Saturday, May 1, 2010

Door Number Three

Our community has been hit by a sudden, painful tragedy: a freak accident that claimed a child's life. On what should have been an ordinary day - kids playing outside after school, others walking home from after-school activities, parents preparing the evening meal - one family in our neighborhood suffered an unbearable loss. We're all shaken and deeply saddened.

At work I face stress and anxiety-provoking situations all the time, yet people tell me I meet them with calm and grace under pressure. My home life is a different story altogether. As a mom I have a tendency to harbor deep anxieties over my children's well-being that I keep in check only with a lot of mental self-persuasion.

Right before we left for this trip to Russia I confided in a friend, "I worry that something bad will happen to one of us, and it'll be all my fault for dragging the family to Russia in the first place. I'll blame myself forever knowing they could all have been safe and intact but for my wanting to go." Just two weeks earlier two metro stations in Moscow had been attacked by suicide bombers.

"First of all," she answered, "nothing bad is going to happen to any of you. And secondly, what are you going to do, spend the rest of your life locked up in your house? Go live your life!"

So off we went. We rode the metro in Moscow - the relatives with whom we were staying, in fact, live right at one of the ones that was bombed. We rode a high-speed train to St. Petersburg - one of these had suffered a so-called "mechanical failure" (read: terrorist bomb) last fall. We flew in airspace that had been shut down for a week because of a volcano's threatening spew.

My friend was right: we can't let our lives be ruled by dread. But that's something I have to keep reminding myself. It only takes a moment to ruin a life, a number of lives; the current tragedy in our community is an agonizing reminder of that. What parents wouldn't give everything they had to rewind to the moments before such a loss, and somehow change things so that they could have that precious, unique, irreplaceable child back?

Years ago, when my first child was just an infant, I made a "dread list" as a way of exorcizing some of my demons, and I must admit it did help. Writing down my worries didn't dispel them entirely but it helped me let go of dwelling on them and constantly revisiting them. I won't say the words "carbon monoxide" don't cross my mind every time I wave goodbye as one of my kids goes for a sleep-over, or "roller coaster disaster" when we're at the county fair, but I don't mention my dark thoughts to them or prevent them from enjoying these normal treats of American childhood.

Change, too, makes me anxious, especially change of my own making. I worry that the decisions I make will be harmful in some way to my kids - as if I had control over everything that might happen to them - and if I allow myself to, I can fret about such decisions almost pathologically. The thoughts go something like this: Door #1 means we stay as is, Door #2 means we choose something else because of me. If we go through Door #2 and something bad happens to one of us, I will forever blame myself for not choosing Door #1 instead. If I pick Door #1 and meet with adversity, I'll wish we had chosen Door #2. What if I pick the wrong door?

This, of course, is a senseless, useless mental game, one that I banish from my thoughts when I have to make life decisions that affect my family, because if I didn't, it would drive me absolutely bananas. But the very fact that I have to banish it at all means that the tendency to entertain it is there, lurking like an imp holding out a temptation. People who tend to be plagued with "what-ifs" understand me, I think. And they would understand that the "what-ifs" I have to work so hard to suppress are nothing compared to the "if-only's" I am trying so hard to avoid.

If only I hadn't been there, gone there, stood there, done that. If only she had waited a second longer. If only he had taken the other road instead of this one. If only we had been able to do things differently. If only.

It's only human to want to avoid loss. It's small consolation that our capacity for experiencing loss is a corollary to our ability to hold things dear. Because we are human, we can recognize beauty, value things or people, experience wonder and joy in our relationships; but also because we are human, irrevocable separation from those we love hurts like hell. It is hell.

But I tell myself: we can't live in fear of what lies behind Door #1 or #2 or #3, or along this road or that road. We can't control everything that gets flung across our paths or berate ourselves for not being able to avoid the unexpected, the cruel adversities and unspeakable sorrows. We can only do what we can do: create life stories that bear witness to the best in us. We can't do more.

But my heart aches anyway. For my son's schoolmate and his family and friends. For the families I've met over the years at work who have wept the tears this family is weeping. For the loss of children, the sorrows and suffering of children, of families. If only.

1 comment:

rlbates said...

T, words fail me. {{{hugs}}}