Life is beautiful when you’re seventeen-years-old spending your summer in the south of France. On one of the last days of my study abroad program in Nice, France in the summer of 2008, my friends and I stumbled across a jewelry and art market. While wandering around we found a ring stating, “la vie est belle” and instantly fell in love. With it being the end of our trip, we were all low on cash and none of us bought it, although we always wished we did and continue to use that phrase to describe our trip. Life was beautiful. Of course, it was.
A few days earlier we were sitting on a train after a day trip to Italy when two Australian guys jumped on with guitars. Not long after the guys boarded the train, they fiddled with their guitars until it developed into “The Tide is High” by Blondie. The guys started singing, my friends and I started singing, and gradually others joined until the whole train was singing. Strangers from all different countries singing together on a train with views of the Mediterranean—life doesn’t get much more beautiful than that.
Before that trip, I had never really thought about life as a beautiful thing, but since seeing that ring, I have thought about it often. Through the combination of my exploration of beauty and the process of losing my mother, who passed away from cancer this June, I realized that life can still be beautiful even in the not so obvious times. I’m not talking about finding the silver-lining or searching for the light at the end of the tunnel. Those are useful ways of finding beauty, but they require effort and are sometimes impossible to find in the midst of a tragic moment. The type of beauty that I’m referring to does not take any work on our part to experience. Instead, it envelopes us quite naturally and uncontrollably and all we have to do—are able to do—is stand there and take it in. We can choose to just accept and acknowledge the beauty, or poke, prod and analyze it like artwork in a museum. I’m still not sure which option is more valuable, but since I’ve made this discovery, I’ve found myself dabbling in a little bit of both.
Sometimes a situation truly and honestly sucks and sometimes the worst thing you could ever imagine happening to you, happens to you. It doesn’t mean every moment of it isn’t beautiful. Take losing your mother, for instance. And not just her actual death, but the process of losing her both quickly and slowly at the same time.
I was sitting in a chair in the hospital room, switching my gaze between my mom and the social workers. My mom propped up in the hospital bed with burns on her bald head and blood trickling from her dehydrated lips. The social workers sitting with crossed legs, shuffling their pamphlets and tapping their shiny pens on clipboards.
They were discussing what to do about my father who had come in to visit her and ended up screaming at everyone. He thought her could cure her. Wished he could cure her. Seeing her in the hospital bed scarred and burnt and wasting away, he blamed the doctors. They had prescribed the radiation on her whole brain, which made her look like this, but also provided the possibility (however small) of shrinking her brain tumors and elongating her life. At this point, there nothing could be done to make her “cancer-free” again, but none of us were ready to except that yet.
I had just come back in the room from describing my father to a security guard. My own father. After I did it, I immediately regretted it.
“I really don’t think he will come back though,” I spurted out. “I talked to my sister and she just got off the phone with him. She said he was going to go home.”
Sitting in the plastic chair facing my mother, I felt as though I was in the corner of the room watching from above. This was a tragedy that happened in movies, not to me. I was just watching, catching a glimpse.
I was called into the conversation. What? I’m here? This is my life? I have to deal with this? It doesn’t just all go away in an hour and half, when the movie is over? A heavy heart and a lump in my stomach became a constant, familiar sensation.
My mother blurted out that my father hadn’t paid rent in eighteen years. The social worker opened her mouth wide, shocked. It was true that we lived in a house that my grandparents owned, but it was much more complicated than that. There were times my dad had offered to pay, but the offer was declined. I have to admit though, I didn’t know all of the details then and I still don’t now, but I knew this was statement was taken way out of context.
The social workers asked my mother what her relationship was like with my father. My mom replied that he never abused her physically, but did emotionally and that things were rough.
I spoke up.
“I mean they had their bad moments, but there were a lot of good times, too,” I pushed out confidently. “My dad left one time for a few days when I was in fifth grade, but not since then.”
The look the social worker gave me made me sick: a look of pity, like I was some young child who lived unaware of her parents’ terrible relationship. I was twenty-three years old. I knew my parents’ relationship because they shared everything with me instead of with each other. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I also knew that my mother enjoyed attention and was overreacting in that moment. There were good times growing up. It wasn’t that bad. Right?
To assure myself, I conjured up a memory of one of my favorite places as a child and in particular one of the best days that we spent there as a family. We often travelled to Colt State Park in Bristol, Rhode Island to rollerblade, ride our bikes, fly kites, and watch the sunset. On the particular day I had in mind, my mom, dad and my two sisters were simply having fun together. We kicked and tossed around a volleyball and called out its name, Wilson, after the movie Castaway. We did handstands and cartwheels and lay in the grass watching clouds and laughing hysterically. Yeah, it was good then.
But it wasn’t good in the hospital room, and wouldn’t be for a long time after. In a letter that I started writing to my friends that I met in France, that I never ended up sending, I wrote, “This week has actually been one of the hardest I have ever experienced.” Life is not always good and is certainly is not always easy, but I would like to argue that it is always, always beautiful. Even in that week and in more difficult ones that I have experienced since then, I felt the beauty. The beauty of living. The beauty of experiencing. Even if that experience was tragic, which is was. It was my tragedy. It was mine and there was beauty in that.
It was a difficult and hard—really goddamn hard—but part of me also knew that I was learning and growing while I was sitting in the hospital room. That I was learning and growing while I took care of my mother the way that she took care of me when I was a child, while I held her veiny hand as she lay in her own bed, unable to respond when I told her I loved her, as I felt her spirit lifted from her room after she passed, as I spread her ashes in the White Mountains. I am learning and growing while I write this and as you read this.
I am a human. I am living. I am experiencing. I am witnessing beauty.
Sarah Dwyer graduated with a BFA in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College in 2013. There she had a dual emphasis in magazine journalism and fiction, founded a lifestyle magazine for Emerson students, and composed a historical fiction thesis. Although she took classes on it in college, personal essay was never her thing; however, a change in outlook and the recent loss of her mother has encouraged her to dip her toes in the world of personal non-fiction. You can follow Sarah’s journey into memoir on her blog The Things You Learn When You Lose Your Mother (sarahdwyer.wix.com/thethingsyoulearn). Sarah recently attended Jen Pastiloff and Emily Rapp’s writing retreat to Vermont.
All of Jen Pastiloff’s events listed here, including her two Italy retreats. Jen and Emily are doing the Vermont retreat again next year. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to book.