I got the shocking call last Sunday afternoon. She told me that he jolted awake suddenly in the pre-dawn hours and just as quickly he was gone. This prince of a man, this decent, loving husband and father had died. Out of nowhere. WHAT? Weren’t they just . . . ? Didn’t we just . . . ? I struggled to process this dreadful information. I wanted to rail against God. I wanted to offer some words of comfort until I could get there, something trite, like “This is part of God’s plan, it is beyond our understanding.” Of course, I didn’t believe that. My rage would be directed at the ether. My efforts to soothe would be built on a false premise. I don’t believe there is anyone up there or out there. It is precisely at times like these that I desperately wish for some kind of faith. There are people all around me who have a version of God. This God provides a structure for living and dying, solutions to complex problems, answers (or diversions) where there are none. I don’t have anything close to this. I was never very good at science but it is all I have.
I used to hedge a little more when talking about this highly sensitive topic. This was for two reasons: I was concerned about offending anyone and I had some mildly superstitious notion that I would leave the door open, just in case I should have occasion to call God into service in my own life. As a younger woman, I talked of feeling “spiritual” and that I could imagine “a force greater than myself” in the universe. I never really had any idea what I meant when I discussed this. I thought it made me sound less off-putting to others but mostly, it made me less terrified of having no guiding light. I would describe how we are “all connected,” relate experiences like seeing something extraordinary in nature and how this could grant access to the sacred world. The truth is, I have seen the sunset over the Pacific, a baby moose in the Tetons, Halley’s Comet and a human child emerge from my own body. In each case, I have thought, ‘What an absolutely stunning miracle . . . of science.’
The older I get, I am increasingly convinced of the randomness of life. I do believe that everything always works out in the end, in the sense that we learn to cope with whatever circumstances bring. What I mean when I say things like, ‘I am exactly where I was meant to be,’ is that it requires an active acceptance of chaos to get from one day to the next. This is more of a mantra than some philosophical statement about a grand plan.
I challenge anyone to explain to a woman who has just lost the center of her life and the father of her young children that all will be revealed. NO. There will be no reasonable explanation and if the logic of it is outside our comprehension, then it is useless anyway. What we can know for sure is that she will move forward very slowly, moment-by-moment, until it is less and less surreal. The heavy boulder of pain will eventually be massaged into tiny pebbles that rattle around in her mind. New rhythms will develop and her children will grow. She might create a novel iteration of a family, not because this was all supposed to happen just exactly like it has, but because she will simply handle what she has been dealt.
For a long time, I wondered whether this lack of a divine center meant that I was a lost soul (lost brain?). But I can tell you with conviction what it is that makes me found. My family and friends (also considered family) are at the core---I live for them and with them in this life, in the here and now. I do this not because it is written or commanded or foretold. I do this because it is right and feels good and creates community. I don’t need to understand the meaning of life to know that when someone is ripped from it too soon, it creates a searing pain. I don’t require the threat of hell or a judgmental God to treat people with kindness. I know that I should “do unto others” because I, myself, have feelings. I also know that nobody is perfect and that when I fail as a human (often spectacularly), the person from whom I need to beg forgiveness is the person I have slighted.
In the tradition of my Jewish culture (and yes, for many people, Jewish religion), in the New Year we do a self-assessment and make a commitment to do better in the coming season. One rationale for this is to ensure that we are inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. The warning here is that God will only allow those to survive who have done good, been of service and been authentically sorry for ways in which they have harmed others. This begs the question whether the people who have died this year somehow weren’t all they could be? And you see how it begins to break down.
I do appreciate the concept of personal inventory, making genuine apologies (at least once a year) and being intentional about your humanity in the year to come. This year I hope to focus on being even more available to this most treasured friend that has experienced devastating loss. I won’t talk to her about God and providence. I will talk to her about how powerful his presence was and will continue to be in this life. I won’t talk to her about fate. I will tell her that I know he is gone too soon and that nothing about this is just. I won’t be equipped to provide any enlightenment. But I will visit the kids, get down on the floor with them like he did, and keep his memory fresh for them. I will do this because I love her and I loved him and this is what people do.