The Eve of Grief, of Joy, of the Quite Possibly Utterly Ordinary
Ten years ago yesterday, all was mostly well in my world.
Worst complaint was that I was away from my son, just shy of three years old, when he burned his finger on a stove.
Little 8-month old Else and I were gone, honoring my doctoral advisor at a fest in a small town some ways away.
Bill and Karl had stayed back in Regensburg, packing and planning for the next month’s big move back to the US, after five near-perfect years in Germany.
“I’ll kiss it when I see you on Sunday, sweet boy!” I said. “O.K., Mama!” Karl said. “Ich vermisse dich!” he said. I miss you!
The next time I saw Karl, I had just left the corpse of his father in the neighboring hospital’s morgue, and my sweet, sweet Karlchen was wrapped in blankets, attached to tubes, his tiny tiny finger swaddled in a white bandage, his tiny head swaddled in a turban of white bandages dotted with iodine and blood.
Baby Else was being passed around, cooing and wooing the ICU staff in the bowels of the hospital that would be our home for the next six, long, weeks.
In some ways, June 18th is far worse than June 19th, the day when All Things Changed.
We were oblivious, on June 18th, positively oblivious, not only to what would happen the next day, but that it even could.
Every year since, I brace myself for June 18th, for it is a day filled with taunts of “what-if.”
What if I had insisted that Karl and Bill come along to this retreat?
What if they had missed the bus instead of catching it?
What if they’d been ahead of schedule…whatever their schedule was that day?
What if they had hadn’t decided to go to….wherever it was that they were heading?
What if Bill had instead said, “Ah, heck with it. Let’s go get an ice cream, Karlchen!”
What if, what if, whatif whatifwhatifwhatifwhatifwhatifwhatif…
It’s a question that can become a repetitive sound, as annoying as a leaky faucet drip that can’t be fixed, as a snore that can’t be turned over, as an ear worm that you can’t get out of your head no matter how many countermelodies you try to hum.
But it also is a question that, as a German might say, “Bringts aber nichts.”
It doesn’t bring anything.
It doesn’t bring a damn thing…except unresolved, and unresolvable, possibilities.
These possibilities are the “may haves.”
They may have not been hit by the car at all.
They may have surprised me in Neuentdettelsau.
They may have gotten all of our packing for our move done! Wouldn’t that have been fantastic!
Karl may have gone on to be a hiker and a linguist and a world-traveler.
Bill may have found his dream vocational fit back home.
But, of course, one day, it dawned on me that the may haves can take a person anywhere.
It may have been that Karl, instead of being the designer of world peace (as I naturally had envisioned him to be), could have been called up in some as yet unforeseen terrible war, and both inflicted and suffered great trauma.
It may have been that Bill, instead of being the victim of an accident, could have been the perpetrator of one that caused even more death and grief.
It may have been that that any number of other difficulties could have befallen us: addiction, depression, betrayal, anger, disease, who knows?
One day it clicked that we may have been equally broken, just in a different, unknown, way.
Who really knows?
In the end, what if, may have…a pox on both.
A pox on both.
All I know, for sure, is that what I had on June 18th, 2004, was beautiful.
And what I had on the June 19th was not.
And that much of what came after June 19th was not.
But I also know that every breakthrough that Karl has made after that awful accident, I have held, I have treasured, I have claimed, I have known that, at least for the moment, it was mine.
Even the 19th couldn’t take away Karl learning to say “E” again and unfolding his left hand again and, oh Good God Have Mercy, Karl smiling again.
Even the 19th couldn’t take away the way that Else and Karl protest it with their laughter, and their love, and their strong spirits, and their regular forgiveness of their worn-out-stressed-out-tapped-out mama, and their trust that they are deeply, deeply loved.
Even the 19th couldn’t take away the Communion of the Saints, those who breathed, and believed, on days when I could not.
Although no one can prove that he said it, people like to say that Martin Luther once proclaimed that if he found that the world would end tomorrow, he would plant an apple tree today.
I’ve asked myself, if I’d known on the 18th that Bill and Karl would have been mercilessly and unalterably hit by that car on the 19th, what would I have done?
Well, I would have clearly left that conference to kiss that thumb, that much I know.
But would I have spent my last moments with them clinging to them?
Would I have sent my fingernails into them, gripping them away from that was to come? Would I have wiped my tears on them, spent my last hours wailing?
But I like to think that I wouldn’t have, anyway.
And I like to live now like I wouldn’t, anyway.
Not only did the 19th teach me that some things can’t be taken away; it has taught me that some things have been given to me, indelibly pressed into me, things that also can not be taken away.
Like this: the accident taught me that I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
It could bring death and despair.
Or it could bring deep gladness and joy.
Or…it could be really dull. Ordinary. Utterly non-eventful.
I simply don’t know.
I do know, however, what I want this day to be, this moment to be: a day, a moment of rich love and kindness and joy and gratitude.
Not only can the 19th not take that away from me, the 19th has given it to me, this new appreciation that we have each other, that every moment is sacred, that we are sacred, and that, as I tell the kids, our love and kindness and joy can be contagious to others, perhaps even making the world, perhaps even just a little, more loving, more kind, and more joyful.
My children, these two tangible Easters of mine, I simply refuse to have them grow up in a world where they see their mother fretful all the time.
That isn’t to say that I’m not fretful all the time (good Lord do I worry), but these two twirps remind me to shed my fear–at least to tamp it down–to trust not the fickle (but powerfully tempting) what-ifs and may haves.
Instead, K and E remind me that there is life to live here.
There is joy to be had.
There is gratitude to embrace.
There is a moment, a present moment, which is a gift to be shared not only with each other, but also with the future, whatever it may be.
I confess that I can’t think about the 18th, and how perfect it was, and I still can’t look at pictures from before the accident, and I have videos from those days that I doubt I’ll ever see again.
It’s too painful.
And I admit that I can’t think back to and linger on that terrible 19th.
But I can write, with full integrity and honesty, that I can, now a decade hence, declare that every moment is sacred, every moment is to be savored, every moment is a possibility to plant a tree, to plant a promise, to plant joyful defiance.
The Eve of Grief is also an Eve of Doch.
Death is real.
And it is terrible. It hurts and it stays and it seems for all the world that it has the last word.
That it has won.
But doch, doch, doch!
Life, on this eve of what ever tomorrow will bring, is real-er.