I often find myself criticizing others’ experience with loss. It’s not intentional, I just slip into it. Why can’t you get over it already? I had to. Perhaps it’s because I was so young when my mum died and those childlike feelings of stubbornness, unfairness, and jealousy got all mixed up with my feelings of loss and grief. Maybe I’m just mad at myself for not handling things better, because of course I didn’t actually get over anything. But for a long time I thought that’s what I’d done. I thought not feeling things meant moving on. But I just suppressed things. I was, and in many ways, still am, afraid to feel hopeful or excited about people or life for fear that it will all be taken away. That’s my grief scar. It might change, but it doesn’t go away.
Even though I’m aware of these feelings, I couldn’t help but feel a bit bitter when I started reading Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed. She lost her mother when she was 22 – and so my immature, jealous interior voice was there, thinking She had a lifetime with her mother. She got the mothering years. How can she complain? As if losing your mother at any age should be easy. Strayed quickly makes me realize how little I really understand about grief.
The first chapter, filled with stories of childhood, time with her mother, and the agony of her mother’s death, is painful to read. It brought me to tears and I had to take a break. I hadn’t really thought before about how much there is to lose when you’ve spent such a long time with someone, and how shocking losing them must be when you had nothing to prepare you for it. I don’t know what it feels like to lose a mother that you thought you’d have forever, that you needed desperately because you don’t know how to live life in any other way. Adult grief is a very different animal than childhood grief. The loss is different. The expectations are different.
“It hadn’t occurred to me that my mother would die. Until she was dying the thought had never entered my mind. She was monolithic and insurmountable, the keeper if my life.”
As painful as many of the details are, it’s a beautiful book. It’s a memoir that reads like a novel. The story flows effortlessly and I was never bored. Strayed uses repetition often, but effectively, and flawlessly switches between the story’s present, and the past that led her there. You’ll hurt when she hurts, and feel relief when she’s ok. You’ll feel afraid for her want to reach into the book and protect her, and maybe protect yourself. Even if the details of her downward spiral aren’t relateable, the feelings are. The feelings of spinning out of control and not knowing how to stop. Of hurting but not knowing how to fix it. Of making things worse in the hopes that it will somehow make things better.
“I fucked the ex-boyfriend of the woman who owned the exotic hens. I fucked a cook at the restaurant where I’d picked up a job waiting tables. I fucked a massage therapist who gave me a piece of banana cream pie and a free massage. All three of them over the span of five days. It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. Not pretty, but clean. Not good, but void of regret. I was trying to heal. Trying to get the bad out of my system so I could be good again. To cure me of myself.”
It’s not all soul-crushing though. I loved following her story as she got stronger, and even when she played strong just to get herself through.
“I made it the mantra of those days; when I paused before yet another series of switchbacks or skidded down knee-jarring slopes, when patches of flesh peeled off my feet along with my socks, when I lay alone and lonely in my tent at night I asked, often out loud: Who is tougher than me? The answer was always the same, and even when I knew absolutely there was no way on this earth that it was true, I said it anyway: No one.”
And even though I kept expecting something terrible to happen to her (in the way that so many stories about women go), it was refreshing that she made her journey – as a woman – safely, and with the help of strangers. It made me think of my dad, who biked solo across the country in his youth. I wonder if he shared these types of experiences? He certainly invited people home to our house at least once. I remember going to pick up dinner one night and we ran into a couple who were biking from Argentina to Alaska (or the other way around) at the KFC. My dad invited them home to shower and sleep. He often picked up hitch-hikers too.