So This is How it Feels

From time to time, in the midst of a day dream or a period of deep thought, an image will strike my mind – an image that encapsulates the topic I’ve been thinking about and boils it down to its raw, fundamental meaning. A number of years ago, perhaps during prayer or while driving to work, one such image entered my mind. I called it, “The Scream.” The Scream, in my mind, was the universal cry of the human heart when faced with the worst, most violent kind of injustice imaginable. It’s horrible and there’s nothing you can do about it since it’s already happened. The Scream included something like a complete psychotic break, where the mind goes black because the human mind cannot accept the depth of the horror in front of it, yet at the same time cannot deny its existence. The return to normal consciousness happens as the person hears the scream as though it originated from somewhere far off, but gradually comes to realize they are the source, and in doing so, opens their eyes to the horror in front of them again. Inevitably, the type of horror I imagined most likely to bring about this state of extreme emotional agitation was the death of one’s own child. You’re holding them now, while they’re motionless and cold. There is nothing you could have done to stop it and no good reason it should have happened. And while I am generally the protagonist of my daydreams, this is one I would have happily done without, and a prophecy I would rather had never been fulfilled.

When I held my infant daughter and she began to flat-line, I didn’t scream – not out loud anyway. I remember feeling the world go black and, while faintly aware of machines beeping, I had a real physical sensation of a piece of my soul (heart, spirit, whatever you want to call it) being sucked out into my child, only to evaporate along with her short life on this earth. It’s the type of thing you feel, I suppose, when you experience something so shocking, so life altering, that you know intuitively you will be a markedly different person than the one you were up until that moment. As it was happening I remembered the daydream I had and I thought, “So this is how it feels.”

Now it may surprise you (less so perhaps, if you are my brother) to know that the next image that came to my mind was of a tree branch bursting through the chest of an old and tired Wolverine. Spoiler alert. If you happened to watch James Mangold’s Logan, I probably don’t have to tell you that’s how Wolverine dies, or that his last words were, “So this is how it feels.” No doubt that line was the anchor of thought which brought the scene to my mind, though the piercing of the heart was just as apropos.

I loved the movie Logan for a number of reasons which, despite the brutality and violence, ended beautifully. Despite his defects of character, Logan manages at the end of the film to destroy the part of himself that is entirely vicious, and sacrifices his life for his daughter. At the beginning of the movie, it’s clearly not something he had ever planned on having to do. In fact, we find him broken and limping through life, with the primary goal of getting Charles Xavier (both a father and a friend to him) away from as many people as possible. With Charles’s mind and Logan’s body falling apart, these two are far from what they used to be. Their strength and will are largely spent, due no doubt to the trauma of all of their friends having been killed by one of Charles’ mental seizures. If they had both crawled into a boat and died, it would have been a believable, yet terribly bleak end to their stories.

The impulse to retreat after trauma isn’t one I have any trouble relating to. Perhaps I could have handled it if I had to, but the idea of going back to my full load of responsibilities after my daughter died just seemed crushing. Just talking to anyone, no matter how well meaning they were, took a great deal of effort. My wife and I were both fortunate enough to be able to take three months of leave from our jobs, so we had the luxury of retreat for a little while. If you’ve ever wondered how people carry on after experiencing a soul-crushing sorrow, the answer is because you just have to. Having other people, especially children, who need you is a strong motivator to keep putting one foot in front of the other in spite of how you feel.

You may no longer be what you were before, but there’s something of the old you left and, perhaps, something new and different worth doing, no matter how painful the process of being forcibly brought back out of yourself is. While I’m not Wolverine (unfortunately) and my wife is not Charles Xavier (thank God, that’d be awkward), the story of Logan sticks in my mind as containing a lesson for us. My wife is the only person on earth who intuitively understands everything about what I’m thinking and feeling, and vice versa, because we both went through this trauma together. We are the only ones who experienced all the precise ups and downs of the drama of our child’s life, the only ones who know the full story. If I had the ability to drift off into obscurity with just one person, I would take her with me, and drift off gladly. While we both have to coax each other sometimes, our living children are motivation enough to keep engaging with the world.

The story of Logan is one of two old souls finding a reason to rouse the last bit of strength they have left in order to make a worthy end, and not die cold and alone. When I first watched it and saw the two characters ingloriously bickering in the desert, a line from a poem I had once memorized sprung into my head. “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, /To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!” As that connection occurred to me, the more rousing final lines of that same poem (Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses) came, like whispers of hope:

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

We are not done just yet.