I’ve always loved sunsets—the myriad fuchsias and violets ebbing up the horizon, the twilight slicing through the harsh sun—but I have to admit I take sunrises for granted. It seems a time of day that most of us sleep or rush through, focused more on our caffeine intake than the start of another 24 hour cycle.
One day recently I intentionally set my alarm so I could witness the sunrise. My dog Reese sniffed the air suspiciously. Why was I up and outside without walking shoes: What could be the point of that? The reason was that I felt the need for dawn… after a few rollercoaster days.
Tuesday night we received word that a daughter’s high school friend had taken her own life. Wednesday we heard that a different daughter’s long-time friend was the fatality in the head-on crash that occupied Nashville news and shut down a major thoroughfare. I don’t presume to equate my shock and sadness to that of my daughters’. These are their griefs to bear and their time to mourn. It is about their loss.
But as a family member, you can’t help but gasp when death comes so uncomfortably close to those you love. Every young person who leaves the world prematurely is a chiseled thorn on the psyches of those left behind. The death of someone young stops us in our tracks, brings bile up in our throats, make us hold our breath and squeeze our eyes tightly shut to the very notion. How hardened we adults become to death—losing parents, friends, our elders who raised us as their own. But for our children, each loss is one more step away from childhood, from the safety net of home and the naive belief in ever after.
I find myself pondering what it would be like if we just never loved. Never let ourselves. Isn’t there part of you that wants to install hurricane shutters on your heart so that it’s never broken? Of course this is impossible—it is part of our DNA to give and receive love. And although we know life is precious, do we really grasp its fragility until we get the call? Can we? Aren’t we hotwired to take life for granted—the easy conversation with a friend, the rowdy ribbing around the dinner table, the tiresome meetings that drone on, the budding pear trees and the awesome thundershowers, the copier that jams, the laundry that is folded and put away only to be worn and soiled again. Loading the dishwasher and tasting the sweetness of a tomato plucked from the vine. Trimming our toenails and cheering on a new bride and groom. The mundane and the miraculous swirl around and through us, giving our days purpose and meaning, and yet how often do we pay no heed. How frequently do we not stop, as we water our gardens and take out the trash, and utter a silent prayer of thanks that we can put one foot in front of the other… that for all its messiness and redundancy, our lives are alive.
In the backdrop of this week’s tragedies, the Democratic National Convention rolled on, and I watched every minute… just as I will watch every minute of the Republican Convention next week. Admittedly, I am a bit of a politics junky, but I don’t understand people who say that politics has nothing to do with them. No matter how disillusioning, politics is relevant; to me, part of coming to terms with the fragility of human life includes realizing how actions matter—how a suicide, a death, a policy, a rhetoric can alter our souls and, to borrow from Jon Meacham, the soul of America. As I texted with my daughters—wishing we could do more than virtually hug—I listened to the speeches of Sally Yates and the Obamas and Colin Powell and John Kasich. They were inspiring and comforting and reminded me of our aggregate decency. I don’t care what the My Pillow guy says: I don’t believe we are a nation of pedophiles and cannibals. I choose instead to believe in Reagan’s shining city on the hill, believe in morning.
So you can see why, after a couple of nights of restless sleep and nightmares, I felt the need for a sunrise. I expected it to restore hope, to be a balm to the painful gasps of this week, yet the moment was conspicuously undramatic. There was no stunning orb rising over the crest of the horizon, as on the beach. From my patio bench, all I experienced was a gradual lightening of the air, a feeble glow etching out the darkness as birds warmed up their voices. Perhaps that’s the very essence of life’s fragility: it sneaks up on you with its subtlety. One day you are simply, amazingly, alive again.
I set my alarm and went back to bed. When I awoke, the sun was high in the sky and the day was upon me. I’m not sure how I will take the startling realizations of this week and live life any differently. Probably, surely, the events of this August week will pale in their shock value, but the lives taken, the flames extinguished, are not ones my daughters will soon forget. And I have never felt so impotent in my role as a mother, for I know the fragility of life is a lesson that can’t be taught, but only painfully learned: that the friends who love us through childhood and adolescence mold us into something better, different, richer than had we not opened the shutters and let them in. In the contest between loving and losing or never loving, there is no contest.
But for now, there must be wallowing, and I can only watch. The darkness, the what ifs, are part of the grief process. A pair of glasses left behind, texts sent but not read, plans made but never realized—it’s a hundred of these moments that must pass before, as Joe Biden counsels: “A smile will come to your lips before a tear comes to your eye.”
Dawn will come. Let us live like it might not.