Remember School House Rock? For children of the 70s, it was a Saturday morning staple. Conjunction Junction was one of my favorites: “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function? I’ve got and, but and or: they’ll get you pretty far.” (I think the School House Rock team was loose with the rhyme scheme.) We were learning and we didn’t even know it. That stupid jingle will get stuck on loop, a most unwelcome ear worm of edutainment.
Recently, a friend sent me an email sharing a thought she’d had in church. She was thinking about two words: “and” and “but.” The choice of one word, one conjunction, can make all the difference in our outlook. She gave this example:
It’s my birthday today and there will be a lot of people here to celebrate.
It’s my birthday today but there will be a lot of people here to celebrate.
In the first scenario, the birthday girl is excited. It’s her day, and lots of people will be there to celebrate with her! In the second scenario, the birthday girl is clearly an irritated introvert. It’s her birthday, but she’ll have to tolerate a bunch of people crashing her party. Meh. Not hating on introverts, people — just pointing out that in one case, “and” is a joyful addition. In the other situation, “but” is a detractor, something to be tolerated.
She then drew the parallel to my own life:
I have things to feel joyful over and Kai has died.
I have things to feel joyful over but Kai has died.
The first sentence sounds like a complete story, albeit a sad one. The second sentence? It’s a straight drop on a roller coaster, or an open book slammed shut.
There will always be a void in my heart, my life, my story. There will be empty pages that should have been more of Kai’s story: his pimply faced adolescence; his high school graduation; his discovery years in college; his wedding; his children … pages that will never be written. There is no more “and” for Kai.
As for my story, this is my or: losing Kai can be a part of my story, or it can be beginning of the end. I can allow this awful thing, this tragedy and loss, to be part of who I am, to coexist peacefully with the life I have now; or I can allow one moment to bifurcate what remains, and to diminish the life I still have left. That’s not denigrating the depth of the loss. Right now, it is still consuming, and boundless, and oppressive. Mothers who are much farther along in their journeys tell me honestly, “The sadness never leaves you entirely. It becomes more tolerable, and less pervasive, but it’s always there.” That damn pesky “but.”
How many of us have some cataclysmic moment that becomes the comma in our life? In the weeks after Kai’s funeral, I couldn’t even imagine there would be words again. I couldn’t imagine life at all, much less a life without him. The moment I told the paramedic in the ER, “It’s OK. You can stop now” … how could there be any more story after that? The cadence of my life as a mother didn’t pause in that moment; it stopped. It stopped. In that moment, there was no comma. There was a single period. The life I thought I would have ended. I thought.
Right now, I still can’t imagine joy. There are moments I’ve felt happy, like tonight, when I was tucking the 4 year old into bed. Singing our usual good night song, I subbed in the word “booger” and his laughter just pealed. My husband was in the hallway, listening, and I knew that sound would make him smile, just like I smiled. How can anyone NOT smile when a little kid is genuinely laughing? That moment was a gift, and I acknowledged it by looking up and mouthing “Thank you.”
There will be more of those moments. I know there will be. There is still a lifetime of family, and love, and little kid/ someday big kid laughter. I will pray there are no more October 9th moments. I will pray. And every morning, I will have to make a conscious decision. Will today be an “and” or a “but?” Is the life I have now in addition to what came before, or is it what remains? I guess that all depends on which conjunction I choose.