Always Go to the Funeral
Always go to the funeral. It's an NPR piece - an article that shook me once and I took to heart. When you can, (you almost always can), you show up for the ones left behind - whether you knew or loved the deceased well or at all - because when a life is over, we measure impact by who comes.
Always. Go to the funeral.
I am sitting at the celebration of life for a boy three years my junior, the brother of my dear friend. He was a teacher. There are a hundred middle schoolers here. They are sobbing and holding one another, boys and girls alike, an entire community and I am watching the way they crumple and then carry one another. I think the kids are alright. The crowd overflows and swells and cries and mingles and mourn and I am struck by one face, of course, only. His mother. I am gutted by the idea of burying my son.
Yesterday I got a call from one of my boy's teachers. "He had an anxiety attack in class. We spent lunch recess talking him down, counting breaths, learning to let go." I am not surprised by this call, not surprised that he holds his anxiety within his gut and his lungs. That when his grandfather is in the hospital and his grandma is fighting cancer, when his home life is sometimes tumultuous, though he is fed and sheltered and loved, he might crack, a little, at the edges. My heart is overwhelmed because OF COURSE I know he is a FEELER. He is creative and big and bold and brave but lonely and tentative, too. Sometimes the life of the party is the one who cries in the aftermath, pushing a vacuum, cleaning up, right?
I am well aware that my boys contain worlds within them - and that within those worlds is a propensity for depression and anxiety - passed with love and tenderness and an apology - from both my side of the family, and their father’s. They have watched mental health issues unfold and resolve, explode and break, throughout their lifetime. They are no stranger to conversations regarding therapy and medication, hope and health. We wrestle with what we know but we stuff the unknown. We crack in the edges - stick our well chewed bubble gum to the creases and hope it holds when our jaws clench and our teeth are ground down. We are run down, at times, inasmuch as we are exuberant, at others.
I am no stranger to the deep chords of depression. "Functional" is probably a word you could use to describe me. "Efficient," too. I am a doer - someone who sees a task or a mountain and, blink twice, or issue a challenge and you’ll see me scale the impossible or find me scratching items off lists. There is little time in my day to day for reflection, less for pity. I’m 34, now, a full third of the way through the life I hope for, and sometimes I feel half alive and sometimes I feel half dead.
Three years ago, this week, was the first and only time (so far) I've needed medication to help me through what should be a bright and jolly time of year. My marriage (or what I believed it to be) had collapsed and I was not enough, not enough, never gonna be enough, to keep it together - to meet his needs. He needed help, too - realizing that the life he'd staked his own life on had collapsed at his own hand. We would spend the next few years picking up the pieces. (Some are too small to be significant - we've vacuumed them up or ground them into the carpet. We are run down.) Christmas lights twinkled on an oversized tree and we functioned, then, as we do (sometimes now), while crying into too many cups of coffee and more cocktails than were healthy. Marriage is the clearest and ugliest of mirrors for the self. We often see ourselves most clearly and most flawed when we reflect ourselves back in the eyes of someone who is both expected to value us and to create value, too. And it isn't always worth it. But it sometimes is. It might be.
It's impossible and hard and impossible. It's hard.
"Can we have him talk to the school counselor?"
"Will he want to talk to the school counselor?"
We do not encourage the silencing of hard emotions, in our home. But still, sometimes, we protect the ones we love by silencing ourselves. Sometimes the bubble gum unsticks itself and the cracks open. On the floor, our well churned and chewed emotions gather shards of broken lives and, when you step on that, I must tell you, it hurts like a motherfucker. It makes you scream.
I do not know how a mother sits through the funeral of a son and doesn't scream. My sons are here, healthy, learning and thriving and becoming and I want to scream. Everything in me is broken and mourning. The Christmas lights are twinkling in an oversized tree but we are run down.
How do we function and thrive without screaming. How do we keep our voice alive when we stuff and silence?
Dad's health is improving - a grandfather will be discharged from the hospital within days and a grandson will talk to a school counselor and everyone is practicing breathing - drawing deep air into deep souls.
Mom’s health is stable and, even with news of changing treatments and courses of direction shifting and plans falling through, we hinge our New Year’s hope on this year, on next year, on ten years, on cures and on what has been and what will be. We are tired, under this Christmas star. But we’re here.
"I still want to shave my head, for Grammie." He startles me with this declaration, after we talk about anxiety and loss and futures and pasts and the very heavy and very "now" now, what it is like to scream when we need to scream and how we ask for help when we are unsure how deeply to breathe, how much to feel. My mom won't lose her hair, anytime soon, but he saw it as a gift and as such, wanted to give. His bald, shining, Christmas head, is a gift. The way the wheels turn inside his mind, the way his heartbeat echoes, chamber to chamber, curiosity and creativity, is a gift. We are here. We are here.
My kids will struggle through identity and becoming. We all do. We all are. It doesn't necessarily get easier with therapy or meditation, medication or alcohol or resolve. I find the heaviness lessens when I wake up early, go for a walk, crunch my feet along the rivers of ice that run down my street all winter long, equally hazardous and beautiful. I find that my smile returns when I imagine my boys' living fully in the future, but it tempers with the scream that I stifle because nothing is guaranteed. I find that my soul comes alive when I listen to music that matches the beating of my heart - the way we pass words and sound like fire and spark and warmth. I find that the risk is always worth the reward, EVEN when what we get, after all, doesn't feel like a reward. I find a sense of calm when I hold my hands open - that what is meant to be given will be received, what I should give, can be taken. Always open is the key. This great gift of fighting and living, vacuuming and rebuilding, leaving behind what no longer serves us and celebrating, with exuberance, what has been and built us (even when it is hard.)
We cannot control this ebb and flow - this struggle in the depths and the suffocation of the shallows - but we can learn to back float - to put our feet up, lean back, trust the unimaginable, and seek the stars. We can practice breathing deeply, holding space for those who mourn, letting go, screaming. Screaming.
We can go to the funeral because it matters, talk to the therapist because it matters, put lights on the tree because it matters, imagine a future that matters. We can. We can.
For all who hunger in this season of plenty, for all who wander and feel lost. For those of you who echoed a sense of sadness when it doesn't make sense, it's all okay. It's okay to feel and it's okay to scream and it's okay to wonder if we're half alive or half dead or just existing and it's okay to question if it matters but. But.
Go to the funeral. Celebrate, with exuberance, what is worth celebrating. Find the sparkle (in someone's eyes? in your own?) and hold onto the hope that tomorrow is just around the corner and, if you survive today, you can survive tomorrow and it does get better and it all matters and I'm here, too, so you can be, too.
Happy Christmas season of birth and death and resurrection (we do not have one without the others.) Happy Christmas season of mourning and longing and fulfillment and loss and struggle and sparkle. We are most aware of the juxtaposition of all of life in these few weeks as we seek to receive but want to be a giver. May you be both. It's all a gift.
We can. We can. We can.
Scream (just to hear your voice.) Scream (it's how they know we're still alive.) Scream (because it matters. it matters. it matters. itmattersitmattersitmattersitmatters.)