A couple of mornings ago, I opened the front door to send my youngest child off to school and saw a line of cars backed up on my street, not moving. Looking to my left I noticed that they were behind the trash truck, and remembered that it was a regular trash pickup morning, one of two such mornings per week in our town. The trash truck stood still as the sanitation workers emptied a set of trashcans, then lumbered ahead two houses’ distance, then stopped again. With no shoulder available on our two-lane road, the truck took up the entire lane. The drivers in the cars behind it had no choice but to start and stop along with it, waiting for the opportunity to roll ahead a house or two only to wait again, wondering how far down the road they would have to go before the trash truck would turn down a side street out of their way, or perhaps deciding to take the first available turn themselves, any turn, whether it was on their route or not, just to get out of the ever-longer line of cars stopping, crawling, and stopping again.
My brother died over four and a half years ago. Nothing about my life since then has had anything to do with a predictable path, established progression, or logical journey. Feeling sad at one point doesn’t necessarily lead to feeling better later, and feeling good isn’t necessarily a protection against suddenly feeling bad. Coping fairly well with a tough holiday or date one year is no guarantee that it won’t hit me like a ton of bricks the following year. A topic of conversation that feels therapeutic in one situation may prove heavily triggering in another. It seems the best I can do at any given moment is to notice what I’m feeling and thinking, sit with it for as long as it sits with me, and accept it for what it is.
Living with grief is driving behind the trash truck on a two-lane, shoulderless road. We are halted again and again by something beyond our control. It’s hulking, dirty, and unwieldy. We stop, and start, and stop again. We get frustrated, anxious, edgy. We avert our eyes from the mess, and close our windows to shut out the smell. We hope it turns down a road away from the path we intend to travel. We sometimes change our path to get away from it, adding time and distance to our journey to avoid it. But then the next day, week, month, or year, randomly yet regularly, there we are again, behind the trash truck. Stopped, once again. Agitated, once again. Once again looking to escape the slow line of cars, the acrid smell, the lack of control.
But we can’t escape, not entirely, not forever, because the trash truck is necessary. The trash must be handled, and regularly, in all its odor and mess. This handling requires our waiting, and stopping, and smelling. It requires our letting go of control, or of the idea that we have control, because we never really had much control anyway. If we don’t deal with the trash – the mess of anger and sadness and confusion – it will pile up and up until we cannot drive anywhere anytime, cannot live in our homes, cannot function at all.
Behind the trash truck, we witness the trash being smashed and dealt with, breathe its odors, inch along behind it or detour around it as we must, and leave it only to find ourselves behind it another day when we start the process over again. With each occurrence comes an opportunity to accept a little more of what it means to live our lives as they are, with the trash, the emotions, the unanticipated slowdowns and frustrations, the lack of control. Lives with possibilities we might be able to see if we process the trash again and again as it accumulates. Lives with potentials we might be able to reach down the road if we crawl along behind the trash truck when we must. Our messy, possible, unpredictable, precious lives, as they are.