Last November, I developed an irrational fear that I would choke on my food and die. I barely ate for several weeks. When I did eat, I felt constantly like the food was on the brink of lodging itself in my throat permanently. A smoothie seemed dangerously chunky.
My grandmother was very ill and dying in California, and I flew quite a lot during this time. I found I had suddenly developed an intense fear of flying as well. I spent interminable hours locked in a sardine can with sweating palms and a racing heart. I would get off the plane, shaking with pent-up panic-induced adrenalin, and cry wet tears of relief that it was over.
I was afraid of other things too–driving, crossing the street, headaches, my boobs. Fear became my constant companion.
It seems obvious in retrospect, but I didn’t initially connect what was happening to me with what was happening to Grandma. One day, I was writing about Grandma, trying to capture what she meant to me, trying to understand why my grief was so intense, when it struck me, loud and clear: The world is not a safe place without her.
Without Grandma, the world had become the sort of place where you might choke on a smoothie.
About the same time that my grandma died, the mother of a little girl we knew also died, very suddenly. A couple weeks after that, the little girl–we’ll call her N–came over for a visit. She was cheerful and chatty. I’m not sure how she was holding it together, because at the age of 40 I was a hot mess of grief still over the loss of my grandma, and this tough little ten-year-old whose mother had just died carried on as if nothing bad had ever happened to her.
I couldn’t even hold it together for the duration of N’s visit. I went back to the bedroom to cry. And to look for Grandma in my hope chest. I mean, pictures of Grandma.
A short while later, N joined me. She sat down on the bed and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was looking for pictures I maybe had forgotten I had. I showed her some tea towels that Grandma had given me. I was crying the whole time. I knew it was ridiculous, to be showing the intensity of my grief to the girl whose own cause for grief was so much greater. But there it was.
N listened to me, and then she said, “I wish I had pictures of my mom.”
And there it was.
We cried and held each other for an hour.
When I was pregnant with Monty, I read a book called The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. Liedloff describes a Stone Age tribe she lived with for several months called the Yequana. When she first arrived there, the villagers asked her who her family is. She said she didn’t have one: Her mother and father had died.
The tribes people were aghast. To their way of thinking, being without a family is a massively unsustainable condition. Being without parents, even as an adult, was simply untenable. Fortunately, they had a built-in system to remedy the problem: Leidloff was officially adopted into one of the tribe families, and became their daughter for life.
This seems an incredibly good idea to me. Imagine if we never had to be cut adrift, never had to navigate this dangerous world and its chunky smoothies alone. What if someone always had your back, no matter what? What if, even after your mom and dad are gone from this world, you still had parents.
I’m lucky. I still have my mom and my dad. During Grandma’s illness and after her death, we gathered in California to take care of each other. We tried hard to be kind to one another, and we mostly succeeded. We hugged a lot more than is normal for the stoic Mann family. We cried a lot more too, and gave each other a lot of leeway for that.
N is lucky too, in a way. She still has her dad, and he is a good one.
But what if we never had to worry about it, what if we always knew that we would have family, for life, no matter what? Sure, we would still dissolve in a hot mess of grief when it’s time to say goodbye. But it wouldn’t be so scary, because we’d know that we weren’t alone, that we were not going to be set adrift. Maybe we wouldn’t spend so much time choking on smoothies.
So I want to make a proposal. I want to suggest that we adopt each another. Maybe formally, maybe not, but let’s do it for life. Let’s make it a policy to be each others’s safety net, to never give up on being there for each other. Let’s be each others’s family.