I got news last week that a relative of mine, one of my mother’s cousins, Alice, had passed away. Her funeral was this past Saturday in Broomall, Pennsylvania. My in-laws were coming up from Baltimore to visit us the same day, but I snuck out to the service, a drive of about two hours each way, because, well, it was Alice. And it was a funeral. I’m big on showing up to funerals. Always have been. I just…we need to show up. So I try to.
But here’s the thing about Alice. She was the kind of person you wanted in your life, even if it was as remotely as she was in mine. She was 61 when she died, but with the mind of a child, someone in the age range of eight years to 12. What this meant for her family–as accounted by her immediate family at the funeral, as known by me and everyone who’d ever had the chance to interact with her–was that she saw life in the absolute best possible way. Alice was treasured. Treasured. She was happy, positive. She was interested. She was the person who reached out to family, who never forgot a birthday, who was absolutely unwavering in her love of the band Celtic Thunder–so much so that she had grown a network of people who barely knew her–maybe hadn’t met her–and loved her unconditionally. She was the person that most of us go to bed at night wishing that we could be. She saw the world through the eyes of someone who took life at face value. We were told that, because of her disability (dare I call it it that?) she saw each day for what it was, and not what would come after it. Her sister and brother-in-law took control of her care after her parents died, and her nephew talked at the service about how he and his siblings fought to sleep in the same room with her, how people clamored to hang out with her, how his mom never once complained about taking care of her, how she made their lives better for showing them how they were supposed to live it. She could have lived her life in “abject misery,” as her brother Joe said–from the bullying of children at school to the breast cancer she was first diagnosed with a decade and a half earlier–but she didn’t. She just didn’t. The love in that room for her on Saturday was overwhelming. I’ve experienced that once before, at a funeral for my brother’s friend who was killed in action in Iraq seven years ago, a guy who was so optimistic and happy and just kind of took the light of life and shined it all over the place. So much love. So much feeling of the way we’re supposed to be and so often–so, so often–are not.
The massacres in Paris happened on Friday. Beirut was two days before. A university in Kenya lost 147 students over a 15-hour period on Saturday. Grief is in our eyes. Questions are on all of our lips. We don’t understand.
But we do. Cold blood, no. No, we don’t understand that. We can’t wrap our heads around the fact that a person can walk into a crowd of innocent people and shoot them, watch them die, and then blow himself up, too. But we do understand violence. We do understand anger. We’ve all lived both of those things. I’m not saying that cutting off somebody in traffic is in any way the same as arming yourself with an AK-47 and intending to use it–oh, dear God, no. But what I am saying is that we are sitting here, watching the news, seeing the videos of people in panic over and over again, talking with other people who are either stymied with grief or overflowing with opinions, and most of us–I should hope, most of us–are wondering what the heck kind of world we live in. We feel hopeless. We feel resigned.
And then I think of Alice.
David and I were talking Saturday evening after his mom and stepdad had left, after the kids were in bed, as we sat on the couch and quietly caught up about the day. If you know the two of us well–or possibly just encountered us at dinner out–you know that he and I tend to get combative when we talk. Dave’s got a strong personality (not that I don’t, but I don’t feel like advertising that part just yet), and I automatically go into defensive mode when we discuss the big stuff (if you think I was great joy as a teenager…yes). We agree on a lot, at the heart of it. But he comes from a place of pragmatism and logic. I tend to speak with a heart that’s mushy and overflowing and was once (briefly) a member of PETA, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, and possibly Save the Manatees and Amnesty International. So, you know. Talks can be fun.
But we covered the gamut Saturday night. We talked about using diplomacy vs straight-up action when it comes to trying to defeat terrorist groups. We talked about religion and the difference between it and these groups like ISIS (and, in my view, the KKK and Westboro and any other group that pretends it’s using faith as a rationale for terror). We talked about how a child is supposed to stand up to a bully on a playground, and how a world is supposed to stand up to a crazy radical with a suicide bomb. Toward the end of our conversation, he said that he thinks that there will be no peace on earth as long as there’s evil in the world. That makes sense. But the question we have is–what are we supposed to do in that case? Go on a bat-shit crazy scourge to eradicate any evil we see? I think that leads us back to the crazy radical groups, right?
David and I talked that night, well, and thoroughly and (relatively) peacefully. I had Alice on my mind. Don’t be negative, I thought. Listen with an open heart. Speak your mind, I said to myself, without derision or sarcasm. It’s hard, you know. It’s hard to be kind. It’s frustrating and infuriating and takes a whole hell of a lot of vulnerability to let your walls down far enough that you allow another person’s thoughts and feelings and dreams and wishes to flow in. I’m not talking about fights or discussions now, though. I think I’m talking about day-to-day life. Relationships. The guy that wants to cut in front of you in the line of cars leaving Wegman’s. Your husband, sitting on a couch calmly discussing the day when your first instinct is to get your back up (about what? Nothing. Just habits and ideals-defending that are hard to break). Your five-year-old daughter, telling you for the fifteenth time in the month she’d like to learn to play the drums and even though you fear the cost of investment and risk of indulgment you actually think she might really be good at it.
On my drive home from the service on Saturday, I was hurtling down the Pennsylvania turnpike, listening to the news reports and shoving gummy bears into my face at an alarming rate (that last part has nothing to do with my story). The news show was playing audio of the concert-goers trying to flee the Bataclan, and I could hear the screams of panic and sounds of gunfire through the car’s speakers. Then the announcers talked about how the world’s monuments were lit up in red, white and blue in solidarity and support of France’s victims. As I listened, I passed a huge boulder that was off the shoulder of the highway. Someone, years ago from the looks of it, had painted the word “FREEDOM” in those same colors–American colors, in this case–on that boulder. I passed it quickly, but the image remained in my brain.
I thought of Alice. And I realized something. We say we want freedom, and we do: to live our lives, to practice our religions (ironic much?), to read and listen to and say what we want to read and listen to and say. But we aren’t ever going to be truly free, you know. Not in one sense of the word. And we don’t even want to be free. We are all beholden to each other. If we want to lead good lives, true lives, lives that stay on the right side of peace, I think we have to realize that we are responsible for each other (Ayn Rand would not be happy with me). We are tied, tied, tied together, which is why we weep for Paris and let the person cut in line in front of us and say to ourselves at night, “Be kinder. Listen more. Don’t yell so much.” Such tiny little actions to make such a huge difference. They’re pebbles throw into water, after all: ripples can make waves. Freedom is great, but we don’t really have a lot of wiggle room once we’re in there.
It’s hard, though. It’s so freaking hard. To be like Alice and her family. To be kind. I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic right now, and in it she talks about how we’re supposed to approach our work (she means creative work, but I think it applies to any, really) with “a cheerful heart.” A cheerful heart. Not a phrase you often hear in reference to work.
David and I took the kids out for a quick lunch after church on Sunday. There were TVs all over the diner, all tuned to a cable news network. My kids sat there, eyes wide as car wheels, watching the footage of people fleeing a memorial in Paris after someone thought there was a shooter. They have no idea what’s happened. We don’t talk about it in front of them. Quinlan asked if we could visit Paris one day. We said, sure, and looked at each other. She asked if we could go in 142 days, and David laughed. “Well, maybe in a thousand days, Quinlan. But 142 days is pretty soon.” I told her we’d have to save up lots of money to go on a trip like that for all of us, but we’d like to do it. Cian picked that time to curl his hands into claws and roar at us like a monster. Quinlan looked at him, then said, “There’s a monster in Paris.”
Indeed. There is a monster in Paris. And Syria. And Beirut. There was also a monster in Sandy Hook. And Columbine. And Emanuel AME Church. There’s a teeny-tiny monster in all of us. Again, no, not the scary, propaganda-filled, machine-gun-toting kind. No. But most of us have one. A tiny bit of one that makes us fall. Falter. Mess up. Hurt.
We can’t change the world as a whole with a snap of fingers, no. We can’t wish for peace and diplomacy or even bombs carried by our military friends and expect it all to be made better. But we can’t wash our hands, either. What we can do, I think, is remember this: remember that we are bound. Bound to each other. Tied to the ones in our lives. So we can start there. When I think about those happy people–those truly happy, kind people–I realize that they knew they weren’t alone. My brother’s friend Greg had a huge family and a deep faith. He believed that God and Jesus and Mary and legions of angels were under him, holding hands trust-fall-style, waiting to catch him if he slipped. Like him, Alice had total trust, too, that she was surrounded by a loving network of caregivers. They knew they were bound. They understood they were tied in. Maybe that’s what makes the difference.
Here’s what I’m going to try–ha!–try to do. I’m going to try to be kind. I’m going to try to listen more. I’m going to try to stop complaining. I want to open myself up and stop worrying about being right and be actively interested in the people around me. I want to remember that “gentle” is not a weak quality. I want to remember that my children are watching me. I want to remember the birthdays and maybe encourage the drum lessons.
Do the work of love. For me, it is work. It’s really, really hard work. Especially if I’m trying to figure out where a drum kit is going to go in the house. But I am bound. As are you. So let’s find our cheerful hearts and do the work together.
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