ESSAY- A grief observed: Remembering Carol
"I will turn to her as often as possible in gladness. I will even salute her with a laugh. The less I mourn her the nearer I seem to her. Admirable programme. Unfortunately it can't be carried out."–C.S. Lewis
When his wife Joy died in 1960, C.S. Lewis' life crumbled. "If my house has collapsed at one blow," the famous author and Christian apologist writes in the early pages of A Grief Observed (1961), "that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which 'took these things into account' was not faith but imagination."
From there, Lewis, in his remarkable book, questions the nature of the "good" God in which he once believed, coming to the conclusion that what we humans see as good is meaningless in the eyes of God. "If His ideas of good are so very different from ours," Lewis writes, "what He calls Heaven might well be what we should call Hell, and vice versa." Furthermore:
"The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is in this matter hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist....I am more afraid that we are really rats in a trap. Or, worse still, rats in a laboratory. Someone said, I believe, 'God always geometrizes.' Supposing the truth were 'God always vivisects'?"
In a deep depression when his wife passed away, Lewis obviously fell into despair. Although later in the book he softens his view on God– referring to God as possibly "a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good"– Lewis astutely describes what it feels like to lose someone very close to you. "Death only reveals the vacuity that has always been there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared."
"Vacuity"– another word for a senseless emptiness– is something I now know all too well. Recently, my wife of 42 years, Carol, suddenly passed away. Nothing can convey the feeling of lostness that has come over me. I feel like a gutted fish. My sense of being has been amputated. All sounds, even human voices, seem shrill and overbearing. Strange headaches and twilight sleeping. I have trouble swallowing. A vacuum has descended and all the color has drained from the world and it has not yet returned. Maybe it won't. In rereading Lewis' book, I found some comfort in that there has been someone somewhere who did understand.
Emptiness. A vast void that cannot be filled.
Carol was my soul mate. We were childhood lovers. We did everything together. And while, because of my intense and often abusive nature I seemed to break down, Carol was always there, holding me up so I would not crash. When I was going to quit law school, Carol made me go back to class. She was always there at key junctures in my life, keeping me on track. It was not easy to live with me, but Carol did so with amazing grace. She became a mother, bearing five children while having three miscarriages. When I became a lawyer and later founded a civil liberties organization, Carol helped organize it and donated her meager savings to get it up and running. And when there were no word processors, Carol typed and retyped my books on manual typewriters. She did everything for me, often acting more like a mother than a wife in correcting me and making sure I would succeed. Without her, I would have been nothing. And now she is gone.
I now face the same questions that plagued Lewis. Why would a good God completely disembowel my life? How can I explain the massive hole in my soul left by my beloved?
The truth is, I can't. There really are no neat and simple answers.
I do believe in a God of order. But suppose Lewis is right. What we are up against is not the sanguine God that modern prosperity preachers try to sell us. Suppose God is a cosmic surgeon. "The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless....If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary." So all the tortures of life and the extreme pain and suffering of losing Carol are for my good? All of it has a purpose? God had to knock me down to my knees to make me come to my senses? Yes. Maybe. Hopefully.
We never truly appreciate the great ones among us. And Carol was such a person. She was such an ominous presence in my life. Looking back on it now, I saw Carol as a form of divinity– as I wrote in a Valentine's Day poem to her several months before she passed away. Here are a few verses:
You were there
When I was born of woman,
When I took those first unsure steps,
Stumbling, nearly falling.
You were there
To hold my arms high,
As the slings and arrows
Of outrageous insanity fell upon my shores.
You were there
Always there holding me,
Folding me into your bosom,
Easing my pain.
Who am I?
You would know.
What am I?
You would know.
You were always there, my love.
I will never be the same, as C.S. Lewis was never the same. Words cannot articulate what my soul has lost. And I don't understand. I pray for answers– just an inkling of what goes on now in my life. Why? Why? Why? But no answers are forthcoming. "It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze," Lewis writes. "As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, 'Please child, you don't understand.'"
The author is a civil liberties attorney and founder of The Rutherford Institute. His wife, Carol Whitehead, died on June 3, 2009.