I remember when I was a kid being coaxed to climb that ladder. I didn’t want to do it because it seemed to lead up into the sky, way too high for me. “Come on, you can do it,” they’d say. “It’s fun going down the big slide.” Too embarrassed to say I was afraid, I’d cling to the handrails and lift one tentative foot after the other until I reached the top of the ladder. As promised by the others (in the way that little kids chatter), the view from the top was beautiful, offering from the top step a totally different perspective of the world. But what about swinging that last foot over and having faith that I could maneuver my body to a sitting position at the top of the slide and then let go, trusting that my two feet would soon be safely on the ground? I remember sneaking a peek behind me and seeing the ground so far below. Which would be worse? Turning and going back down the ladder, admitting that I was a chicken? Or just sucking it up and pretending to the others that I wasn’t a trembling mess inside? I ended up sliding down that slide many, many times, but I was always trying not to think about the fact that I could literally fall off the side of that huge slide and fly through the air before coming face to face with the hard ground. Splat!
The last couple weeks have been tough ones. Nothing drastic, just quietly sad and reflective because little boxes of reality have been regularly deposited one after the other in front of me, as if I really needed stark reminders of what life is like now.
It started with calling Ben’s fiancee to wish her happy birthday and hearing that a “male friend” had taken her out to dinner for her birthday. Because she was so good to (and so good for) Ben, I really want her to be happy, and not lonely, but reality hit.
And then listening to Gina last Friday as she told me that she had called her good friend a few nights before, crying and sobbing, telling her how being sad about Ben was a constant in her life but on that particular day, after listening to a song that Ben liked, she was angry, so very, very angry, that he is not here. Reality. My poor Ben and my poor Gina.
And then a few hours later in our swimming pool with Gina and Ben’s two sons who are now 8 and 10, I was wishing I could go back in time and be in the swimming pool with Gina and her two older brothers, Ben and Nick, as we had been for hours upon hours year after year during the lazy days of their childhood summers. I had a great time for those few hours in the pool with my grandsons, but it was tempered by the fact that Ben is not here to enjoy. Simply reality.
And then waking up very early the next morning to walk in the LifeBanc Gift of Life Walk and Run to honor my sweet little nephew Cameron, who was only 5 years old when he died ten years ago. Me hugging his mom and hugging his dad (my brother) and crying. I was so sad, as reality was again brought to the forefront. As I watched the beautiful sight of hundreds of balloons ascending toward loved ones in the perfectly soft blue morning sky, I asked myself, “Why Cameron? Why Ben?” Reality.
Later that evening my husband and I went to an outdoor wedding of the son of one of our best friends. So many young people were there, laughing and dancing and drinking and enjoying the joyous occasion. Ben was going to be married in our backyard last summer on a day he had chosen–the fourth anniversary of the day he had been diagnosed with cancer. I danced a few slow dances with my husband and really enjoyed chatting and watching the spontaneity and joy at the wedding of our friend’s son. But why couldn’t it have been Ben’s wedding? Reality.
Sunday night set the scene for me sitting nearby to witness the “friendly” argument between two men as they discussed life and death. I sat quietly as I heard over and over again: “There is no God; it’s all just luck; if you’re lucky, you live a long life; if you’re not lucky, you die; there is no heaven; when I die, all I’m going to be is dirt, nothing but dirt; etc., etc., etc.” I sat there silent, simply listening. It was difficult then to process my feelings as I listened to their viewpoints and still difficult now, several days later. What does happen after we die? What is reality?
The questions never end. That’s reality. But the who, what, where, when and why’s of my past need to be reconciled with my future…somehow.
I have yet to figure out why, since Ben’s death, my brain spits out very random thoughts at very random times. It’s as if it’s on overdrive. I may be quietly working or quietly walking or talking with someone but my mind is always racing behind the scenes. It’s as if I lead a double life. One actor on the stage as another actor works behind the curtain doing his own thing, an entire performance, never to be seen by the audience. Several people have learned how this mind of mine now operates. Fortunately, I am able to laugh with them as they have enjoyed many good laughs over the way my brain “ping pings” now. When I was ironing Nick’s dress shirt a few mornings ago and “you’re sliding down again” went through my head, I didn’t question where that thought came from. It had just popped into my head like so many other thoughts do. I’ve worked on processing my emotions related to that “slide” thought for the last few days, with the intent of analyzing and writing down my emotions so I can compartmentalize them and put them away. Hence, the slide analogy as I’ve found myself “sliding down” for the last couple weeks.
There were two slides on the playground in the schoolyard down the street from our childhood home, The Big One, and a smaller, less intimidating one. I was always content with the smaller one but could be persuaded to attempt The Big One at times. As I imagine myself standing at the edge of the playground now, at this stage of my life, I listen to the cheerful chatter of those around me. I watch the “kids” scramble to get in line for the journey to the top of The Big One. No one pays attention to me. I guess I’m now considered the spoil sport as I don’t choose to join in their quest. The thought of me taking one fearful step after another to prove to others that I can climb back up to the top of The Big One is no longer appealing or important to me. I’ve learned many, many things about myself since Ben died, and a very important one is that I can go at my own pace to achieve what I want to achieve. I strongly resist the pressure to be someone who I am not. In a nutshell, I am still, and even more so since Ben’s death, content with the smaller slide.
The view from the top of The Big One was beautiful, offering from the top step a totally different perspective of the world. But I’ve realized that the view from the smaller slide can be just as beautiful, especially since I now see the world from a totally different perspective. Standing in line to take my turn on the smaller slide, I look around and see that I am surrounded by a much smaller group of people than before, but I realize that these people are not standing behind me coaxing or chiding me to tackle The Big One. They may be smaller in number and some of them are new friends I’ve met since Ben’s death, but many of them are the same people who witnessed me literally fall off the side of that huge slide and fly through the air before coming face to face with the hard ground. When I went “splat!” many who had been “playing” with me forever ignored the disaster on the ground (me) and scrambled back to take another turn on The Big One. But these people, the ones who now surround me, they pulled me up off the ground, helped me to stand on my wobbly legs and still continue to regularly check on the damage to my brain and to my heart caused from going “splat!” I am not at all embarrassed to say to them, “I’m chicken and I’m trembling inside.” And they insist that I don’t need to “suck it up” in front of them. They don’t push me beyond my current courage and wait patiently until I say I’m ready for another attempt at the ladder. If they sense I need a little nudge, they give it to me. If I stumble on the steps, they give me the option to go higher, rest on the step, or return to the ground where I am most comfortable. And because they know that there will always be times when I feel like I’ve lost control as I start sliding down again, like now, they’ll watch as I drag my heels to slow down the descent and be waiting near the bottom to catch me before I go “splat!” again. That is love.
I’ll enjoy watching those who continue to play on The Big One, but hanging around the smaller slide, with a much smaller group of people who are real and genuinely care for one another, is just fine with me.