A few months ago, a friend recommended a book to me called “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver. After sitting untouched on the shelf for a month, my husband found it in a half-hearted search for something to read. He blazed through it during our recent beach vacation, and then lent it to his mom, who also read it. Suddenly the two of them were engaged in a secret discussion, and then invited me to share in the family book club so I could weigh in with my thoughts, too.
While not intended to be a review, this book catches one in a subtle trap of simple words and old fashioned Kentucky slang. The story is warm yet heartbreaking, and perhaps no one realized just how much I would get lost in the warm glow of a “Southern tale taken West.” Neither did anyone realize how much I would identify with Esperanza.
She’s a side character with very little dialogue, and throughout most of the story, the reader feels indifferent toward her, then irritated, even frustrated, until her pitiable state is revealed: her very young daughter was kidnapped in their home country of Guatemala, and she has no way of ever finding out her fate. She takes on the role of a bereaved mother in extreme grief – panic attacks, PTSD, even attempted suicide, until finally the reader is left to believe she finally “freed” herself and found resolution through a turn of events involving the daughter of the main character, Taylor.
When I finished the book and thought I had finished crying, I found my husband in the kitchen one lazy Saturday morning. We talked about the story, the significance of the “bean trees,” the Kentucky slang, and the characters that strangely reminded us of people we knew in real life.
“I saw myself in Esperanza,” I confessed.
“Yeah,” my husband said sadly. “I did, too.”
This bothered me so much, I could hardly talk about the book anymore.
While this was a work of fiction, my reality is not a book I can close and put back on the shelf. The panic attacks I have are real. They are debilitating, and frustrating to those around me. I’m the character in the story with all the burdens of baggage, from PTSD to social anxiety to just plain social awkwardness. And while I’m glad to be alive, honestly there were times I wished I wasn’t. Nobody should have to feel pain like this. It’s a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. An incredibly lonely, isolating, darkened shroud. An abyss. A life in ruins.
But I don’t want to be a side character. I want to be the protagonist. I want to be the hero.
Some days it feels like a conscious choice, and on other days it feels like an impossible dream. Lately it feels like loss defines me, written like a bio with my picture attached. I’m tired of sympathy and pity, but I want do want support and encouragement. I don’t want the rest of my life to already be buried in a grave.
So I rise up. I fill my life with good things. I chase every twinge of happiness, down to small whimsies. I wrestle with self-pity and defeat it with helping others and showing support to those who are also trying to grow despite harsh conditions. If nothing else, this darkened shroud is the place I go when I am called to show empathy, and thus it has become more sacred than ever.
Yet I still feel like I have to apologize for the way I stumble through the days, broken and tired and weeping and angry and bitter and haunted . . . and a mess. “Sorry,” I think to myself in a self-conscious moment after I’ve done something incredibly vulnerable, “I’m just dealing with an unspeakable tragedy is all.”
But I think the most important lesson I’ve learned in the now almost four years, is that I must be patient and kind with myself. I’m not a character, and this is not a story. This is my reality, and as painfully harsh as it may seem, I’ve still got growing to do.
And if you’re here because you’re a survivor, or even a spectator, your presence is appreciated. In the dark abyss of grief, every person with an open heart is like a light.
As long as there is light, I know I will never lose my way.