Mourning Sunlight: A Story About Life After Grief
Nearly six years ago, my 27-year-old brother, Robert, boarded a USAir plane bound for Australia. In his last semester of medical school at George Washington University, he was headed to Sydney for his final rotation in internal medicine with a prominent AIDS specialist. On the way, he'd planned a stop in L.A. that would bring him home to his family for dinner. But that evening, on USAir flight 1493, the air traffic controller made a mistake -- the plane carrying my brother landed on top of a small commuter craft, then crashed into a building. Robert died of smoke inhalation, a few feet from an exit. It took the coroner five days to identify his body.A couple months later, my sister Kathy had a stomach ache every time she ate. We thought it was grief, since all of us felt sick. She went to the doctor, who palpated her stomach and found a tumor. It was non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a type of cancer for which there was a successful treatment and a high cure rate. Chemotherapy shrank the tumor quickly. We exhaled, and missed Robert.Then Kathy's head began to ache. We thought it was a migraine. On the first anniversary of Robert's death, Kathy's doctors discovered that her cancer had spread to her brain. Eighteen months after Robert's death, Kathy died, leaving three young children who are today 12, 10 and 6 to be raised by their father.I know well grief's dreamy space, the heaviness that pushes down. And the fear that grips hold, spins like a centrifuge, round and round. I know how the heart refuses to believe, how it races from the truth. How the body drags, caught. How you search for comfort in macaroni-and-cheese -- and maybe rum. Sleep's from exhaustion, but you find no rest from that fear. You pretend you're in a nightmare from which you'll soon wake. About 5 a.m., you feel it in your gut that something's not right and will never be again. Grief blackens you.But slowly, over time, cracks form in the blackness. It's through those cracks that the sunlight comes in.It is June 13, 1996, four years to the day after Kathy's death, and her oldest son, Jeremy, is graduating from grammar school. During the ceremony, the kids have been asked to recite something short on what their education has meant, or what they plan to do when they become adults. There are firemen, marine biologists, kids who want to be rich.Then Jeremy rises from his seat to approach the microphone. The woman to whom my brother-in-law is engaged moves to the front of the auditorium to snap photos. My brother-in-law turns on the video camera. Jeremy stands straight, holding back his tears. Even before he speaks, I feel so proud of him, and miss his mother so much. I wish she were me, so that she might see her son, and he see her. I imagine Kathy in my body and stare directly into Jeremy's face."I want to devote my life to oncology," Jeremy begins, "because I think people should be able to get better."Everyone in the room sighs."My mom died of cancer when I was 7, and my daddy's mom died of cancer when he was 7. Cancer is so terrible. I think people should be able to recover. And my role model is my grandfather. He's not an oncologist, but he's a great doctor. He helps lots of people."I turn around to see my father. He's weeping, something he never does publicly.Tears fall down Jeremy's face, he sniffles, but continues. "I want to help people. I thank God for my family, for my school."Just after my brother's crash, I thought I'd never get over the terror, never smile again. When my sister died, I didn't want to be near anyone. It was private, and if I kept it private, nobody could take it away. I thought at the time it was all I had, besides record collections and needlepoint. But now, listening to Jeremy speak, I realize that I, too, want to help people; I have learned to find the good that comes from the sadness, and I want to share this with people in grief so that they might embrace the pain rather than deny it. Talking will help them heal; it will also help me keep my brother and sister close.But talking still isn't easy -- not because it causes me to relive the pain but because, as the years have passed, it's become increasingly difficult to hang on to the exquisite sharpness. Something about my discussion of grief was growing stale, rehearsed even, like some dumb sympathy card. Without traditional ritual or religion, grief loses its immediacy; it becomes intellectual. I don't light candles or visit gravesites. And I can't cry like I used to.Fresh grief is so passionate that it forces you to act out, take drugs, take a drink, take a lover. Fresh grief is about life, about the minutes before, about the breathing, the panic, the passage. Mature grief is frozen, invisible and unforgiving -- it's about photos and videos and letters, about sweaters and watches, but it's no longer about warm flesh, that racing heart, that last gasp before the line goes flat. My mother drinks just a bit too much, but cries often; my father is fine, so long as you don't mention his dead children. Me, I look at pictures of Kathy and Robert every day, and push forward. And I wait for moments when I can recapture the freshness of their loss.So when Christina, a co-worker who's just lost her mother to a sudden illness, asks me what I mean by grief being beautiful, I am grateful for the opportunity to explain. Or at least to try.Christina and I sit down to lunch at a quiet Thai restaurant she has chosen. We are both after something. She wants to outrun the fear; I want to remember its intensity.Across from Christina, who's pale and melancholy, I feel like an old pro. I am hungry, but not for food. We order honey-barbecued pork and ice tea. (After my brother died, I ate hamburgers. After my sister, it was tacos from Taco Bell.)Then I ask Christina how her mother died. She's told her story enough times now to have it down, I think, but each time she tells it, it will grow richer and deeper, and she will learn more and more about herself and her mother. The more you talk about it, the more real it becomes, I tell her, as if accepting death is half the battle (which it isn't). And each time she tells it, it will elicit pity in the listener, which she needs right now.She breathes deeply. Her mother had pancreatitis, she tells me, a nasty infection that's fairly easy to cure with quick medical treatment. But her mother had no health insurance, and by the time she went to the hospital it was too late. She suffered, Christina says, a painful death. Another heavy breath -- a punctuation mark.I ask if her mother knew she was dying, if the family had time to talk about things. It makes a difference, I say. With my brother's sudden death came shock, disbelief, rage even. I thought that if my father had a gun, he might hunt down that air traffic controller. In my sister's last few days there was comfort, grace. Yes, we held out for miracles, and prayed in so many ways. While we never quite said good-bye to Kathy, we had time to adjust to the fact that soon she'd be gone. "You're such a good sister," she'd say. "I'll always love you. Don't worry about me. I'm not afraid to leave. I know where I'm going." And we'd cry, all of us except my father, who'd go off hiking up some mountain."My mother died over a couple months," Christina tells me. At the end, she says, her mother could no longer speak, but with her eyes she said all that the family needed to know. And when her heart finally stopped, they were all there together -- the brothers, the ex-husband. "Your father?" I ask."Yes," she answers. "They'd been divorced for years, but you could tell he really loved her."She begins to cry. It's a mourner's cry and comes from that heaviness. It's as deep as a cry can get.I want to offer her my experience, to touch her in a way that will lighten her, but I am not really in the mood. Grief comes in spurts, like tropical rain, and I've had a drought lately. My brother-in-law, Kathy's husband, is about to marry again, and I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. She's a nice girl, but she is not my sister and not the mother of those children. Kathy can never be replaced. Looking at their engagement pictures, I feel numb. Numb is not what I want to be. Ever. So I reach inside myself for a story, one that will take me to a place where I can comfort Christina.I look across the table and straight into her eyes: mourners can see truth; they can also see insincerity. I tell her about Jeremy's graduation. I let myself embrace the details, hold them fast and close. As I go on with the story, I make a point of smiling."We all laughed way too loudly when the next graduate joked about what being valedictorian meant to her. College, and all that. Jeremy laughed and cried at the same time."There's a break in the conversation that neither of us rushes to fill. It isn't awkward. We both eat, and watch each other for signs of understanding. I want a little of what she has, and she a little of what I have. There is no space between us. I can almost touch her grief. I study Christina for hints of her boundaries.She asks, "Did you ever think you couldn't go on?" Many times, I tell her."I wonder where I get my strength," she says. "Something good happens, and the first thing I want to do is to call my mom, and she's not there.""She may be gone in body, but she lives in her children, and in everything you do because of her. You honor her memory through grief, through loving a little harder than you ever thought possible. She doesn't want you in the room with the curtains closed. She wants you to live."This is not just talk, I want to tell her. But it's too soon for her.I am looking forward to the wedding, I tell Christina on the drive back to work. And I mean it. Not for happiness, but for the life in me. Christina will go home now and let grief overtake her. This is what she needs to do right now. I, on the other hand, go back to work and try to digest this lunch. We say good-bye and hug one another tightly for a very long time. Hugs can be as good as rum. It's true that her world will never be the same. She will always be poised, for grief leaves a calling card. But she will find some way to fill the yearning.Yes, I am thinking, there are still edges, and they're reassuring, even though, I admit, they have softened. It's just Robert and Kathy poking around.