Mothering Without a Map

"At the Doorstep"

July/​August 2000

In times of trouble, often all that's needed is showing up.

One early summer morning, I stood outside a stranger’s house in my Colorado town. My official city badge pinned to my shirt and a pager on my belt, I was armed with a briefcase stuffed with the tools of my trade: tissues, flashlight, blanket and pamphlets on stress and grief.

Newly divorced and eager to do some volunteer work, I’d recently completed training as a victim advocate. In long evenings and Saturdays I’d fill my notebook, head and heart with the misery that’s grist for the evening news: domestic violence, homicide, suicide, victimized children, elder abuse, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I’d learned about post-traumatic stress and honed my listening skills. And, inevitably, I’d shared my own grief and listened to that of others.

My training has prepared me to appear, when summoned by police, in the aftermath of assaults, fires, burglaries, traffic accidents and sudden deaths. While the officers conduct their investigations and fill out forms, I provide warm hands and heart—trained to ask, affirm and listen.

That morning, I could say, on the simplest level, what I was doing at this door: the ex-husband of the woman who lives here fell — or jumped — to his death from an apartment balcony just before dawn. But on another level, I didn’t know why I was there. It would take me two years of wearing my pager one week a month, stepping carefully through my days, to understand.

A woman in her thirties answered the door. She’d already been notified and seemed calm. In her living room, sitting among her friends, we talked about the death. Not long after I began thinking it was time to leave, someone said: “There’s something more. Her daughter. She’s only 6. She’s at school and doesn’t know yet.”

I sat back and struggled to breath. When I could, I said, “I’ve been the girl at school who doesn’t know her parent is dead.” When I was 6, I’d sat in my first grade classroom, unaware for an entire day that my mother had died of polio in our dining room, where she’d lain for a year, fully paralyzed, breathing with machines, watching her family. I said to the woman: Go to the school immediately and tell the child. Bring her home and let her be part of this day that will stand forever as the day dividing life before and life after.

I said goodbye and drove to the police department to get books for young children on death and grief. When I returned, I found a crowd in the kitchen, talking, remembering, weeping. The girl, dry-eyed, was in the midst of it all, her mother’s hand on her shoulder.

That day, I went home to lie down in my darkened bedroom, exhausted. I’d gotten what I had sought, what I had gone years without — the feeling of being powerfully alive, the way I imagine soldiers do in battle. My sensibilities had atrophied over three decades of non-use. After my mother died, my father had fled to another state, leaving my brother and me to be reared by our maternal grandparents. Having lost one parent to death, the other to desertion, I had learned to restrict emotion to a narrow, middle range. I persisted in the confining place through a long, childless first marriage. When it ended, a psychologist had helped me mourn the sorrows that began on the day in my fourth year when my mother complained of a backache and then disappeared into an iron lung, never again to breathe unaided.

Now that I was single again and embracing a new life, I no longer wanted to avoid my feelings. I wanted to flex them. I sought a regimen of emotion, and that’s what I found as a victim advocate. The work became my emotional aerobics, a way of toning my tolerance for pain, fear, anxiety and awe.

I will never forget the day I stood with a pair of police officers outside an old stone bungalow. An officer rang the bell and then stepped behind me. A stout, middle-aged woman came to the door, looked at the officers and then at me.

I had prepared well for this moment, reviewing what I’d been taught about death notifications: Be swift and calm. Use plain words like “dead” and “suicide.” Answer questions tactfully, but directly. Allow for a wide range of reactions by being quiet and supportive. Still, as I moved toward her, my hands grew cold and tremulous, like hers, held in mine, as she whispered, “John?” She had two sons, but she knew which one would someday bring the police to her door. I nodded and guided her back into the living room, where her husband stood.

In a voice as clear and even as I could manage, I said, “John killed himself today,” and she slumped to the floor, taking me with her. We knelt head-to-head, locked on each other until the men tugged us up. The officers, their duty done, left, but I stayed, sitting on a sofa, surrounded by years of accumulated newspapers, magazines and mail, gathered in great yellow dusty, piles, as we went over and over details of John’s life and death.

Delivering this terrible news and then sitting in that disheveled home for hours showed me a simple truth: Often in times of trouble what is needed is not action, but just showing up, demonstrating with my presence that what has happened is significant.

Another day, 20 people gathered at the police department — grieving friends and family of a college student, Robert, who had crashed a borrowed motorcycle. While he lay in the hospital, irreparably brain damaged, held from death by machines, we talked of him. I started with easy questions: How many of you know Robert through school? And moved on to harder ones. Can you describe what you felt when you first heard of the accident? His friends told stories about him, laughed and cried, as the meeting became a wake for the young man who, doctors said, would never regain consciousness.

Then his best friend broke into the stories, face flushed, eyes bright, talking fast about how disabled people can do all sorts of things. He vowed to push Robert around campus in a wheelchair and to take him to the mountains. Watching him, I not only saw his fight to disbelieve the truth that everything he knew and loved about Robert was gone forever, I felt it.

Each time I worked as a victim advocate, I was confronted with my own grief, and each time it became easier to separate my pain from the suffering of others. Later that day, when I went home and wept, it wasn’t for my mother, but for Robert and those who had lost him. I had come, reluctantly, to accept the fundamental inequity of the world. Misery —unexpected, preventable, self-inflicted, random — goes on daily, often down the street, and it’s not dispensed with a just hand. Standing with others in the face of that truth, I had learned from them that strength lies not in defending against pain, as I had for 30 years, but in giving in.

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