We’ve heard it, read it, or spoken versions of it: “The only Constant is Change”. Scholars disagree on the exact wording of the original, but know that a man named Heraclitus was probably the first to make this observation in his writings around 500 BCE. Let that sink in and nurture your spirit for a minute: we’ve been trying to figure out how to cope with Change for a really long time. It’s a natural and unavoidable part of the human experience, whether or not the changes feel good or bad. Some people thrive on and look forward to changes in their lives; but change brings uncertainty, apprehension and dis-ease to many others.
A certain kind of Change is particularly tricky for a lot of people; I’ll definitely include myself among those for whom Endings & New Beginnings are disruptive and distressing. In the past few years – maybe longer – the Endings in my life have felt like the freeway pileups we hear about, or are sometimes forced to bear witness to. Instead of twisted steel it’s more ‘emotional carnage’. One ending after another. A “domino effect’” of endings.
When Endings come fast and hard – regardless of whether or not they’re unexpected or anticipated on some subliminal level — they wreak havoc. An Ending may be the loss of a life, a job or lifestyle, a friendship, marriage or significant relationship. It can be a voluntary choice, or something imposed on us. Even in the most positive kinds of scenarios, Endings bring, among other things, the need to adapt to new feelings and circumstances. The crucial lesson we all learn about Endings is that there’s a process we must go through, at our own pace, in our own way, according to what feels right for us.
I often think about how, as I grow older, most aspects of Life
get so much easier as a result of clarity and wiser perspective.
Nevertheless, Change is always lurking. When I’m faced with something really
big – an Ending that’s rocking my world and shaking me down to the soles of my
feet – I gravitate to people who’ve survived such changes and “lived to tell The
Tale”. I want to understand. I want to feel that All Will Be Well; that the
Ending will always be followed by a New Beginning. I want proof, in the
version of someone else’s story.
Author William Bridges and his book “Transitions” (2nd ed.) is my go-to. Not only does Bridges reassure with Here’s Why You Feel What You Feel, but he outlines the process of self-renewal without sugar-coating what has to happen. Most importantly for me, lately, is the knowledge that following a Big Life Change, the body, mind, heart and spirit need a period of quiet time known as the Neutral Zone. As an example: a friend and I were sharing stories recently about our love of dogs. She’d lost a beloved Huskie she’d had for 15 years and went into a months-long funk. Her adult kids immediately began urging her to get a new pup.
But Mary pushed-back; she needed time to process her loss. The Neutral Zone (Bridges) is a period of rest, and also preparation for a New Beginning. Even if an Ending feels more ‘positive’ than ‘negative’, it’s still disorienting: it involves detaching from Something That Was, preparing to embrace What Comes Next. And whatever comes next may not be clear at all, when we want and need it to be.
I’ve gotten used to Change in my life; I’ve accepted that all
manner of Endings will continue. My heart is lifted by the New Beginnings I know
will come when I’m ready. In this period of rest and renewal, I reflect on
Bridges’ words about re-booting Hope: “To make a successful new beginning, it’s
important to do more than simply persevere. It’s important to understand
what it is within us that undermines our resolve and casts doubt
on our plans.”
Yesterday, like many people in the U.S. and in Europe, I spent
time watching the very somber and poignant D-Day Remembrance ceremony held in
Normandy, France. As I do each year, I also reflected on the military service
of my father in this conflict. Being drafted into the army at age 20 changed
him forever; I’m convinced it’s why he became such a stoic personality,
although I heard very little (his choice) about what he went through.
Both of my grandfathers served in the previous war
(WWI) also reluctant to talk about their experiences. But my grandmother (on my
mother’s side) was always willing to recall her experience
being “courted” by a “beau” who was a soldier. My grandmother, Beulah Howell,
was born in 1898, near the end of a succession of 13 children. Seven of her
siblings, six brothers and one sister, most of them older than she, died from
either tuberculosis or influenza before Beulah was 20 years old. I think I was
around 13 or 14 when she first told me the full story. The emotional
devastation of these deaths impacted my grandmother and the rest of the family
in ways that you’d imagine. But, for Beulah, the deaths also changed her
thinking, driving her to what I absorbed as a kind of calculated fury to
embrace life on her terms.
In 1918, a few months before WWI ended in November, my
grandmother was 20 years old and enrolled in a Teacher’s College in Toole,
Utah. It was July, and very warm. After her classes, she and a friend decided
to walk to a Sweet Shop to get ice cream. My grandmother, so she told me, was
completely dazzled by two uniformed soldiers who were in the shop, sitting at a
table drinking iced tea. (To prove this point mid-story, grandmother Beulah
whipped-out a picture of my grandfather in his uniform, before they were
married; I had to admit, the guy she had in her sights was gorgeous). My
grandmother (remember, this was 1918, and women did not behave this way,
generally,) left her friend where they’d been seated and went to the soldiers’
table. She immediately engaged my future grandfather (who, she recalled to me,
was very shy and somewhat taken aback by Beulah’s approach). Her
“line” was shocking in its day, suggesting that the ice cream was delicious,
and Wouldn’t he like to try some of hers? (as she extended
her glass toward him). According to my grandmother, the soldier was immediately
‘smitten’ (her word). The two spoke long enough for my grandmother to explain
who she was, where she lived, and that she’d welcome him “calling in” at her
My grandfather — Homer — wasted no time. He and his
unit were on a brief leave in Toole. Less than a week later, Homer produced a
ring and asked my grandmother to wear it until the war ended and he could
return home to marry her. Sounds romantic, right? But here’s where my
grandmother’s grit and no-nonsense approach to life’s realities kicked-in.
Paraphrasing what she said to me, she responded to Homer’s proposal by saying,
“Why on earth would I wear your ring, letting all the other boys know
I’m spoken-for, when you might not even come back ?” Now, I’m guessing
that there actually weren’t too many eligible men around, given the war, but my
grandmother did tell me about an older gentleman, “with a big,
expensive car”, that had been aggressively courting Beulah before Homer arrived
on the scene. Apparently, he thought he was a Serious Contender.
At this point in the story, I was pretty stunned by my grandmother’s steely pragmatism and, what I would now call, a fairly cold-blooded attitude toward my future grandfather. Nevertheless, I could see her point. Without a ring on her finger, clearly signifying that Beulah belonged to him exclusively, Homer was put on “the back foot” (as we still say) and, according to my grandmother, more motivated to return to her. She confessed to me that she was completely in love with my grandfather, but felt she had to put practicality above passion. While Homer went back overseas, Beulah let herself be courted by the “rich man”. But when her soldier returned to her, they were immediately married. They stayed so, for almost 70 years, until my grandfather died.
We’ve all heard or read the quote (a paraphrase of Friedrich Nietzsche’s) “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. If you’re one of the lucky people who’ve not yet experienced deep grief – the kind that steals your life force, dims all hope for the future, and lasts much longer than you ever imagined you could sustain emotional pain — then you probably haven’t taken Nietzsche’s philosophy for the “test-drive” it deserves. Of the many Life Lessons within the human experience, profound grief is a process that halts all but the most vital body functions needed for survival. Sometimes even food, water and sleep seem unnecessary and even absurd to the grief-stricken. In my experience, it’s not a matter of ‘becoming stronger’ in the aftermath, but more accurately, experiencing a metamorphosis.
Shortly after my son turned 18, I had a very strange encounter with this kind of grief. I became so distraught that I felt certain – and still do – that my entire body, on a cellular level, was altered by it. Like a lot of kids his age, my son had been weekend candle-burning (at both ends) as high school graduation neared. So, when he complained one March morning of a sore throat and fever, no surprise. My son stayed home from school a day or two, while I went to work after making sure he had juices and pain relievers at-hand. But by the end of the third day of illness, his fever still hovered at 103 degrees. His body was wracked with pain. He couldn’t sleep. I took him to the ER, but they were mystified. A dose of Cipro was given by injection. A few days later, we were back in the ER – at about 2:30 a.m. My son’s temperature was now 105 degrees and an Intensivist was called-down from the ICU wing to intervene. I was almost in full panic mode at that moment, but still not feeling the full brunt of what was about to come. Grief had not yet entered my heart, as extreme worry was still in charge.
There’s a special look that medical personnel give one another – it’s a signal transmitted by eyes, intensified by the half-covering of surgical mask — that telegraphs, “Uh-Oh.” Of course, I caught that look and there was no going back: I made the leap from concerned Mom to hysterical She-Bear in a nanosecond. Stark reality was revealed in a high-speed jumble of “No-time-to-waste-your-son-is-dying” stream of words that shot out of their mouths (there were now four Intensivists crowded around my son) as they punched a thumb-sized hole in his right side and began draining his lung of what turned out to be three liters (go ahead, envision a Pepsi bottle, because that’s accurate) of infection. My horror was only surpassed by the instinct to comfort my son who was clearly in shock.
Lemierre’s Syndrome is an “ infectious thrombophlebitis” of the jugular vein. It’s basically a sore throat that turns into an abscess that ruptures, sending nasty bacteria into this main vein and creating, very rapidly, sepsis throughout the body. It is almost always fatal, crushing the heart with fluid and causing its failure. Lemierre’s is extremely rare, typically affecting males between 18 and 25, and so sudden that the patient usually dies before a diagnosis is even made. My son had had this disease for almost 8 days and had begun the dying process while in the ICU for another 9 days.
In cases of massive, full-body infection, multiple bags of IV antibiotics are strung up on metal posts that look like aluminum Christmas trees, circa the 1950’s. As I lay in the lounge-bed (picture a sort of double-recliner) they wheel in for the family when things are really bad, I’d given myself over completely to Grief. My son’s skin was waxy white. He was totally motionless. A machine was breathing for him. The machines all around the room were indicative that his body was wholly dependent on them.
The thing about
Grief is, it’s so personal. It’s like your shadow – it’s yours alone,
an image created as light is absorbed by your body. But the shadow of Grief lingers,
even when the light goes away: flat, clumsy, gray.
It was in this “shadow form” (as it felt then), in the early morning, that I wandered into a hallway, a short distance from my son’s ICU pod. They’d taken him in to surgery. The ‘good’ outcome was the removal of his infected lung; the ‘bad’ outcome was the strain on his heart, then death. I was so deep in my sadness that I barely noticed a very disheveled man shuffling toward me. Dazed by sleep-deprivation, I still had the thought, “How did a homeless person get on this floor?” I looked up at the man who was about 20 feet away from me now, and gave him the ‘caution’ with my eyes: “This is not a good time to hit me up for change”. I noticed his eyes seemed bloodshot. An alcoholic, I thought. His hair was longer, sun-bleached, and looked matted. We were the only two people in the hallway – at about 7:30 in the morning – on this hushed, serious, people-here-die floor. I kept looking at him, resigned now, to hear whatever he was going to say (just get it over with and leave me alone!), too tired to resist. In fact, I was sure that I’d start crying when he spoke. I was still sitting, and now this man was right in front of me, standing over me, sort of swaying. Like he was coming off of an all-night bender.But I didn’t smell alcohol. I could see that his clothes weren’t actually dirty, just really baggy and worn. He leaned in close, maybe 18 inches from my face. I recall thinking, “This is very, very weird”, but didn’t feel the need to brace myself for an attack of some kind. And then he spoke. One sentence. Wait — no, he couldn’t have said what I thought I heard. Shocked right out of my stupor I said, “What? What did you say???!” The man backed up a little bit, gave a small smile with his lips, not a grin at all, and repeated, “Your …son’s …going to be …ok.” And then, he did a 1-80 turn and started walking back to wherever he’d come from. I assumed I had just hallucinated, but kept looking at his back as he walked away, knowing he was real and what I’d heard I had not imagined. Who was this guy and how did he know about my son???
When my ex-husband Tom (he’d come from out of town and stayed with us at the hospital for two weeks) got back from moving his car out of a Red Zone, I told him about the man. Tom jumped up to look for him, but no luck. I described him in more detail, thinking that maybe the man was one of Tom’s Vet (Vietnam) buddies ( a lot of them now looked like hard times). But Tom said he hadn’t shared our son’s illness with anyone but his side of our immediate family. So, where did this guy come from, we wondered? There was no way a stranger could’ve entered the ICU, or heard us talking with the doctor about our son’s critical condition. As we waited for the surgeon to let us know the outcome of the surgery, we spent over an hour trying to make sense of my experience, exhausting ourselves even more, mentally.
Four hours of surgery later, my son’s sweat-soaked and bleary-looking thoracic surgeon Dr. Kwajah came to where we still sat. He told us that our son was alive, still gravely ill, but used those magic words, “He’s turned the corner”. Tom and I looked at one another and had the same thought, which we’ve talked about many times since. We were both fairly sure that our son would die and that Grief would over-take us. But someone had appeared and assured us of a different outcome. Grief can be unbearable and feel enduring. But in the shadow of it, miraculous transformations are also possible.