Last month I wrote about how yoga helped me to live through the paralyzing first months of my son’s loss in 2005. This month I want to share how reading also helped me to heal. I want to encourage those who are suffering loss to permit some small respite from the pulsing grief that surrounds those early weeks and months.
I grew up with books. From earliest memory, I was read to – sitting by a smoky fire with damp wood throwing plumes of smoke – my grandfather read Anne of Green Gables to Me. I was somewhat dyslexic and this served only to make the written word more compelling. Both of my parents can quote any poet at the drop of a hat. So when I learned to read fluently I did fall into undiscovered worlds and I did love them. Following my son’s stillbirth however, I discovered that I had never really understood what people mean when they described a particular book as having “saved” them. I thought I had. In fact, I had not. This discovery enabled me to see clearly the transformative power of literature.
I needed answers as I needed oxygen. I needed answers to questions along the lines of how will I understand this world? How will I know my place within it? The answers arrived in a letter from my Aunt Nancy, who sent me a typed excerpt from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
Gilead tells the story of one aging man – a reverend – who wants to tell his very young son about the world and the mysteries of existence before his own death. He is ill and is aware that he will not see his son grow up. The novel is written as a letter. Robinson manages somehow to encompass in starkly simple prose the many joys and tragedies inherent in the human condition.
That book became a companion to me, almost an intimate friend. Because during that winter I lived in a precipice between despair and joy. I had two children. One was living, and the other was dead and I was having such difficulty navigating the path between these poles. It was a harsh winter. Ice and snow fossilized everything. The promise of life looked to me as fragile as the icicles that hung from roofs, fell and then shattered, the pieces themselves scatting outwards on the gleaming ice.
The incandescent moon defined the perimeters of the light it created and I remember trying to take in at night when I could not sleep. The moon threw such crazy rings and they radiated out. The world felt so stark and still there was so much contained in it. There was so much to see. I remembered then standing on top of a hill with my father years before looking at tiny lights below that wove the rolling and blue snowbound hills together. Holding my hand, he said, “[T]his is the harsh beauty of winter.”
Gilead became a perfect expression of all we cannot know and became a guide for me that steered me away from anger. It inspired me to try to understand things I knew I never would. Writes Robinson, “[T]heologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”
After the birth of my rainbow baby, I wrote a letter to Ms. Robinson describing the import of her work to me. I never expected to hear from her, but I did. I received one summer afternoon a handwritten letter thanking me for mine. It is framed now in my kitchen – both treasure and remembrance of the challenge she threw down – to honor always these precious things given to us in any circumstance.