Sometimes, too much bad happens and we go from an arm’s length reaction of genuine but mild sadness to sudden, overwhelming horror like it shot us in the gut.
That was my reaction today when I read the news. Everybody knows what happened; I won’t go into it. But there was an image of children walking across the school parking lot. Each child had his or her hands on the shoulders of the one before them, like a little train. But they were crying. I mean, they were bawling their eyes out.
And then I realized I was crying. These kids just went through a worse hell than most of us have ever caught a glimpse of. But it was there, mirrored on their faces like the last echoes of a devilish victory cry.
This is what real sorrow looks like. We feel only a hint of what chills the bones of families who now suffer.
And now I’m wondering what hope looks like, and how anybody who just went through what these kids saw and what these parents suddenly have to carry can pick themselves up and keep going.
How do you get the light back in your eyes?
I’m a firm believer in hope. I believe that we can always find that small glimmer in the dark and that it can always grow until it lights whatever proverbial room we may find ourselves in.
But how do these people see a glimmer when they can’t focus on their own feet for the tears blurring their eyes?
I woke with a lump in my throat. My eyes had caked shut from tears overnight and I scrubbed at them with my hands, feeling too weary to pick myself up off the mat I lay on. But someone had flicked on some of the lights and there was noise in the shelter, so I sat up and pushed my sleeping bag to my knees.
We all gathered here after the evacuation. Everybody came in alone, lost and terrified, but so overwrought with sorrow that the rest of the pain hardly mattered.
A medical quarantine closed off a far corner in blue. Even the victims on their deathbed couldn’t help but sob during the night.
What remained of a city we all knew as home was gone. We were what was left, huddled underground under feet of solid concrete as if that would somehow protect us from the death in our hearts.
When everything you know, love and hold dear is suddenly torn from your grasp, it doesn’t matter very much that you’re still alive.
Really, what most of us wanted was to join our spouses and children in the ash.
I rose to my feet and padded across cold concrete to use the bathroom and splash water on my face. I needed my toothbrush.
My toothbrush. That little plastic thing.
I sank to my knees with my elbows on the cold porcelain of the sink and hung my head, heaving a ragged gasp. I didn’t need my toothbrush; I needed every memory associated with it. I needed them to be real again.
“No no no no no,” I was blubbering softly. My mouth hung open and I felt drool collecting on my lip.
A hand settled on my shoulder, startling me.
I turned. It was another man, looking just as haggard and weary as I did. His eyes gazed through me, still foggy with residual shock, and I realized I was in his way.
I muttered something affirmative and left the rest room as quickly as I could.
I smelled toast and my stomach urged me to walk to the kitchens, but I didn’t have the energy to eat, so I turned and walked the other way, wandering.
I thought it didn’t matter where I went, but my walk ended at a large, vault-like door. Made of thick steel, the door looked like something in a submarine.
Numbly, I worked the wheel and the door swung open heavily.
Seeing it again was worse than I expected. Smoke shrouded the sky and fires still burned orange against black and grey. Most of the ground had been churned into dirt that lay in clumps and mounds. Asphalt sat unevenly in places and was mysteriously hidden from view in others.
In the distance, silhouettes of towering buildings leaned precariously against each other, spewing smoke and flickering orange.
And it was snowing. A light fluttering of white, but it was snow nonetheless.
A large clump of sod had rolled up against the outside wall of the mostly buried bunker. I took a seat, ignoring the chill creeping in through my thin pajamas, and stared at the city through eyes that didn’t want to see it.
My love lay somewhere in that rubble, probably covered in ash and dirt. I wouldn’t see her again.
My head fell again, face pulled into a wretched grimace as I struggled to breathe. Desperately, I wished that one of the buildings would fall and crush me, too.
Footsteps. I looked up quickly.
A man approached me. His hands were blackened with soot and he wore a large overcoat to keep the wind off.
He sat beside me without a word.
“Did you survive it?” I asked at last, overwhelmed with curiousity.
He looked at me, and I saw his face. It perplexed me. He looked calm, like he was at peace, but his shoulders drooped a little and his mouth seemed turn down ever so slightly at the corners, as if a great sadness weighed on him. But his eyes sparkled like a child waiting for the next thing.
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
I frowned. “Yes.”
It was quiet. A snowflake caught in the fabric of my pant leg and I stared at it, fascinated by its detail as it melted.
“Something weighs you down,” he said.
His words surprised me. “Of course it does,” I exclaimed, looking again at the ruin around us. Then, as it hit me all over again, I said, “I have lost everything.”
“But your future,” he replied, staring forward.
“Everything but your future,” he repeated. “What you had in your past is gone, but you still have your future.”
I felt the lump in my throat again as I thought about going on alone. “I don’t think I want it,” I rasped.
He smiled, but it seemed as sad as it was happy. “How many things do you now miss that you thought you wanted before you got them?”
I thought about that. Then I shook my head. “No, it doesn’t work that way. She was my reason to go on.”
His face grew tender. “Would she want you to quit now?”
“Of course not. But that isn’t relevant when she’s not here anymore.” Saying it hurt. Like the words themselves were a knife I was driving into my gut. I cleared my throat and demanded, “What reason is there to go on?”
The broken city around us resounded in silent agreement with me. What purpose could possibly remain?
“Let’s look at it differently,” he said. “If all this happened, and you lost nothing you would miss, would you go on?”
“So your feeling of hopelessness isn’t because the city lies in ash, but because you’ve lost the one person who would have made it worth it.”
I nodded again. The lump in my throat was ready to burst out of me.
He looked sad. “Nothing you can do will bring her back. Losing hope will no better honour her memory than throwing yourself from a bridge would.” He paused, hesitant to say what came next, “But we always have enough fuel to continue. If you must live simply to remember her smile, then do so. In time, her memory will fade, but it will be replaced by other things. More tangible things.”
As I watched him talk, I felt my pain ease just a little. Not enough to get the weight off my shoulders, but barely enough so that I knew it had lifted. He carried my pain as much as I did. He wanted to, for whatever reason.
“I don’t feel better,”‘ I told him after a moment.
“I certainly hope not,” he said, a hint of that twinkle returning to his eyes. “If it hurts you for the rest of your life, even a little, then you’ll know she was worth it.”
He got up to leave, but I tugged at his sleeve. He looked down at me.
He smiled with his whole face for the first time. “Worth healing for.” And then he left, vanishing into drifting snow and smoke a few steps away.
The chill hardly bothered me as I sat on the sod, pondering his final words. He was right. The sadness still had me by the throat, but now I knew why I wanted it there.
We do not suffer in vain. We do not wait for hope in futility. And sometimes, the only glimmer we see is a hope for hope. But it will be enough in the end. It will be worth healing for.