Quantum Ghosts

I watched another incisive and provocative film as the snow fluttered into my courtyard this weekend — “A Ghost Story.” It’s a beguiling yet disconcerting film about a woman’s loss of her husband, a musician, in a tragic car wreck close to their home. Aside from its unflinching and brazen gaze at the enormity of grief after a sudden loss, the film explores the concept of the cyclicality of time. It’s the notion that time is not linear — and the past, present, and future are infinitely entangled and concurrently unraveling in the universe’s quantum ball of string.

Shrouded in a bedsheet with eyeholes haphazardly snipped like a trick-or-treater, Casey Affleck appears as the deceased husband trapped in some sort of cosmic purgatory, eerily looming in his wife’s space as he watches over her achingly authentic attempts to grapple with grief. Given its lingering pace, excruciating at times, and perplexing narrative arc, I almost expected to see Rod Serling lurking in the corner, too. I’m not sure if it was the macabre whimsy of the strange, costume-cloaked figure — or the shy, poignant presence of his spirit, but it felt like filmmaker David Lowery peered into my soul for a brief instant.

The real twist comes when the bereaved wife moves out of the house they shared, and the bedraggled ghost remains. He is stuck there for decades, seeing residents come and go, but he also finds himself thrust back into the past — until the spiral of time circles back around again to the couples’ most recent time in the house. In one particularly potent scene, we see the mischievous specter make the very same loud bang on the piano that had awoken the couple at the beginning of the film — when they searched to the living room and were not able to find the source of the noise.

The glimpses of overlapping time and space are both unsettling and comforting somehow. On one hand, they reinforce the omnipresence of those we lose and love, but they also remind me of the peculiar events I experienced around my 26-year-old son Elliot’s death. Two days before his mysterious motorcycle accident, I was at home in the afternoon and heard a crash in my office at home. I ran up the stairs, walked in, and saw my treasured porcelain doll on the floor, shattered.

She was the first doll I ever acquired for my small but precious childhood doll collection. I loved her. We had reunited when I found her in an old, tattered box cleaning out my parents’ house after their deaths in 2014. She had been perched on a shelf of books Elliot had left behind after he moved into his own place. The entire bookcase was filled with his scholarly volumes, always reminding me this was his room, as well as my office — another example of his tsunkoku. It shook me to the core at the time —though I was not sure why. I even mentioned it to Ian, Elliot’s brother who was home from the summer from college. There was no reason she should have fallen that day — no vents nearby and the cat was asleep on the couch downstairs.

I will admit that I do tend to look for connections in unusual places. As I have reviewed the events of that devastating year, 2018, and the months following, I have noticed so many unexplainable synchronicities, events and signs. Though I am confident I will never decode all of them while occupying this earthly plane, noticing them has taught me our knowledge of creation, divine wisdom, time, space and the universe is miniscule.

In fact, last year when I was rummaging around on the internet for answers, I discovered the concept of nonlocality, a quantum theory in which two or more particles exist in interrelated or entangled states remain undetermined until a measurement is made of one of them. When the measurement is made, the state of the other article is instantly fixed, no matter where it is. “In space–time as a whole, it is a continuous interaction extending between past and future events,” said Avshalom Elitzur of the Weizmann Institute of Science So, explaining the unexplainable just got even harder in the non-linear context of time and space.

Boggling.

But this I do know — time might be an illusion, but love is not.

Pieces of Me

The other night, I watched a new film on Netflix called “Pieces of a Woman.” It burrowed into my soul like the vaccination needle into your arm. Yet surprisingly, the subtle and deftly poignant images packed the most potent punch.

This provocative film takes us on the horrifying journey of a home birth gone tragically wrong, but that’s just the first half of the story. (Spoiler alert.) Though the cataclysmic event is harrowing and devasting, some of the most profound and affecting moments come after it.  Perhaps, I experienced the narrative in this way, because this heartbroken mother’s journey is similar to my own. Though the particular circumstances are different, the gravity of losing a child at any age carries its own unique, untenable weight.

“Elaine, why would you subject yourself to such a sad, triggering film?” one might ask, and one would be justified in posing that question.

But the answer might be just as confounding. As I walk this unbearable path, I find that connecting to others around our shared,  unrelenting pain—often through art, helps me feel less alone and even witnessed in a misery-loves-company sort of way. Being seen is a momentary salve on the gaping, unhealable wound.  And frankly, it takes the focus off me for a brief instant and gives me another way to contextualize what still feels impossible to believe.

Not every moment in “Pieces of a Woman” works, but this kind of story signifies a gradual shift in the way we are acknowledging grief in our culture. In the second half of the film, we come face-to-face with a woman’s unvarnished grief journey and emotional fallout—exposed, raw and unapologetic.  Martha’s grief takes center stage, often colliding with her husband’s incongruent mode of coping—ignited by rage and alcohol. Her pain is there for all those around her to see—in all its awkwardness and messiness.  Most people I encounter want someone who has suffered a tragic loss to get over it quickly and be “OK,” because they don’t want to face their own looming mortality. But Martha bears all.

Ellen Burstyn is brilliant and riveting as Martha’s mother—mounting a hostile resistance against her daughter’s unfathomable pain that also prevents her from providing the compassion and care her daughter aches for. In Burstyn’s mordant revulsion to her daughter’s festering sorrow, we sense her character’s own inability to process difficult feelings. This is at the same time fiercely intimate and unflinchingly universal.

 “You’ve got to fight and seek revenge,” she barks. “That’s the only way you can move on.”

The grim reality is you never move on. You don’t “get over” the love of your child. You just find a way to carry the pain.

In fact, Martha vehemently protests the concept of revenge. In one of the most searing moments in the film, Martha finds a beautiful photo her husband snapped on that bittersweet day, just after she delivered her baby. As she views image, we see Martha’s hardened heart soften like molten lava. She begins to replace some of the hard darkness with light, some of the fierce anguish with love. I felt that so deeply. She actually begins to forgive—her midwife, her husband, her mother, and perhaps, even herself.

The other gorgeous detail that brings me to tears is Martha’s meticulous collection of apple seeds, nurturing them carefully in cotton pads or tiny blankets in the refrigerator. She mentions at one point that her newborn smelled like apples, and we often see her eating apples—unconsciously drawn to them in the grocery store, as well.  But when she opens the refrigerator one day to check on them, she discovers they’ve begun to sprout and bud, and she is awestruck by the persistence of nature and the miracle of life before her eyes. This becomes its own solace, its own comfort. This stunning nuance seeped into every cell as I empathized with every tear she shed; every wail she unleashed. The sensitivity of this storytelling is breathtaking—and the performances, masterful, as devastating as it is glorious. This shattered mother is able to find a glimpse of grace and a moment of infinite connection—an uncharted path back inside her own shattered heart.

Today, I noticed a similar miracle in my own living room. The delicate orchid plant a friend gave me for my birthday about six months ago had lost all its blooms. Since the leaves remained green,  I continued to water it as my late Aunt Virginia, the orchid whisperer, had instructed. She used a turkey baster to gently inject two squeezes per week. Carefully infusing every Saturday, I have been watching the tiny green pouches with anticipation, and to my surprise, one opened this morning—a fragile, tiny orchid saying, “Hello world.” 

Like Martha when she lifted the carefully arranged cotton pouches from her refrigerator, tears welled. There is something magical and comforting about witnessing life  . . . its brazen persistence, the continuity of creation, the divine order of things. I must allow this to sink in, to feel it down to my marrow. Another day . . . another glimpse of grace.

The Thing with Feathers

Grief.

It comes in many forms, and its spikey talons dig into your flesh, heart, and soul with varying degrees of force, pressure, and duration.

But there is another layer now, a cacophony of angry, bellicose voices that surround, infiltrate, and pierce us relentlessly—pinging and careening like atomic particles in a supercollider of accelerating chaos. David Brooks said in The New York Times this week, “There are dark specters running through our nation—beasts with shaggy manes and feral teeth.”  The reality is that these events in America continue to weigh on us like a mammoth psychic boulder.

And then, there’s the pandemic—manifesting universal grief, a primordial stew of sorrow,  but there is a rancid ingredient in the pot. In this brave new concoction, so many of us are stirring unresolved pain and anger into the mix, which is hindering our ability to care for each other and ourselves. We are stuck, hardened, and adversarial.

Indeed, this creates a challenging milieu for anyone who is grieving a personal loss. But grief is not a competitive sport, as they say. There are as many flavors of grief as there are types of relationships, but I must admit, losing my first-born 26-year-old son 29 months ago in a sudden and violent motorcycle accident tops my list.

And I know loss.

At this point in my life, I have lost everyone in my immediate family, except my precious 24-year-old son, Ian.

  • My marriage in 2000
  • My only cousin, Scott, at 56 in 2007 from alcoholism
  • My mother, Ann, in 2012 after two strokes and a 32-month debilitating illness
  • My father, Everett, in 2014 after shrouding a lifetime of illness and secrets
  • My only aunt, Virginia, in 2020 in isolation due to COVID
  • My only sister Melissa’s presence after Elliot’s death
  • My kitty of 14 years, Patches, in 2020
  • And my dear first-born son, Elliot, in 2018

These are my stages of grief. This is my confederacy of losses, and recently, their collective impact has been both untenable and inevitable, as I come face to face with my own mortality.

Looking back on these years of struggle, I now recognize why everything else in my life has been messy and difficult, exacerbated by that baseline of trauma and turmoil. So these days, I am learning to be gentler with myself. I’m learning to forgive. I remember being completely flummoxed by Elliot’s wisdom on the day of my father’s funeral in 2014.

He mused, “For such a small family, we certainly have expansive abysses to bridge.”

Poignantly astute. And ironically true.

It’s like living a double life sometimes—one where you have to act like everything is OK, fabulous, and sunny all the time—and one where you are constantly overwhelmed and looking for ways to fill yourself with worthiness, love, and peace. The good things always seem to evaporate—so temporal and insubstantial, like the ribbon of smoke from my mother’s cigarette.

I don’t have the answer—far from it, but writing helps me see . . .  helps me understand the truth of what I think and what I feel. Writing also has helped me recognize that finding glimpses of grace, even the faintest glimmers in the middle of the ickiest muck, is not only surprising—it’s necessary. It’s what I need to live, the way I can put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Especially now.  

I also am strengthened by savoring the moments of awe, surprise, and connection more intentionally. Grief is like walking around in quicksand, a strange kind of suspended animation or slow motion that suffocates and separates you from the rest of the world—a bittersweet state that compels you to take a beat, whether it’s in misery or in magic.

And the magic is definitely in the angels, those celestial messengers who just seem to show up—out of thin air. How grateful I am for them, tears welling . . . I’m not sure where I would be without these cherished friends in my life. They appear when I need them most, and they are present in ways I never could have imagined. The mysterious grace of those who just know—they see me, acknowledge my profound pain—and stay anyway. They keep me going. I am writing this because of them. I dedicate this to them.

I only hope I can give other shattered, grieving hearts the same salve, the same presence . . . and in the words of Emily Dickinson, the thing with feathers. That is my meaning. That is my hope. That is my purpose.

Time for Haikus

Last night, I caught the very last story on “60 Minutes.” It highlighted the rare and timeless rituals of Kabuki, still thriving in Japan today. Though this took me back to my days studying theatre at Northwestern, I was reminded of the Japanese word for Kabuki. It means “off-kilter.” Apropos of everything.

Instantly, I also felt Elliot’s presence in the stylized whimsy of this ancient theatrical spectacle. What bittersweet synchronicity that I happened to turn on the television at this very moment on the last dreary Sunday evening of 2020. And since then, I have felt El’s unmistakable zeitgeist all around.

Japanophile was just one of his many monikers—son, brother, nephew, grandson, friend, housemate, boyfriend, wordsmith, poet, alumnus, brilliant iconoclast, IT savant, musician, saxophonist, shakuhachi flutist, composer, music critic, artist, philosopher, pinball wizard, raconteur, Global Payments engineer, volunteer, mission tripper, teacher, journalist, book devourer, bitcoin purveyor, witty conversationalist, “whitish-hat” hacker, tilde.towner, fellow traveler, cool cat, hip nerd, aviation ace, computer game whizz, old soul, restless heart, disarming intellect, insatiable student, reluctant soccer goalie, skeptical theologian, Japanese car aficionado, Japanese motorcycle fanatic, skateboarder, origami master, loose tea connoisseur, and world citizen.

Oh, I know I’ve left out something . . . so much to so many in one wild and precious life.

“That’s OK,” my wise and spiritual friend Sue reassures me, her heart also irreparably torn apart by the loss of her adult son, “As mothers, we cannot ever possibly know the totality of our sons’ existence, the edges of the lives they led,” she muses. “And somehow, that’s strangely healing. They have and always will exist far beyond us.”

Yes, I think that notion is powerful. I take a breath.

And perhaps, it’s grace.

Right now, it’s Elliot’s Japanese thread that dances before me, so it’s no surprise to me that 2020 was my “year of the haiku.” They seemed to flow from me like a gentle mountain stream. I dedicate them now to Mr. Elliot. They greeted me as I walked, as I sat quietly in my office, and often, as I washed my hands—over and over . . .

With these words, I hold you—and all who have struggled and lost so much in this year like no other, as will I for El forever:

Heart
Make it stop—this now
sacred, unquenchable ache,
because you took flight.

Time
In a susurrus,
what is done, always will be—
dissolving the now.

Apart
Life in a bubble—
Hermetic under its veil.
Together alone.

Grave
No other reason.
A grave erratum must be—
Buried on his page.

Lament
Grief’s ambient tears,
Permeating my membranes
inside tomorrow.

Swann
Passed is my future
So now In Search of Lost Time
Still—breaking my heart.

The Only Thing I Had Time to Write

The holidays are tough; they just are, this year in particular. Even in years without global pandemics and the strife of 2020, they serve up a bittersweet concoction of complicated family dynamics, mixed with tidbits of joy, the overwhelming presence of loss—and deeply cherished memories of celebrations past. This is my third Christmas without my son Elliot.

For me, the holidays are something to endure, to get through. But for my dear son Ian’s sake, my priority is to create new traditions for us, fresh memories for him, for me and for us. Easier said than done this year, but being together will be my greatest gift.   

There are plenty of new experiences now. Last weekend, I participated in a deeply moving ritual – the 24th Annual Worldwide Candle Lighting, sponsored by Compassionate Friends, virtual this year. The event honors and remembers children gone too soon. My dear friends Patty and Ken, along with First Unitarian Church, hosted a beautiful Zoom ceremony with profound and intimate meaning for those who struggle every day to pick up the sharp fragments of their shattered hearts.

Whether two days or 20 years, the pain never goes away. It just changes, but still inextricably intertwined with every moment and every breath. What a sacred time this was for those who understand, who know without saying a word, to honor the names and memories of our precious children, sorely missed but never, ever forgotten.

In thinking about how I would honor my extraordinary Elliot, on this day I thought of his poetry. He spoke from the depth of his soul, and I felt compelled to share his inimitable words that continue to resonate and inspire me in my writing each day. I recall with gratitude when Elliot’s University of Toronto poetry professor contacted me via this very blog. Thank you, Ricardo Sternberg, for sharing your admiration for Elliot and his exquisite words, a welcome glimpse of eternity. I read this as his candle burned:

THE ONLY THING I HAD TIME TO WRITE

By Elliot Wright

This cut in my bone
is the cut in yours,
a home for bad infinity;
Cantor’s blade is teething there,
mythic sword in stump.

Time, kindling for consciousness,
julienned, burns like straw,
and pallid smoke smears memory
as sheets of stratus smear the sun.

The clock unspools a fibril
a slender invisible line
for stringing my images along
like a Chinese line of cash–

It’s hard to tell–they’re shaved so thin–
which image here is
derived from the last.

It’s hard to adequately express my gratitude for the First Unitarian community—thoughtful, caring, authentic, and present. Thank you, thank you. Sending love and light to all who suffer in this unbearable darkness. I am with you. My heart is with you.

The Green Socks

Elliot was wearing green and white socks on August 5, 2018, the day he somehow flew off his motorcycle over the side of an elevated entrance ramp—and into the arms of the angels. I could hardly bring myself to pull them out of the left black-leather boot sitting still on the floor at my feet next to the glass coffee table. Unsoiled, they were wadded up together in a haphazard ball. I imagined some harried ER nurse or technician removing them hastily before pushing the gurney holding my son’s fatally bludgeoned body down the stark white corridor to the operating room.

I was not there yet.

I found the socks after I mustered the strength to open the stuffed white plastic drawstring bag I received from the hospital with the words “E. Wright – Maj. Trauma, 08.05.18,” marked in black Sharpie on the side. They were turned inside out, but I could tell they were covered with tiny shamrocks and other little icons. I gasped but could not swallow for a moment as my eyes welled with tears like a filling bathtub. I could barely see. The smallest details always seem to have the biggest impact. What perverse and horrifying luck they wrought. I lifted the bunch of bright green fabric to my nose to catch one last whiff of his life. There was a faint, earthy odor that I immediately recognized in all its bittersweetness. 

Oh, how Elliot loved socks—an avid collector of the most eclectic colors, patterns and prints. I smiled. They hailed from Tokyo, Toronto, Lubbock, New York City and Amazon—the quirkier, the better. For his last with me Christmas, I bought Bombas for him and for his brother, Ian—thick, warm and cushy with a mission. One purchase, one donated. The Tom’s Shoes of socks. But Elliot seemed to have foot struggles all his short life. Just a couple of weeks before his death, he mentioned needing to see a podiatrist for the third or fourth time to extract tiny shards of glass he had accidentally stepped on in the middle of the night after he dropped a wine glass on his loft’s concrete floor. And how I remember several visits to the orthopedist when he was a teenager to have his painfully ingrown toenails surgically excised.

“Cut straight across,” I would recommend—but he always followed the curve.

Being a single boy-mom is not for the faint of heart.

Yet these green socks seemed to have a life of their own. A couple of days after Elliot left the earth forever, George, a Northwestern pal, thespian, and medium/psychiatrist living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, messaged me on Facebook with fierce urgency. It was surprising. We had not spoken in more than 30 years. Not even a “like.”

 “Elliot wants me to connect with you now,” he said. “He’s coming through with lots to say,” George insisted. I was flustered but responded.

“He says he’s OK.  He wants you to know he’s OK. And there’s something about green socks or lime-green shoes. Something green . . .”

There is no way George would have known this detail. Though I had posted the grim news about my loss on social media, I never made any reference to clothing—nor the socks of any color. I hadn’t found them yet. He had never met Elliot. I felt a shudder down to my marrow. It was startling and oddly comforting at the same time, but I was still in a general state of shock.

“It wasn’t karma. It wasn’t fate,” George typed in the messenger box. “That means it’s mechanical failure, user error, encounter with a vehicle or something like that. Elliot is saying, ‘Something went wrong.’”

I devoured every word.

The relentless pursuit of the details of Elliot’s demise consumes me. I am restless, distracted, and anxious most of the time. I have no way to make sense of it. I know that horrible things happen all the time. And yet, we live in a culture that runs on blame. We don’t have the tools to accept or process the unfathomable or the messy. So, I am caught, stuck, mired in this inextricable, mind-numbing place. Like trying to straighten out a Mobius strip or untangle a knot caught in the finest gold chain, I keep turning, twisting, and tugging, but the resolution is futile.

 I hear my late  mother’s voice in my head.

“Elaine, your best talent is your ability to untangle things. You can unravel anything,” I remember my mother saying as she took a puff from her extra-long Max cigarette. And she was right. Fixing things, figuring things out . . . or at least, trying is what I do—my modus operandi, probably since childhood. However, this clearly defies all my best solutioning skills.

When I was a girl, I learned to pull at every link of a tightly tangled necklace with the help of a fine silk needle and a magnifying glass, ultimately identifying the one strand or link that would loosen the angry snarl and let the wadded chain fall free. Oh, how I wish I had that needle now, but there is no such thing in my universe’s haystack. I must embrace the ambiguity. I wonder if I will ever know how to be in the world. The obsessive thoughts torture me day and night, awake and asleep, a haunting refrain I can’t seem to get out of my head.

Was there another driver on the ramp who caused him to swerve? Maybe going the wrong way? Was he cut off? Did one of the 911 callers who refused to provide their contact information see something or do something? Is someone covering up? Was he caught up in a manic episode? A migraine fog? Was it an accident? Did he misjudge the tight turn? Endless torture.

The minimally damaged bike was found still running, sitting peacefully on the ramp with the kickstand down. I saw it on the dash-camera video footage I requested from the city. How could this be? There are too many questions. In the Texas Health Resources records I requested,  the EMTs reported that “a motorcyclist was cut off and forced off the road on LBJ ramp.” Everything contradicts, and nothing makes sense.

“He was going too fast and lost control. That’s it, mom,” the DPD traffic officer said with a smug smirk, “It’s not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last.”  

Don’t call me mom, I thought as I tempered my tearful response. The sanctimonious officers conducted no investigation. I was livid and still am. I cannot stand that my baby’s fate was summarily dismissed. It’s a forever knot buried in the depths of my heart, a heavy layer of everyday grief I must learn to carry. How I wish I could just let it go, let it be, and be at peace. Everyone says it takes time. If only I could find just the right thread to pull—or sign to see.

Like the green socks.  


Signs of Life

I found a dime on the garage floor beside my car door today.

My heart lurched as I said out loud—oh, a dime.  It’s Elliot. It’s a sign. Then, I smiled when I remembered that Elliot had named my 2007 SUV Doris.

A couple of months ago, a friend told me she began seeing dimes after her husband passed following a brief illness, and they gave her some peace. Then, I started seeing posts and mentions about the prevalence of this common coin greeting from those we have lost. The belief is that when you find a dime, it is an indication that someone on the other side—ancestor, spirit, guide, or deceased loved one is looking out for you. Also, in numerology, the number 10 connotes a circle, so a dime could be a sign of fulfillment, unity, or coming full circle. Interesting.

I am always looking for signs—bring ’em on. I pay attention to the birds on the creek behind my complex, the patterns the jet trails make in the sky, and every Miata within 100 feet, which seem to be driven uniformly by Mr. E’s doppelganger. I’m always looking. Always noticing. When I make a connection or think I do, there’s a sort of serotonin hit. A kind of spark.

In truth, being intentionally present and absorbing these gentle winks is my new favorite pastime, though they are often as painful as they are comforting. Nothing else really seems to matter as much anymore—as I navigate this gnarly path of unbearable loss. I am realizing more than ever—especially under the weight of the deepening pandemic, that all we have is this very moment. Right now. That’s it. And this dime, of course.

I still cannot believe my Elliot left this earth so suddenly and senselessly 28 months ago tomorrow—a lifetime and an instant. The tragic details of his shocking single-vehicle motorcycle accident remain unclear. So, as I train my psychic radar to maximize reception, I’m looking for any flash of insight regarding what actually happened on that worst of all days—or maybe just a glimpse of the enigmatic Elliot I miss so much.

Some days, the signs appear to pop like corn kernels in the pan, but on others, there is radio silence. Laura Lynne Jackson, one of my favorite grief gurus and spiritual mediums, says in her book “Signs: The Secret Language of the Universe” that we can even ask our people for specific signs, but alas, Elliot can be quite the contrarian. He’d rather surprise and tickle me by orchestrating random retro saxophone riffs on NPR—or by returning an object that had been lost for 20 years.  

The latter happened just after Thanksgiving. Elliot’s dad, Max, had misplaced the baby scrapbook I carefully crafted to document his first few years, including a cover I handstitched from the same fabric I used to make the curtains, comforter, and bumper pads for his nursery. Somehow, Max had packed it in the moving maelstrom around our divorce. Our house sold in one day two decades ago, so the separation was a turbulent affair. I had been asking him for this treasure for more than twenty years—almost to the day.

When Max called to tell me out of the blue that he had uncovered it, I  was completely gobsmacked. A flood of bittersweet images tumbled across my mind’s eye as I sat stunned and overwhelmed in heart-stopping incredulity. The startling discovery was also a poignant reminder of time disrupted, of time missing.

But Elliot, my Elliot, was making an appearance for Thanksgiving—for both his mom and his dad. Max’s voice cracked with emotion as we finished the call.

“I’ll bring it by tomorrow,” he said quietly.

Though the brittle scrapbook was dusty and soiled, I was enormously grateful to finally receive this precious artifact that contained pages and memories as tattered as my heart. It was like finding an elusive piece of my brilliant son that I had been searching for.

What a sign, indeed, and a glorious glimmer of grace. I will keep looking. 

Everything Happens for a Reason?

 

People say it all the time. Everything happens for a reason.

It’s supposed to be comforting and deep. It implies there is some sort of grand scheme – a kind of cosmic chessboard where all the moves, winners and losers have been predetermined in some grand design. We just don’t understand or see the big picture. Whether you believe in God, Source, or a big, black hole of nothingness, this concept is difficult to digest.

And, these days, I have little patience for vague platitudes.

A year and a half ago, my precious first-born son, Elliot Everett Wright, died in a tragic, single-vehicle motorcycle accident. He was ejected off his shiny new Honda bike over the side of an elevated highway ramp, soaring 40 feet into the azure Texas sky. Elliot died on the operating table at the same Dallas hospital where he took his first breath at 5:17 p.m. on May 17, 1992. He told me he took every precaution – the fanciest Japanese helmet, safety-paneled jacket and thick, heavy boots. Except, there was always that inherent risk of riding the damn bike – a paradox that’s so difficult to rationalize.

My anguish deepens with each passing day.

What complicates my journey is the weight of accumulated losses and traumas over the past few years – my father’s death in 2014, after years of a rare form of epilepsy he kept secret, dissension regarding his care and eventual dementia; the death of my mother in 2012, after a debilitating two-year post-stroke struggle; the death of my cherished mentor and friend of 30 years last year; the intentional absence of my sister and only sibling after Elliot’s death, and the pain of a prolonged toxic relationship that I finally ended. I am a divorced mother of two brilliantly complicated boys, Elliot and Ian, and this worst-of-all-losses has throttled me.

So, when I recently saw Bill Maher opining about the cloying cliche – “everything happens for a reason” on his often-irreverent HBO show, something clicked. Granted, Bill Maher and a spiritual a-ha hardly seem compatible, but that’s why it caught my attention. He was interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson, a crisp, witty scientific raconteur and author I enjoy watching ponder the mysteries of the universe.

Fresh from an uncharacteristic social media firestorm, he acknowledged contritely that he commented impulsively in response to one of our latest horrifying mass shooting incidents. He tweeted something glib about people dying in other ways every day. Perhaps, that faux pas did happen for a reason – to wake us up from our desensitized trance and complacent stupor around the senseless loss of human life in the name of gun ownership.

As they chatted about politics, truth and the universe, Bill declared, “One thing I hear all the time is that ‘everything happens for a reason.’ Now, that’s an absurd statement.” He went on to say it’s perpetuated by the entitled elite who revel in giving supernatural meaning to the happy accidents in their privileged lives. He observed that for those who struggle in abject poverty and pain, things don’t happen for a reason. They just happen, and they are mostly about struggle. It’s easier to recognize mystical signs of abundance when you have already reached the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Neil echoed his chagrin adding, “’Everything happens for a reason’ – is so not true. Everything is random in the universe. We create the reasons.”

Yes, I found this refreshing. A cosmic scientist was confirming what I now know down to the marrow. Horrible, unfathomable, devastating things happen. They just do. The unthinkable can occur, and it does – with swashbuckling arrogance. It’s a grim, raw reality that has drastically changed the way I view the world, life – and death. Jaded, maybe, but real.

Mindfulness practice teaches us that healing starts with the radical acceptance of what is. Thus, accepting randomness is part of that, right? And, it offers me a whisper of peace. Nothing makes sense, really. We all mourn losses, including the raging wildfires in Australia, an airplane shot down by Iran, and the random destruction wrought by ten violent tornadoes just blocks from my home in Dallas.

There is no reason.

That might be the most spiritual notion of all. These things simply are. They are part of being human. Yet, something about the death of a truly remarkable child and all his promise seismically shifts your psychic interface with life itself. When I hear “everything happens for a reason” now, it’s excruciating and hurts with the intensity of a frigid, subzero slap in the face. In fact, I feel like an alien in my own life when I encounter a well-meaning co-worker or neighbor reprise this “for-a-reason” banality or the ever-popular, “Heaven got another angel.” That does not help.

Though we strive to accept the tragedy and randomness of things, it’s still painful. There is no instant emotional anesthetic in the accepting. I guess that’s what Neil recognized on some level when he openly acknowledged that his insensitive comment made a negative emotional impact. He said:

Yes, it was true, but emotions do matter . . . People are bereaved. Facts are facts, but emotions are real, too. I should have taken some time before I typed that tweet. I should have taken a breath . . .

And, there it is – a perfect example of retrospective mindfulness. Self-aware and empathetic reflection. Here’s the lesson – let’s be more present with each other, more intentionally compassionate. And, more present in our grief. Yes, it’s awkward and uncomfortable, but that’s where the treasure is. In the end, that might be the only possible reason – for anything. The grace of vulnerability.

Maybe, things don’t happen for a reason, but, maybe, grace does.

Amid grief’s messy miasma, those tiny fragments of presence are what save us. Grace is in them – in the startling moment of compassion or the gentle word from another broken heart who carries the weight of a similar loss. Grace is in the unexpected care package that arrives from a sorority sister I have not seen in 30 years. It’s in the chance introduction to an angel boss whose compassion and wisdom make it possible for me to function at all. And, grace is in the generous soul of a dear friend I have known since first grade who makes a special trip across the country to sit with me on the first anniversary of Elliot’s death.

Grace. It’s those poignant, profound gestures and occasional synchronicities – often obscured by the heavy darkness that’s my new normal. I think this is all that matters in the end. I have to believe in the benevolence of universe – and God at work somehow. That’s the only way I can put one foot in from of the other . . . one day, one moment at a time – perchance to experience that next fleeting glimpse of grace.

Until tomorrow – and then, again.

Terms of Debridement: Living into Grief

“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”
(Henry VI, Part III, Act II, Scene I, Line 85)

I have learned something important about grief from wound care.

Last summer, before my days shifted into darkness and just before everything I have ever been sure of in my world dissolved, I wrote an essay about the curious medical language of wound care.

In May and June of 2018, I accompanied my then 94-year-old aunt Virginia on her weekly visits to the Presbyterian Hospital Dallas wound clinic to treat the stubborn, angry wound she suffered from somehow hitting the outside of right ankle on her wheelchair. It simply refused to heal. The folks at Presbyterian Village North, her assisted living home, had run out of options.

At that time, little did I know that in a matter of weeks, my precious son Elliot would soar over the miserably inadequate barrier on the LBJ TEXpress entrance ramp – while riding his beloved motorcycle.

Little did I know that my brilliant firstborn son, a truly astonishing human, would take his last shallow breath in just over a month at that same hospital – where he also took his first breath 26 years prior. It’s all too much to process and handle for this bereaved mom. To tell you the truth, it takes every ounce of my depleted energy to barely function every day – still, over a year later. Don’t know how I ever breathe at all? Some days, it takes too much effort, and in some ways, it’s getting more difficult with each passing moment.

One of the reasons is this peculiar and uncomfortable statute of limitations on grief we perpetuate in American culture. Our “get over it, because it makes me uncomfortable” vibe is like living every day with a sheet of Saran wrap on your face. And no one seems to notice you can’t breathe.

I know it’s unpleasant.

I know people mean well. But death sucks. It’s unavoidable. I know they don’t know what to say, but we all need to figure it out – and do a better job seeing each other and caring for each other emotionally. It’s not weakness. We need to stop ranting at each other about all the “big, bad -isms” – and start paying attention to ourselves as individuals with open hearts and tender souls. Being present for each other is what matters – life and death matters. The loss of a child is an emotional wound beyond measure – one you will never get over. You must learn a new way to live. My soul sister Patty says, “If the loss of child were a physical wound, we’d be in the ER.” I’m not saying we all need psychology degrees. It’s about intentional acknowledgement – recognizing the profound wounds of loss – physical and emotional – early and often.

The fact is that we need to talk about the loss to move ahead. I treasure the friends most who say Elliot’s name and ask me to talk about him. His friends Chase, Brian and Alec – they are angels on earth. Overwhelming loss is the deepest, the most insidious kind of wound.

Grief needs air to heal.

We can’t just let it scab over and ignore the tissues below. And, like my aunt’s deep, festering physical wound, an emotional wound often needs debridement. That’s one of the wound words that truly resonates. You may think talking about Elliot will upset me, but that’s exacting what I need. It triggers the pain, but the tears are a tonic. The pain never goes away, anyway. Not ever. And, pain plays a role – signaling that something is horribly wrong, rallying the body’s resources – calling in the Navy Seals of the heart!

Technically, debridement is the term for the medical procedure that deliberately aggravates the wound in order to help it heal. With grief, we must do that – revisit the pain that makes us physically wince. It’s a necessary cringe, but we must not linger there. Telling and retelling our stories – that is our task. Finding situations and people who will listen, allow and support us unconditionally is essential – people who give us the space to remember the losses in our past and foreshadow what they mean for our futures. These people are rare and cherished. Without their divine grace, we will never emerge from this murky miasma (one of Elliot’s favorite words).

With debridement, we remove the unhealthy tissue and promote the healing – exposing a new day. The body is designed to heal, but the muck is heavy. The wound can become senescent or old when the cells are still alive and metabolically active but not able to divide and thrive. They are merely surviving, not thriving . . . senescent.

We can’t let that state persist – with unattended wounds scabbing over, harboring our deepest traumas.

Meditations on Grief: Telltale Tears

Tears of grief. Tears of joy. Chemically, they are identical.

And yet, there are essentially three different types: basal, lubricating, protecting and hydrating the cornea; reflex, responding to dust, irritants and allergens, and psychic, triggered by our strongest strong emotions. They are designed to wash away profound sorrow, as well as overwhelming joy. I think this mystical dual chemistry of tears illuminates the journey of grief.

Just as I was sitting down to write a journal entry, Linda, one of my oldest and dearest friends (in length of time, not chronology), texted me a fascinating article about tears in the Smithsonian Magazine — and a wish for me more tears of joy today. Turns out, they are the exact same thing. Since I embrace synchronicity, I clicked.

The microscopic images of all three types of tears peppered the article – depicting an entire lifetime, a complex universe in a single droplet of liquid. Oh, the stories they tell. As the article suggests, all the images look like “aerial views of emotional terrain.” Distant, elegant and provocative. That is so Elliot. Immediately, a rush of memory saturates my heart and then trickles down my cheeks. He adored World War I aircraft from day one – mastering the Red Baron computer game as a toddler and scrutinizing ceiling fans as if they were propellers as an infant.

I suspect Elliot was always meant to fly.

These maps are so dense, intricate and difficult to decipher. They all are a tangle of jagged paths, circuitous routes, and sharp corners . . . ins and outs, dead ends and drop-offs. Ah, this is the true journey of grief, and perhaps, maybe, of joy? That is why everything — even the so-called “happy” memories are as cloyingly bitter as they are sharply sweet — piercing my heart as they sometimes bring fleeting wisps of comfort to my weary soul. They are inextricably intertwined, like a strand of DNA. Is that the new definition of moving through grief — moving with grief? Finding a way to experience both love and excruciating pain at the very same time – as one? Still not so sure about the joy part.

No matter what, this is a brave new world, uncharted terrain and an unknown land. How can I possibly know what it would take to feel safe to live with this pain – when I barely know what I want for lunch? And then I question that decision. I think it’s about being being fully present and mindful. It requires relentless self-compassion and intentional awareness — moment to moment, second to second . . . and heartbeat to heartbeat.

It’s the only way.

For my dear son and my heart — Elliot Everett Wright (5/17/1992 – 8/5/2018)