Ah-ha moment: Loss is a space you cannot fill

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

A couple weekends ago, I taped no less than six swatches of material from Haberman’s Fabrics on a love seat in my living room, and an additional four fabric samples on a chair and ottoman in the master bedroom.

This two reupholstery projects weren’t even on my radar a month ago. But, for some reason, both took on a feverish urgency. I felt compelled to update these pieces of furniture right away or I would be doomed to feel this malaise in my gut forever.

Similarly it was of equally critical importance that I borrow my sister-in-law’s Dyson vacuum cleaner. I told her what I told my husband, which is that our Bissel vacuum had gone kaput. Dead as a doornail.

Even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I knew this was not true. But I’ve lusted over the obscenely priced Dyson for so long, I’d decided my time had come. If the test drive met my expectations, I was headed out to buy one and nothing was going to stop me.

For an entire weekend, my insatiable journey spiraled down this mentally deranged rabbit hole. Nothing, it seemed, would appease me.

Even though she did my color two days prior, I texted my hair stylist and asked how soon she could get me in for highlights.

I called my best friend and when she told me she and her husband were headed to the Napa Valley the next week to celebrate their daughter’s 30th birthday - an occasion I would normally be thrilled about - my envy sparked like a struck match stick. I even surprised myself with my tart remark: “Wow, you guys get a lot of time off work, don’t you?”

I reacted the same way when my brother told me he and his wife were spending five days in Montana with two other couples to celebrate a 60th birthday. I blurted out to my niece, sparing no small measure of high school snark: “You know, Mike and Meg were my friend before they became friends with your dad and mom.”

If I could have justified complaining about the lack of a dishwasher, oven, counter space and cabinets while in the midst of a kitchen remodel, trust me, I would have. But when you have thousands of dollars of brand new appliances sitting in your garage, gorgeous new cabinetry being delivered in a couple weeks and a husband who is single-handedly doing the entire project, not enough room to make my salad is hardly a misfortune.

So I did what any angst-ridden, self absorbed product of 12 years of Catholic schooling would do: I wallowed in a sea of pious guilt.

By Sunday morning I was still so glum, I honestly considered staying in bed.

My ah-ha moment came in the form of the first few paragraphs of a New York Times story about gun violence. Peter Read, a retired Air Force Lieutenant, was interviewed about the loss of his daughter Mary, the oldest of his six children, who had been murdered at age 19 in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech.

“‘Mary’s a hole,’ he said. Life goes on, with Boy Scouts and swim practice and homework, but ‘everything else flows around’ the hole: ‘a space that doesn’t close up.’”

No wonder, I thought. I’ve been trying to fill a space that doesn’t close up.

We lost my brother Peter, 67, three months ago to cancer. I could easily list a litany of “even thoughs:” even though we knew it was coming, even though he’d suffered for years, even though we said goodbye. But nothing can shallow the hole his absence dug.

I don’t know what the cultural norm is for grieving the loss of a brother well into middle age. I do know that the bond beyond between my brothers and me is anything but the cultural norm.

But now, because of Peter Read’s vortex description, I also know that I can no more fill this hole with reupholstered furniture, a Dyson vacuum or a new hairstyle any more than I can turn back time. That I can’t will the pain away, is, oddly enough, liberating to me.

So I cut the quote out and put it on the fridge in the middle of all the life affirming, swirling stuff: the favorite photos, wedding invitations, baby announcements and deans list congratulations. It’s a reminder to cut myself some slack, that healing is a process and that loss is sometimes ‘a space that doesn’t close up.’