Out Of The Valley

Photo: Ilana Hulsey Rea

Being tired from working through my end-of-summer punch list is suddenly indulgent when Cohco told me that her cousin just died. At 21. Of a heart attack. No known health issues. No obesity. WT#?

And I zip back to June 18, 1997.  Leslie’s death date.

Really I don’t want to make any of my friend’s loss about me.  But if you lose anyone of meaning to you, grief will be a lifelong process.  An ebb and flow of touching the scar, flinching and letting the pain subside.  I’m no psychologist but I have enough experience to know that, mostly, you flinch less each time something bangs into that scar.  But sometimes, you really get walloped and yelp.

For me a walloping trigger is when a young person loses their life.  My sister was an athlete in the peak of health and youth.  Her Navy or Marine teammates admired her strength and poise in the thick of an indoor or beach volleyball match.  As a setter, she could place that ball wherever you needed it; a friend described her hands as “golden”.  Just how did she maintained a perfect manicure in spite of all that action, hmmmm?

Above all the unsolicited attempts at comfort that people have thrown my way over the years, only one continues to resonate.  Paraphrasing: dying is a person’s final work. Back when I couldn’t afford cable, I had PBS on the telly as background noise.  So happens Dwayne Dyer was on.  I don’t remember anything else he said that day, but I remember how his words knocked away my confusion and anger at the seeming pointlessness and cruelty of dying, especially if it is a protracted and painful process.  Her suffering was not in vain.

I am grateful for Leslie’s final work.  It changed me into a different person.

I am now called “generous, kind, empathetic”:  words I would not use to describe myself prior.  I see the world and spirituality through a much broader lens, one where I fight the inclination to judge first and love later.  After all, I don’t know what has motivated a person’s actions or words (cancer diagnosis, past abuse, dog died, struggling with an addiction or sheer priggishness).

I am more present.  Our lives are fleeting.  And valuable.  They interconnect in ways we cannot always see, which is a beautiful and sobering mystery.  Our actions ripple out into the wide world and, for better or worse, write history and create the future our kids will live in.

My writing is more honest because these same themes of grace, loss, and interconnection find their way into my stories and poetry.  My writing has more depth.  I can tap into that well first shoveled when my mom called to tell me Leslie had a brain tumor and then dynamited into the Valley of Death and Raw Questions in the days and months after she died.  Tidy, religious “answers” aside, where did she go?

The thing about losing my sibling is that I lost a part of my future; one of my living, breathing mirrors is gone.  The challenge to anyone going through the loss of someone important and the ensuing dark valley is how do you reconcile their final chapter, especially if it was painful, terrifying or too soon?  I wish I had an all-encompassing answer; I just have what consoles me.  When Leslie died part of my future self died with her, a bickering, entitled self I likely would not be proud of.  But the world gained a better, kinder – albeit, still far from perfect – me.  Ripples.

What are your thoughts?