World Upside Down

For now, I’ve decided to be honest when people ask how I’m doing. I’m not going to burden my local barista or library circulation desk employee with a more dramatic response than, “Fine, thank you.” I am well enough to buy a coffee or check out a book. But for now, friends and colleagues will get the truth. Fortunately, as a grad student, ABD, on a fellowship rather than teaching, I have the privilege of not going out. If the answer to, “How are you?” is going to be, “Bloody awful, thank you,” or, “Barely restraining wails of grief and horror, thanks,” I’ll just be staying in. But if it’s, “okay” or “not too badly,” I might as well say so. And apparently I’ll say it with a smile.

I’ve been reading blogs by other bereaved mothers. It’s a part of my quest to avoid surfing incessantly for information about pre-term labor, and instead to find supportive and engaging sources on the web. I was saddened but somehow encouraged to find that other women experience the feelings of guilt and shame that I do at times. Saddened because I wish no one else had to feel what I feel and because of course they’re not to blame and there’s no need for shame. But encouraged because, well, if other women who’ve done nothing wrong feel like I do, then probably I didn’t either.

It would be nice if we could really know what we’re responsible for in this world. I know what I’m responsible for not doing – violence, for example – and I know what I’m responsible for on a small scale – my cats, husband, taxes, etc., – but on a global scale it’s tougher. We all ask ourselves at some time, I’m sure, whether we ought to pursue a career that has as its explicit purpose helping the world. But it’s not so easy to define what that means.

I have no idea how I’m supposed to respond to suffering. Last year for example, when I was in Moscow, I saw disabled people neglected and mistreated in the most horrifying ways. On my ride to Moscow from the airport, I saw a legless man pushing himself through traffic on a dirty little cart – just a piece of plywood, really, with four wheels, only about 4 inches above the ground. Later, in St. Petersburg, I saw another man, with a terribly mangled face and only stumps for arms and legs dressed in dirty rags, leaned against a wall with a cardboard sign saying he was a veteran and asking for money. Perhaps most upsetting was when we witnessed a man with extremely bowed legs knocked down by a swinging door and people were just stepping over him. We saw him from a distance, and when we got there, only two young people could be bothered to help Josh help him up. I gave many of the disabled panhandlers money (I’ve never cared how beggars use it.), but later a Russian academic told me that disabled beggars are sometimes part of a slave market, and that what I give them will only be taken away. I don’t know if that’s any truer than the idea that all American homeless people will use what I give them for drugs. In fact, I have less knowledge about its accuracy, but it certainly didn’t make me wish I hadn’t given them anything. I do believe, though, that many Russian aid organizations are probably corrupt. So as an American who feels morally invested in disability rights and safety, what is my responsibility once I’m aware of this problem? Honestly, thus far I’ve done nothing. As one person, and not a very wealthy one at that, what am I supposed to do? I feel less wise about my place in the world now than I did ten years ago. I’m not even in control of what I’m responsible for – I could do nothing more than I did for Natan. I was responsible for his welfare, but in the end all I could do was bury him and make sure he is remembered and memorialized. That’s not at all what I wanted but I had no power to change it.

Being mother to a deceased child is surreal in many ways. But for me, I am most bemused because I believe that Natan’s soul has gone on to divine wisdom while I only feel more and more at a loss for understanding. So in that way, our son, a being we created and wanted to nurture, has surpassed us in development. And I am confused by this world turned upside down.

4 responses to “World Upside Down

  1. Hi Sara. I am so sorry about Natan. I’m sorry we had to join the blog world and find each other through such heartbreaking circumstances. My thoughts are with you.

  2. I wonder if your husband would take issue with the fact that he comes second to the cats in the list of your responsibilities…

    More to the point, perhaps we can gain some insight as to how we are supposed to respond to suffering by thinking about “moral saints” – those (such as members of religious orders, for example, or Paul Farmer) who devote their entire lives to helping others. I assume that they do not experience the same sort of guilt that I do when I see great suffering, as they are doing all that they can; I assume that they still feel equally powerless, though.

    Personally, I tend to feel overwhelmed by guilt when I think of how much more I could do. Relevant here, though, is reflection on how I feel when I encounter great violations of rights – say, the unconscionable treatment of blacks earlier in this country (but better to think of an occurrent example): I tend not to feel guilt so much as outrage. It isn’t my fault that blacks are mistreated; to the contrary, the guilt lies squarely on the perpetrators. And so it is with much, probably most, suffering in this world. Should I do more? No doubt. But at least some of my guilt should, I claim, be replaced with outrage towards all the others who do nothing.

  3. Hah Chris! He did actually! I told him that he can manage to feed & clean up after himself, whereas Tom is a pathetic hunter and Midnight would die of a hairball if we didn’t brush her.

  4. Thinking of you, and still wishing that you weren’t part of this sorrowful little band of mothers.

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