When Grief Gives Way to Peace

When Grief Gives Way to Peace October 23, 2023

Trees on a twisted road in Autumn

October Saturdays are soccer days.

Adrienne is doing well at school and on her soccer team; she still wants me to respect her privacy and not tell many funny stories about her for the time being, because she’s growing up. I’m thankful for all the people who keep asking if she’s all right. She’s very happy. Five days a week she goes to school, and one day a week I have to drive her out to a field in the middle of nowhere and pretend to like sports for two hours.

On this particular Saturday, I sat in the field, shivering in my purple jacket, wishing I’d had a child who liked theater or dance so I could sit indoors. I clapped whenever her team came near the ball and groaned whenever the other team made a goal. And that was when the weight of grief hit me.

It hit me hard: the realization that I’ll never have the life I planned. I will never be a happy contented homeschooling Catholic housewife with a brood of messy children to play with. I am a mother of one. It’s not impossible that I may even have a surprise geriatric pregnancy and a late-in-life rainbow baby, but it’s best not to hope for it. Adrienne isn’t little anymore. I’m something other than what I dreamed.

It hurt so badly, I wanted to go hide in the car and cry, but I didn’t.

Adrienne finished her soccer game just as the sun came out. She agreed to go home the long way so we could admire the trees. For the longest time, we drove in quiet awe as if we were in church. Scarlet, claret, plum, heather, coral, pumpkin, amber, citron, marigold, all against the green that had yet to change. The sky overhead was blue and then gray.  Ancient farmhouses and newer ranch houses dotted the landscape. We were on a curved squiggle beside shale cliffs, and then we were on a straight road past rolling grassy hills, and then we were back on the main road and at the grocery store, where Adrienne got a hot chocolate.

Could it be that the valley is beautiful?

It felt beautiful just then.

There was my grief again, stabbing me because punching my gut hadn’t worked. I’m not supposed to like the valley. I’m supposed to like the Midwest where I was born and raised and desperately want to live. I was never meant to be trapped here. I wanted to go home. But I also wanted to stay right where I was.

After shopping, we got back to the dilapidated rental house in LaBelle. I made chicken and rice while Adrienne entertained Jimmy’s boy outside. The boy spend the summer in nothing but shorts and crocs; now he’s finally donned long pants and a hoodie. He wanted to inspect the vegetable patch from late April to late September, and now he wants to inspect our Halloween decorations. He likes to get out the stepladder and see if he can grab onto the ghosts Adrienne hung from our tree. Sometimes he and Adrienne play a messy game of soccer, using the Styrofoam headstones she bought at Dollar Tree for a goal. Today, she showed him how to carve pumpkins. Jimmy came by and asked if the boy could stay here for an hour while he went to the store, and I said yes.

I started to tidy up in case Jimmy’s boy got cold and wanted to come in. And as I tidied, I realized I was enjoying being in my house. I was mentally making a catalog of things I’d spruce up and remodel if I bought it from the landlord, instead of a catalog of houses I’d like to buy somewhere else. I don’t have panic attacks in the yard anymore. I don’t jump at every sound from outside.

The stalking neighbor is dead. The devious neighbor who was using me hasn’t been around for six months. The abused child across the street who I tried to help is long gone, for better or for worse. The people who remain on the block are friendly: Jimmy and his family, the Baker Street Irregulars, the man who brought water. They are Appalachian eccentrics, not like the people I was raised among, but I’m eccentric myself. It could be that I’m a bit more like them than I am like the people I knew in Columbus.

I have lived here in northern Appalachia for nearly as long as I lived in Columbus. I was not yet twenty-two when I came here, on a mindless quixotic mission to win souls for Christ by studying philosophy and bioethics at Franciscan University. That was seventeen years ago. Could I be more Appalachian than I am Midwestern?

The grief twisted the knife, punishing me for my contentment.

I’m not supposed to be Appalachian. I’m supposed to be traumatized to have to live here. I’m supposed to leave this place in triumph and have a normal, quiet, Leave-it-to-Beaver life.

Jimmy’s boy came in when the smell of the food became too good to resist. He sat at the table with us, dipping strips of chicken in ketchup. We chattered about Halloween and how he was liking Kindergarten.

And then I remembered my outing with The Lost Girl’s children, before everything went wrong. I remembered the subscription membership to the museum, which we couldn’t afford and was such a foolish expense. “Would you like to go to the museum and see real dinosaur skeletons with me someday?”

Yes, he would like that very much. He chattered about his imaginary museum, where there is an arcade with video games among the dinosaurs.

“Would you like to go to the pumpkin patch and the spooky hayride with us next weekend?” I asked.

Yes, he would like that as well, if there was room in the car for Mommy and Daddy to come.

“We were thinking about going on Sunday after church.”

Church.

At that word, the grief gave up on stabbing me and took out a flame thrower. I thought of how much I dread going to church, how severe the religious trauma has felt, how I’ve failed to be a proper zealous Catholic with a “ministry” and a plan for indoctrinating her daughter. I felt the weight of twelve years longing for a new baby and that baby’s quick successor so I could be a real Catholic homeschooling multipara. The slow, painful admission that I don’t get along with other Catholic mothers and never will. My stammering speeches to Adrienne about my complicated relationship with a Church whose theology I believe and love, but whose culture has utterly destroyed me. The constant fighting to fit in, the constant rejection, attempting to become Byzantine Catholic and getting bullied out of that parish as well. The horrific revelations about the Charismatic Renewal and learning that my sect of Catholicism had never been anything but a cult. The search for God in places I’d never have imagined growing up. Giving in and sending her to a public school.

I’m not a good Catholic and I don’t think I can go back to being one. I’m just me.

Any relationship I can ever have with God, will have to be God reaching out to me and not any other sort of human being. I will have to be salt and light here, as a bad Catholic who loves Jesus but doesn’t know what to make of the Church, because I can’t do anything more.

Jimmy’s boy finished his meal and went home.

Adrienne and I arranged our Autumn bric-a-brac, the plastic gourds and the vinyl pumpkin tablecloth. I felt peaceful again.

Is this what happens when a dream dies?

When everything you desperately wanted is taken from you, could you possibly find contentment being somebody totally different?

Does the death of a dream bring grief, followed by peace? Could there be happiness after the grief finishes tormenting me?

I think there could be.

I would like to find out.

 

 

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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