the sky is not the limit

Storm Clouds Around the Bay Area

On an episode of NPR Fresh Air, singer Brittany Howard explained how she came to an awareness of the impotency of adults when she was nine after the death of her 13-year-old sister. She took in stride that bad things happened to every family, and was saddened by how the loss wrenched her parents apart in isolating grief. She embraced the drawing and music skills her sister imparted and inspired as those gifts carried her through. What scared her most was the awareness that her parents could not protect them from everything. Her story made me think about this trauma of vulnerability that every child must face. My experience is a trilogy of awareness. The first was the death of JFK. At seven I didn’t quite comprehend what a president was much less the concept of death and its complication of assassination. I was quite upset that they preempted Saturday morning cartoons with the funeral. What deeply traumatized me was seeing my parents cry. My grandparents cried. Adult strangers on the street or in the corner drug store cried! Clearly they were not the emperors of fate I had assumed. What traumatized me was the realization that adults had lost control.

The second level of awareness that added a shot of rage was the death of my aunt when I was 12. My grandfather died when I was 10 but that seemed natural – old people died. Besides he was a crabby old man, far from endearing, his loss seemed a convenience to me as I could spend time with my doting grandmother without fear of his, “Git outta here!” growl around kids. All the grandkids came to the funeral and it was just another cousins romp as the older kids jumped on lawn chairs, breaking them and disrupting the dour adults. That behavior would banish children from future mourning, with a terrible consequence for me. My Aunt Karen was young and had a dark haired, Audrey Hepburn beauty. Her laughter was musical and contagious and her eyes sparkled with deep fondness for children. The year, after the birth of her second baby, doctors found a lump on her neck. My grandmother stayed with the baby boys while Aunt Karen suddenly began driving to Roswell Park Hospital for “treatments.” I was delighted because as the mature middle school niece, I was selected to ride along with her to keep her company. What a boon! On a school day I was excused, and she would give me a quarter for the soda machine as I read in the waiting lounge at the hospital. We talked and laughed with the radio playing for the two hour round trip excursion. What a blast! Then one weekend it was announced that “Aunt Karen was gone.” What? Gone where? The reply was “The angels took her.” Such Catholic euphemism was lost on me. Angels took her? What the hell? I thought those white tunic bitches were good and they took my Aunt Karen?! I felt an outrage that shook my world. How could religion just turn on you like that?

The last level of awareness came at me from the other side. As a parent I was spoiled. I was from the Jetsons Generation where the sky was the limit for a perfect fix. Great medical care reassured me that everything could be fixed, we had regained control. I saw my 6-year-old daughter through open heart surgery. A surgeon cut an abbreviated hole in her chest, took out her small beating heart, sewed up the hole from an atrial septal defect, and she was home from the hospital in 10 days! The miracle power of technology restored control. Would that they put as much time and research into mental health as physical health. A brief 14 years later I would get a call from Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley that my oldest son, Ryan, had only a few hours to live. I caught the next plane out of JFK and flew cross-country to beat that clock, my deepest hope that medical science would prevail and they would fix it all before I arrived. I lay a tentative hand on his cold, stiff thigh, rigor mortis set in as his body lay on the crisp white sheets of the ER. The deepest trauma that we never are in control, even as adults. His older sister faced her trauma of awareness as she screamed at the ER doctors to “Do your job!” and save him! How do doctors and nurses face this double-edged trauma day in and day out? The trauma of death layered so heavily by the trauma of the living. The trauma as the sky that sheltered us collapses into the reality of our impotence, our ignorance, our reluctance to learn and teach of the power of death. What carries me through, like Brittnay Howard, is inspiration in art and the daily beauty that reminds us that each day the world is ended and then renewed. Looking up into the expansive face of the natural world offers that even the storms have meaning and purpose. The simple reality, we will all end, so best to be awake, alive, and aware before that sunset.

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