Making room for quiet

I am still working on this, this making room for quiet. I read a post from On Being the other morning about silence and making space for it in everyday life, and it resonated, both because I have known the times that I have done so to be times of meditation, awakening, and awe, and also because I know that I haven’t had such moments in quite a long time.

Recently— over two months ago, actually— I said goodbye to the fourteen-month-old I had been fostering for seven months. She was the last child I would say goodbye to, the others having gone to other families in the weeks and months preceding this final one, and it was the hardest goodbye, nay, is the hardest goodbye. I’m still not over it. And while I don’t think I will ever be, I think that it would have helped if I had taken the moments I’ve had to myself since her leaving to sit in the painful silence of that loss. But I haven’t. I allowed myself one full day of tears, and then I started moving— away from the site of the loss, toward a new adventure, away from the discomfort, toward an unsure and obscure future. Moving doesn’t make it go away. It just means I carry it farther.

About a week after I left Texas, where I had been fostering, I visited a friend up in Michigan. We decided to go to a movie one afternoon, and the movie was about a girl who was dying of cancer. The movie itself wasn’t the most evocative movie I’ve seen on the subject, and I personally have not had any close loved ones die at a young age from cancer. Nothing about the movie seemed, on the surface, to contain any potential triggers for me; in fact, I didn’t even know I had any triggers to worry about. Yet towards the end of the movie, the girl died, and during the funeral scene in her home with her mother and friends all standing around sadly, I suddenly realized I had to get out of the theater. I wasn’t even fully up the aisle before having to cover my mouth to stifle the sobs, and as I opened the door, they were unstoppable, pouring from my body in loud convulsions. I shoved the door of the bathroom open and slid down the wall of the first stall, waiting for my body to empty itself, knowing that it was already empty and that what was coming out of me was the opposite of something, that it was nothing: a void, the loss of something both unnameable and very specific. I was a shell.

I knew then that one day wasn’t enough. Whatever emotions I had felt during my time as a foster parent would not disappear simply because I was no longer a foster parent. There would be a reckoning. But what would it look like? How does a person deal with the accumulation of frustrations, doubts, morbid realizations, ever-deepening attachments, and all-too-sudden departures? Especially when life demands motion, the constant shuffle of change and transition? I think of Natalie Goldberg saying, “If you can write a question, you can answer it,” and I know that that is exactly what I have to do: I have to reckon with myself, find the moments of space between the shuffles and pause there. I have to be able to look into the gaping hole in my side and see what is no longer there, what I intentionally let go of, and what is left over. And I have to accept whatever I find.

But nothing is as simple as it looks. As I wrote before, I chose not to be a foster parent anymore, but choices, by definition, require not choosing something else. And anything left behind, even after an intentional decision to leave it, can still cause grief, can call for a period of mourning. Allowing for that— making room for the quiet— is the only way I know to deal with it, to respect the impact it has on my life and to be able to move on, if moving on is to be possible at all. No one will make room for me to do this. Very few people will even understand that I have to, will understand what I have experienced. There are so many voices urging me on, chattering all around with conflicting messages. Making room for quiet means going against the flow and tuning those voices out. It means carving out space where it looks like there isn’t any. It is validating my experience by allowing it to continue to affect me in the processing of it.

This is paying attention. This is acknowledging the unanswerable in life and simply sitting amidst it. This is not making the complicated parts of life any more complicated than they already are. This is the act of non-movement, non-doing. This is not passive. This is difficult and uncomfortable and sometimes painful to the point of curling up in a ball on the floor of a public bathroom with snot pooling and tears staining the face with the fatigue of squeezing them out for hours after they cease their flood. This is the silence, which can be so full of beauty you think you will float away and which can be so heavy and dark you can’t breathe. Making room for quiet isn’t always peaceful. It is sometimes just staying still long enough for the shadows to catch up to you and make their demands. It is not looking away and staring straight into hurt. It is the reckoning.

I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know if everything will make sense or if nothing will. I just know what I have to do now: to face the deafening silence of loss. I have to do the hard work. I have to honor my little girl. I have to honor my pain, and I have to honor my love. Life will unfold without my help. I just want to be still enough to notice it.

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