The Bittersweet Spot

I made it through Mother’s Day. It doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment, but compared to the previous years, it’s pretty impressive. No tears, no theatrics. Just brunch, time with family, shopping, and takeout for dinner. I skipped church and I’m not sorry because I’m not ready to push myself quite that hard yet. Helen Keller wasn’t having the easiest time either, and we talked about how the problem isn’t that we don’t have good memories, it’s that memories are all we have. It’s not that we begrudge anyone a relationship with their own mother, or wish that anyone would lose their mother— far from it— but seeing their celebrations make our own grief seem somehow bigger than it already is, like rubbing salt in an open wound.

The day before Mother’s Day I was pretty mopey, so we went to Asheville again. We had pizza and ice cream with the kids, and I got a new pen with matching ink that I love. And then I cried on the way home because just when you think you’re managing things just fine, it sneaks in on you, that thought, “It’s not supposed to be this way.” 

Yesterday morning, before everyone got up for the day, I woke before 7 and went out to get coffee thinking that the world would basically be empty and silent at this hour on a holiday. Only it wasn’t. There were people everywhere, buying Mother’s Day flowers and balloons, getting their coffee at the same place as me, holding hands with their little ones as they navigated the crowds in the stores. To distract myself I put in my AirPods and turned on the Spotify 90s Pop/Rock station, and Matcbox 20 started playing. And I wrote the first few pages of a story about a little girl running into a woman in a coffee shop and realizing they were wearing matching Matchbox 20 t-shirts. And the little girl knew tons about 90s music and was wearing sparkly pink sunglasses and cut-offs and bracelets and she had the cutest curls in pigtails. I don’t know where the story goes after this just yet, but I love it already. I had a good morning and instead of the sharp, stinging pain there was only a dull ache, a type of emptiness just on the fringes of the contentment I’d carved out, but still there was the hint of the thought, “It’s not supposed to be this way.” 

Five days per week for the past 3 months, I have gotten up every day and gone to a job that I’m beginning to love. I’ve met so many interesting people, and I want to hear their stories. I wish sometimes that I could go see them once a week and just ask them dozens of questions about the lives they’ve lived and the history they’ve seen in their 80 or 90 or even 100 years on this earth, and I refer them to whatever resources they need. I ride around in my car all day listening to audiobooks or my favorite music and stopping at Starbucks between visits. I work out of my home office where my kids can come sit on the little couch in front of me with their feet propped on the blue beanbag ottoman I bought at TJ Maxx for no reason other than blue and tassels and made in India, and I don’t start my work day until 10 am because that’s how I like it, and I get to take Mary Ann to school every single day. Benjamin Button won’t let me take him to school unless he absolutely has no other choice. He doesn’t like that I’m perpetually running late. Last night he said, “No offense, I’m not picking Dad over you. It’s just that we all have our things we excel at, and Dad’s thing is getting me to school on time.” And I laughed, and I hugged him, and I told him I loved him and good night. But in the back of my mind I remembered the days when my mom would take him to preschool, or Uncle Jesse would take Mary Ann because I had to be up at the crack of dawn to get to the hospital to see 15 new consults that came in over night but I loved every second of it until things kind of fell apart, and sometimes I hear it again. “It’s not supposed to be this way.” 

Benjamin Button wrote the most beautiful Mother’s Day card for me, but even as a ten-year-old he knows that Mother’s Day at our house is a little different from Mother’s Day in other families, and as much as I love this card with all my heart, I sometimes wish my children didn’t know what it was like to experience so many losses when they’re so young. And as my heart swells with pride at how thoughtful and compassionate his message to me was, I also thought to myself, “It’s not supposed to be this way.”

This is the sweet spot of grief. Or rather, the bittersweet spot. Grief not only of people lost, but of experiences and relationships and ways of life. I have been a case study that Elizabeth Kubler Ross would’ve found fascinating, and I have cycled and re-cycled through denial and anger and bargaining and depression and I’m maybe starting to settle into acceptance. But what I’m learning is that acceptance doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. I imagined that acceptance meant healing. Not healing as in you walk with a limp, but healing as in you’re stronger than you’ve ever been before and you take on new projects and you soar to new heights. Healing as in when you think of the things you’ve lost, instead of sadness or aching you feel nothing but profound gratitude that you got to experience those people and relationships and careers in the first place. But that’s just not true, at least not for me. At least not yet.

I’m able to think with fondness of the good memories with my mother. I’ve written 209 pages of memories of my mother and me, and what it meant to be pentecostal and evangelical and try to fit into that subculture as a godly woman when your personality makes you more of a John the Baptist. I didn’t sob my way through those stories, I smiled. I’m learning to handle my own life without my mom to give me all the answers and take my place as “the mom” now instead of just “the daughter. ” But I haven’t reached that point where I can go visit her grave without sobbing uncontrollably.

And I go to work every day and I appreciate where I am now. I’m thankful for it. I’m learning from it, and it has given me a new perspective on what working in healthcare actually means. But I’m still not able to look back on what I did in the past without a wistful longing for all the ways I was before, all the identities I was before. There is hope and maybe even peace, but there is also a twinge of sadness. 

For my birthday last year, Lexi Gray got me a subscription to the Book of the Month club. It was the perfect gift. I’ve continued it, and last month the book was Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain. It was such a perfect book for me. It was everything I’ve wanted to see someone else understand about my own experiences so that I felt less alone. She talks about how some of us are by nature just more melancholy, particularly those of us with creative tendencies. She points out that it can be a sort of superpower if we learn to transform that sadness and longing into art.  She says that we can transcend our experiences. I looked up the actual definition of transcend because that’s who I am as a person (Oliver Sacks did it all the time, and I’m not sorry) and according to the New Oxford English Dictionary it means “beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience; surpassing the ordinary; exceptional; existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe; from a latin verb meaning ‘to climb over.’” I like that, the idea of climbing over all these stumbling blocks and getting to something beautiful instead. 

In one of the chapters, she writes the story of Min Kym, an incredibly gifted violinist who has her one of a kind violin worth hundreds of thousands of dollars stolen from her and how the loss was like a sort of death. She goes years without it before it is eventually found, but even then it is placed up for auction at a price she can’t afford, and she has to let it go. In thinking about what it’s like to experience that loss and know that she can’t regain what she had before, she says, “The moment my violin was stolen…something died in me. I thought for a very long time, until recently, that it would recover. But it never did. I have to accept that the person I was— at one with the violin in a way that I’ve never been with another person— it has taken me a long time to realize that the person with the violin is gone. But I’ve been reborn.” That’s how I feel. That is the bittersweet spot of grief. Looking back at where you’ve come from, knowing that you are healing over, still sometimes wishing you could go back to that life, that feeling, that place while knowing that even if it was given to you on a silver platter now, you would never be able to experience it in the same way again because your losses have fundamentally changed who you are.

Later in the book Susan Cain writes about an interview with Nora McInerny who says, “What can we do other than try to remind one another that some things can’t be fixed and not all wounds are meant to heal?…We need each other to remember, to help each other remember, that grief is the multitasking emotion. That you can and will be sad, and happy. You’ll be grieving, and able to love in the same year or week, the same breath. We need to remember that a grieving person is going to laugh again and smile again…they’re going to move forward. But that doesn’t mean they’ve moved on.” Maybe that lasts forever, or maybe it doesn’t, but it’s an apt description of where I am now. And that’s OK. To feel the pain, the longing, the confusion, it doesn’t mean you’re damaged. It means you’ve been broken, but if you look at it from the just-right perspective, there’s something inherently hopeful in the potential of broken things.

C.S. Lewis has (in my opinion) a better than average grasp of what it means to suffer and grieve and transcend, and in the book Till We Have Faces, there’s a passage that sums up how I hope to see this next stage of my life. Speaking as Psyche, a character who is about to be executed and sacrificed to the gods who is describing how she is not afraid of death, he writes, “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing— to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from— my country, the place where I ought to have been born.” The bittersweet spot of grief is realizing that, moving forward past all the loss and all the brokenness, maybe the longing is the point. Maybe it’s the sweetest thing. Maybe it changes who you are so fundamentally that you can experience things in a way that you couldn’t before. You can see people in a way that you couldn’t before. 

In the past, one of my favorite scripture passages to read was about Lazarus being raised from the dead, and I would marvel at how Jesus swooped in like a superhero and ended the grief of his sisters after they thought all hope was lost. I thought it was poetic and beautiful to see how Jesus wept with them in their grief even though he knew that it wasn’t permanent. I would puzzle at how Jesus waited for days past when it looked like the end had come before he showed up, and they thought maybe he’d let them down, but he didn’t. Now when I read that story, I see things I couldn’t see before. How no matter what happened with Lazarus’ life after resurrection, his sisters would be forever marked by his loss, and by that feeling that they had of “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” How the religious elite used that miracle not only to facilitate the death of Jesus, but also planned the second death of Lazarus because he was a threat to their power. How Jesus had to face people who had tried to stone him twice already in order to show up at all, and how Thomas made dry jokes about, “Sure, Jesus, let’s all go die with him now,” when Jesus announced that he was going to Jerusalem to “wake up” Lazarus. Same story, two different perspectives. Now instead of only seeing the sunny side of things, I can see the dark, and I think it makes me better able to relate to people who have been scarred by the experiences they’ve lived. 

And that is what is valuable to me. The ability to relate to other people, showing them my scars and seeing them roll up their own sleeves and show me where they have been marked in the same places. It can bind us together after we’re done with the falling apart. I hope if you’re still in the anger or denial or bargaining stage that you persevere, and that you come through, and that you make it to the sweet spot. It’s not a pain-free paradise, but there’s purpose here. Yours and mine.

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