57: The Gift of Compassion

57: The Gift of Compassion

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

The Gift of Compassion

In the midst of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.

~Albert Camus

My heart freezes as the ringing phone pierces my sleep. My husband jolts awake to answer and as I hear a guttural moan from his lips, I sit up on full alert. He thrusts the phone at me. “Kevin didn’t come home from class,” he groans, fear and disbelief in his eyes.

I spoke to Kevin this morning, as I have every day since he left his first suicide note more than a year ago. He was upbeat and excited about the community justice event he had organized for this weekend.

“What happened?” I ask into the receiver, dreading the answer.

“I talked to him this afternoon and he seemed fine,” my daughter-in-law blurts out, panic in her voice. “He said his headache was livable today. He was on campus but didn’t go to class. And the police won’t do anything until he’s been gone more than 24 hours.”

I make plane reservations, frantic because I’m in Kansas City and he’s disappeared in California. I fixate on how we’re going to find him as I call family and friends to see if they have talked to him. I hope he’s only been in a wreck or has helped the wrong street person and is lying hurt in an alley somewhere. And I’m stunned to hear myself praying that if he is dead, that it isn’t by suicide.

I’m numb through the three-hour flight as I try not to think, try not to imagine the worst.

The next day I attend his community event. I know that if he is going to appear it will be at this program, a product of his all-consuming passion for social and environmental justice. I situate myself so I can see all three streets that lead into the park. I will myself a glimpse of his car and the shuddering sigh of relief I’ll breathe when I see him. But he doesn’t show up.

In my rush to Kinko’s that afternoon to copy missing-person flyers I’m lucid and focused, yet feel jostled by the disturbing crowds of people who swoosh by with their lattes. I glimpse baby carriages and hear snippets of the screech of tires in the background of my urgency. I wallow in my Pollyanna world as I assure myself that everything will be fine.

I spend another restless night with a vivid dream of Kevin as he walks down a wood-paneled hallway. In my dream, he is gazing around in wonder and notices me watching him. He waves goodbye as he flashes me his engaging grin, and with a glimmer of joy in his eyes, he turns and continues down the corridor. I wake from a fitful sleep sobbing with hope that we’ll find Kevin and that he will be as serene as he appeared in my dream, the wrinkles on his forehead softened now that his headaches are healed and he understands that it’s no longer his responsibility to relieve the suffering in the world.

It’s the third morning now and I call the hospitals again as others drive through town to search for him. My heart pleads “NO!” as the phone rings, but I snatch up the receiver with a prayer that someone has found him. And they have. My chest crumples as the park ranger begins to explain how he found his car, then his note, and then his body.

I begin my new life as if I’m enshrouded by lead veils that settle in for the long haul and restrict access to all senses—touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Only the sixth sense is active—heightened perception and spiritual connections. I’m bombarded by confusing “signs” that feel like vital links to another realm, wild coincidences that point me to an omniscient power whose presence I had only read about before Kevin’s death.

I agonize that my sanity will implode as the lines of reality blur while I try to find a footing in this new definition of my life. But there is no footing. There is no place of comfort, no Pollyanna resolution, just a harsh stripping away of the life I’d always envisioned: that guided by my nurturing, my children would grow up to be thoughtful, compassionate souls who would live out their lives in peace.

As the years pass, the lead veils gradually lift and occasionally float away altogether. Sometimes, on those days when the veils are lighter, I wonder whether I truly want to shed them permanently. If I give up my devastation, then what’s left in my soul? What kind of mother would I be if I no longer mourned the depth of Kevin’s despair every minute of every day?

His ten-year battle with constant, debilitating headaches rendered him powerless to reach his humanitarian goals. I hovered over him to gauge his reactions to every medication change and every new treatment and therapist. With each setback I saw his confidence diminish and his enthusiasm for life wither under the burden of his sense of failure.

What would I say to him if we could relive his last year? What do I comprehend now that I didn’t even fathom before he died?

I would say that his own healing had to come before he could heal others; that society and family responsibilities are utterly irrelevant when weighed against the glorious gift of his life. I’d encourage him to leave school and his professional life and embark on his own spiritual quest to find the peace that I have learned is possible. My immersion into yoga and meditation has given me a deep knowing that there is a place within each of us that is at peace even in the midst of our suffering. I would pry open his heart to those “signs,” the preposterous coincidences that make me shriek with laughter and shake my head in awe as a glimpse of that connectedness overwhelms and comforts me.

It’s been seven years now. People who hear about my loss entrust me with their deepest fears about their own children. Because I know their stories can be more devastating and horrifying than mine, I worry sometimes that my empathy for their anguish may draw my own veils back down.

But as their pain begins to envelop me I’m urged on, guided by that inner peace that helps me muster my courage, buoys my spirit, and offers me the gift of endless, abiding compassion.

~Sami Aaron

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