When my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer when I was 30, few of my peers in my inner circle at that time had experienced having a critically ill parent. When she died six weeks after my 31st birthday, the only other person in my peer group who had lost a parent was my husband, whose mother passed away a year after we married. No one quite knew what to say. After all, parents are supposed to live long, healthy and productive lives. Mothers aren’t supposed to die at 50 and no one is supposed to be motherless at 31, but real life doesn’t work that way. As the famous John Lennon quote says, “Life is what happens when you are busy making plans.”
In the past few weeks as I have grappled with the very uncomfortable reality of having an ailing parent and the responsibility of overseeing his care and having to think long term about how his health and lack of resources will impact me directly, I am struck once again by how very few of us have the words that offer comfort. Words that don’t come across as empty and even, at times, as little more than asinine comments and platitudes.
In talking with a newish friend who has had the experience of being a caretaker for a mother-in-law with Alzheimer’s disease, it hit me that as a culture most of us lack the language to address the less-than-pleasant moments of life. In fact, in our culture there is this deep-seated need for everything to be fine, for things to turn around. Yet there is no rational basis for this desire and frankly it leaves us lacking when the crises of life hit…and inevitably they will hit.
We treat aging, ill health, divorce and any other “uncomfortable” moments as something that should be brushed aside as quickly as possible so that we don’t find ourselves infected by the unpleasant moments. In wanting to move past those uncomfortable moments we leave people stranded in the emotional sea. We silently demand of them to put on a good face and not bring others down or make them uncomfortable. This leaves those people going through the storms of life feeling adrift and at times utterly alone. How can you make peace with the seasons of sorrow and pain when the world demands your joy?
There is a season for everything and some seasons are harder than others. As I learned over a decade ago, sometimes the painful seasons of life bring the greatest growth despite the pain they bring. No one is guaranteed a stress-free ride in this vehicle we call life and as a society we might just be better off if we learned to create the language and spaces that acknowledge the uncomfortable moments.
As a Black woman, I am acutely aware of the trope that exists around our perceived strength and while I wish I could say that I was indeed a strong Black woman, the reality is that I am just a woman doing what needs to be done. Sometimes we carry on because we have no other choices. While curling up in a fetal position for a good month is an attractive idea, the reality is that I have a kid to raise, an organization to run, a dad to take care of and a life to figure out. I often think of myself doing the mental version of Neo from The Matrix as I duck and dodge to avoid the multitude of bullets life fires my way. Occasionally, they get me and they lay me low, so low that I envision myself as a snake slithering on my belly. But like a snake, I also shed my skin and I rise again as something more. But never is it without some bruising.
Speaking of Black women and our strength, I am sickened at the death of Sandra Bland and while I plan on writing about her death in detail in my next post, I have in the shorter term been thinking about my own initial assumption that she couldn’t have taken her own life. Suicide crosses all lines; none of us are immune. The thinking that she couldn’t have taken her own life is dangerous because it plays into the false trope that Black women are inherently stronger than other folks and to some degree devoid of emotion as part of that imagined super-strength.
As a writer who has blended talking about race and racism with my own musings on life especially in middle age, it feels even more important to me that in acknowledging the value and beauty of Black lives that we also acknowledge that sometimes this life is hard as hell. That sometimes our strength is our weakness and that sometimes it knocks us down and in those low moments anything is possible, even that which we cannot imagine. This is yet another reason that we need language and spaces that allow one to lay down their burdens and be supported.
As for me, I am here. The past few weeks, despite the pain, have also provided great clarity. So even in the midst of a season of discomfort, there is the occasional bright spot. Sometimes we need a reminder to clean out our emotional and mental closets, and crisis is at least good for that in many cases.
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