Rowing Through the Underworld

August 23, 2009

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you accidentally leave your baby at the gas station and drive away? Maybe you don’t have a baby, have never had a baby, but the dream still feels real and you still feel anxious. Your dream-self can’t believe you could space-out such an important responsibility.

I have a little time right between my latest workshops and the start of a new semester at the university. So, when my husband asked me to join him at a resort in Phoenix where he has a job for a few days, I happily agreed. I could use this as an opportunity to do some undistracted writing and thinking.

As we were driving west on I-40, through the beautiful red canyons, I noticed a familiar free-floating anxiety. Where were my children? Had I left the baby at the gas station?

It’s been almost eight years since my youngest daughter, Jenny, was killed in a car crash at fourteen. She would be twenty-two now, long past the age when it was my responsibility to monitor her whereabouts. But the maternal part of me may never relinquish that psychic vigilance. Every time I unplug from my regular life and go away, these primal antennae scan for my offspring, until I become conscious of the impulse and will myself to let go.

Of course, the death of a child may be the ultimate experience of loss, a sense of having failed our most essential mission. We are programmed to keep our children safe at all costs, even our own lives. To find that we are alive while our child dead is to scramble the program beyond repair. No matter how much healing we may do over the years, something inside will be forever broken. Every so often, our psyche will default and try to reestablish that basic connection, and when it fails to so we become anxious and confused. It requires self-awareness and self-compassion to move through those moments and come back to the way things are.

Whether or not you have lost a child, you may be resonating with this experience. I think when we love someone very much, when our lives are entwined with theirs, deep grooves develop in our psyche, so that even if they are no longer with us we have this instinctive impulse to track them.

A few months after Jenny died, I spent a night at my mother’s studio, where I was trying to write about my daughter’s life and death. As I was beginning to fall asleep that night, the candle flickering beside her picture, I had a vision: I was rowing a small boat upstream through the underworld. I could feel the dark walls towering on either side of me. I could hear the splash of my oars as they dipped into the cold water. I knew I did not belong here, but I was determined to get as far as I could before I was sent back. I wanted to follow my baby to wherever it was she had gone. She had never been this far away from me, and I had to make sure she would be okay.

Of course, she was not okay. She was dead, and there was no way I could follow her on that journey.

And, she was completely okay. Nothing could ever hurt her again.

Snapping back to my waking consciousness, I realized that I would have to expand beyond anything I had ever known to be able to hold these two seemingly opposing truths for the rest of my life. I sat up in bed, wrapped my arms around my own shoulders, and I sobbed.

3 Responses to “Rowing Through the Underworld”

  1. I believe it was C.S. Lewis who wrote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.” For me, it has come through as panic. My first experience of this was with the death of my mother when I was in my early 20’s. Who of us is ever old enough to lose our mother? And a woman in her early 20’s is much too young.

    As I experienced this grief-panic, I could hear the strains of the Christian hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul”. I couldn’t not hear it. And that was the resonance of my heartbeat, even as I was surprised that my heart kept beating in the face of such loss.

    I believe it was in staying with this dichotomy — not choosing one part of another, but embracing both. . . no, all of it . . . that made the alchemy for my healing and finally the transformation that followed. And that has been true not just in this one experience, but in all the losses through death that have followed.

    Thank you for this opportunity to speak of what is often considered unspeakable.

  2. Patti Jayne said

    I am going to forward your website to my sister, who lost her 3 year old autistic son about 4 years ago. She was packing the car to pick my brother-in -law up at the airport. Bailey escaped out of the house and drowned in a nearby pond. It was 2 months after my mother passed. Kathy is left with another autistic son who is 15, nonverbal and sometimes violent. Her life is a cacaphony of groaning and scrambling to get the school system to properly instruct him without putting him in holds. Through all of it she remains upbeat but cries at night, reading excerpts from Mother Theresa. She has done so much for her little Fla. town, fighting to get special ed equipment at the playground, free swimming lessons for special ed kids in Bailey’s name, and helping the library to obtain a grant for special ed books, they had 2.
    I feel, however it would so behoove her to be able to come to a place such as this.
    Thank you Mirabai for sharing your grief with the rest of us, healing us, pulling us, however reluctantly, forward. I still think of Jenny daily and am so happy for all the sweet and sometimes difficult times I shared with her. Rita still wears her ring and recently thought she lost it. She was beside herself but found it. The photo of she and Jenny marrying at the Hanneman Temple play is on the wall in her apartment.
    I purchased a beautiful photo from the artist Kenneth G. Mc’Vicar, that so reminded me of my interpretation of Jenny’s essence that I just had to have it. I miss her and really loved her and I am so sorry for your loss and yet I am so grateful she had you.
    Much love, Patti

  3. Nita said

    Thank you Mirabai. It’s been two years since my 24-year old niece, the one that felt like a daughter to me, succumbed to bone cancer. My mother, who I felt as if I parented for many years, died nine months later. I wasn’t the actual parent in either of these situations, but I still know what it’s like to wake in the night and think I should have been able to change the outcome. I love the way you express the paradox. She is not safe. She is completely safe. Thank you for reminding me that it is possible to hold these at the same time.

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