Family, Life, women

Unbearable Waiting

I remember when I was twelve sitting in the living room of our farmhouse and watching Mom share a very tearful conversation with a friend. I’d never seen her that way, beside herself. I don’t remember anything that was said or perhaps it was out of earshot, but I do remember knowing that Mom had just had a very important appointment with her doctor. As I witnessed her uncharacteristic display of emotion, I wondered, almost fancifully, if she was going to die from the cancer she had been battling. The thought flitted through my mind almost like a butterfly and then disappeared. The notion that one could lose the person they needed and loved most was simply impossible in my child-like understanding. One May evening, a few days later, we received the news that Mom’s cancer was not treatable and, in words that are forever imprinted in my brain, they ‘didn’t think she’d make it through the summer.’ In an instant, the wall that separated me from someone to whom the unthinkable can happen was shattered, and, for better or worse, I have carried the knowingness of that arrant vulnerability for my entire life. That shattering marked the beginning of a season of unbearable waiting, first for my beloved mother to take her last breath and second, though I did not see it at the time, for a new normal to emerge without her.

Our memories hold precious little of the time we pass here on earth, but so many things about that time, my first season of unbearable waiting, are vibrant, close, raw and rich in my mind—Mom sitting on the pink loveseat across from Dad’s brown chair, a sunny mid-summer day spent Saskatoon berry picking, my sister Beatrice sitting with me in my bed and counselling me long into the night, the way my siblings and I played with reckless abandon as we struggled to balance the lightness of our youth with the heaviness of our fate. I can almost reach out and touch the family dog that placed his head in Mom’s lap before she left home for the last time, see the green of hospital walls and taste the sour gooseberry pie a neighbour brought to us in the days after she died. The gestures, words and faces of those who reached out in those months are too numerous to name, but I promise I remember them with an acuity of detail than is unnatural for something that happened over a quarter of a century ago. These are not so much memories as they are part and parcel of the fabric of my being, and they have, for better or worse, shaped me in extraordinary ways, in ways that the ‘ordinary’ cannot.

It is now, as it was then, a season of grief, uncertainty and, for some, unbearable waiting—waiting in fear of a unpredictable virus, waiting to see how it will affect our loved ones, waiting to know the fates of our jobs, our businesses, our communities and ourselves. Our children are on the same journey. Though they may do so with the enviable courage of youth, they are waiting too. They want to know when they will see their friends again, if they will go back to school, whether the soccer season will be cancelled or if they will get to have a birthday party, see their grandparents or have a summer holiday. For some tender young minds, the prospect of the illness itself is utterly terrifying, but throughout it all, the question my own kids ask me most—the question we are all asking—is ‘when will this be over?’ With no satisfactory answer, together we wait, surrendering ourselves to this unprecedented season and meeting our very real human vulnerability anew.  

Naturally, anxiety, loss and hardship and all the feelings that flow out from these things are abound. These are the realities of our now, and with no roadmap telling us how to proceed, many of us are struggling to navigate through a landscape that is both new and constantly changing. As I lead my family into this unknown territory, I know I am tempted to cling to the familiar, to hold onto normalcy in any way I can, and, perhaps most tragically, to try to make the lessons of this period of unbearable waiting conform to old narratives that I have spent the better part of forty years constructing. Like many, I find myself looking to name some great lesson this whole experience is meant to uncover, and I find myself reaching to trusted narratives like reconnecting with the things that are truly important or fostering an attitude of gratitude and so on. And while there is no harm in renewing such sentiments, I think I, and others like me, may be selling ourselves short. I think the question needs to be asked… if one has constructed their narrative/great life lesson before the experience has even completely unfolded, have they really given it the opportunity to teach them something? That said, I have no doubt that there will be great wisdom to be found in this season, but perhaps it may be more richly discovered in the waiting itself.

A few weeks ago, on Easter morning in the early days of isolation, our three kids catapulted into our bed before 7am with nothing more pressing than getting on with the hunt of finding the loot the Easter Bunny left them. This was a new Easter experience for them—no family, no church services, no trip to the farm, no ham shared over a table overflowing with friends—but they met the experience with unequalled fervour. The mood (and perhaps the chocolate) carried through the whole day. We played games, waved at family from their driveway, visited with cousins via conference call, and enjoyed an unbearably cold walk with no complaints. It will go down in the books as a good one, and for that day, I was so thankful for my children’s ability to keep us in the moment and to enjoy all the feels of a special occasion. That was a good day.

There have also been bad days…more fighting than we are used to, emotions erupting like Mount Saint Helen’s, parenting lows, too much screen time, tears, boredom, difficult questions, short tempers, and, for me personally, paralyzing anxiety. The thing about waiting and seasons like these, is that one can’t skip them, can’t fast forward to a lesson of one’s choosing. The highs, the lows, the in-betweens—to the  extent that we are able to be truly present for them, they are the pieces waiting to be sewn into the fabric of our lives. For kids, being present is seemingly effortless. Just as I saw it on Easter morning, so I also see it when they cry their tears with abandon, when they yell and fight in frustration, when they can’t hide their devastation at losing a board game, when they laugh over bodily noises at the dinner table or rage about a missed birthday party. I have little doubt that, just as I once did in those months surrounding the death of my mother, they are creating vibrant, raw and rich memories that will become pieces of their being. For adults, being ‘truly present’ is a tall order, particularly in a time of crisis. Our minds run away with possibilities and worst-case scenarios, and we feel the weight of responsibility. However, these seasons, by the very nature of their unpredictability and the ways in which they strip us of our notions of control, demand our presence in a very real way. I think as adults, our job is to accept, without judgement, that ‘being present’ sometimes looks like an exciting Easter morning or an hour spent reading with a child, but, just as often, it looks like putting one foot in front of the other just to get through the day.

The fabric of our lives grows heavier with each passing year. As we live, love and lose, we integrate newfound wisdoms and fears into our garment and it gathers weight—weight that gives us depth and beauty, but that also gives us something to carry. We can’t reach the destination of the world after this pandemic without first riding out the journey we now find ourselves on. None of us know, all of us must wait, for the days to unfold with whatever blessings and tragedies they may. During this time, I wish you presence in whatever your experience. I wish you openness to unexpected joy, to self-love, to grief and the graces that will draw you back.

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