Though I never expect to experience space travel, I understand – in general – the concept of reentry. I comprehend that the resistance of the atmosphere and the strength of the earth’s gravitational pull make coming back from orbit a tricky maneuver. I have, however, experienced the “other worldliness” of the life of a caregiver, and I see the comparison. Caregivers feel detached from life as we knew it, as though we are traveling through space and time in an alternate universe. But then when the loved one dies and we leave the defined orbit of caregiving to return to life as an ordinary earthling, there’s this pesky problem of reentry. How do we find the proper trajectory and velocity to protect ourselves from the frenzied self-immolation of doing too much (or doing too little)? How do we develop enough “compressive strength” to withstand the pressure others place on us to “get over it” and “get on with life.”
Why is the answer to such philosophical questions always the same mysterious, unquantifiable proof – “you’ll have to figure that out for yourself.” The secret is always in finding the balance, in recognizing what’s enough. No formulas exist, yet we can find some recipes to guide us as we develop some philosophical muscle memory.
One of the easy-to-remember planning guides I used when I worked with students on a daily basis was the question “How much gum to how much chew?” In other words, how much information to how much processing time? Imagine filling your mouth so full of gum you can’t move your jaws. Impossible. Yet you don’t need much time to exhaust one chiclet. Boring. The gum analogy works for lots of problem solving situations. Asking the question in terms of something simple like chewing gum can help us be wise about how much we take on and help us think about how much time we need to work through any challenge. Even if the challenge is grief work. How much sad can I deal with? How much time shall I give myself to work that sadness through? I can trust myself to know when it’s enough. And – unlike space travel reentry – it’s okay if sometimes I miscalculate. Like sometimes when I don’t even remember the grief is there.
For example, while I was avoiding the necessity of reentry by vacationing in Hawaii, one of our bus drivers played a song by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole called “In This Life.” It’s a beautiful melody that enchanted all of us as we rode along the back roads of the Big Island, hot pink orchids growing wild along the way. But then the refrain came, and it was more gum than I could chew. “Let the world stop turning/let the sun stop burning. Tell me love’s not worth going through. If it all falls apart/I will know deep in my heart/the only dream that mattered had come true. In this life I was loved by you.” The tears streamed and I was in free-fall reentry. Fortunately, tissues and sunglasses helped me regain composure and the proper public trajectory. (You can listen to the song on YouTube, but if you’ve lost someone, keep a hanky handy.)
But now I’m home. Much of the work of transitioning out the detritus of health care equipment and supplies and returning the house to “normal” is done. It’s time to resume life on my own. Time to create the “new normal” – whatever that turns out to be. So one of the first re-entry maneuvers is to help with this year’s Vacation Bible School program at church. I mean, making Bible stories come alive with children – what better tonic for me than that? Right? And it will be good for me. But I’m feeling some of the initial turbulence of reentry. A whole week of resuming a schedule – out there, in the world? My grieving spirit has enjoyed great quantities of quiet and solitude, floating gently beyond the atmosphere known as “daily life.” I remember teaching VBS. Not so quiet. Not solitary. But very daily. I guess it takes a lot of thrust to overcome inertia. The challenge is to take charge of the controls of my own life – one stick at a time.
And so the countdown to reentry begins. I may have to chew on this for the next few weeks. Code word: Bazooka!