When I was in college, I decided to conquer my fear of drowning by getting certified in scuba diving. In retrospect, I really had no business being there, but I guess that’s what your twenties is for.
At one point during the training, you have to take your mask entirely off and then get it back on. No biggie, right? I was not a water person and had no idea what was going to happen. When I removed it from my face, my nose filled with water and I found I couldn’t inhale through my regulator. My throat was just closed up.
Of course, I panicked. My instinct was to leap up to the top of the pool as quickly as possible and grab a breath of air, but I forced myself to take a moment, realize the problem, and plug my nose so I could get the mask back on and pass the test. But I never forgot the sheer terror of that first moment when your body is screaming at you, “You’re DROWNING you fool! Fly!”
Lots of diving safety training is about how to get safely to the surface when the poop hits the fan, and one of the most important tenets is to work your way slowly and methodically through your problem so you can surface slowly. Running out of oxygen at depth is a big one. If you come up from the depths too quickly, you risk the bends- when dissolved gases turn into bubbles inside your body as the pressure changes. It’s Not A Good Thing. Remaining calm in a trying moment a good skill to have not just in diving, but in life.
Of all the scary things I have been through since then, the near-misses in the car or the dropped pedicles on a fat dog spay, none hit me with that same physical sense of drowning until one year ago, when I got the news out of the blue that my mother had a brain tumor. I was more than scared. I was terrified. I felt like someone had dropped a weight directly on my lap and plunged me down to the bottom of the ocean.
I get why people tend to freeze, or run in circles when things go haywire. The adrenaline does weird things to your body, and it takes real conscious effort to talk yourself off the ledge. I get now why people flip tables and throw things and run off to the Yukon when it gets to be too much, but of course all that happens when the dust settles is you’re left with a new mess to deal with.
When my mother got sick, that temptation to rush to the surface took the form of the blind panic we get when a loved one is facing death: DO EVERYTHING! Biopsy it now! Chemo! Nuke it! GOGOGOGOGOGOGO. It would have been a mistake.
When she died, I held my breath and prayed my father wouldn’t sell the house immediately and disappear to the woods of Maine (he didn’t.) It would have been a mistake.
It’s been a year of slow surfacing, realizing that like many toxic substances in your body, some types of grief simply need to leach out with time. You really can’t come up before you’re ready.
Last year I gave a talk on mourning customs around the world, and I was struck by the fact that so many belief systems have a structure and framework for mourning, but Christianity, the predominant belief system many of us are most familiar with, has none. In Judaism, the mourning period is divided into the first seven days, the first 30, and the first year. The rules about what you should and should not do during each period serves to protect the grieving heart and also give permission to re-enter the new normal of their life. It’s like a decompression chart for death. Unintentionally I’ve been bobbing along on the same timeframe, getting guidance where I can.
In January, my sister surprised us with the happy news that she decided to get married earlier that day to her long-time partner and soulmate. My mom loved this guy and I knew two things: 1. She would be thrilled; and 2. She would find a way to give them a cake, because that is what my mom did.
My aunt was planning her yearly trip to my sister’s hometown of Vegas right around Easter, and sensing the same need as I did for some sort of event, managed to arrange a surprise get-together of the family this last weekend, complete with- of course- a wedding cake. You surprise us with a marriage, we surprise you with a reception. It’s what Mom would have done.
As we sat together in my cousin’s living room, laughing and sniffling, I looked around and realized this was the first time we had all gathered since my mother’s memorial service. And right then, as if an invisible hand swept by and grabbed me by the shoulders, I realized I had just popped to the surface.
There’s such a sense of relief to that first intake of air, and in that moment, as the tension you forgot was there leaches out of your muscles, nothing else matters. The sky looks different, time has passed, but you’re here, you’re still here, and sometimes, that alone is enough.