How do I interpret life’s challenges? / by Rebecca Tillett

An essay about loss

Life is beautiful, as long as it consumes you. When it is rushing through you, destroying you, life is gorgeous, glorious. It’s when you burn a slow fire and save fuel, that life’s not worth having.
— D. H. Lawrence
But what if pleasure and pain should be so closely connected that he who wants the greatest possible amount of the one must also have the greatest possible amount of the other, that he who wants to experience the ‘heavenly high jubilation,’ must also be ready to be ‘sorrowful unto death’?
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
— Kahlil Gibran

Life is hard. It’s trying and brutal and ruthless and savage but it isn’t entirely callous because in every single hardship there’s a lesson and with it, a deeper wisdom and appreciation for having endured it, for surviving and living another day to acknowledge the stark contrast between pain and contentment. Pain has heart. The emotional relief of moving past a trauma, I mean really moving past it — that very first morning you wake up and inhale deeply and exhale slowly and realize it’ll never completely leave you but you’ve learned how to go about your day-to-day without the heavy responsibility of hauling the enormous pain behind you in everything you do — that relief of knowing you’ll always be slightly wounded and a little bit broken but living in spite of that, that’s a remarkable testament to the resilience of humanity as well as a undeniable evidence that I feel I’m worthy of my own suffering. As Viktor Frankl states in Man’s Search for Meaning “Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.” Joy and sorrow are inseparable and one can’t truly know one without knowing the other. This is how I feel extremely fortunate in my own life.

My father shot himself in the head a week before Christmas of 1998 in the home he shared with my mother and me. I was 16 years old. He was 38. It happened sometime in the middle of the night. That morning when my mom shook me awake, I immediately knew something was wrong because I remembered hearing a gunshot somewhere in between a dream and reality. You know that place — it’s an odd world where the two mingle interchangeably and after waking, you have to sit for a minute to accurately determine what really happened and what didn’t. Basically, the noise alone wasn’t enough to completely wake me. I will regret that as well as the fact that I went to bed angry with him the night before he died for the rest of my days. And really, I should have known better. This event was not surprising or out of left field in any way. He had attempted suicide the summer before that winter and failed, he had shot and killed my cat and buried her in the backyard so she wouldn’t suffer for days without food and water since my mom and I were out of the country visiting family for several weeks. After that initial attempt he was put on pills (this country’s quick-fix but oftentimes unsuccessful solution to these matters) at my grandparent’s insistence yet he continued to drink excessively and it was obvious he was still waiting patiently for a way out. All the signs were there and clear as day but I think the human psyche guards against impending pain by pretending, usually in vain, that everything will be okay.

A few months ago I read a blog post from a woman named Marie Lyn Bernard called Before you know it something’s over in which she writes about losing her father at the age of 14: “I want to talk to you about how it feels to spend your whole life grieving, to have your ghosts precede your actuality, to feel that nobody you know will ever truly know you because they never knew him. To recycle fourteen years of material like a song that never gets old, because you’re just so frustrated that there’ll never be a new album, even though everybody else is probably sick of the song and likes your new songs so much better. I want to talk to you about how I got free. I haven’t written specifically about my father all that much since high school. But I write about him, indirectly, all the time. I’ve never given him an essay but I mention him in every essay I’ve ever written, don’t I? This is how I keep him alive. This is how I keep everybody who has left me alive: I write them down.” And I have never related quite so strongly to someone else’s words on this topic. When I initially realized the subject matter of this essay I thought to myself Cake. This will be the easiest of all the essays for this class because I write about my father either veraciously or periphrastically quite frequently, and I have since that cold and gray December morning I awoke into a new world without him, but somehow, this is the hardest of all the essays. And I have to assume that that’s because I tend to forget that this truth about me never gets any easier in knowing, and finding new and shiny words to convey a story that I am sure those closest to me are exhausted of hearing becomes more and more challenging with time. But it’s as Bernard says “Every day since the day he died I am one day farther away from him than I was before. This is the truest thing about me. It is the most important and worst thing to ever happen to me. It is me. I am what I have lost.”

Suicide is war. And perhaps not with a foreign or nameless enemy but with oneself. It’s an internal struggle of incomparable breadth. You lose enough battles and you lose the war. Bloodshed abounds. My father was at war with himself for years, if not decades and ultimately, he lost but it was something he could not heave himself out of or walk peacefully away from, waving a white flag. He was slated to fight until the day he died. That was his fate and he handled it as gracefully as he knew how. I have never blamed him for leaving. As quickly as I learned he had died I had forgiven him. Leaving early and on his terms was a non-negotiable clause in the fine print of his life. Somewhere, deep down in the pit of my gut I had always known it. In this, I found some connection to Sullivan Ballou’s words in A Letter to His Wife, 1861: “Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love for country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.” My father felt a pull away from this anguishing life to the battlefield and conclusively to someplace better and with trustfully less heartache. This goal became his duty and obligation and it was the only way he knew how to move forward. And I have suffered heavily, myself, as a result of this but I no longer hear the Why Me? record skipping in the back of my mind because on December 17th, 1998 I gained something valuable that many people never do: Boundless gratitude for my much deeper capacity for joy. It would only take nearly half my lifetime without him to realize it.