Someone I love lost everything a few months ago. A middle of the night house fire. A narrow escape. A home in ashes.
My brother is making an inventory list for the insurance company. He mentions that he had a $5,000 leather sofa. I remind him that even carrot peelers and teaspoons add up. We don't talk about his prized, signed Dallas Cowboys football, my grandfather's domino set, the photo album I made for his 30th birthday. The list is overwhelming and goes on and on until my brother stops suddenly and hoarsely whispers, "I don't care about any of this. I'd give it all up a million times over and live in my car if I could have Spenser back." Spenser, his beloved dog who died in the fire. And there it is. The hugeness of this tragedy distilled down to the one and only true loss.
Because my brother hasn't lost everything. He has neighbors who, woken in the middle of the night by the sound of sirens, came over with clothes and blankets for him and his girlfriend who were standing in the 3am air in their underwear. He has a mother who showed up with bagels and coffee and trash bags to carry what they could salvage. He has a father who offered to hop on a plane at a moment's notice and a group of employees, burly men, leathered and calloused from landscaping beside him on hot summer days, who reported the next morning for work and stood crying, shaking their heads at the news. Friends who want to help. People he doesn't even know praying for him.
A lifetime of memories and knowledge and love and experience that can't be taken away, not by mere mortal fire. He has a sister who doesn't begin to know how to make this better but among other things will periodically text him emoticons: a flexed bicep and a face with a tear, the double symbol that now represents the journey he is on.
The not yet revealed truth is that some things may even have been gained. A deeper understanding of the only things that are important: family, friends, a dog. Perseverance. Resilience. A strength he didn't know he had. Knowledge of things like deductibles and adjusters and fire safes, oh my. A sense of humor.
This is what he'll understand as this moment in time becomes smaller and smaller in his rear-view mirror, a story that he's no longer living but merely recalling to new friends and acquaintances. Something that happened to him but does not define him.
When confronted by tragedy, anguish, unbearable sadness, the kind that until you experience it you didn't realize could be a literal hurting of the heart, we say things like, "I am speechless." When writing about a much loved employee's passing recently I wrote: "To say that we will miss her doesn't begin to do justice to the hole she leaves behind." A friend's news of a family member's sudden fatal heart attack and the four young children he's survived by solicits a text from another friend: "There are no words." In Amy Bloom's novel Away she describes her tragic character Lillian as "an orphan, a widow and the mother of a dead child, for which there's not even a special word, it's such a terrible thing." Again and again we are forced to realize that language for all of its evolutionary progress fails us in the face of loss and grief. Yet writers bravely take on this seemingly insurmountable challenge on our behalf and attempt to give words to that which can't be spoken, that which we can't begin to understand.
Think of literary icon Joan Didion sharing the story of her husband's sudden death in The Year of Magical Thinking. Her memoir was less of a grief survival guide, more a haunting watercolor of grief. Then less than two years later Didion experienced another tragedy: the untimely death of her daughter, the kind of unimaginable double whammy that makes you think that God is careless, or worse. But in response Didion painted us a heartbreaking landscape, Blue Nights, another memoir, this one painted over the first. Didion's canvas now thick with layers of sadness.
Or Sonali Deraniyagala. If Didion paints us a painting of grief, Deraniyagala offers us a photograph, an unflinching close up called Wave. On December 26, 2004 while she was on vacation in Sri Lanka with her family, a tsunami struck washing away Deraniyagala's husband, parents and children. She alone survived to tell their story, one that is so painful that I could barely endure her telling of it. I Googled years after reading her memoir to see if I could find her, to see how she was doing, but her book was the only proof of life: "Look there. There she is. A woman with a flexed bicep and a tear."
Some writers speak to loss as our cheerleaders, the ones who believe in our ability to survive: Cheryl Strayed who takes on the nitty gritty, wild and wooly of our daily lives and reminds us of how beautiful we still are. Anne Lamott who points out the love and meaning and holiness in our lives while agreeing that they are full of "heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together." Others, like David Sedaris, Jenny Lawson, Christopher Moore, just help us laugh despite it all.
Even ancient literature--The Odyssey, The Iliad--offers us hero archetypes, survivor stories, inspiration to continue along our journey no matter what. After all, as Joseph Campbell said, we are all often called to "cross the threshold." Either literally to step into new worlds and start new adventures, or figuratively to pass through existential fires or survive emotional catastrophes. We are forced to leave our previous reality behind and enter a new one, a world without our loved one or our home, our once healthy heart, or a beloved pet.
In so many ways books tell us what we need to know to put one foot in front of the other for the journey, whether running from a fire or walking toward a new life.
My doctor has a masters in spiritual psychology. Once when I was experiencing health problems he asked me to indulge him in an unusual exercise. He placed two chairs across from one another in the exam room, then asked me to sit in one chair and my ailment to sit in the other chair so that I could address it. The purpose was to stop thinking of the issue as "other"--something that was happening to me--and instead think of it as part of me, something that I could acknowledge and accept, something that could even teach me and guide me. Perhaps this is the lesson in these books as well, that losses aren't fissures or "other" but additions to ourselves, new ingredients folded into the complicated recipes that make us who we are.
In my brother's case not a "victim" or even a "survivor" but simply a strong man who loved his dog very much.