Saturday, May 5, 2012

Highs and lows

I’m almost done. I have one more exam to give, one more set of paper grades to finalize and post, and I’ll be finished with the semester whose end I never thought about when it started—an infinity of grieving now behind me whose vastness I sensed and feared. At first, I went in to teach each class and then went home and drew back within myself, carefully conserving what was there so that I could muster up the strength to repeat the act the next day. And an act it was: a kind of kabuki theater in which I knew the lines and the roles and the cues and the responses, my onnagata self carefully concealed behind a mask that hid me even as it revealed me. I was living in public, yet I was hiding in private, nurturing a grief whose intensity is matched only by its essential solitude. There can be no more lonely pain than that suffered over the death of a spouse. No-one else in the world shared the same relationship with the departed, and so those who survive must live entirely through their own strength, knowing that others who reach out are doing so through the smothering waters of the deep end of the pool, lifting you up only to breathe the strangling air that yields seductively to the power—the black, comforting power—of those fathomless depths. As life goes on, you learn to tread in the depths, and they only awaken to overwhelm you when you grow tired, your confidence spent blithely on the illusion that you have found solid ground. Eventually that illusion becomes more and more complete, and it becomes your new life, and the water grows lighter and somehow sustains you.

That’s where I now am on my better days, and it seems appropriate to review the highs and lows of the past four and a half months—much as participants in a group are often asked to describe the highs and lows of the past week, month or year.


• The group of at least half a dozen people from our church and Baylor who showed up in the ICU waiting room the day after Barbara’s stroke and sat with us non-stop until my family began to arrive. The membership shifted, but they were there all day, and what would have been unbearable blackness and tension was lightened by their presence.

• The long series of friends and students who brought over food when we were still too dazed to do much cooking for ourselves.

• The Spring Break getaway with the kids. For a few days, we withdrew to the Hill Country and breathed some fresh air. The blackness began to recede.

• The sympathy cards that continued to pour in, even months after the event.

• The incredibly warm response to my many blog posts about my loss.

• The Good Friday Requiem at St. Matthew. Intense and tear-inducing, but a high point nonetheless.

• Grace


• Conflicts with my publisher (now tentatively resolved) over the completion of the textbook I’ve been working on since forever. Of course, I wouldn’t have gotten much done anyway.

• The day when, still morose over the above, I went to the dentist for a routine cleaning and he pointed out some suspicious spots on the X-rays of my gums that he wanted checked out by an oral surgeon. By cancelling everything else that afternoon, I was able to get in and see one before the day was out. False alarm, but for three or four hours I thought I was going to die too.

• Our anniversary (Jan. 14), Valentine’s Day, Barbara’s birthday (March 16), Mother’s Day (still to come), the anniversary of our first date (still to come, four days after Mother’s Day).

• This seems petty, but the grating realization that I will never have my birthday back, because it will always be the day on which the unimaginable happened.

• The realization that the previous point seems petty, but grates on me nonetheless.

Those are just a few small points of what has been a day-to-day drama of highs and lows, often stacked close together and sometimes nearly indistinguishable. As I had feared, with the end of classes and the approach of a three-week break before I begin teaching summer term, I have begun to relax the ceaseless effort to tread water and the depths have begun to tug at me again. All I know for sure is that I am a bit bigger than I was at first and my feet are that much closer to being able to stand on the bottom of the pool. What I still don’t know is how deep it is; as you notice right away, there are no markings on the side.

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