Edwards's book is amazing because it's not oozing self-pity (which is more than I can say for this blog), but it's also not relentlessly optimistic or annoying. She doesn't sugarcoat anything, but she also writes from a perspective of someone who has continued to have a full life after her loss, in spite of her cancer, and in the midst of her husband's publicized infidelity.
She opens with a description of what seems like a perfect life--married to her law school sweetheart, successful careers, two great children, a kitchen filled with friends and family. She says,
It would have been easy for life to have played itself out from that kitchen, and I don't know that, if it had, it would have occurred to me that I had never taken in the fullest breath I could. [...] For all of the times that followed those carefree day sin my kitchen, for all of the pain I endured, at least I learned in the years that followed what it meant to breathe for myself, and I learned, too, what it meant to scream.
She writes about her life after her son Wade's death, and her desire to turn back time and bring him back. And she writes something that I know is true, even though I have a hard time accepting it:
This is the life we have now, and the only way to find peace, the only way to be resilient when these landmines explode beneath your foundation, is first to accept that there is a new reality.
We miss our old lives, of course, but she insists, these old lives no longer exist and the more we cling to the hope that these old lives might come back, the more we set ourselves up for unending discontent.
Last night I was the definition of "unending discontent." I was beyond sad. I was well into meltdown and as I was crying and crying, I kept saying to David, "I don't WANT this life! I don't WANT IT. I want the life we were SUPPOSED to have!"
Elizabeth Edwards isn't pretending that resilience is easy, or that accepting this new reality is a simple thing. She writes:
Each time I fell into a chasm--my son's death or a tumor in my breast or an unwelcome woman in my life--I had to accept that the planet had taken a few turns and I could not turn it back. My life was and would always be different, and it would be less that I hoped it would be.
This is undeniably true. But I think her book also demonstrates how terrible events and deep grief can also have the power to make our lives both less and more than we hoped they would be. The big message in her book is that we all have to keep doing what we can--making plans and preparing for the life we want to have. But if something happens--cancer, loss, betrayal--we don't just give up. We salvage the parts we can and we put them together as well as we know how. And there is something meaningful in that, something beautiful, even though it is always less than and other than we would prefer.
She describes her grief after Wade's death and all of her efforts to memorialize him. One sentence really struck me: I did not yet trust his constant presence in my life.
I caught my breath at that because I know that, always under my grief and my pain and my wishes to undo everything that's happened since December 5th, there is the constant fear that Eliza will disappear into nothing. Her name unspoken, her tiny life forgotten, nobody to remember how much that baby girl matters to us, her memory fading even for me. I want to trust her constant presence in my life.
Edwards recalls that for so long, she just couldn't accept the truth of Wade's death. She kept waiting for a moment when everything would be put right: It was months later, that I recognized there were no right answers, no elixir that would return me to the world where unbridled happiness was possible.
And she recalls the terrible, aching emptiness of grief, but also its strange comfort, the all-too-familiar feeling that the only way to be close to a lost loved one is to welcome the heart-shredding grief, even to invite it:
I fell willingly into the grief. I think I actually wanted it; I think I reacted to the song on the radio or the cola on the grocery store shelf as a trigger precisely because I needed his company. It was not a hairshirt the way it might have seemed to someone outside my family; it was a warm enveloping comforter, it was a close as I could be in this life to my boy. But that comfort, I had to learn, was an impediment to being able to live as fully as possible after Wade's death.
She talks about parenting Wade's memory to the best of her ability, but also about her reluctance to do anything that would bring her solace: Why should I have solace when he hasn't breath? I remember vividly the physical pain of recovering from labor, the tension of tight muscles and the physical ache of grief that I was so reluctant to let go of through exercise, through massage, through soaking in a bathtub. This terrible pain was all I knew of loving Eliza after her birth. Why should I do anything to feel "better"? It seemed like a betrayal. Edwards talks about her struggle to come out of that, and her realization that if she remained stuck in her grief, then Wade's life wouldn't matter--he would be reduced to his death, the one thing that continued to affect the world through his mother's pain.
She also writes about her experience with an online community of bereaved parents and I was truly glad to see that her experience was so similar to mine:
These people...reached their hands out of the darkness and drew me to a ledge where I could get my footing again. I would fall and they would reach. They would fall and I would reach. They sent me poems when I needed poems and hugs when I needed hugs.
She's right about this--there is no substitute for that kind of mutual understanding.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that her understanding of God aligns pretty well with mine. She explains that she didn't want to be angry with God, but that meant that her perception of God had to change.
My God, my new understanding of God, is that he does not promise us protection and intervention. He promises only salvation and enlightenment. This is our world, a gift from God, and we make it what it is.
This means that, as a woman dying of breast cancer, Edwards doesn't pray to God for her health. She prays for strength and for courage, but she has learned the hard way that God does not choose who lives and who dies. There is no great master plan that will reveal divine design and purpose behind a child's death or a mother's pain. So if there is God, there is also nature and science and medicine and random chaos and human beings who strive to do the best they can given the circumstances--the beautiful, wonderful, terrible circumstances that make up this world and the lives we lead. We have free will--we are not puppets and we can choose to make the most of what we have. But we also can't expect divine intervention.
(Which makes me think of how much I cannot STAND this kid on Survivor talking about his faith and how he will stay on the island as long as God wants him to. As though God sits back and lets babies die, and yet gives a shit about controlling the outcome of Survivor. It's a good thing that they haven't sent me to Redemption Island. I think I'd kick him in the teeth.)
Edwards is writing about some of the harshest realities of life, but she's never mopey about it. Even when facing the trifecta of shitty life events (dead son, cheating husband, untreatable cancer) she writes,
All that is in my control is how I live now. I could fill the days with fears--there are plenty of those--or I could fill them with the best joys I can cobble together.
She insists that there is no perfect. We only have a choice about how we integrate the imperfect into our lives. And she quotes Leonard Cohen (one of my faves):
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.
Her book discusses events in her childhood, the death of her father, her cancer, and touches on the aftermath of her husband's affair. But it is mostly a book about a mother whose son has died.
I think Elizabeth Edwards is classy. Reading this book, I felt like I was sitting down with a professor I admire and someone I would aspire to be like. I think that in telling her story, she managed to make me feel a little bit braver without pretending that any of this is going to be easy. I wish I would have had a chance to meet her because I would have liked to tell her that Wade's story touched me in such a significant way.
Her story is tragic, but it is never pathetic. She loses so much, but she never loses her dignity. And she never quite loses hope, either.
May we all be so resilient.
If you're interested in a copy of her book, it's available on Amazon. I personally ordered a used copy from Abebooks.com.