A Dirt Path and the Beginning of Hope

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When people saw my mother in those years, they remarked how healthy she looked, how strong, how not-sick.

“You would never know she has terminal cancer,” they said. Their astonishment rang like praise for the upbeat patient smiling through her pain.

I understood their cognitive dissonance. Her tenacity felt larger than life to me, superhuman in strength. She was the kind of person who seemed to run laps around other perfectly healthy people; nothing could stop her from fully participating in her family, her faith community, her work. But she did have cancer, in very aggressive form, though its physical toll stayed largely hidden from view for nearly a decade.

I would never want to take my mother’s hard-won legacy of strength away from her. Even in death, I would never dishonor her right to tell her story in her own words. She was telling the truth when she said that she wanted to act like she was living with cancer, rather than dying from it. But I wonder sometimes, if she felt pressure to perform the part of the upbeat patient, to uphold our narratives of the faith-filled survivor. I wonder if part of her desire to stay strong was to avoid disappointing all those people who were praying for her.

And I wonder now, in retrospect, whether my own struggles with faith and survival were borne from that experience of striving to match my mother’s strength. I look back and see a girl trying very hard to hold it all together. I see a girl trying desperately to be on her best behavior for God, hoping He would let her mother live. I see a girl trying to set a good example for others, hoping that her anguish would serve a higher purpose, and therefore lose its sting. I see a girl trying to be polite about her pain, hoping that if she kept really quiet, if she didn’t complain, if she didn’t become bitter, then God might favor her.

But my mother’s death was the loose string that unravelled everything. Grief has a way of pulling at the threads of our tidy narratives, until it all comes apart.

I came apart.

//

Politeness is a slippery, elusive thing. When my mother died, it was nothing that I could hold on to.

Instead, grief was a dirt path in the wilderness that I stumbled down. The rough terrain quickly forced me to give up any notions I had of bearing my burdens beautifully. This was the long road; my platitudes and tidy beliefs were useless here. Each step forward turned into a question about my tangled-up desires to honor my mother and God.

What if I couldn’t bear my grief as valiantly as my mother could?

What if I couldn’t be polite about any of it anymore?

What if my own legacy of grit was not in holding myself together as a picture of strength, but in setting myself free to grieve deeply?

That dirt path of grief was the beginning of hope for me. The further I walk along it, the more people I encounter whose grief journeys intersect with my own—all types of survivors, not just cancer patients and their loved ones. They continue to show me, story by story, just how far God’s love and mercy reaches down these paths we’re walking, well beyond the point where we give up trying to hold our feelings in check. And they remind me that Jesus himself, bearing the cross all the way to Calvary, never tried to hide his bleeding heart.

In place of the polite façade, I find myself learning a new way of walking in faith, characterized by empathy and compassion and grit. A faith that has teeth.

//

Not long ago, I received a message from an old friend. We hadn’t been in touch for many years, since before my mother died, but stayed connected on social media. I could appreciate the spirit of care and concern intended with his words, but I could also read the disapproval in them, amidst questions about my evolving political and religious opinions. I could see, tucked in between recollections of the beautiful, godly girl he once knew, the subtle implication that I had become a disappointment, a disgrace to my mother’s legacy.

I slowly ingested the words, trying to resist the downward spiral toward shame.

In moments like this, it’s hard for me not to revert to my long-held role as the Striving Girl, to perform politeness and uphold the tidy narratives of the people around me. I’m tempted to cover up my own bleeding heart.

But I don’t.

I wear it all right on my sleeve where people can see it.

I know it’s not pretty—the anger and the rage and the bitterness and the cynicism. I know it’s hard to resist the narratives we’re raised with, about who we are and the tribes we belong to. I know it’s hard to be honest. I would never blame any woman that bites back the tears and smiles through the pain, just for the sake of surviving.

I would never try to take away your hard-won legacy of strength.

But if you’re tired of being the Striving Girl, the Best Behavior Girl, the Good Example Girl, if you’re stumbling through a wilderness of grief and you’re exhausted of being polite, you’re allowed to show some grit.

It may not be pretty, but it’s beautiful.

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