My friend Sue says that you have to learn something three times: once with your head, once with your heart, and once with your gut.
One of the things it took me at least that many tries to learn about myself is dead simple: I am strong. I didn’t believe that when I was the kind of teenager who gets a brown belt in karate because she feels vulnerable, or when I chose to go to music school rather than the academic college that was a far more obvious choice, or even when I spent half of a summer at my father’s bedside in the intensive care unit, learning things I never wanted to know about how the pancreas works and doesn’t. That is to say, I didn’t believe it during some of the most difficult and bravest moments of my life.
And then, suddenly and not suddenly, an important relationship was over, and I was devastated. And at the same time, some corner of my mind that wasn’t lost in the pain and loneliness and fear managed to hang on to that trickiest of things, perspective.
Let me be perfectly clear: this didn’t make the experience itself any less painful. Having a corner of your mind retain the ability to think that’s not true when 98% of your being is screaming that you are surely going to die of this pain isn’t even particularly comforting, in the moment. But it is comforting later, when you think, yes, that’s right. It’s not true. Maybe eventually, as time and practice do their work, it even becomes comforting in the midst of difficulty. I like to think so.
And now, when that loss only rarely looms over my daily life, I am suddenly unafraid. I know, in my gut, that my heart is not a fragile clockwork toy, but strong muscle with a will to live, and while I wouldn’t wish the lesson on anyone, I’m grateful for it.
All of this is on my mind today because a friend of mine is dead — not a close one, but someone who was a present part of the background of my life for several years, a peer, someone close to my age and, as far as I know, as vital as I am until he wasn’t. I knew his mother, although even less well, and my heart goes out to her in her unimaginable suffering, and to his whole family. I know without a doubt that she will survive this loss, and I wish with all my heart that she didn’t have to.
Life is harsh and beautiful, fragile and tenacious. Kind of like us.