The Geometry of Grief
I begged God, explain to me the geometry of grief. The angles, curves, the never-ending spiral. Show me the source code of loss: the zeroes and ones for when something is, then is no longer. Grief is safe in mathematical form. You can't drown in a sea of numbers. Give me data on a black hole instead of this singular gravity pulling at my heart.
The dying of the light—the release into energy at the end state of matter—is a threshold edging an ocean of sadness, fire bordering water.
Some days I handle it. Other days I sit in chapel with my ears ringing like church bells: where, why, how? My companion on the bathroom floor doesn't care what I talk about. The cat's asleep or awake, hungry or not. She finds liminal space uninteresting, and has nothing to say, especially about grief. She's my anchor, the clean mind of a hunter.
Over coffee I hit God with the big questions: what is pain? If none of this is real, why does it hurt? Can I fix it? Can you fix it?
The real question I have for God is, if we can reach someone's soul after death—if fundamental energy isn't compromised—then why can't we reach them in a damaged body?
My husband got sick on January 29th, a Friday. We had seven years of the usual ups and downs: blended family, miscarriage, infidelity, a surprise pregnancy and birth. We'd had the big love strangers notice in passing, and I thought we were done surviving the worst. I had no idea what was coming.
It started with a stomachache and exploded into a sideshow of shocking complications. Necrotizing pancreatitis required an emergency laparotomy, splitting a dinner plate-sized hole in his gut. He was placed in the ICU and hooked up to a bank of machines resembling the helm of a battleship, under mazes of lines and tubes. One night, at the end of the first week, a turn onto his side caused too much fluid to drop from his heart. He was down for 10 minutes before they got a pulse back. No status on his brain; he had gone into organ failure. The doctor said get here as soon as you can, but drive safe. They were taking him into surgery with a 50/50 chance of survival.
I flew, screaming in the car. Ran through the hospital doors and down the long hallway to find the doctor. He said, "I'm afraid it's in God's hands. Would you like me to call the chaplain?" When that moment comes, it doesn't matter if you haven't set foot in a church for decades. You say yes. A tiny old woman came, Claudia. She took my shaking hands, held my eyes, and breathed. She held me still enough to wait.
Though we hadn't talked in several years, my best friend from childhood called and asked if I needed her. She got there in time for the doctors to give us an update. He had lived through surgery: but. They took us to a little room with papers to go over and scary things to discuss. Impossible conditions to put my initials next to, acknowledging that I understood the human body was not meant to tolerate such things, that there would be a price. Leslie had her arm through mine and didn't let go. I was in shock, and in charge. Signing papers as next of kin. Wondering what would happen if he died—how one handles a body, and the body's former things.
The disease process was a bomb that kept going off, like leg bone connected to the arm bone with grenades. I was prepared at all times for the end to come. Sometimes I wished it would. For weeks he hung by the threads we measured on labs and charts. The machines did their work; surgeries fought infection. Then the second cardiac arrest. I'd just started sleeping at home again. The phone rang in the middle of the night, of course. Get here as soon as you can but drive safe. No promises this time. No numbers or stats. Not even the mention of God.
We waited days for him wake up. I bared my soul to every divine being I'd known or read about. I asked the angels to save him for our young son. They did, but the being they left was broken—skin and bones, mute and drooling, big pieces of his thighs holding in his guts. He was a literal patchwork of the surgeries I'd signed countless consents for. Had I done the right thing? I felt like I was Frankenstein; surely, he was the monster.
After a few months he stabilized enough for transfer to a smaller hospital with a shabby reputation. It was the first stage of a long rehabilitation and the only way home, but it felt like a hallelujah in a graveyard. I was terrified upon arrival. I didn't know if they could keep him alive, who or what he even was anymore. I called to God from the parking garage roof: send help. Not for the first time, housekeeping showed up.
I met Ashley as soon as I stepped off the elevator, square footage that I discovered was even darker than the bathroom floor, and shuddered like dread itself. The doors opened, and there she stood before my prostrate soul: rangy and wiry, face skinny under big glasses, a black girl from Baltimore. Knowing without seeing that my shattered state was as desperate as my patient's, she smiled and touched my arm.
I said some incoherent words and she got everything—where I was going, what I needed, and in what order (bathroom, husband, coffee). I knew right then that we'd be okay. In this shining nobody person, mercy had met me on the sixth floor. I looked at Ashley and God stared back, steady as a lion, tracking me in the storm.
Every wild creature knows it's loved, but humans often forget. We read toothpaste splatter like tea leaves, and gaze with longing into the eyes of the grocery store clerk. We squint for signs pointing home. I looked for God in Ashley's face not only because it was there, but because I had to. I couldn't find home anymore in the hollowed-out husk of my husband.
During that hospital year, at every unknown turn for the worse, people delivered miracles in balance of loss: food, hands, tissues, smiles, hugs that didn't end too soon, eyes that saw the full truth. Lost in the blackened landscape of an obliterated life, I tracked hard for a way out. In each bear cave, under every painted rock, on the bitter alone of the mountaintop where I'd shout at the sky like an angry child—I found paths to God glittering open with hearts.
I've been reading about the Imago Dei, biblical references to humans being made in the image of God. Part of the theology is about shifting one degree closer to holiness. I read this as a literal measure: the one degree shift of a camera angle, to focus on God in a person.
The doctors consider the brain damage mild; he's doing well because he's not in a nursing home. But the husband I had is gone, or stuck at some degree I can't find on the dial. Since he's alive on paper, I grieve politely in secret. In the margins I doodle maps of this strange half-place, sketching the Mordor of an invisible widow, the volcano silently erupting, forest of sleepwalkers, dormant scream.
On hard days I lift my hands to Spirit. I stick my head out the back door, hollering for Source. I beseech Maya Angelou: mother sister teacher, I'm saying thank you with everything I have, but it still hurts. Tell me it's going to be all right. Rock me mama like a southbound train. I'm afraid I'm going to break.
I don't hear back directly, but God emerges from time to time like a ballooning thread in a tapestry, a 3D holographic trick, a Claudia, Leslie, or Ashley: showing up as pure presence, pouring itself awake in mercy over me.
Time is linear; grief is not. It's a center point spreading in every direction, the bulls-eye mark of a tick bite. It seeps backward, deepening family albums with an umami of feelings. It casts forward, blocking out what is no longer possible, redacting the future, an umbrella against too much radiant sun.
A joke will surprise me and l laugh, untethered. Then I'll miss him and crash into loss, the guardrail eviscerating my breath. It's waves, cycles, all the things people say it is, and you can lean in, or not. It doesn't make a difference. Try convincing a forest of anything. The trees don't know grief, or thought. They're as joyfully unmoved as my cat. New normal: whatever. It just is.
Some days grief shrieks and I shriek back. Other days I glaze over like a tired parent. It comes in waves I can jump, predictable mid-Atlantic swells. Then out of nowhere (usually a song on the radio), a 50-foot rogue. Impossible, excoriating salt. I pray to die, but don't. So I do puzzles in the hang time, plotting the waves on a graph, drawing pictures for caption contests, riddling around for a punchline.
When I get lost I return to tracking, scenting for trust in a universe that thinks even heartbreak is an improvement upon the silence. I study the trees as hieroglyphs and try to cryptogram God's green answer. Everywhere is an address without directions. Everything is a potential Rosetta Stone. Sometimes I give up and sit by the window (on the bathroom floor, or not), watching birds with the cat, waiting for God to answer back.
The gift of grief is that miracle becomes easy to see, startling me everywhere. When the red wind blows through the wall of coals and they collapse in a skittering landslide, I feel the single hot note, the drive of the Phoenix to rise. I look around and see that we are all the holy of holies, and all our hair is on fire.