You Must Not Fall, But You Can Fly

Will this ever get easier?” she asked in her email, this woman who just weeks ago lost her husband to cancer.  Easier, I thought to myself.  Is it easier?  And, truth be told, it is not.  Ease is still elusive.  “But,” I wrote her back, “it will become different. And you will be okay.”

Widowhood is hard. (Fuck, I hate that word so much.) For a while, it’s all you want to talk about, while at the same time it is the last thing you want to talk about. And our friends, bless them, they love us but can’t know how we feel. And truly we don’t want them to know how we feel, because it is awful and we don’t wish this on anyone even at a remove. We are standing on one side of an abyss and they are all on the other, and the only way to get across is a tightrope.  Lean too far either way, and you’re going down. While I am skeptical that swaying on a piece of rope high above the earth ever becomes easy, it does feel like one can learn to appreciate the view a bit.

It takes some pluck. The pole can become so unbalanced; so unsteady.  On one side there is the bureaucracy that accompanies death:  insurance forms, medical bills, financial transactions.  Take him off the auto insurance, pay his last credit card bill (“no, no I do not know his pin number, I’m sorry, he’s dead, we ran out of time”), reply to messages sitting in his email account. Even when people are kind, it’s heavy.  On the other end of the pole are the fears: how can I manage this house on my own, who will comfort me when I get sick, just how long will decades alone feel to me?  You perceive the rope under your feet, and every muscle in your calves is screaming with the effort it takes to stay upright, and your arms are tired—so, so tired—from trying to hold steady that long heavy bit of wood. 

And you think to yourself that you mustn’t so much as glance below yourself.  “Do not look down, do not look down,” it’s like a mantra in your head, though of course you occasionally do and it makes your head swoon.  You find yourself stuck, one foot partially raised, shoulders quivering, face frozen in fear.  It feels safest not to move.  When all the choices are terrifying you think that perhaps you simply shouldn’t make any at all.  After all, from here you can feel a slight breeze on your face, you can hear the birds singing; this is not so bad.  Surely if you can just stay here it will be safe, or maybe safe enough anyway.

But those who live high above the earth on a thin rope will tell you, it is the standing still that is the most treacherous.  Only in movement can you maintain equilibrium.  And no single step is what you’d call “easy.” Every single one comes with a heart-stopping moment when you have shifted your center of gravity, when you are perilously swaying on one foot seeking that thin cord with the other.  Each step comes with the slightest frisson of fear.  But if you are to ever reach the solidity of the ground on the other side, if you are ever to join the others waiting across the chasm, you have to feel it.  You have to embrace the discomfort and recognize that it can help power you across. You have to learn to trust that your foot will find the rope.

You must not fall,” advises Philippe Petit, the famous daredevil tightrope walker. “When you lose your balance, resist for a long time before turning yourself toward the earth,” he recommends.  “Then jump.” 

Just jump. Because, honestly, you don't realize it right now, but after what you've been through, some of the laws of physics simply don't apply to you anymore.  Honey, you can fly.

So, my dear S, you brave strong woman just starting off across the pit, there is my take for what it is worth.  Does it get easier?  No, each and every step is a brand new one and each and every one contains just a sliver of terror.  But unlike the cancer and the sickness and the doctors and the machines and the crushing sorrow, unlike those last few heart-wrenching months, it will be different because you get to take the steps you need to take at your pace and in your rhythm.  You are crossing to a song only you can hear. You are the only one who knows how to place your feet securely to get across, and you get to decide. 

And so long as you listen to your own heart you will not fall, so long as you maintain faith in yourself (and look how far you have already come) you cannot fall--you can only jump. And soar.