Foreboding joy. I didn’t know there was a name for it.
I came across it in Brené Brown’s work. I’ve been inspired this week to read more from the University of Houston research professor who came to my attention a few years ago in that spellbinding TED talk she did on vulnerability. She has spent years and years talking to thousands of people about how shame and vulnerability have shaped their lives. Because it does.
I know it.
I, and perhaps I should say we, seem to have slipped down the slope towards reckoning again. I know so many people who are rethinking their lives – their careers – their relationships…it’s a sine wave that oscillates through time…I figure we get to reckon…then we get to test…then we get to deploy what we’ve learned until the next down curve.
I’m reading Brown’s Daring Greatly in the hopes it can inspire me to believe more in me…so I can believe in myself the way I believe, with jaw-dropping awe, in my beautiful friends and family and husband.
She argues that joy is 'probably the most difficult emotion to feel'. Foreboding joy is that sense you can’t trust how good you’ve got it. That life will kick you in the ass as soon as you relax into joy. So, don’t try it, don’t tempt fate, and best of all, expect the worst.
Well I know that feeling well. I grew up with it. Might as well expect the worst. Because that’s what happens. The worst.
I came by it honestly.
Brené Brown wrote about looking at her children sleeping – and in that moment full of bliss, she let her guard down…feeling all the love that took her breath away. And in the next moment her mind was flooded with images of terrible things happening to them, “I was sure that no one but me pictured car wrecks and rehearsed the horrific phone conversations with the police that all of us dread…”
My mother got that call.
On the evening of November 23rd in 1970.
My brother, Richard, just two weeks after his 20th birthday, went away with a friend for the weekend. They were going horseback riding. It was cold, so cold that November. His friend pulled up in the red Volkswagen beetle, Richard got in…the sun was going down, the light was very blue and wintry. We heard nothing until the phone rang.
I picked it up. I was seven. I can still hear the man with the Quebecois accent asking to speak to my mother.
Mum was…I don’t know…breaking apart while she listened. When she hung up, she told me there had been an accident. Richard was injured.
The cop wanted to come over. Mum was scared. She called our neighbours around the corner, Uncle Eddie and Auntie Lise…Eddie showed up right away. I ran next door, I think, to get Auntie Val and tell her something had happened.
When the cop arrived I was told to go to the bedroom and close the door. I did. But I went to my Mum’s room, not mine.
And I remember putting my two hands on her dresser and staring hard…so hard into the mirror. Looking for something – I don’t know what…horror, fear…an answer to why this family was being cursed with so many tectonic earthquakes. My father had left a few years before to be with someone else. My brother ran off to live with friends downtown – and turned to drugs to medicate his way through his young manhood which was bearing down on him hard - which took us to more than one hospital in the middle of the night as he overdosed, got hepatitis, freaked my Mum out. Mum had had to go to work, I was bounced from house to house for daycare – and I remember just nodding my head and going with the flow…and trying not to be shattered by it all. Tectonic.
When they called me out of the bedroom, Mum was pulling on her coat. She said I was going to stay at Uncle Eddie’s and Aunt Lise’s until morning. She had to go to the hospital. I wanted to go with her. I didn’t need any more separation. But it was not an option.
The red Volkswagen had raced down the backroads of our small town of Chambly. They were narrow country roads, and there were a couple of small bridges crossing the nearby creek that tumbled into the Richelieu River. We’d had a hard freeze. Snow and ice everywhere. The driver was going too fast – he jumped a bridge, hit a curve, couldn’t make it, slid on ice, and the car tumbled a couple of times and hit a tree. This was not the era of headrests, seatbelts, or airbags. Richard sprawled across the car. The driver crawled out…unharmed.
The next morning I was getting ready for school when Uncle Eddie said I could go see Mum. She wasn’t at home though. She was next door at Auntie Val’s. When I walked in the weight of the air was oppressive and scary. People were around her, all of them looking at me. But all I could really see was her. Mum’s face is seared on my brain. It’s broken into a million pieces, like glass that hasn’t come apart…not yet…but is about to crumble into shards on the ground and impossible to ever fix. She tells me Richard has been in an accident that has caused brain damage. Which at least means he’s alive, I think…but she says no, he's dead.
Okay. Okay. Okay….Okay…
Go to school. Be normal. Life without my brother begins.
In my mother’s own way she tried to keep me from everything painful…I went to school…even during his funeral.
Then things turn into snapshots – my father calling short a vacation with his girlfriend in Barbados. He comes home. When I ask him to stay, he promises never to leave again. He can’t keep it. The sense of adrenaline in my body as I tell my teacher, Mrs. Barry, that Richard died last night. Weirdness. And then her face. And that I’m fine. Just fine.
My mother breaking down as my brother’s best friend comes in the door for the funeral reception – I was home from school as people were arriving. ‘Oh,’ she wails. You can hear a pin drop as everyone looks on. He stops cold in the foyer…She blurts out, ‘if you had come home for the weekend he wouldn’t have gone away.’ But he didn’t come home, couldn’t. So Richard decided to go away with his other friend. 'Shall I leave?' he says. My mother recovers herself, says no of course not…and he comes in…
In the summer of 1970 my brother had finally come home to live. He was getting through his drug addiction – on his own. And yes, that led to some interesting scenes where holes got punched in cupboard doors and walls. Yikes.
I remember after he came home that I was able to tell the neighbourhood
kids, ‘my brother will come beat you up if you mess with me.’ I remember him tickling me so hard, that I actually didn’t like having a brother very much at that moment. I remember him patiently examining my attempts at making letters and words. I remember my need to impress him. I remember he decided he was going to become a teacher. And go back to school in January. I remember he loved cooking. I remember he could climb on the roof of the house, without a ladder, to look at the sunset. I remember his guitar. Then his electric guitar…and jumping out of my skin late at night when he turned on the amp. I remember he had a car in the garage – that never worked. I remember him giving me a little leather tobacco pouch that he had. It’s on my mantle now – and it’s my talisman of family. I remember him taking me out for Hallowe’en. In 1970 they almost cancelled Hallowe’en because of the FLQ crisis. Richard walked me round to get my candy. And I felt pretty damned safe, let me tell you. I don’t remember my costume. Little did I know I had but three weeks more with him.
A song by Frank Sinatra called ‘Didn’t We’ came out then…and it used to make Mum cry and probably still would…because it was about almost making it…and Richard, with Mum's help, almost had.
I also lost touch with everyone who knew him – at least until facebook came along. And without them I forgot, or never knew, what he was really like. And at seven when you lose someone like that, you forget what they look like… He had long hair. He was tall. I couldn’t remember life with him. I couldn’t remember his face or his laugh. He disappeared.
And I started calling myself an only child.
So I grew up knowing that sense of foreboding joy. That shit does rain down on people. The phone does ring. And sometimes it is the cops. And after almost 40 years of armouring myself against that, I started a long journey of reckoning. And I let myself know that I wasn’t fine. That it sucked. It was unjust. And it hurt. And it made me so angry.
I don’t know why these things happen to good people. There’s no judgement in nature. It just is.
And reckoning, I've learned the hard way, is actually the upside of the curve of the sine wave. An uphill battle, mind you...but upwards.
I do know love. The real thing. And my Mum and I made it through the worst of things, even those that were yet to come.
I reconnected with a friend of Richard’s, and a couple of years ago we finally met for dinner. I now tease him mercilessly like I’ve known him my whole life. And occasionally he looks at me weirdly – he can see Richard in me. I know it. I hope it doesn’t cause him pain. When we left the restaurant we walked back to our car to give him a ride back to his hotel. My husband, mother, our re-found friend and I heard a whooshing sound overhead…loud enough for us all to look up. A meteor left a trail of silver sparks across the night sky. It was low, and blindingly bright, and beautiful. We all looked at each other…no one spoke. Maybe, just maybe it was a talisman of joy…just pure unadulterated joy. I'd like to think so.