Exactly one year ago today, I was cleaning out my garage preparing to move. It was really hot. I mean: it was REALLY hot. I had set my alarm for noon – work 9:00 to noon – that was my commitment to myself. At noon I made my way into the kitchen, turned the toaster oven to preheat and grabbed a wet, cool paper towel. I was exhausted. I knew there was more work to do, but I had committed to working for 3 hours then giving myself a much deserved break. That’s when the phone rang. I barely heard it because I had forgotten it in the laundry room. I managed to grab it just before the voicemail picked up and noticed on the caller id it was my sister-in-law. A call from her was not exactly everyday occurrence but wasn’t really out of the ordinary enough to cause alarm. It wasn’t until I heard her voice – calm, steady, compassionate – that I knew.
I knew. She didn’t even have to tell me. I knew. My family had been talking about it for more than a year. Dad’s decline, his clear exhaustion had been more and more obvious. He was in the country and had collapsed, she said. He was at the hospital and they were trying to stabilize him enough for air transport. So many things were wrong about this picture. What was he doing in the country? Was he by himself? What had happened? How long? So many questions flooded through my mind, and all I could say to her was, “I have to take a shower.”
I don’t remember another time in my life when I felt more disoriented or disassociated from reality. I remembered to turn off the toaster oven. I called my oldest brother. I texted a friend to pick up a package from my front porch. I made contact with some of my tribe and walked around my house in dizzied circles for I don’t really know how long. I did need a shower. I was dripping sweat and needed something to jerk me out of my stupor. I literally stopped myself and said aloud, “Marjorie. You have to get in the shower. Now.”
I turned the hot water on and as I stepped in my body let go of a heart wrenching sob. The sounds I remember making were so foreign to me they were frightening. Never had I been so wrought with emotion that I had no control whatsoever. I had no. control.
A few weeks ago, I heard the recording of Alton Sterling’s 15 year old son wailing in the background as his mother spoke to news media. While the circumstances were clearly very different, I recognized his wail. I felt his wail like it was part of my muscle memory, and just like that, I was transported back in time.
I wrote in an earlier post about how the experience of losing my dad reconnected me with a part of myself I had really worked at suppressing. It’s still true. I feel things differently now. My emotions are looser and less controlled. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad or neither. I just know that it is.
Margery Williams, in The Velveteen Rabbit, writes “Once you are real, you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” I think what happened to me the weekend my dad died was a kind of becoming “real.” Because I was unexpectedly stripped of all defenses and left vulnerable to the grief and pain of that experience, the real me was set free. I don’t understand it. I can’t explain it, but in the sacredness of that moment: in the shower with hot water beating down, as my body let go of almost 40 years of turbulent emotion, I became real.
And, now as I try to live into this new reality and embrace this gift of unapologetically feeling my way through life, I’m aware that I’m not so afraid anymore. I’m tired. I get overwhelmed. I feel sad, angry, frustrated, guilty. I feel oh so many feels, but I’m not so afraid of the feelings anymore.
I think this is huge for me, and maybe for others, too. It seems many of us work really hard to suppress difficult emotions and to stuff them down into parts of us we think we can cut off. Then the fear builds. The harder we shove, the more we fear what we’ve crammed down and suddenly we’re afraid of everything that feels difficult.
Being in relationship with others is difficult. Engaging in honest, productive conversation is difficult and can be fraught with all number of emotions. But, if we are to be real – with ourselves and others – we have to be brave and vulnerable. If we are ever to see peace in our country and in our world, we must step out of our comfort zones and be prepared to listen and to feel the difficult feelings along with our brothers and sisters. It’s hard work, being real. It’s hard making space for others to be real, too, especially if those others are different and think and believe differently than we do. But, I’m convinced that when we are able to lean in to vulnerability and to make space for others to do the same, things change. Lives are changed.
Sometimes it takes something big, some awful experience to break our hearts (and, hopefully, as Parker Palmer writes, to break them open) before we are able to fully embrace our real selves – all of us – difficult emotions, painful experiences and all. And when it happens we have the opportunity either to be afraid and stuff it down again, or to embrace it and see where it takes us. If we are open, it can take us to the table where we can engage in dialogue and communion with those who are not like us and who need to be heard. If we are open, it can help us to break down walls and make room for peace in our hearts and in our world. If we are open.
My dad took his final, hard-won breath around 11:15 pm on Sunday, August 2, 2015. It was my brother’s 45th birthday. We had all been gathered around Dad’s bed for two days, taking turns talking or singing to him, praying for his peace. It was one of the most difficult and yet most sacred experiences of my life. I was not prepared for the grief I would feel, for the helplessness and uncontrolled emotion. I was not prepared for my tough, controlled, outer skin to be rubbed off in such fashion. But, now, even as tears live on the edges of my eyelids almost at all times, I’m so grateful to have been loved enough to become real.
I hope I can be brave enough to allow for others to be real as well – even when, especially when, it’s hard.