Friday, September 4, 2015

This is water

David Foster Wallace wrote many powerful things. The most meaningful for me, and for many others, is the commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. He outlines a way to live, a reminder that we are always in our story even when that story is painful or dull or monotonous, a way to remember that every moment of our lives is our lives.

Take a few minutes and watch an excerpt. If you want to hear the whole thing it's here.

I've tried to live this way for most of my adult life, with limited success. Some days are better than others. When Kevin was diagnosed I found myself living more intensely, more in the moment than I ever had before. Each nurse, each doctor, each member of the cleaning staff, was an individual with huge impact on our lives, so I paid closer attention to them than I knew I was capable of. Our continued existence depended on their humanity; I made every effort to connect with them in as human a way as possible.

That time in the hospital and the limited time we had at home was utterly sacred. Holy. Every individual was part of it, as were the hard surfaces of the bedside table, the hiss of the bed inflating and deflating so he wouldn't get sores, the long hours spent waiting for the next test result, the thin light of dawn creeping into the room.

This is water.

After Kevin died, as you well know, my grief was and sometimes still is all-consuming. I made a conscious decision to embrace it the same way I decided to attend to the people helping us. I decided pretty early on that I would rather grieve the same way I have lived most of my life, by feeling it fully, rather than trying to suppress it.

It was a hard choice. Many people who don't know me well were frightened by it and chose to tell me how I should be grieving. There were certainly times when I just wanted to feel normal again, though I had no idea what normal meant. Frankly, I don't think there really is a normal, we are all changing all the time and normal implies a kind of stasis, so it was perhaps an impossible desire. It might be better to say that I wanted to feel the way I felt before he got sick. I wanted to feel whole, even though what I was and am building is a new kind of damaged wholeness. I just didn't know that then.

I learned to swim in grief. I learned to trust that, even when I felt my worst, even when I was drowning, I would eventually return to myself. I learned that my body would only let me cry for so long. I learned that grief is part of life. I would rather feel all of my life, even when it is so painful. That's what differentiates grief from depression, for me at least; depression is a deep absence of self, a sense that I am not worthy of presence. It's about trying (maybe) to live in spite of emptiness, fighting both emptiness and what little sense of myself there is the whole while. Grief is about deep presence with absence, a sense of emptiness in the universe and learning what it means to live with emptiness, accepting it and loving the void because it means there was once presence. I hope this makes sense to some of you. I'm not articulating it well.

This is water.

I will never feel the way I did before he got sick, but I am finding new versions of wholeness, cracked and leaking light. I am finding new gifts from the universe, new waters in which to swim. I am bringing with me some of the attention I learned to give in the hospital, some of the sense that every moment is my life, no matter how hard. I am so grateful for Kevin in my life and even now am finding ways to be grateful for the pain. I am so grateful for everyone walking with me. I am so grateful for water.
My left ankle.
A reminder that in every step, in every breath, this is water and I am alive.
(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. This is very articulate! You explain the difference really well between grief and depression. You are an amazing writer. Thank you for sharing all you do.

    1. Thank you Simon. Having an audience makes the writing so much easier. I'm glad the difference was clear, I'm clear there is a difference but figuring out how to articulate it is tough.


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