I’m not sure I know how to write about this. It’s the kind of event where we inevitably seek meaning, and where the meaning just as surely eludes us.
Last week my former sister-in-law had a massive stroke. She is 43 years old. (I just caught myself writing that in the past tense, even though she’s still alive.) Initially, the prognosis was horrible. The doctors were sure she would never walk or talk again. They thought she might be unable to hear.
She’d been very health conscious until she and my brother split up two and a half years ago. After that, she was depressed, so I don’t know if she continued exercising as regularly as before. In any event, she was fitter than most people her age and certainly not overweight. She had no glaring risk factors except possibly the recurrent migraines she’d suffered for years.
Here’s where the story, and my feelings, get more complicated. I haven’t talked to her since they separated. I was never terribly close to her, just fond in the way people sometimes are when they’ve got little in common except for a shared loved one.
The divorce was about as ugly as they come, especially for a couple with no children. This was her stated reason for leaving my brother: He still didn’t want kids, but she changed her mind about them once she hit 40. Within weeks of leaving him, she changed her mind about the divorce, too. She eventually begged my brother to take her back. He’d been too deeply hurt, and he adamantly refused. She responded by dragging out the proceedings and driving attorney costs toward infinity. He took out a restraining order after the night she and her mother tried to break into his house. Another night, someone broke into his truck, leaving the stereo but stealing the one item – his piano-tuning toolbox – whose worth only an insider could know. We never found out who did that, but the family couldn’t help speculating.
And now, in the wake of all that spitefulness, just weeks after the final divorce decree was finally, mercifully signed, she ought to be able to start making a new life for herself. Maybe that’s one reason why grief has ambushed me. Another obvious reason is her youth. She’s just a year younger than me. This sort of disability is an outrage of nature when it happens to an 80-year-old. In a person her age, it’s unfathomably cruel.
And then I imagine what it must be like, trapped in a body unable to move, unable to communicate. While the doctors are now cautiously hoping for more progress than they originally indicated, it’s still unclear if she’ll recover her ability to speak. She can definitely hear. All of this must be impossibly hard – and all the more so if you’re simmering in bitter recent memories.
Even her mother – who helped make my brother’s life miserable in many ways other than the break-in attempt – has my compassion. Whatever her failings (which frequently crossed the line to criminal behavior), she’s still feeling the anguish of a mother watching her child suffer.
Having said all this, I don’t feel any wiser. I don’t know if there’s any lesson to learn beyond the usual one of not wasting the precious time we have. That’s a cliché, sure, but it’s also something I forget over and over again.
I just know that I’m surprised by my grief, even though I know this is not my story. I’m not even sure it was mine to tell.
Maybe I felt compelled to tell it anyway because the solace of words is reliable, as solid to me as our fragile and suffering flesh – the words pouring out of me, each of them declaring I am, I am, I am.