She squinted at me as I walked through the door and pursed her lips until I came closer—the kind of look she gives the staff when they come in—very unlike the broad smile and the happy “Well!” that lets me know my mother knows exactly who I am. I pulled a chair up next to her wheelchair and took her hand in both of mine, and she began to chatter, though the sentences I understood gave no hint of the bonds we’ve shared for the past 57 years.
As I sat with her, it became clear that she knew I was someone who cared about her, and she seemed happy when I kissed her as I left, but she showed none of the emotion of my previous two visits, when she spoke my name and waved to me, clearly reluctant to let me go.
It was a difficult visit for me, coming on the heels of losing one of my best friends. As I sat next to her, I wondered why God would leave my mother here, trapped in the haze of a stroke, and take my friend, who was still in the middle of doing so much good that he is mourned by hundreds. And I wondered again at the unfathomable ways of God.
As so often happens when I’m wrestling with life’s unanswerable questions, a snippet of a line came to me from literature—from a play where the characters ask whether life in a box is better than being dead. I pulled the play from my bookshelf and looked at the lines I had taught and highlighted. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead uses two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to ask the questions about life and death that make our heads spin. My seniors either loved or hated the play, but no one was ever indifferent. Some students loved the circular questioning, and others hated that Stoppard asks the questions but gives us few answers. In the second act, Guildenstern says this to Rosencrantz:
“Ask yourself, if I asked you straight off—I’m going to stuff you in this box now, would you rather to be alive or dead? Naturally you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking—well, at least I’m not dead! In a minute, somebody’s going to bang on the lid and tell me to come out. (Banging the floor with his fists.) ‘Hey, you, whatsyername! Come out of there!’”
I understand exactly how Guildenstern feels. When I stood by my friend as he lay in a box at the viewing, I had to resist the urge to say aloud, “Get up. Come out of there and tell me this isn’t real!” And as I sat by my mother, I wanted nothing more than to hug her and bring her out of the box that life has placed her in.
As all of us do when we’re dealing with pain, I reminded myself of the many people I know who’ve suffered far greater losses—the parents who lost their one-year-old, the 15-year-old who lost her single-parent mother, the 28-year-old son of my friend who lost his father. I know how fortunate I am to have had both my mother and my friend for so long as a wonderful part of my life, my happiness.
Ultimately, I know that these are unanswerable questions. Is life in a box better than no life? Does knowing my loss is less than the unutterable losses I could have suffered make the pain less? Does believing, as Stoppard says at one point in his play, that every exit is an entrance somewhere else make us grieve any less?
Again I look at the highlighted lines, searching for something more than just the circular questions we all ask. And I find it in one of Rosencrantz’s insights later in the play:
Be happy—if you’re not even happy, what’s so good about surviving? (He picks himself up.) We’ll be all right. I suppose we just go on.
That is exactly what we do, isn’t it? Whether the box of our lives is small or expansive, whether we believe in Heaven or not, whether our pain is great or greater, we go on. We look for the moments of joy. We smile and sometimes even laugh aloud when we remember the people we’ve lost as they were when they were fully human among us.
So let us tell those belly-laughing stories and remind ourselves that we’ll be all right.