Diving into the wreckage

Published August 14, 1997 11:16AM (EDT)

In May 1992 I went to Ixtapa with my son, Sam, who was then 2 and a half. At the time, I had a best friend of 25 years, named Pammy, with whom I spoke several times a day on the phone. At the time, she had had metastatic breast cancer for two years. I also had a lover with whom I spoke two and three times a day, whom I loved and who loved me. Then in early November of that year, the big eraser came down and got Pammy, and it also got the lover, with whom I parted mutually. The grief was huge, monolithic.All those years a lot of us fell for the great palace lie that grief should be gotten over as quickly as possible, and as privately. But what I've discovered since is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place, and that grieving alone heals grief. The passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone will not heal it. We are a city in grief, we are a world in grief, and it is at once intolerable and a great opportunity. I'm pretty sure that it is only by experiencing it, that ocean of sadness, in a naked and immediate way, that we come to be healed, which is to say, come to experience life with a real sense of presence and spaciousness and peace.

I began to learn this in February 1993, in -- of all places -- Club Med, Ixtapa, when Sam and I went back to the same club three months after Pammy's death. I took him back partly for reasons of punctuation. He was different this time, though, as was I. He was no longer the social butterfly he had been the year before, when Pammy had still been alive. Back then I could leave him all day in the club's child-care program. This time he was clingy and heavily Oedipal. I began to call myself Jocasta; he began to call me darling.

The first year, I'd come here alone with Sam. The second year, I had at least one great adult friend to play with. The first year, I swam and ate by myself most of the time, walking into the dining area three times a day feeling shy and odd and cringey, with my arms stiffly at my side, like Pee-wee Herman. But this year I was with my close friend Tom, an extremely funny and mentally ill Jesuit and alcoholic, who drank like a rat for years, smoked a little non-habit-forming marijuana on a daily basis all the time. (He also did a little bit of amyl nitrate, although he adds that that was just to get to know people.)

His best friend Pat was along, too, this year. Sam and I had breakfast with both of them at the airport the morning we left. Pat is a very pretty woman in her late 40s who is about 100 pounds overweight. She and Tom adore each other. He is her AA sponsor. "Pat has a lot of problems," he told us over breakfast. "This is true," said Pat.

"She was sober for four years," he continued, "until her husband got brain cancer. Then for a few years she had a little social Tylenol with codeine every day, with the merest slug of Nyquil every night for a cold that just wouldn't go away."

"I was a little sad," she said.

We got on the plane after breakfast and flew to Ixtapa, and it's all so beautiful that it's like some sick joke -- adobe haciendas, cobblestone paths, a long white beach, palm trees, bougainvillea, warm ocean water. I mean, please.

Grief, as someone wrote, is a lazy Susan. One day it is heavy and underwater, and the next day it spins and then stops at loud and rageful, and the next it is wounded keening, and the next day numbness, silence. I had been hoarse for the first six weeks after the losses of November 1992, from shouting in the car and crying, and I had blisters on the palm of one hand from hitting the bed with my tennis racket, bellowing in pain and anger. But on the first morning in Mexico, the lazy Susan stopped at feelings of homesickness, like when my parents sold the house where I grew up.

I woke before Sam and lay in my bed in the cool, white adobe room, filled with memories of my first day here the year before. I remembered calling Pammy and my lover that first morning, how they gasped with pleasure to hear my voice. I lay there thinking this time that I had made a dreadful mistake to return, that I was not ready to laugh or play, and I wondered whether or not God had yet another rabbit He or She could pull out of the hat. Then my Oedipal little son woke up and hopped over to my bed. He patted my face for a while and said tenderly, "You're a beautiful girl."

Last year he didn't mind being dropped off at the thatched child-care hut. We'd walk from our room to the hut, holding hands, and he'd cry out joyfully, "Hi, Sky, my name is Sam. I yike you," because he can't say his L's. "Hi, Yeaf," he'd say happily to the leaves, "my name is Sam. I yike you." It seemed very long ago. This year he looked at me all the time like a mournful fiancé, and said, "I want to kiss you on the yips."

Tom told me on the third day in Mexico that Jung said, some time after his beloved wife died, "It cost me a great deal to regain my footing. Now I am free to become who I truly am." And this is God's own truth: The more often I cried in my room in Ixtapa and felt just generally wretched, the more often I started having occasional moments of utter joy, of feeling aware of each moment shining for the utter moment of it. Little by little, pale and swollen around the eyes, I even began to feel a strange acceptance of losing Pammy, who was only 37 and who left behind an 18-month-old daughter, Rebecca.

Sometimes in Mexico I started to actually believe for brief patches of time that good old Ram Dass was right when he said that when people died, it was like they got to leave fourth grade early. So where was the terrible loss? All of us would end up in fifth grade, too, when we were done. Sometimes in Mexico I would begin to feel that I was becoming so holy and serene that I was probably going to end up dating the Dalai Lama. And then the rage and craziness would hit again, and I would be Winnie Ruth Judd. The depth of the feeling continued to surprise and threaten me, but it didn't wash me away. Instead, it was like an inside shower, or like giving a dry garden a good watering. Don't get me wrong, though: Grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit. So at first it seems that you're doomed no matter how you cut. But then you cry and writhe and yell and cry some more; and then, finally, grief ends up being about the two best things: softness and illumination.

Every afternoon when I picked Sam back up at the kids' club, you'd have thought he'd spent the day in a workshop on surviving the loss of your mother. Then I'd appear Lazarus-like to take him home to our little room. His joy was huge. We always stopped to watch the iguanas who gathered on the grass near the lagoon, the giant adults very Jurassic Park, the babies from Dr. Seuss. They were so wonderfully ridiculous and unmediated that it was like some sort of communion between you and them and something ancient.

We spent a lot of time in our room, too. It was air-conditioned. I kept starting to cry, and then falling asleep. Sometimes grief looks like narcolepsy.

One afternoon in our room I had been crying again -- again! -- while Sam dozed in his own bed. Then I fell deeply asleep. I woke much later to find Sam standing by my bed, tugging at my sleeve, looking at me earnestly with his huge googily extraterrrestrial eyes. He cleared his throat and then said something I guess he must have heard on TV: He said, "Excuse me, mister."

I thought I was going to die. It made my heart hurt. Whitman wrote, in "Song of Myself," "Sometimes touching another person is more than I can bear."

There was a man here this second time with just one leg. I'd seen his prosthetic leg lying around by the pool a few times before I actually saw him, and when I did, he was climbing up the trapeze ladder. He was wearing shorts, and his stump was visible an inch or two below the hemline, and I've got to say that it kicked the shit out of my feeling self-conscious in shorts because of the cellulite and stretch marks.

I watched him climb, reach the platform, put on his safety harness, and then swing out over the safety net, his one leg hooked over the bar of the trapeze, swinging back and forth, and finally letting go. A teacher on the other trapeze swung toward him, and they caught each other's hands and held on, and they swung back and forth for a while. Then he dropped on his back to the safety net and raised his fist in victory. "Yes," he said, and lay there on the net for a long time, looking at the sky with a secret smile.

I went up to him at lunch the next day and said, "You were great on the trapeze. Are you going to do it again?" And I hoped he would so I could do some serious writing about spirit and guts and triumph. And he said, "Oh, honey, I got much bigger mountains to climb."

The next day I saw his plastic leg lying on a beach towel at the far end of the beach, where the windsurfing lessons take place. Oh dear, I thought. The shoelace of the expensive sneaker on the foot of the plastic leg was untied. I went and tied it, and then sat down in the sand. I really wanted to ask how he lost his leg, and how he got back on his feet. A few months before Pammy died, we read a line by the great Persian mystical poet Rumi: "Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure." We talked at the time of a sunken ship on the bottom of the ocean, full of jewels and gold; the sacred we feel in devastation -- for instance, the incredible sense of immediacy and presence we had felt some days toward the end, cruising malls and parks, Pammy in her wheelchair, wearing a wig, lashing me with a silken scarf to go faster.

Pat, Tom's best friend, had gone snorkeling almost every afternoon, and loved it more than any other activity, although because of her weight it was impossible for her to climb back into the boat unaided. On the day before we left Mexico, I decided to give it a try. The snorkel boat left at 3 every day and took 10 or 15 people out to a cove about 20 minutes away. Over lunch, though, I started to chicken out, until Pat said I had to go, that we couldn't be friends if I didn't. "Then tell me what you love most about it," I said. She thought for a while, and then got a faraway, sensuous look on her face. She slowly replied, "I like picking out the guys who are going to help push my big, wet, slippery body back up on the boat."

Tom and I ended up going together. The boat took a bunch of us across the bay to a little cove near a beach with grass huts and umbrellas on the white sands, and comically lovely cactuses on ancient neighboring hills that framed it all. We donned our gear and jumped in. The water is not crystal clear and there are not a million brilliantly colored fish to watch, but if there is a heaven -- and I think there is -- it may be similar to snorkeling: dreamy, soft, bright, quiet.

At first my breath underwater sounded labored and congested, like the Keir Dullea character's in "2001" when he's in the pod outside the mothership. I floated off by myself. Then in the silence I felt for a while as if I were breathing along with everything in the world. It is such a nice break from real life not to have to weigh anything; so much of the time life feels clunky, heavy, cumbersome. Beautiful green plants swayed in the current; funny little fish floated past.

I daydreamed about Pammy. Near the end, she said of her young daughter, "All I have to do to get really depressed is to think about Rebecca, and all I have to do to get really joyful is to think about Rebecca." I love that. I floated around slowly, crying; the mask filled up with tears, and I could have used a windshield wiper. Sometimes grief looks like snorkeling, weightless and silent and slow. I felt very lonely. I don't think I would feel so bad if I didn't feel such big pieces of Pammy still inside me, but I want those pieces in me for the rest of my life, whatever the price. I floated along still feeling lonely but suddenly not quite so adrift. I watched the small fish swim in and out of the feathery sea plants and I thought about beautiful wild happy Rebecca. It made my heart hurt, and I also felt a little bit lighter, inside. Just then Tom came paddling over, and for the longest time we lay there bobbing on the water's surface, faces down, lost in our own worlds, barely moving our fins, side by side.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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