War and Children

August 2, 2010

With her permission, I am posting an excerpt from my mother’s personal journal.  You can see where I get the impulse to allow individual loss to connect me to the suffering of the world!  My mom, Susanna Starr, is my role model for compassion in action.

Susanna writes:

Sometimes I wake up from that place just preceding the deep sleep at night where I’m coughing and gasping for the next breath.  Sometimes my heart is racing and I have to take some deep breaths to slow it down.  For a number of years, especially in the final years of a difficult relationship this was an ongoing syndrome.  Almost every night I would have the choking sensation, which I later thought of as some kind of anxiety attack.

For some fairly long period of time it seemed to have subsided and just again has begun to recur.  Again, I have the same association I’ve always had: Is this what my son Matty was feeling that night at 12 PM, at the change of shifts at the hospital, when nobody heard or saw him?  It was around 3 AM when we received the “dreaded” middle of the night phone call.  It was from an unknown doctor at the hospital who let us know that he had to perform an emergency tracheotomy, since by the time he was called, Matty had stopped breathing and was turning blue.  He was very apologetic.  I was grateful that my son was still alive.

The next day at the hospital my father-in-law said, “They should have let him go.”  I was astounded, still in denial that my son would never recover from the brain tumor that was destroying him, now in its final stages.  But when your child is just ten and a half years old, it seems that anything that could be done to prolong their life is justified. As a doctor, himself, my father-in-law knew differently.  Matty survived the tracheotomy, but never really had a quality of life again.  He regained consciousness and I still held on to the belief that he’d get through this, too, as he had several times before when he was in crisis during the various hospital stays.

We brought him Christmas present, which he couldn’t see, since the muscles controlling his eyelids were no longer operative.  Just the day before the tracheotomy he said that his hearing was affected, as if the sounds and voices were coming through a tunnel.  So it’s likely that he wasn’t hearing, but who knows?  Meanwhile we spoke to him, wrapping his finger around the new pen and pencil that we assured him were for when he returned to school.  There was a small stained glass hanging that we bought in the hospital gift shop that we told him was to hang in his window in his room at home.  Were the gifts for him, or for us, to keep up the illusion that there would be some kind of future for him, for whatever limited time he had?

By the next day, though, we sat by his bed and saw the struggle, calling on the last vestiges of strength he still had just to breathe, his body wasted, his still child’s face, pallid and drawn, with the bone structure showing through.  When my husband Ian said quietly, “We have to let him go,” I nodded in resignation.  It was apparent he was holding on just for us.  That was the day that we drove out to the cemeteries on Long Island, looking for a place to bury our son, our firstborn.  It was a cold, grey day, typical of the end of December on Long Island.  We were both numb, but not from the cold.

We’re all accustomed to using the metaphor of the “camino” or road as the metaphor for life.  We call it our “path.”  The path, obviously, is unknown.  We sometimes think we have a roadmap, but often we don’t.  Many times we deviate from that path, going off in different directions, sometimes to return to the more traveled one, sometimes forging out into uncharted territories.   But all along the way there are markers.  Since we can’t look ahead, we can only look back and recognize the markers.  “Ah, here was a turning point!  I’m so glad I didn’t go in that direction….  If only I had…. Knowing what I do now, I would have done it differently….”  Would we have, could we have?

Sometimes the markers are clear and we know when we are experiencing certain events in our lives that they will leave their mark upon us forever.  Often they’re a lot more subtle and only in retrospect can we recognize their significance in our lives.  Although we each have our own scenario, most have specific events that are major markers, and we have ceremonies to honor them – birth, death, marriages, catastrophic happenings that affect us forever.  Some of the markers that we thought important seem to fade as in a road sign that has become weathered. Others, that we paid little attention to at the time they occurred, take on increased meaning.

Death and destruction, loss and unspeakable sadness touch us all.  We sometimes think we really don’t want to continue living, but we do.   “Letting go” is still one of the most difficult concepts to carry out, even when we think we have a good grasp of it’s meaning.  How do people survive unspeakable atrocities?  How do people witness the death and torture of their loved ones and have to bear witness to these inhuman crimes? The human spirit can be amazing in its resilience.  It’s too easy to get completely submerged in despair as we live in a world that continues to treat human life not as something to be honored and revered but all too often as having been stripped of any meaning, reduced to something “other than.”

Do those who have for thousands of years sent other people’s children off to fight in their wars have any idea of what it means to lose a child, other people’s as well as our own, someone’s son, father, brother, and more recently, someone’s daughter, mother, sister?  Do we each have to suffer our own individual loss to know compassion?  I think not.  There is no way we can each share every experience, at least not at the level of human consciousness that we’re at right now.  Our experiences are limited and the freedom of expression comes from our ability to respond to our own particular life circumstances, the ability to celebrate joys as blessings and sorrows to be transcended.  Often, that’s much easier to say than do.

Every day we casually say upon meeting someone we know, “How are you doing?”  What if we were to answer “I’m transcending.”  Even your best friends might be taken a little aback, or maybe they would respond from their heart instead of their head, and not try to figure it out, but smile because they “got it.”

Susanna Starr

Spring 2010

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