This I believe

Mary - blue island, Illinois
Entered on March 21, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: family, hope, setbacks

This I believe

I believe that stories have happy endings – but that it depends on what story you tell. We continuously reshape the events of our lives into a meaningful narrative. This is how we make sense of what we are doing and what is happening to us.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, filmmakers experimented with narrative styles, including how movies ended. Instead of the classic Hollywood ending, in which all wrongs are righted and moviegoers leave the theater on a high note, some films ended sadly. Some ended abruptly, leaving dazed viewers in an existential mood of angst. I saw at least one film that ended so unexpectedly that I only knew the movie was over because the credits had begun to roll.

In the 1990’s, I realized that it had been a long time since that I saw a film that ended sadly or ambiguously. Storytellers now end even the most emotional or action packed film on a high note. Hollywood’s happy endings have returned.

My first response to this realization was critical and cynical. At the same time, I enjoyed the happy endings as much as anyone. So, I adjusted my own narrative. I decided that real lives contain many ups and downs. If a film or book ended its tale on an up beat, that was no less valid than ending the narrative on a down beat. It just made it easier for us to leave the theater or close the book with our hope intact. Hope allows us to survive and endure.

I wrestle with my need to see happy endings in the world around me. I look to to find a redeeming factor in a sad or horrible story. A prisoner is freed after 20 years of false imprisonment. The injustice of this is too overwhelming, so I seek a countering fact to make the story less frightening in its implications. Well, he probably had a criminal history, I think, so he was a suspect. Or, he was too ignorant to mount an adequate defense. Therefore I will work harder as a teacher to prevent this kind of ignorance.

In my personal life, I can never shake the desire for a happy ending to my adult daughter’s alcoholism. Through years of steady decline, I always saw a corner about to be turned. As she descended each step down the ladder of health, I would announce each positive as if her path were an ascendancy toward a better future instead. “She got a job,” I would tell people. In fact, the jobs she got were ones with little status and less pay. The length of time it took for her to be fired became shorter and shorter.

This desperate belief in a happy ending to my daughter’s story persists in spite of two tragic endings in my own family. My older brother, my mother said, was like a twin to me. Not exactly Irish twins, we were born a year and a half apart, as were the six other siblings who followed us. As a teen, Paul grew distant. I left home at 18 and did not look back — or reach back to help anyone. It was not my job.

I did not know that his drinking was a greater problem than youthful folly. I did not know enough to diagnose depression. What I did think, in the back of my mind, was that Paul’s story would have a good ending. My story assumed Paul would stop partying, finish college, find a woman, and settle in. I held roughly that same expectation for my own life story, which still had “happily ever after” written on it. The fact that I traversed some very rough patches did not alert me to the possibility that this may not all work out ok.

My brother came to a point where he apparently felt his life had no further value, or that his pain was too great to forge ahead. We do not know what he was thinking. What we do know is that he ended his own life in a bloody and violent way. It was Christmas Eve; his 28th birthday was to be the day after Christmas. Birthdays and Christmas – certainly as children, no other days held such promise of happy outcomes.

But for my family, that pure joy of Christmas never existed again. Although I was already 26 years old, my brother’s death ended any remaining vestiges of childhood. It abolished my impression that everything turns out all right in the end. My notion of God had already shifted by then, but I never again experienced a belief in a transcendent being that could or would respond to my petitions.

As shock and grief dissipated in the months and years ahead, my internal construction of narrative continued. My brother’s death took shape in my mind as the worst event of my life. It became a terrible spike in the line graph of my life story.

My renewed sense of happy endings apparently included the idea that lightening won’t strike twice.

But it did. Five years after Paul died, my next in age brother, Tim, crashed his car on a rural Texas road late on a party night. He died before reaching the hospital from a blow to the temple he sustained flying out of the car into a guardrail. His two passenger friends, also unbelted, suffered serious injury but lived.

The shock of this news came to me like a blow to a place that had already been wounded. The news of my first brother’s death felt like a cannon ball to the chest. The news of the second hit that same spot, but with a muffled sense that had to do with disbelief. When my devastated father told me what happened, I thought that my father had somehow lost his senses. My brain could not absorb such unnatural information. Until I saw my mother’s face. The pained but stoic resignation of her face told me that it was true.

The structure of my life narrative simply blew apart at that point. During the year that followed, I no longer dreamed at night, whereas I have always dreamed vividly. When the first dream came a year later, it was a nightmare of violence. I can still see the scene – a farmhouse, an intruder, me being stabbed and left to bleed to death. But I did not bleed to death, because I held my breath so my pulse would slow and the blood would remain in my body. And I survived.

My ability to see happy endings has returned to me. A beautiful nephew was born on Christmas Day. Our children never lost their excitement for Christmas, Easter, and birthdays. We regained ours. Our family holidays became a time of quiet appreciation. We know each other to be survivors, even when we have not always been able to share our experience in words. We know to be grateful for what is. We know to forgive each other. As many times as we need to. We know to be gentle with each other.

I love watching movies, and I value a happy Hollywood ending. Thank you to all the actors, writers, producers, and directors who have given me wonderful stories. I know that any story could be shortened or extended to end on a sad note. But that sad ending is a story for another day. Today I will feel joy.