Last week was one of those weeks where I looked in the mirror and half-expected to see nothing but air, like the invisible man. For a full day, okay three, I wallowed in a kind of existential self-pity, made worse by the fact that I knew my reasons were small, and therefore I must be small too if I’m unable to surface from the shallow end, and here others are out there being brave, stoic, lovely, and training for triathalons. But not me. I was feeling whiny. And, okay, I drank a glass of straight vodka with a handful of chocolate chips for dinner.
Enter the gratitude voices–you know, that Greek chorus that slaps you around and basically tells you what an ungrateful sop you are, and they’re right of course, so really you have two choices: buck- up or shut-up. It’s social survival for the common funk and you must do one or the other if you want to keep the people around you from fleeing for the exits. If you’re lucky it passes, and you for-real start to buck-up, or you get utterly bored by the sound of your whiny voice. Then, your equanimity is restored and all you’re left with is a vague sense of what a fool you were, a relatively minor price to pay. Right?
A month ago, a prominent woman from my church dropped dead from a heart-attack at 56. I was shocked when I heard the news, as I’d spent a weekend with her just a few weeks earlier at our church’s women’s retreat and she seemed in great health. She’d been the primary organizer of the retreat and had helped arrange a riveting and inspiring docket of speakers and music.
So many women in our church were grieving her sudden loss, but I remember being so grateful for that weekend she hosted; it had shaken me out of my worldly self-absorbtion, had connected me openly to 75-or-so other women in an unguarded way I don’t normally allow people to see. In short, it was a weekend where I let people all the way in. And they did the same. It was the purest example of emotional intimacy I’d experienced in a long time.
The women in the church mobilized the way women have for centuries: e-mail assignments went out and quickly dozens of women agreed to make fruit salads, flower arrangements and finger sandwiches for our friends’ upcoming memorial. Her closest friends met with her children, both in their 20s, and selected readings, crafted stories, collected photos and helped pick out the music the worship team would sing.
The day of the memorial, I labored over my assignment of cream-cheese and cucumber/salmon finger sandwiches, which tasted better than they looked, thank goodness, with their jagged, crustless edges and sandwich gunk oozing out. Note to self: sharpen the bread knives. I had planned to arrive at the church 30 minutes before the service, but checked my email to be sure. What I read kicked the air out of me.
It turns out our friend, Barbara had not died of a heart attack–an autopsy revealed that she had taken her own life. I arrived early at the church as readings and music were shuffled to accomodate the more somber occasion. Days earlier, before the autospy results, her kids had send out a request asking people to wear bright colors because, as they put it, “Our mom was a happy person.” So there we were, many of us dressed like Easter eggs, trying to make sense of the impossible.
Watching her grown children weep uncontrollably in the front row was unbearable and unforgettable. They clung to each other, shaking at every word uttered in their mother’s memory. Pastor Steve started, “Barbara had a moment, and it may have been just a moment, when she decided she would rather be with Jesus than be here on Earth. Jesus did not call her home–it wasn’t time yet. But, I have no doubt, that Jesus welcomed Barbara with open arms.”
After the service, the story broke out in pieces, Barbara was depressed, her husband had recently left her, and she struggled with the long-standing condition of clinical depression. And yet, to know her as many did, you would never realize you were in the presence of a woman who was so gingerly tethered to the planet. She exuded control. Barbara was a hospice nurse who invented buck-up; she was the very arms of God in so many situations, just not her own.
God no doubt called “Rest in me” to her, but being human, she couldn’t hear him, not on that day, anyway. She was after all, a person doing the best that she could, but still it wasn’t enough, it never is. Was there a moment when someone could have said, “Hey, Barbara, what’s up, you okay?” Maybe, but she would have likely chirped “Fine, I’m doing a lot better,” as she did on a post on Facebook the week before. Are we, any of us, ever all the way fine?
Of course not, which is why we need the grace of God not just every hour, but probably every second.