Earlier this month as I was reading in a coffee shop and feeling pretty fucking sore and resentful after pelvic floor therapy (which is par for the course about half the time), I overhead a group of three middle-aged women talking at the table next to me. At first I thought they were just shooting the shit (and rather loudly, at that). And the only thing more annoying than Three Women Loudly Talking In A Public Space is Three Men Loudly Doing That. (Maybe I just have a thing about inside voices…) I sighed with resignation and redoubled my efforts to focus on the text at hand.
But then I realized that what I thought was laughter from one of them was actually a sob. This woman’s voice was cracking with anguish. I then peripherally saw the other two, slightly older and more composed, reach out from either side of her and touch her tenderly on her shoulders. I realized that something very different from what I thought, and very profound, was occurring.
As these women continued to converse, I pieced together the premise of their rendezvous. Here are some of the sentence snippets I heard, principally from the crying woman but also in various iterations from the other two: “I feel worse now than at his funeral”; “Sometimes I feel fine, but if I have too much time to myself I just fall apart,” and so on and so forth.
The statements got more vivid, and with increasing alarm I put it all together. All three of them had come together, through some intentional grief-support-group arrangement, because they shared one thing in common: their husbands had all been murdered through random violence.
For the two more composed women, it seemed to have happened many years ago, and it sounded like they had both eventually remarried. For the more visibly distraught woman, it seemed to have happened very recently. When I finally realized exactly what they were discussing, I tried hard not to let my jaw drop, but the jolt of adrenaline I felt within me was undeniable: how are these women even able to sit here and talk about this? How can they say things that begin, “Yes, well when MY husband was murdered, here’s how I felt…” as they sit here in this effete, gluten-free coffee shop in Wellesley?
They all spoke about the plunging loneliness, the erratic moods, the awkwardness of claiming the labels “widow” and “murder,” and the necessity of finding ways to be strong for their children through the intermittent depressive fogs.
At one point I also saw the profile of the most grief-stricken woman as she stood up briefly. Her body’s convexity showed she was probably into her third trimester with her late husband’s child. She lamented the fact that her child would never meet his/her father, and that she was, for the foreseeable future, going to be a single mother reeling from chaos. More concretely, she complained about having no appetite but forcing herself to eat for the sake of her fetus.
I have abided much pain in my own life, and I recognized her raw anguish as something I myself have felt at various times for other reasons, but I also realized I was being given a brief window into a grief that I have not experienced and do not understand. Theologically speaking, one could say that these women’s husbands had been crucified. As a result, and in a different way, these women were living their own crucifixion.
They spoke a lot about the task of living lives shaped by violence. The lives that they thought they were leading had been stripped away from them, and they were left with shitty options that in no way embodied their pre-established expectations and hopes. The woman with the freshest grief said, “He and I had both been married once before, in terrible marriages, and then we grew up and found each other, and that was IT for both of us, you know? We talked regularly about what we’d be like in ours 70s together, and I can’t believe I only got to see him into his early 40s. Now what? Now what?” Words gave way to moans.
These women have been left to grieve What Should Not Be and then try to pick up the pieces or throw in the towel and die. One of them said, in a rather theologically laden manner, “Yes, all our narratives have been interrupted in a particular way. They have been torn away from us. And then we gradually make new narratives that are different from what we ever thought would be the case. And then the tragedy, and the love that you will always have for him, is a part of you as you make your new narratives.”
Their lives had been stitched together in fits and starts, and they were somehow living in the midst of death and violence and disruption and starting over and loving again while carrying old love. (Though, for no particular reason, their husbands had not been given the same opportunity of extended starting and stopping…which is something I will merely note in passing.)
I’m not recounting this story in order to proclaim, “Gee, thank God it’s not me!” (or: “Thank you, God, for making my life better than the lives of these women and their husbands!” Hmm…I feel like their are some unsavory figures in the Bible who go this route with their prayers…)
Because, in addition to the fact that God doesn’t “do” this shit to anybody, here’s the thing: it could be me. It could be you. It could be any of us (if it isn’t already). The extremity of the violence wounding the women at that table was breathtaking and unthinkable and contrary to the will of God who is a God of life, for sure, but it’s not singular. Such things happen all the time to all sorts of people. We should fight the good fight and try to enact prophetic resistance to such evils, but.
“And a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:35).
So instead of highlighting some sort of weird exception to the Rules of Life, these women show one face of life’s utter cruelty.
But they are also exemplary for another reason. Enduring their own forms of living crucifixion, they stood together in grief. At the edge of this abyss, they abided with each other compassionately, in that exquisite moment of “suffering-with,” and spoke knowingly of their shared evisceration. And intermixed with tears was laughter, which turned back into tears and then back to laughter. At the end, they agreed to meet on a weekly basis. Nothing was “fixed,” but that’s not what was supposed to happen. “Fixing” is an illusion recognized as such by those who carry death with them.
It is difficult for me to put into words why witnessing this exchange was important for me, but perhaps it suffices to say that I knew I was seeing something real, not only in terms of the pain but also in terms of the solidarity. It made me feel as though I will be able to abide my own suffering, my own accommodation to living and dying in its various forms, with a more accurate perspective. It also made me feel as though it’s worthwhile to spend even more time paying attention to the various forms of suffering — the crucifixions — that others are enduring on a daily basis.
So the moral of this story is that eavesdropping is a very good thing to do.