Watching footage of the destruction of Lahaina, I have been thinking about the idea of being spared. We hear about how some people’s houses were spared, how the lives of people who escaped were spared. Elsewhere in the world someone else on the same day might have been spared by a few seconds from a deadly accident. We might have said “spare me!” when we heard something ridiculous. Maybe we got a flat and dug in the trunk for the spare tire. Someone on the street might have asked for spare change. Somewhere, someone is getting a spare in bowling.
The meaning of “spare” is extraordinarily fluid. In one etymological source it means “kept in reserve, not in regular use, provided or held for extra need.” In another it comes from a root meaning “not plentiful, meagre,” and in a third it means “to refrain from use or injury.” Quite a versatile language traveler, this little five-letter word.
All that is the purview of dictionaries, but I got to thinking about the emotional weight of the word, the ways in which we are spared from time to time, and by one means or another, from things that would be anywhere from unpleasant to tragic, from sad to downright horrifying.
I have faced some awful losses and it’s easy to focus on the downside, but it’s also important to be grateful for the upside, the things from which my beloved lost ones and I have been spared. Most notably, as I read about the horrific, incessant heat in Phoenix this summer, I think about what my son would be facing if he were still alive. In Phoenix, it was so bad that people who fell onto asphalt had first degree burns if they were able to get up immediately, and third degree burns if they lay there any length of time. His apartment had less than adequate air conditioning, and to keep it even close to habitable, it had to become a claustrophobic cave with all the blinds shut. He had not been able to afford his car payment, so if he had a job to go to, or any need at all to leave the house, he would either have had to walk or wait at a bus stop in 110-plus heat. ( I say “if he had a job” because in addition to poorly controlled bipolar disorder with psychotic features, he had undergone a less than entirely successful shoulder replacement surgery after a fall, and would have what he called a John McCain arm for the rest of his life, both of these making employability an issue.)
He has been spared that. I also have been spared from needing to rescue him, which I most certainly would have done. As a result I would probably not have been able to stay in Victoria, but would need to return to the US. He couldn’t come to Canada for more than a little while, due to visa status and need for medical care. Since he most likely couldn’t support himself and I can’t afford two rents, I would be living somewhere I didn’t want to live, with someone I loved very much, but whose mental condition often made him difficult to be with.
I have worked very hard for many years to create the life I want for myself and I would lose it. I would also find the healthy boundaries I have set very difficult to maintain living with a son who wouldn’t be able to track my own needs well. It would not be a good situation for either of us. I think he knew this too, and it factored into what I believe was, in addition to his desire to spare himself further pain by taking his life, an extraordinarily loving wish to spare me any further stress and suffering.
It’s hard for mothers to say these things because we have swallowed the myth that good mothers are selfless in their devotion. We might be okay with saying the lost child is in a better place, or free of suffering, but to say the same applies to us makes us feel as if our love is somehow defective. I think part of moving forward for parents and other grieving caregivers is to acknowledge we are relieved to be spared future difficulties by the loss. It doesn’t make the grief less intense, it just frees us from spending energy battling ourself.
As if it isn’t enough that we beat ourselves up about the adequacy of our love, it’s frightening to imagine people’s reactions if we were to appear to be saying that we are glad our loved ones are gone. I’m not glad Ivan is gone, but I wouldn’t want him back the way he was. I am glad he is not suffering. I can’t imagine anything crueler that to wish he were still down in that apartment in Phoenix in physical and mental pain.
We can’t love someone into good health. We can’t love catastrophes away. We don’t love people any less because there are some moments in which we can recognize what we, and they, have been spared.