This morning I drove past the house where she died. The light today is the way it was then, a light that doesn’t warn you how peace comes at a cost this day, how once she’s sleeping she won’t wake again, no matter that she is stronger than little girls are supposed to be, no matter that she will try mightily, at the very end, until breath won’t come.
I saw the awning over the window I would look out for hours each day, holding her in my lap, feeding her a sip at a time through her tumor-clenched teeth, because we couldn’t let her starve the way they said we should. Maybe we should have. When I die, I want it to be the same way, the tumor pushing its tendrils through my brainstem, so I can know what she knew, know whether she could hear us in the end, could feel love pressed into her skin, or only pain.
I drove past that house and I imagined it was twelve years ago, and that she was in that bedroom sleeping, and her mother and I relaxed, God forgive us, grateful for a respite after weeks of her pain.
I wondered what would happen if I knocked on the door and a younger me answered. Would I listen to these words, that it will be worse than you imagine, that it will be nothing like you imagine, that you can burn down your marriage and your friendships and set your very soul aflame in fury, and none of it will heal you, because while the rest of your life is tinder, that hole shot straight through the center of you can never be burned away?
This is what I’ve learned: suffering doesn’t make you noble. Suffering is a burden and a wound and a gift, even, but what you do with it, well, that’s on you, no matter how you rage at the sky. This is what I’ve learned, and maybe I haven’t learned it too late. Maybe it’s not too late.
This is what I would tell me, if I could knock on the door and get me to listen, if I didn’t know that the me twelve years ago was even more stubborn than the man writing to you, and all lit up with the self-righteousness of the afflicted.
I can’t go back there and make that man listen, can’t yank him back from the precipice. So I’ll whisper it to this man who is whispering to you, as he climbs up from the cavern, hands bloodied and slipping, straining to see just a crack of light above, to know this is not his tomb. I’ll whisper to him — and to you, those of you who need to hear it — that it’s not too late. I’ll remind him of that girl, eyes fluttering open even as death crushed her, eyes opening out of stubbornness and love, faith-filled that there is light even in the valley of death’s shadow.
Especially in that valley. For if there is no light there, where will it be found?