The other night, I got a call to inform me that my high school best friend’s mother has an inoperable brain tumor, and an estimated 2-3 weeks of life remaining.
I hadn’t spoken to my friend in months, and had been wondering if she’d decided to cut ties with me because I come with a lot of baggage these days. Now I see that her own baggage has been heavier than mine, and I can more than sympathize with her apparent withdrawal. When I got the news (from a mutual friend), I sent my friend a text that said simply, “If you need anything, I’m here, and I love you.” The following morning, I had a response: “Thank you.” I didn’t say anything else, because there is nothing else to say. But I have been crying on my friend’s behalf, unable to imagine what she must be feeling.
Sorrow can be qualified: my troubles are minor compared to my friend’s and many other people’s. But sorrow is always monumental. It comes in waves, set off by a thought or a memory, interrupting the flow of normal existence. There are some moments when I can feel my losses as strikingly as if they’ve just occurred. I am sure my friend will be affected for years – perhaps for her entire life – by the sudden and tragic loss of her mother. Sorrow is monumental: it has the power to endure and recur.
Joy, on the other hand, is fleeting, momentary. Even big joys – weddings and babies and puppies – are quickly obscured by the rhythms of daily life: “the honeymoon is over,” we say; “they grow up so fast,” we say. The feelings of joy we experience at the news of a wedding or a birth do not resurge again and again like the feelings of sorrow we experience thanks to divorce and death. Joy is momentary: it fades and falls away.
It is for this reason that we must take joy in the simple things, lest we spend our lives as Eeyore, under a permanent, permeating cloud of grief and despair. There is no way we can combat our sorrow with joy if we wait for the joy to be as strong and weighty as the sorrow. Instead, we must chip away at our heaviest sorrows by recognizing and embracing thousands of smaller, everyday joys.
This morning, I stood in the shower and cried for my friend and her family. I cried for Hillary and John and their struggles with infertility. I cried for another friend’s sister-in-law, who just had her third miscarriage in a year (at 21 weeks pregnant). And I cried for my own losses, as well.
Then I walked to work, letting the fresh air fill and surround me. I found a misprinted label on a package of chicken, which read, “Natural Beast Tenders,” and I laughed and showed everyone. I ate some cake we’d gotten for a coworker’s retirement and delighted in the bright green and orange frosting. Then I came home and sat with Doug while he watched the NFL season opener game – which is more to his joy than mine, but I am happy to share it.
Sorrow is monumental; joy is momentary. But life is a series of moments, not a single monument, and therefore, joy can prevail.
Dear [Friend’s Mom],
I am writing to remind you of something that occurred several years ago, for which I owe you a debt of gratitude.
When [friend] and I were in high school, and I would often bemoan the way I looked because the little high school boys weren’t falling at my feet, you once said that mine was a more exotic beauty, and that as we aged, men would begin to appreciate it, and so would I.
Your observation has stuck with me through the years: it helped me to stand up for and continue loving myself at times when people did not recognize my beauty; it is the reason that I do not doubt my boyfriend’s, my father’s, or other people’s sincerity when they tell me I am beautiful; and although there are still moments in my life when I look at conventionally pretty girls and wonder what it must be like to be so beautiful as they are, your words sparked, and have solidified, my belief that I too am beautiful and worthy of love.
I just wanted to say thank you for your kindness and your honesty at a time when I was young, vulnerable, and insecure. As you are such a beautiful and brazenly confident woman yourself (as is your daughter, now), your statement of kindness meant the world to me; it has reverberated through me all these years, playing an integral part in the foundation of my self. I will never forget it.