I hate the word “grace.” I feel guilty saying that. I know I’m supposed to feel something when I hear it. But it’s a nonsense word to me, a word repeated so many times it has morphed into sound separate from any meaning. People offer it gingerly, carefully, as though holding out a part of themselves. Here, take this. It brought me joy and comfort and peace. Maybe it will do the same for you. A long time ago, I felt the way they do when they hold it out. But lately it means nothing at all. gracegracegracegracegracegracegrace.
Yesterday I took my two youngest kids swimming. Our neighborhood community center has an indoor water park perfect for bored kids on slushy days, and we have had several slushy days. The year we homeschooled, we went nearly every week. I can still picture me pushing a baby in a stroller while holding a toddler in a purple swimsuit and floaties, two little boys in life vests trailing behind. Back then nobody could swim. Yet my only real worry was how I would get everyone out of the water when it was time to leave. It was the world I lived in before I knew babies could die.
After my son’s accident, we stopped going to water parks. At first we didn’t even go out in public. How was I supposed to keep four little heads within arm’s reach at all times when they wanted to climb and swing? Over time, we went back to playgrounds, then restaurants, Target, and, eventually even lakes and pools. But water parks were too similar to ground zero. Just thinking of them took my breath away.
Yet yesterday, I packed our bag and felt no rush of adrenaline. Pulling into the parking lot, my breath was even. I felt calm … excited, even. The little ones squealed and bounced beside me through the parking lot, breaking into a full sprint once we were inside. They had not been here since they were babies, and we’d all been stuck in the house for days. They couldn’t wait to swim.
Twenty-one months. That’s how long it’s been since my son drowned and was revived in front of my entire family. On the day of his accident, he was twenty-one months old. I’ve parented him as long since the drowning as I did before it. We’ve spent as much time together in this new world as we did in the old.
I’ve learned a few things about trauma and healing in the past twenty-one months. Not just from my son’s accident, but from all that life has thrown my way in the past few years. Life-changing accidents, hospital stays, failed relationships, shifting borders. I find myself talking often about the drowning lately, but that moment is just one shard, the easiest example to hold up to the light. A single image that encapsulates how our lives have changed. How we are healing.
It turns out time does not heal. Time cements apprehension into facts. It reinforces neural pathways, creating well-worn grooves of dysfunction. Time is a simmering pot for resentment and anger. It takes all that pain and presses down, hard, remolding our hearts into people we no longer recognize. If we sit in our pain and wait for time to work its magic, our lives will stay exactly where we left them the moment we sat down. Time does squat to heal.
But truth … truth can heal. Knowledge, too. So does the patience of friends, the kindness of strangers, someone on the Internet saying #metoo. A slower pace of life heals. So does keeping rhythms of faith, even when they feel absurd. Soups and pound cake are enormously healing, especially when brought by friends desperate to do something to help. Self-reflection heals. Exercise heals. A close friend who works her schedule around your children’s bedtime so that she can read stories and brush teeth, too – that kind of friendship is its own source of healing. Sitting outside, alone, with a cup of coffee, and time to notice the wind on my face is pretty healing, too.
Then, one day, I realized the pot no longer sat above flames. My heart may be pounding, but now I know why, and I know how to slow those screeching chemicals down.
All of these pieces, braided carefully, monotonously through each day, began to reshape that pain, too. Imperceptibly, after months of putting one foot in front of another, of deciding in my gut who I wanted to be (a person who shows up, a person who doesn’t give in to fear, a person who does not harbor bitterness and anger), and making every decision in light of that ideal, something happened. I opened up. I found it was possible to listen instead of shout, to absorb other perspectives, to say “I’m sorry,” and accept the same.
Those conversations eventually led me back to who I really am. Back to peace, but not the peace that says nothing ever happened. The peace that says, look at that, we’re going to be okay after all. A peace that forges ahead, toward a new compassion, a softer tone, a deeper resolve. A peace that led, eventually, to the waterpark.
I believe all healing comes from God. If we left healing to time alone, we would all continue moving down the spiral of pain and destruction. Whether it’s an antibiotic, an SSRI, a good book, a lasting friendship, a knowledgeable therapist … whatever the method, the restoration itself, the act of being reknit, re-formed, into something stronger and new is always supernatural. It can only come from the source of goodness and light.
Twenty-one months later, maybe I know what grace means, after all.