Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped,
And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
My life hasn’t been that hard. I have always had enough to eat and a roof over my head. I live in a free country. I have it better than most people in the world, and certainly better than most people who have lived in this world throughout history. I like to think that I am grateful for these things, and yet, like most people who have lived privileged lives, I’ve come to expect a certain level of ease and comfort. I take difficulty and discomfort like a slap in the face from the universe. What did you do that for, universe?
I have what my sister refers to as my Reverse Bucket List: stuff I’d rather not do before I die but end up doing anyway. Some items are the result of completely random events, i.e. not my fault. Others are the result of my own doing. Still others are technically the result of my own doing, but bad luck played a pivotal role. It’s this last category that drives me crazy. If only I had done this or that seemingly unrelated thing–tarried a couple minutes longer here, taken a different route there–me and this particular fate might never have crossed paths. I might never have had the opportunity to choose between door number one and door number two, and thus never had the opportunity to choose poorly. I might have lived the rest of my life with one fewer lesson learned the hard way.
During times of trouble I sometimes think back to that old poem that everyone’s grandmother has hanging on the wall somewhere, the one about the footprints in the sand. I’ve never been a walking-on-the-beach barefoot kind of person, but let’s assume for the moment that this poem is metaphorical and not meant to be taken literally. In my version of the poem, there is one set of footprints. By way of explanation, God says to me, “That is where you ran off by yourself and for some reason I couldn’t catch you, even though I’m God.” Or, “That is where you ran away from me and I decided not to run after you because I figured you would come back eventually.” Or, “That is where you ran away from me and I didn’t chase you down because parents need to let children make their own mistakes. You would never learn anything otherwise.”
It’s a dark time in my household, but darkest within me. Sometimes I am inconsolably sad for no reason. That’s clinical depression. By now I know what a depression jag looks like. I can get through it with patience, distractions and a reasonable amount of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I know enough not to lose hope. This is different. I can’t eat, and I won’t be distracted. I can’t write. I can’t make jokes, and that is serious. I tell everyone I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to think about it. But I can’t do the things I normally do because nothing is normal right now, not anymore. I am inconsolable, but sometimes there is a good reason. There’s a very good reason. And no amount of Prozac or positive self-talk will change that.
What’s done cannot be undone. There is no going back. There is no over, under or around. There is only through. I hate through.
For years my prayers have been acts of obligation. I say them because I’m supposed to say them, but I stick with being thankful for all the things I have to be thankful for, and I don’t have any sincere petitions beyond perfunctory requests–say, that we might travel somewhere in safety. I don’t expect to be protected as a result; it’s my way of saying, “By the way, if I make it through in one piece and I forget to thank you later (since it was a statistically likely outcome), thanks in advance.” Expectations are obstacles to happiness; when you have no expectations, you can’t be disappointed, and I am proud to say that it’s been a long time since God has disappointed me. Why ask when you can’t get, and why ask when you won’t be answered? Sometimes I can’t help myself, though. Sometimes I get desperate and think I have to try even though I know it’s a lost cause.
This is how my prayer went last night: “Heavenly Father, all I want is for this to be over with quickly. I just want it to be resolved. I don’t even care what happens as long as it happens fast. But I know I can’t ask for that. That’s not how life works. Why am I talking to you now, then? I suppose I want confirmation that you love me and you care what happens. But I’m not ready to ask for that yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready. So never mind. Never mind again.”
I am thinking about the marathon of grief. You never know how long grief is going to last, but you know it will probably be a while, so you really need to pace yourself. I don’t know a lot about running a marathon, not being a runner, so this is all theoretical. I have birthed four children without anesthesia, not because I’m strong but because…well, I still don’t know why. What I tell a woman who is anxious about delivering her first baby is that the important thing to know and remember about labor is that it ends. It would be nice to know when, but the most important thing is that it does end, one way or the other. That’s the only way you can get through it.
I’m doing the emotional equivalent of Lamaze breathing. I want it to be over, but I know it’s not going to be over for a long time. And there is no epidural in Gilead. That’s a good one, I think. The gallows humor has momentarily returned. And then, just as quickly, it’s gone again.
What might a normal Mormon woman do at this juncture? She might ask for a priesthood blessing, but there is no way I am going to do that. I don’t even want it. I don’t want to know what God has to say to me. I might not like it. Experience has taught me that I won’t like it. The only thing I fear more than going back into the world and facing daily life is asking God what he really thinks of me. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know.
I imagine a hypothetical conversation with my bishop, who is made wise by experience and necessity. I imagine him asking me, “Do you think Heavenly Father loves his children less than you love yours?” And I say, “Yes. Yes, I think he does.”
The temptation to crawl into bed and stay there indefinitely is almost too great to bear. I should go downstairs, I think. Downstairs are the dishes. Downstairs is my four-year-old. Downstairs are big picture windows where I can look out and see the world, but more significantly, the world can look in and see me. I don’t want to face any of those things.
The house is going to hell around me. It’s my intention to let it go there, to leave the dishes, leave the laundry, leave the everything for someone else to deal with, later. I am in survival mode, I say. I will only do what’s absolutely necessary to keep myself and the children alive. My husband is out of town; when he gets back, he can pick up the slack, whether it’s fair or not.
Then I go downstairs and see that ants have invaded my kitchen again. They’re crawling all over what’s left of our last meal’s preparation. Well, this is just what I need, isn’t it? I realize that my plan to lie down and let the world end is just not that practical after all. My inability to tolerate swarming insects in my living space is greater than my inability to do housework. So the kitchen, at least, will not be going to hell for now. I suppose it’s for the best, I think, as I clean off the counters. So thank you, God. Thank you for the ants.
When I think about who I can call, who I can confide in, who I can unburden myself on, no name is satisfactory. This is a time when a person most needs her friends. But I don’t have any friends. There are people who know me and like me well enough, but no friends. It’s partly my own doing—the whole unapproachable, don’t-trust-anyone thing that I do, it has consequences, and this is one of them.
But people are so good. They are so good. The handful of people who know about my situation reach out to me without me reaching first. They don’t judge me. They give and give and they do it partly because they know me and like me, but mostly because they are good. Whether they were born good or they were taught to be that way, their goodness is genuine because I feel it. It is intensely moving to me.
I am lying in bed, in the dark. I’m finally in the place where I’ve been longing to be—no obligations, no reason to get up, free to sleep as long as I want. I’m thinking about how alike people are, that none of us is really better than the other. Some of us do better than others, but deep down, what makes us what we are? I don’t know. There are so many variables in life, things that push us in one direction or the other. Our choices matter, but where do they come from? That’s the eternal mystery. What makes us the same is that we all have weaknesses, we all have limitations and we are all at the mercy of fate’s whim at one time or another.
It’s while I’m thinking this thing that I thought I already knew, about how I really know it now—now that I’ve not only been humbled but thoroughly humiliated—that I finally know the condescension of God. We are all sinners and none of us deserves saving, but He saves us anyway. I am overwhelmed by grief and regret, and then I am stunned by a sudden onslaught of peace. I have the answer to the question that for years and years I have been too afraid to ask. Someone has reached out to me without me reaching first; I don’t deserve saving, but He will save me anyway. Remember this, I will myself. Remember this. I’m going to need it later.
In the midst of this disaster I think that what I really need from God is a huge favor, but absent that, I will settle for several small ones. Just as I’m thinking I have no right to ask, the favors come piling in. Fate has punched me in the gut this time, for sure. Then, in a hundred different ways, fate spares me. I’ve already had the Miracle of the Ants. Now there is the Miracle of the Library Card, followed by the Miracle of the Garbage Truck and the Miracle of Back to School Night. And in the midst of these tiny miracles I realize the big miracle has already begun.