Why I Read The Sad Things

We don't get to stop because things get hard -- we are supposed to save our weaknesses for the quiet hours of the night.
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Relaxed working with her children at laptop in living room
Relaxed working with her children at laptop in living room

My husband found me the other night, huddled over my computer, tears streaming down my face, unable to speak. I'd like to say this is an uncommon occurrence, but that would be a lie. I've always been a crier. Becoming a mother has only made things worse by stripping away whatever buffer I may have once had that kept the troubles of the world distant and remote.

On this particular evening, however, I couldn't stop weeping. I had just finished the last of Sheila Quirke's memorial posts about her daughter Donna's fight against cancer. Donna was four when she passed away, and every one of Sheila's posts illuminating her short life left me undone. I had the same reaction to Emily Rapp's "Notes From a Dragon Mom" which describes how she raises a child she knows will die of Tay Sachs before his third birthday.

My husband gave me a hug and some Kleenex and gently asked me why I keep reading. Why, he wondered, do I read about children suffering when I know I will end up a puddle on the floor? (He is not one to shy away from the unpleasant, but stories about children dying are too much for him.) It would be easier to avoid them, I know. But I can't. No matter how painful or raw, I read the stories I know will make me cry.

I don't limit myself to the hard stuff. I am obsessed with anything related to children and the people who raise them. Videos of a boy and his favorite toy train. Illustrations of crappy kids. Provocative articles on breastfeeding and vaccinations. A call to arms for children in foster care. Baby names. Anything, absolutely anything, written by Jenny Lawson. Honey Boo Boo -- please don't ask why. All of it finds its way onto my computer screen, my nightstand or my DVR. I share what I find with anyone who will listen, which usually means interrupting my husband while he's trying to work. I think he's only listening about 25% of the time, but he nods convincingly.

I like cute pictures, insightful and touching stories, and dubbed baby videos. They capture the fun of raising kids. They remind me that I'm not alone in this parenting thing. I just don't learn much from them. I learn from the hard stories. In a crucible, we discover what we're made of, so I read the stories of parents facing horrible loss to understand what it means to be a parent. I consider the worst and remind myself to hope for the best. I try to figure out how people survive what feels inconceivable. Then I force myself to imagine what they're going through, because saying, "I can't imagine what you're going through," is a cop-out. I can. So can you. We just don't want to.

I read to understand anger. I read so I'll remember not to judge. I read for perspective and to be reminded that that even in the face of loss and pain and doubt and confusion, life does not stop. Someone has to go to work, make dinner, fold the laundry, oversee homework, walk the dog and tuck little people into bed. We don't get to stop because things get hard -- we are supposed to save our weaknesses for the quiet hours of the night. I read to recognize bravery and to confront the fears I try to ignore.

I read because these parents endure and, somehow, in the devastation, they find laughter. And hope. I read for those moments. I read because, no matter how unfair or tragic their challenges, these families are willing to share their joy and strength with anyone who has the courage not to turn away. If grieving moms and dads can make their sadness public, I don't think I have the right to escape falling to pieces in private. They deserve witnesses and so do their children. Nothing I feel can change what they're going through, and maybe it's presumptuous to think that anything I do on this side of a computer screen matters. But on the off chance that my reading makes a parent feel like they've been heard, or that they're understood, or that they're not alone, I'll keep at it.