I wanted things to go back to normal. I wanted none of this to be happening.
When I got the phone call about my mother having been diagnosed with breast cancer, Mama was 45. My grandmother, on the phone, said the cancer was in an advanced stage, but the doctors were going to try chemo and radiation. After I hung up, the news left a roaring in my ears. For days, I couldn’t hear anything right. The only thing that soothed me was to be in the middle of a group of friends talking to one another without expecting me to participate, letting the sounds of their conversation wash over and around me. Emmie was one of the ones who took care of me in those weeks after the phone call.
One night I was sad and agitated, mad at God for letting cancer happen to my mom, mad at a deeper, unacknowledged level at my mother for detecting a lump and waiting a year to go to the doctor. I didn’t have the two things available to me that usually made things better: talking to God and talking to my mother. Emmie and I had been playing our guitars and singing. After a while I lay on my bed and asked if she would sing to me until I fell asleep.
Usually when someone sings to me I want to tell them how beautiful it sounds; I want to thank them for doing it; I want them to know that I appreciate them and that I’m listening all the way through. That night, in pain, I needed not to do any of those normal things. I needed to be able to accept that gift from her in silence and go to sleep.
I remember lying in bed in such misery I wanted to crawl out of my skin, out of my body and away. My mother was going through something really bad far, far away from me. She told me to stay at school, that she would be fine. Guiltily, I knew I wanted to stay at school. I must be a terrible person. I wanted to go be with my mom, and I wanted not to be there. I wanted things to go back to normal. I wanted none of this to be happening.
Whenever my eyelids would flutter open as I was drowsing, I saw Emmie sitting across the room on her bed, bent over her guitar, her eyes closed, singing to me. My mother wasn’t fine. She wasn’t going to be fine, and the singing was the only thing that night that held any comfort.
She sang to me past the time when I fell asleep. I don’t know when she stopped singing. I have been grateful to her since then for that gift, and I think of it often. She is an Episcopal priest now, one of the downtown New York clergy who worked for weeks on end after 9/11. I imagine them with their hearts torn into ragged pieces, their hands and voices still giving comfort. Maybe once in a while, they sang to the survivors.
These days, as part of my spiritual strengthening, I’m trying the Buddhist practice of being open to the sufferings of others without trying to take it on or fix them or make it all stop. Suffering is hard to take in. I want to look away.
I see my therapy client whose parents snatched all the beauty from his life day after day from the moment of his birth; I see the mahogany-skinned teenage boys on the front steps of the house that looks uninhabitable; I see the widow at my church whose daughter has come to pack her up and take her home with her, far from anyone else she knows, far from the life that was hers. I practice looking. I don’t know how to fix any of it.
After years of mothering, of being a therapist, of watching the news, and ministering in churches, my heart is torn and ragged, too. Pain and love tumble over one another. Both surround me. People sing to me in so many ways through the tumult of this life. My sons sing to me, with their voices and with their lives. My sweetheart sings to me true and strong. My friends sing to me from nearby and far away. The people I’ve worked among sing to me. I know you have sung to people in your time. The world itself is singing. I’m singing, too. Close your eyes for a while. We’re right here.
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The Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a UU World online columnist, is senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, and the author of several books, including Broken Buddha. She is also a humorist and singer-songwriter. (Author’s website.)
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