Secondhand Sorrow

My father called me “Secondhand Rose”.  He got the name from a Barbra Streisand song. As the fourth daughter, I never got new clothes.  It is one of a few pleasant memories  of my father:  Sitting with him over the St. Louis Post-Dispatch learning to read; his voice intoning the story of Mary and Joseph seeking a room and finding only a stable, just before we lit the Mary Candle and put out cookies for Santa; and his affectionate linking of me with his favorite singer.

I still like used clothing, and dishes, and trinkets.  I can merge those belongings with whatever I already have, like a new pair of shoes pushed on the shelf with the worn sandals and the dusty boots.  They suit me.  I know what to do with them.

But I have wandered aimlessly through this week as secondhand sorrow washed over me.

On Monday, one of my friends lost her son to suicide.  I only met him once.  She and I had talked about our sons — our pride in them; our fears; our hopes and dreams.  Because I know and care for her, I mourn the pain which drove him to this terrible choice.  I grieve for her.  I don’t know what to do with my feelings, though.  The only people who might understand have too grim a closeness to bother with me.

I can’t think of anything to do for her.  She had gone abroad and has not yet returned.  When she does, she will need space and time to learn to live in a world without him.  Nothing I can say or do will change the ice in her veins or the shard of glass driven into her soul.  She has a daughter and two grandsons.  But I have a son. I cannot imagine losing him and now my friend must endure the unthinkable.

Suffering stands as the singular and solitary state of each human.  My friend dwells in that empty chamber now, listening to the echo of her beloved boy’s fading voice.   She will carry this burden for eternity, even after she resumes the threads of her daily existence.  This sinister reality stays any thought of complaint, as the sun sets and the darkness settles on my tiny house.  I’m calling all angels to watch over my friend tonight.  She has greater need of them than I have ever known.

It’s the second day of the sixty-eighth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

By James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916)

I CANNOT say and I will not say
That he is dead.—He is just away!

With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
He has wandered into an unknown land,

And left us dreaming how very fair
It needs must be, since he lingers there.

And you—O you, who the wildest yearn
For the old-time step and the glad return,—

Think of him faring on, as dear
In the love of There as the love of Here;

And loyal still as he gave the blows
Of his warrior strength to his country’s foes.

Mild and gentle, as he was brave,
When the sweetest love of his life he gave

To simple things: where the violets grew
Pure as the eyes they were likened to.

The touches of his hands have strayed
As reverently as his lips have prayed;

When the little brown thrush that harshly chirred
Was dear to him as the mocking-bird;

And he pitied as much as a man in pain
A writhing honey-bee wet with rain.—

Think of him still as the same, I say:
He is not dead—he is just away!


The passage which I read at my brother Stephen Patrick’s funeral when his own pain claimed him, is, finally, all that I can think to offer to my friend as she mourns the loss of her own Steven:

From The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupery, Chapter 26: 

“And at night you will look up at the stars. Where I live everything is so small that I cannot show you where my star is to be found. It is better, like that. My star will just be one of the stars, for you. And so you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens . . . they will all be your friends. And, besides, I am going to make you a present . . .”

He laughed again.

“Ah, little prince, dear little prince! I love to hear that laughter!”

“That is my present. Just that. It will be as it was when we drank the water . . .”

“What are you trying to say?”

“All men have the stars,” he answered, “but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all these stars are silent. You–you alone–will have the stars as no one else has them–“

“What are you trying to say?”

“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night . . . You–only you–will have stars that can laugh!”

And he laughed again.

“And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure . . . And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’ And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you . . .”

And he laughed again.

“It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh . . .”

And he laughed again.


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