A couple of years ago, halfway into writing the third novel of my contract, the bottom fell out of my family’s life. It wasn’t a single incident; for a while there, we were sustaining damage on a lot of different fronts at once. It was much like being knocked to the ground and kicked repeatedly in the ribs for about 2 years. Tim and I, serenely sailing the sea of life, suddenly found ourselves hurtled down a steep and turbulent waterslide of loss into a deep pool of grief. We landed; we touched bottom. And then, we trod water there for a long, long time. I somehow kept my head above the surface enough to finish writing that third novel, but that was about all I had in me. Almost a year and a half ago, They Danced On was published, but by then, I had no energy left to update my website with the news. I don’t think I even mentioned it on Facebook; definitely not on Twitter. (And I don’t know how to use Instagram.) By that time, I was beyond thinking about publicity: I was too busy trying to get out of bed in the mornings.
The irony is that They Danced On is a story about grief. When I started writing it, I thought I knew a thing or two on the subject. After all, I had been through hard things. Who hasn’t? I’d lost friends and support systems and dreams just like the next person. What I didn’t realize then was how far down the floor of the pool can be. I still don’t, thank goodness. There are plenty of horrors I haven’t had to face. I’ve never had a child die; I hope I’ll never touch that particular bottom. But I have lost children in other, gutting ways.
Meanwhile, our beloved church of 15 years was falling apart. We had to start all over again to find new friends we were willing to learn to trust with our lives. Other hard things piled on. I let go of almost all the nonessentials. You don’t show up on Facebook when it’s all you can do to show up for work. My blog collected dust for so long I forgot my password. Checking e-mail was a heroic undertaking: marketing my books, out of the question.
Let me backtrack, as no good writer should ever do, and tell you a story that happened before all this began.
Four years ago, our family took a month’s vacation to Ireland and England. In the evenings, Tim and I would walk around the Yorkshire sheep farms, admiring the rugged countryside. And by rugged, I mean it’s cold and rainy, so it’s muddy a lot. Winters are long, and neighbors are far away, not to mention that farming itself is just plain, backbreaking work. I was often struck, as we walked and admired, by the abundance of colorful flower boxes the families had planted around their stone houses. They were such a contrast to the bleakness of the rocky, sodden farmyards with their rusted-out tractors and old bathtubs collecting rainwater. Those yards looked like they belonged to people who were barely holding on. But people who are just enduring don’t plant window boxes. The flowers seemed to say, “Life is hard, but we’re doing more than surviving here. We’re thriving.”
It’s been a few years since I’ve planted flowers at my own house in Portland, Maine. I’ve been lucky to accomplish a good weeding once a spring. My whiskey barrel planters, usually brimming over with petunias are, this fall, still lying tipped up against the side of the garage. One has become resting place to a rain-sogged flannel shirt; the other is hosting—through the dried-up sand and mulch of several summers ago--an invasive nightshade weed. But this week, I feel like I’ve turned a corner. It has little to do with circumstances: two years in, some things in my life look a lot better than they used to; some look much worse. But somehow, I feel ready to look beyond grief again. I don’t know why: maybe sorrow has a statute of limitations, and I’ve reached it. Maybe God has done something miraculous in me. Maybe I’m just tired of being sad. It doesn’t really matter to me why I’m feeling more hopeful; I’m less apt, this year, to try to find a lesson in everything. I’m also less fun than I was a few years ago. Less funny, if I ever was funny. I’d like to say I’m more kind and mature and patient. I don’t know though. There’s a lot I’m no longer willing to say I know.
I still think God is in charge. And good. And kind. That’s about it.
Our home looks different these days. Last I wrote, we had 3 teenagers and 2 dogs at home. Now, 2 of my kids are teenagers no more, and we’ve added a beautiful granddaughter to the mix. Olivia is 8 months old, and a joy. She and mom live in an apartment at the back of our house. In addition to 2 of my kids and Olivia, we also have a lovely young African refugee living with us, finishing her senior year in high school. And a nephew who lives in the basement, which sounds like a joke, but isn’t. My youngest, a teenager still, lives in a van somewhere, which also sounds like a joke, and also isn’t. We still have our old dog Kopek, but we lost our lab mix Athena last spring.
Life moves forward and changes, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Today, I wrote a blog post for the first time in nearly 2 years. That feels like a big deal. Tomorrow, I’m going to plant spring bulbs in my flower beds. For now, it’s the season to move beyond survival; I am looking forward to thriving again.