I have a wound, a horrendous one. Well, it’s actually a scar from a wound now. The disfigurement once made me feel uncomfortable. Today, I’ve come to terms with the fact that it makes me who I am. The wound, itself, bothers me sometimes, though. Like a bone broken years ago might ache from changes in the weather, it troubles me from time to time. The days leading up to November 10th are one of those times. The wound begins to ache, and my attention is drawn to it. I begin to scratch it. It gets red and raw. I begin to dig at it. Once my fingernails break the thick, calloused skin, it begins to bleed. The pain is excruciating, but I can’t seem to stop myself. You might think that many years of a wound being reopened, scabbing over, and, then, ultimately, appearing healed might deter this behavior from occurring over and over again. It doesn’t. It’s almost November 10th again, and here’s me clawing away…
It was my first year teaching in a public school, after having taught in a charter school for six years. I loved it. It was also my first time doing parent-teacher conferences, and my daughters weren’t used to me being at work until so late over an extended period of time. I was leaving school, after my last conference, when my cell phone rang. I could barely hear the caller. I got terrible reception in my classroom. “Is this Sarah’s mother?” the voice asked. “Yes, it is,” I answered. “She’s been in an accident. You need to come to the hospital,” the voice continued. My initial reaction was anger. Sarah had been grounded. She wasn’t supposed to be out anywhere. I called my husband, who was at work and told him to meet me at the hospital. I also called my father and asked him to go to my house, get my other daughter, and take her to my parents’ house, because I didn’t know how long we would be. I called Sarah’s dad, too. As I drove, it occurred to me that perhaps Sarah had been injured. Worry replaced anger.
When I arrived at the emergency room, I gave my name to the woman at the desk. I remember thinking it was odd that they sent the chaplain out to meet me. She was an older, kind lady with sympathetic eyes. She led me to a tiny room. I told her that my husband and Sarah’s dad were on their way. Once they arrived, we waited for someone to come tell us what was going on. The awkwardness of being in a tiny room with my current husband, my ex-husband, and my ex-husband’s wife was nothing compared to the worry plaguing me. It seemed like we were in that little room forever. After leaving my daughter at his house with her grandmother, my dad joined us there in the little room. The doctor finally came in. I knew there was something terribly wrong when he told me to sit down and then sat in the chair next to me. He rested his elbows on his knees and looked at me with the same sympathetic expression the chaplain had had. “Well, I’m afraid Sarah was in a pretty bad car accident, and the collision caused a very serious head injury. We tried our best, but…but she didn’t make it. I’m so sorry,” he said, touching my knee, “I’ll give you guys some privacy now,” and he left. The best way I can describe my feelings at that moment would be to say that it felt like my brain was literally giving me an “error” message. It’s a feeling I’d never experienced before and have never experienced since. I could actually feel my brain struggling to process the fact that my daughter was dead. I stood up. “No, no, no, no,” I repeated. I wasn’t crying, though. That came, in torrents, later. My husband put his arms around me. I looked up into his face. “No, no, no. What is happening? This can’t be happening.”
Everything after that point seemed like I was inside a bad dream. A nurse came in and told us we could see Sarah shortly. They were just getting her “cleaned up.” They led us to the triage room. I took a deep breath and went in. It’s an image forever burned into my mind’s eye – my child lying on a cold, stainless steel table covered up to her shoulders with a crisp, white sheet and with a small square of gauze on a corner of her forehead. My most lasting memory of that moment, though, is that, when I kissed her cheek, it was still warm, and, yet, when I took her in hand in mine (like I’d done a million times over sixteen years), it felt like ice. We said our goodbyes, but we didn’t linger. My brain had finally processed the information enough to make it clear to my heart that she was gone. A long goodbye would’ve just been torture to me. I needed to be content with the “snapshot” that would have to last the rest of my life without her. I wish now that I would’ve asked the nurse to remove the breathing tube that was still in her mouth. Because of it, the last image I have of my child is not exactly what I would’ve wanted. It was, however, the last time she really looked like herself. She looked peaceful like she was sleeping. The next time I would see her she would be a post-autopsy, embalmed shell, with her flowing dark hair the only remaining recognizable feature.
There is one thing almost as hard as losing your child – having to tell your surviving child that the person who had been her best friend her entire life is dead. That’s what I had to do once we left the hospital. Like mine, her initial reaction was disbelief. The days that followed were filled with a series of similarly hellacious tasks – picking out a casket, finding a burial plot, planning a service, greeting friends and family who were at a loss for what to say to us. Most of it was and is still…a blur, except for a handful of very vivid memories. I remember the huge cascading arrangement of roses, beautifully crafted by the same woman who’d done the flowers for my wedding just four years prior, draped over the casket. I remember seeing my father sobbing in a way I hadn’t seen since the death of his mother, back when I was sixteen. I remember the cold, bitter wind cutting through my body while the first snowflakes of the year swirled around the many mourners as we were gathered at the burial site, and I remember how deafeningly quiet our house seemed in days that followed the funeral, once everyone had gone back to their lives.
I’d like to know exactly where grief lives, within my body. I know that it entered through the wound, and it’s been inside me ever since. Even once the wound has covered over after each time I’ve broken it open, the grief is still there. Somehow it has sunken deep into my cells and gives me a persistent, low-grade infection that I’ve simply learned to live with. Sometimes, a flare-up grips me. It hits me out of nowhere and feels like what I imagine a seizure might feel like if it was expressed in emotion. I’m paralyzed and incapacitated by it, though for shorter periods of time as the years have passed. The wound, itself, heals year after year. The scar gets a little thicker and a little harder to penetrate. This reminds me of what C.S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain.
“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken’. Yet if the cause is accepted and faced, the conflict will strengthen and purify the character and in time the pain will usually pass. Sometimes, however, it persists and the effect is devastating; if the cause is not faced or not recognised, it produces the dreary state of the chronic neurotic. But some by heroism overcome even chronic mental pain. They often produce brilliant work and strengthen, harden, and sharpen their characters till they become like tempered steel.”
So, I take comfort, as I look at the wound’s scar, gnarled and knotty. And I hope that the horror it represents will bring a strength I do not yet feel but someday might.