Thursday, December 4, 2014

Blessings, caves and difficult topics

The concept and traditions of Thanksgiving rang hollow for us this year in Zachary's absence.  The gluttony, the familiar motions of the day and visits with family, the damned thankfulness, was simply too disorienting to absorb.  More than anything, the idea of family and togetherness, which for us feels unfairly scripted and utterly, horrifyingly incomplete without our beloved Zachary, might have totally extinguished the tiny flicker of existence we are clinging to.  
We opted to leave town instead, to take a road trip to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, a six+ hour drive from our home and to visit Indianapolis on the way home.  
We arrived at our small-town Kentucky hotel on Thursday afternoon, relieved to find more than one restaurant open for dinner.  We were seated immediately, adjacent to a table where a woman was offering her "blessings" on the holiday to anyone who came into contact with her.  The server, the clean-up crew, patrons who made eye contact with her while passing by her table - everyone was subjected to being blessed.  For one unfortunate restaurant worker, after a short, forced conversation about the holiday and the season, I overheard her inviting him to visit her place of worship and be healed.  His response was much more courteous than I would have managed.  As we finished our meal and stood from our seats to pay the bill, I braced for the holy-roller assault on us.  She eased in with a couple of pleasantries and began to bestow her blessings.  I smiled, turned my back and walked away, completely ignoring her, resisting the urge to tell her where to shove it.   
On Friday, we boarded one of three tour buses which unloaded us at a massive sink hole entrance to Mammoth Cave.  As we descended further into the earth, 280-something steps on this particular tour, even as I felt claustrophobic at times, I was comforted by the stillness, the dark, the damp hanging air in the cave.  It was strikingly familiar.  That inescapable, unrelenting heaviness, the suspension of perception about time, the feeling of being totally separate and apart from the happenings of the world.  In many ways, the cave experience perfectly suited my state of mind, my grieving heart.  I whispered Zachary's name a thousand times during our tour, my heart foolishly hoping to find him there. 
In response to questions about the stability of the limestone boulders and rocks all around us in the cave, the guide explained that with the exception of the changes made by water and carbonic acid flowing and dripping in spots, the tendency of cave structure is to remain unchanged over very long periods of time.  Without exposure to seasons and weather elements, naturally-formed cave structures are, by and large, protected - even from the occasional earthquake.  I wondered if our presence would elicit some exception to the rule.  If we would be the first tour group to be crushed or trapped by a falling boulder.  If the cloud of misfortune and tragedy that follows my family would wreak havoc on us that day.  It did not.   
We drove half-way home on Friday afternoon and spent the night in Indianapolis so that C.T. could visit the children's museum there on Saturday.  The museum was really pretty spectacular.  One of the large exhibits was dedicated to the power of children in history.  Unlike many history-based exhibits which struggle to hold the interest of today's children, this one highlighted stories of child suffering due to discrimination, hatred and fear (think Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White) in engaging and interactive ways.  There was even a life sized recreation of the classroom in which Ruby Bridges attended first grade with white students in New Orleans.  For a moment, I was puzzled that so few families were visiting the exhibit and these brilliantly depicted stories.


My confusion lasted about half a second.  Of course.  These stories are sad, gut wrenching and terror-filled in some cases.  They are difficult to explain and accept.  They take time and care and attention of the parent to translate to the level of understanding of their own child(ren).  Many children who are able to understand, at their own level, are so sheltered, distracted and over-stimulated by the orderliness of their own lives that they simply cannot absorb these stories.  And, let's be honest, most everyone who showed up at the museum that Saturday was there to "have fun"..., not to be depressed about the suffering of others.

It is striking how closely the repulsion and resistance to these difficult topics is mirrored in my existence as a bereaved mother.  So very few people actually care to learn about this grief, to imagine the suffering experienced by my Zachary, to accept that it has altered everything in my life and will live in me forevermore.     


  1. Gretchen,

    I am happy to read your words again, and sorry that the last few days were so hard on you. I remember, when i lived in the US, feeling that the holiday season really lasts for a long time with its Thanksgiving and New year's bookends. It can be difficult even without complicated and painful circumstances you are facing... And indeed, how could you/we be thankful after a year like this?

    I enjoyed your description of Mammoth Cave. We went there on a visit when i was 10 or 11 and i have very vivid memories of that space, so deep, and dark and damp. And so contrasted with the shining sun and heat outside... I hope C.T. enjoyed it too and that he will remember for a long time.

  2. Thank you, Typhaine. Yes, the holidays are really wearing on me, on the three of us.