We all celebrate life and work transitions, but life itself is one big transition to whatever comes next, says Emily Rapp. We’re all just passing through.
Making a work or life transition is analogous to being in any kind of transit mode: boarding a flight to a new (or familiar) place, taking a road trip, crossing a career threshold or celebrating a milestone. Time contracts and expands during these journeys: both the body and the mind must manage the gain and loss of hours, shifts in climate, the weird interpersonal chaos that results from interacting with strangers (or friends and family) in confined spaces.
Maybe you’re transitioning from one job title to another; maybe you’re entering a new chapter of life during which your identity is shifting: becoming a mother, a father, a wife, a husband, a partner, a grandparent. These shifts are acknowledged by our culture; they conform to traditional expectations of the evolution of our lives.
What happens when that trajectory is interrupted?
Grief is a time stoppage like no other, and although we will all experience it, it is still not considered a milestone, and it’s not a transition people like to discuss. Since my son Ronan died, I have been slowly transitioning to not being his mother. I often feel guilty about what I don’t miss: attempting to master the complicated medical machinery he might need in case of a seizure or trouble swallowing; living with the every-minute dread of eventually losing him. I don’t miss that, but I miss my boy.
Most of all, I miss time; I see little boys that are exactly his age, if he’d lived. They are talking and toddling and throwing tantrums. I hold three-month-old babies who can do more with their bodies than he could at 18 months. What happened to all that space between his birth and his life? What happened to all of the time I expected him to have?
I keep remembering outtakes from his brief life: a long summer walk along the perimeter of the country club in Brentwood, California, eating frozen yogurt over Ronan’s head and being careful that no chocolate chips tumbled down into his little bird mouth; sleepy afternoons of feeding and naps and reading; bundling him up for a walk along the arroyo in a Southwestern winter. And now the person with whom that time was shared is gone.
Less than three years alive. How is it possible? And I often have these thoughts while I’m traveling, thinking: What does any of this matter? Where are we all going, and why? A six-hour plane ride feels like forever, and then it’s over. People moving through grief live in a kind of unbreakable fishbowl, feeling broken, in the world but also separate from it.
A friend who lost a child described the strange time warp of grief in this way: Her child exists and existed. Ronan is present, but he is also decidedly absent. His death places him solidly outside of time, but he lives in the time of my memory. He is both real and not real. This is true for all of us who have lost someone; they are present in memory, but they are also gone. Meanwhile, life charges on, with all of its “expected” transitions.
People die every day, so no doubt you know someone who is managing grief, the transition that keeps on transitioning, even while weddings and birthdays and anniversaries and wars and failures and triumphs happen all the time, every day, all over the world.
In this way grief as a transition is also a powerful connection, or connector, to other people’s lives, the lives of strangers, the memories and hopes and failures that live in the many people who cross our paths on our many journeys to and from this place or that. Every person has a narrative, even if we will never know it, and even if, like Ronan, they were not aware of having one. I find this comforting; it makes this world we know feel like an active place, a place that spins on, even when we are no longer allowed to see the people we love most as part of it.
We want to believe that the people we loved and miss are with us still, even when they are not. The chaos of transition is useful in this way because it creates imaginative possibility. What if there does exist another world where Ronan is marching across an airplane terminal, telling his children how much he loves them and then asking his wife or husband or partner what’s for dinner?
Before Ronan died, I had a dream, which was about letting go as well as holding on to memory, to possibility. In it I was walking across a field, toward a shimmering veil. Waiting on the other side of the veil or curtain or divider were several people, some known to me in real life and others known to me only in photographs and stories and imagination: my friend Kate’s father, wearing swimming trunks and a Red Sox hat; my boyfriend Kent’s mother, wearing a white swimming costume from the 1950s and red lipstick; my mother’s parents, wearing drab farm outfits from the 1930s; and my friend Becky’s little girl Elliott, who was blond and healthy and Ronan’s girl twin. I passed Ronan through the veil, and Kent’s mother propped him up on her hip, and then the group turned away from me toward the shore of a lake. Green leaves were falling through golden light. The ground was damp and fragrant. Elliott was running ahead, and then Ronan was running with her, two little kids playing as they should have been allowed to do in this world. In this vision Ronan was released from his struggle, enveloped by people who would care for him. I was on the other side, but he was going on, somewhere else. Not so much a vision of heaven as a wish for the afterlife.
I think of this vision often as I board a plane, hail a taxi, start my car. We’re all just passing through: a terminal, a country, an airspace, a world, a lifetime.
Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.