Being a runner means constantly sporting an injury in some form or another, but it also means learning a great many strategies for healing. My current injury – a sprained ankle – has introduced me to kinesiology tape, which bears an alarming similarity to fixing everything with duct tape, and it just might be my new favorite healing remedy. I recommend it highly. This tape comes in all kinds of colors and patterns, and I almost wish I had had a version that applies directly to broken hearts.
If only broken hearts could be taped back together.
But healing our broken hearts required a different approach altogether, a confrontation with the dragon that broke our hearts in the first place. While I do appreciate the impulse to ignore a problem in the hopes that it will solve itself, I do not think that time – by itself – heals anything. Regrettably, very few of my problems have resolved when I ran screaming from the room. I was going to have to look this dragon in the eye and stare it down.
But here’s the thing: dragon breath.
I believe that goodness ultimately wins, that love will prevail over hate, that life is more powerful than death. But evil puts on a good show. The dragon of our reality was grief, abandonment, fear, darkness, doubt. Coming to terms with our reality required the use of many words that were hard to say out loud: dead, suicide, despair, widow, was.
Ain’t no way around it. Dragon breath stinks.
But I am a formidable opponent. Legions of friends and family rallied to my side, and they armed me with love and lasagne. I gathered my children and mustered up a little gratitude. Dragons hate love and gratitude. I relied on my education, a good therapist, a dash of anger-inspired confidence and a dark sense of humor. Plus a kick-ass pair of cowgirl boots, because I did get my degree in Texas, and sometimes you have to use the pointy end of those boots.
Sam and I used to play a game with the kids at our dinner table that we called “best and worst,” where each person shared both the best and the worst parts of his day. The conversation often segues into other subjects, which can be entertaining or insightful, but we wanted to teach the kids to incorporate the range of the day’s experience. It might be more pleasant to focus exclusively on the “good” stuff, but that’s not where the growth happens. To ignore the “bad” stuff is not only unrealistic, but it doesn’t teach the kids how to deal with adversity. Or brussel sprouts.
My father has his PhD in nuclear physics – he is the sharpest knife in the drawer – and he does all those things that faithful people do. He prays, he volunteers in prisons, he seems genuinely to love teenagers. Honestly, he is a light in the world, and a beacon in mine. He also suffers from a chronic disorder which we refer to as “unconditional joy.” He consistently finds the good in everything. It’s a little annoying.
A few nights after Sam’s death, we were sitting around the dining room table, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, both boys and myself. I have no appetite, so I start the conversation, “Let’s play best and worst.” One of the boys goes first, “Well, my worst was that daddy died.” Yup. That’s going to be his worst for a long time, but I’m grateful because he is not afraid to name the dragon. “And my best was playing at my friend’s house today.” He is, after all, only 8.
The rocket scientist goes next, “My best was meeting a lot of Charlotte’s friends…, and my worst, … Well… [pause], but they were tears of joy.”
By which I mean that the doorbell rang right at that moment, sabotaging our family dinner, but saving my father’s life. I left the table to answer the door. There were two people on my doorstep – the financial guy with papers to sign and the doctor friend with Xanax in hand. Between the two of them it would be the first night I got any sleep at all since Sam’s death.
And then I went back into the house to face my father, and the dragon lady cut loose with some venom and flames of her own… “Tears of joy?!? Are you INSANE? Dad, those are tears of PAIN! Are you KIDDING ME? We are SUFFERING! I am a 39 year old widow and my little boys have LOST THEIR FATHER!”
Evidently grief is harder than rocket science.
After Sam died we observed many of the Jewish mourning traditions, including the unveiling of the grave marker 11 months following his death. There is wisdom in a defined grieving period because it ends. It is, in fact, supposed to end and welcome color back into the world. But it doesn’t end if it never began. It has to begin too. And that may be the most redemptive aspect of dragon breath. It is almost impossible to ignore. And so, we turned toward the dragon.
Life has a way of rubbing up against those old wounds. That’s why the healing work is so important. Some of the times that life will irritate the wounds are predictable, like birthdays, anniversaries and graduations. Some take my breath when I’m not expecting it, like the day I recognized a doctor’s name on the plaque adjacent to my dermatologist’s office. I couldn’t place the name, but it was so familiar. An hour later, I remembered where I had seen the internist’s name. I have never met her. I only know her signature. It’s at the bottom of a page I’ve stared at over and over again, uncomprehending. She signed Sam’s death certificate.
There is no way to avoid all reminders of our loss, but if we incorporate the loss into the fabric of our lives, we accomplish an emotional alchemy. And the dragon breath turns into a warm breeze, unpleasant maybe, but no longer toxic and arresting.
I did not muster the courage to walk into her office right then and thank her personally. Maybe someday. I did, however, whisper a prayer of gratitude for the hands that cared for my husband on the day he died, and I blew Sam a kiss.
Dragons hate that.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the courage to stare down the dragon.