Two weeks ago, a young woman who had been my daughter’s friend since early grade school, leapt to her death off her apartment building. She was part of a group of friends who had stayed together through high school, experiencing an almost idyllic stability unusual in today’s world. They were mostly children of academics, highly talented, bright, beautiful, funny. They went to prestigious universities, garnering accolades, and all seemed well, until a year and a half ago when one of “the friends,” class president at UNC, was dragged from her apartment and brutally murdered one night. Her death had become the defining moment of their lives, which are now divided between Before Eve and After Eve.
This new death has only reopened the not-yet-healed wound. Whether the new death was a result of a manic high, of hidden despair or stress, we will never know. All that is know is that is vibrant, loving, funny and gorgeous young woman who had been a part of all our lives, is no longer with us. Why, the young women keep asking each other and us, their mothers, why?
We are driving to the cemetery. I am sitting in the front with one of the other mothers, and two of the daughters in the back seat, although not my daughter, who is in another car full of her friends. We are trying to untangle the events that led up to the unimaginable, as if by parsing it out, we could lessen the hurt. My friend begins to weep, recalling her own mother’s death when she was twelve. Every new, tragic death, it seems, resurrects the old ones, makes them fresh, raw. Then one of the girls brings up how she had been very depressed and how a river near her house had saved her. “No joke,” she said, “I know that sounds weird but I swear that the river saved me. I would just go and sit by it all the time and finally the depression just went away.” The other young woman recounts how depressed she was in high school, and how one day she threw all her belongings in the hall and slept with nothing in her room, like a self-flagellating monk. I told them the story of being their age, twenty-three, and flying home, angry and depressed. A middle-aged man next to me offered some kind words to me, and I rebuffed him coldly. How could he offer such easy kindness? He was obviously unenlightened, some soft bourgeoisie. I was an intellectual girl, all right, I could deconstruct a text and situation with the best of them, little noticing that once you shred everything down to its finest units, you are left with very little. I had an uneducated heart.
What can we offer our children in their moment of great need? We can’t get to the bottom of these deaths–tragedies and mysteries beyond our comprehension, suffering almost too hard to physically bear. Brought down myself by illness in the face of this latest loss, I happened to pick up the wonderful book by Kat Duff, The Alchemy of Illness. I turned randomly to a page, and this is what I read: “The Nahuatl peoples believed that we are born with a physical heart, but have to create a deified heart by finding a firm and enduring center within ourselves from which to lead our lives, so that our hearts will shine through our faces, and our features will become reliable reflections of ourselves.Otherwise, they explained, we wander aimlessly through our lives….” She goes on to suggest that the sufferings we endure, physically and emotionally, by being consciously borne, can open us up and soften us. By offering our suffering as a sacrifice, we can “heal by resuscitating our hearts.” “In our hearts, which many native peoples consider to be the seat of true intelligence, we discover the simple capacity to feel our losses, sorrow, and shame, and have compassion.”
We educate our children’s minds, but we often abandon the education of their hearts and souls. There is nothing we can do to bring these wonderful young women back to us, and we can never answer the question “why?” But we can offer the suggestion that their deaths are not in vain, if from our deep sorrow, we can grow new hearts. In the car that day, winding through the cemetery, we made a start.
I love the image of the river. It reminds me, though antithetically, of that Flannery O’Connor short story about the boy with banally indifferent parents who drowns himself. I think our metaphoric heart is tied up in nature, with its power, rhythm and imperviousness. I think certain things, certain places have a voice that communicates beneath the level of words, and can console. On the other hand, as you seem to suggest, we need to speak in more symbolic and liminal terms.