I didn’t know my son J was in Mexico until he wasn’t. He texted he’d landed safely in Texas and followed this with magnificent photos of Oaxaca’s coast.
I looked at the images and thought of another time he was there. I’d answered my cellphone. One of J’s friends said he’d heard J had been shot. He asked if I knew anything about this. Terrified, I called my son. Had he not answered, I don’t know what I’d have done. Yes, he was robbed. Later, when I tried to sleep, my chest tightened—panic. I knew there’d been a gun. Just knew.
One morning a couple of weeks ago, a friend emailed, “The news is reporting a shooting.” Told me the address was directly across from son H’s house. Immediately, I called H. He said the body was just feet from his sidewalk. He was staring at it as we spoke.
I have an empty nest here. And because I worry so much about the safety of my children, I’d like to move the nest and leave no forwarding address—no news being good.
Here’s the question Dorothy Parker asked when her doorbell rang, “What fresh hell can this be?” Exactly.
Erma and I talk about “fresh hell”—neither wants too much information about our loved ones. Don’t want to hear about a quarrel. Don’t want to know if the grandbaby has the sniffles, a fever.
I’ve become a little calmer about the arrival of my grandson though. I can picture him, an image of J as a baby and then a toddler, hear that little-boy laughter and feel utter joy, but then I think of this world he’s meeting, defined by war, inequality, catastrophic climate change, injustice—and, well, that happiness is interrupted.
An award-worthy worrier, I learned from a champion, my mother, who could have been an Olympic gold medalist in the category of neurosis/neuroses. For so long, our angst was synchronized.
Here’s something unrelated to my children, but it still kept me awake the other night: the 1.3 million jobless Americans who lost unemployment benefits on December 28 and the additional 1.9 million whose benefits will end soon. I lay in bed, wondering about the desperation they must feel.
Imagine not having enough money to buy food or provide shelter for your children.
I read about a woman who said her job is now the search for a job. Was reminded of H’s experience when he was tasked with interviewing prospective employees for a position at his nonprofit. He said, “There were so many overqualified people, so many with PhDs, applying for this part-time position.”
Back to those discussions Erma and I have—about avoiding “fresh hell.” We know it’s impossible. So, we look to dealing with the deluge, even reframing.
Last Thursday while driving, I caught a portion of an interview on North Carolina Public Radio’s The State of Things. A young Sudanese man expressed immense gratitude that he was given the opportunity to come to the US to study. Conflicted about his worthiness, he questioned how to embrace the blessings of the resources he found here and realized his responsibility to pay it forward.
He spoke of his war-ravaged country where the ground trembles with bombs and then said the profoundly optimistic: that for your parents to dare to conceive you is an act of defiance against death. I gasped. He’d brushed against my apprehensions. You know, this agonizing over my son’s decision to bring a child into today’s chaos, a child I’ll love with all my heart and worry about.
Maybe I can summon the young man’s words when there’s that familiar encroachment of anxiety or an expectation of “fresh hell.” And I’ll pretend this is effective until I have to pretend no more. Either because I do have hope or the nest has relocated—to an urn. No forwarding address there.
Here’s a gift for you, the interview with Nyuol Tong.
Missy Comley Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.