I’ve seen it, a kind of numbness that sets in with a loss. A love that is irreplaceable, someone who was the last ounce of family glue, or the always-there funny-but-deep friend—any one of them creates an uncharted hole for us to sink into, scale the walls, clean up, and fill in. Affirming the good psychological work by Kubler-Ross and private counselors (and despite the efforts of grief groups and the prayers of the faithful), the loss really becomes about the one left behind. The numbness—what to do with the numbness?
Sara Walker died on August 28. Sara Walker, Camden and Scott’s mom, Brian’s wife, Dinah and Michael’s sister. She and Brian were friends of my son John and his wife Vicky. Brian was one of John’s best buds in high school, and Camden and Scott enjoyed play dates with my grandbabies, Jameson and Carly. Sara was Dave’s physical therapist after his shoulder surgery a few years ago and a “rock” to her colleagues at Star Physical Therapy in Brentwood.
A baby girl, Camden and Scott’s sister Anna was stillborn in December, 2010. In early 2011 Sara was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Doctors did not believe the two events were connected, still don’t. Through this last year and several months, Sara waged a valiant fight against this monstrous destroyer. She exhausted every clinical trial available.
Sara chose to post updates on the Caring Bridge website and she consistently proclaimed that “either way, I win”. She said if she won this battle, she would get to raise her boys and be a wife to Brian; if she lost, she won the final victory and would go home to Heaven where she would hold Anna in her arms and praise God forever.
As of a few minutes ago, Sara’s Caring Bridge site was visited 697,665 times since she began to tell her story. I wonder if that is a record in Caring Bridge history.
I don’t think I ever really thought we’d lose Sara.
Just a few weeks ago, Dave’s friend John Walker died suddenly of a heart attack. John Walker, international banker, father of Scott, husband of Shelley. The name Walker is coincidental. So is the son’s name, Scott. As far as I know, the two Walker families did not know each other.
A close friend said John had recently been diagnosed with a heart problem and was waiting for a second opinion. He was the last person you would ever expect to have a serious health issue. He did all the right things: ate right, played tennis two or three times a week. He was always laughing and joking. With all his exuberance, John seemed to live a low-stress life. Who would have ever thought…
I dreamed of John a few nights ago. He was laughing that big, full laugh and shaking hands and bouncing around the room at the Cross Corner, his sports bar after-work stop where a Celebration of Life packed the place on that Thursday night in July.
At 2:00 p.m. the day before Sara died, I rounded a curve on John Bragg Highway, the place where I start slowing down to turn off the busy four-lane onto the country road that takes me to my weekly meeting with the writing group. It’s a bad spot with no turn lane, just over a little hill, and you have to turn from the faster left lane while doing everything possible to warn the drivers behind you to slow down or pull around.
The minute I crested that rise, I felt the rush of that hormone that floods us when we’re scared. That release of adrenalin occurred almost simultaneously with a violent collision of what turned out to be an SUV and a motorcycle just where I intended to turn. Twenty-foot flames shot into the air as both vehicles caught on fire. My leg shook so hard that I could not drive. I managed to pull back into the right lane to roll onto the highway’s shoulder. Four fellow drivers drove off the road, too, some of them easing to a stop, some skidding and screeching at the site. Car doors flung open and strangers became neighbors before the emergency vehicles arrived.
I sat watching the fire. The ambulance was there but there was nothing to be done by the paramedics but watch. My friend, the host of the writing group, called to ask where I was since she had expected me earlier. She jumped on her scooter to ride down to the intersection while I took the back way to her house. I met the Woodbury Volunteer Fire Department truck not too many minutes before I met her at the end of her lane. Or maybe it was the Readyville Volunteer Fire Department.
When we sat down at the breakfast bar in the kitchen and pulled out the laptops, we learned of the fatality in the collision. Several hours later, the Courier said that a twenty-eight year old man from Woodbury, the driver of the motorcycle, died when he hit the SUV turning off John Bragg Highway. The bike was traveling at high speed from the opposite direction that I drove and it lodged under the bumper of the other vehicle. Both caught immediate fire.
The man’s name was Ray Knox. I didn’t know him but the news said they called him Ray-Ray. The only news source I could find that reported the wreck was the Cannon Courier, the small town Woodbury, Tennessee newspaper. The obituary said he left a son and three daughters, his mother and grandmother, sisters, and a “host of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.”
These were untimely, unpredictable deaths, all of them. I have not experienced a death of someone so close to me, let alone a sudden one, so I recognize my inadequate empathy. The pit I feel for Sara’s passing is a tiny pin-prick indention compared to that of Brian and the others but, even so, there is this numbness. I can’t imagine who could ever take John’s place or who would feel so adventuresome as to try. There’s a hole. And then there is Ray-Ray, someone I do not know but someone who left a host of mourners and multiple stages of simultaneous grief, people who will never, ever, forget that Monday afternoon when they got the call.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke at Ground Zero on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This is a man who knows the utter shock of a sudden loss, having lost his wife and a baby daughter in a car crash in 1972. His two toddler boys almost died. Biden’s empathy allowed him to speak a personal truth. “…no matter how many anniversaries you experience, for at least an instant, the terror of that moment returns; the lingering echo of that phone call; that sense of total disbelief that envelops you, where you feel like you’re being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest.”
I’ve tried to write this story since way before 9/11. I couldn’t find a way to close. Now it comes to me that the reason I could not find an ending is that there really isn’t one.
My sorrow for Sarah, John, and Ray-Ray seems like grief-by-association, a feeling that is both instant and lingering, close and yet far away, vague but piercing. I see that, because we have this marvelous capacity for life and love, we are all on the trajectory of losing or being lost. We wept this year for Mary, Dave’s mother. She was ninety-two but we wanted more time with her; we miss her. My mother and father, who are so vibrant, have the predictable battles with the illnesses of aging. I’ve had over sixty years with them, but I don’t see any trade-off in the works of their long lives for less grief. I try not to think that Dave might someday leave me, or that I might die leaving him to deal with the same grief that I fear for myself.
So when I acknowledge that I will lose, I keep coming back to “What will I do with the hole? How will I treat the numbness?”
Tuesday night, author Anne Lamott spoke at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville. Anne Lamott seems like an old friend, one with wisdom I’ve relied upon, humor I’ve adopted, and faith that makes me wonder. My friend Leslie, an equal fan of Anne’s, picked me up for the hour-and-a-half ride. Since Leslie lives in Huntsville now, we catch up in spurts when she comes to Nashville. We talked all the way to Cookeville, and all the way back. We discussed health issues, aging parents, and loss. We didn’t talk about the “fear” of loss, but it was on my mind.
While we sat in the second row of the big auditorium and Anne told a poignant story about a recent date-gone-badly, I remembered something she wrote about dying, about losing somebody who is your world.
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
I pray that all the ones who loved Sara and John and Ray-Ray learn to dance. I hope I dance. I hope you dance.

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