Every year since my friend Mandy was killed while biking home from work, I’ve written a short reflection about her and her life on April 30. This helps me not only remember her but tend to the grief that I experience over her loss. Two weeks ago, Mary Alice, a dear friend, passed away from brain cancer. As I’ve reflected the last 14 days on Mary Alice and also on Mandy, the memories of Mary Alice that came, showed me just how much Mary Alice helped me process Mandy’s death. Grief is a hard thing to process publicly, but I feel like it honors their lives and allows me to share a part of who I am with you who remain. Perhaps we can all tend to our own griefs a little better through hearing each other’s stories.
On this day I remember Mandy, her life, her wonderful spirit, her stubbornness, her insatiable hunger for living life to the full, her strength, her femininity, her joy, her constant hair cuts. I must tend to her and her memory not only today but whenever she comes to mind.
When I learned that Mandy was killed April 30th, seven years ago, I felt like the air had been knocked right out of me. With every loss I’ve had I feel like the timeline of my life splits in two. There was life with mom and life after mom. LIfe with Grandma and life after grandma. Life with Mandy and life after Mandy. This pattern repeats with every person I’ve known and lost. I’m not sure how much more splitting in two I can handle.
Two weeks ago another dear friend passed away, Mary Alice. She never met Mandy, but she knew all about her. Seven years ago I was supposed to head out for a work trip the day of Mandy’s memorial but my work was kind enough to pay all the fees to change my flight so I could fly out the next day. They also paid for a rental car for me since all of my co-workers would be taking the car we reserved.
When I arrived, the day after the memorial, I sat in the room around one of the many decorated tables listening, albeit not well, to the main speaker. I was still in shock and also processing a memorial service for a 24 year old. Everything seemed blurry and moved slowly as if I was underwater. I remember how itchy the table cloths were as they were lightly resting on my ankles. When you are grieving some things seem so muddled and other things you would never normally noticed, like the way a table cloth feels, are pronounced and annoying.
Mary Alice noticed my underwater-like disposition and mouthed to me across the table, “Check your cell phone” and then she got up and walked out of the room. I looked at my phone discretely after I fumbled through my purse to find it and her text read, “Meet me outside in five minutes.”
Upon coming outside I saw Mary Alice standing there holding the keys to the rental car saying, “let’s go for a drive.” Mary Alice and I went on a scenic drive around Oregon where I felt like I was being helped out of the water. As she asked me about Mandy she was giving me a towel. The first hour of the drive I got to talk about Mandy and about the service for her. The second hour she shared about some hard things in her life. Mary Alice gave me permission to grieve in the middle of a work conference and then she tended to my wounds. After that I was able to talk about Mandy in a healthy way. I even gave myself permission to get up to leave meetings or parties when I needed to tend to my grief. When I returned to Chicago you could find me in Mary Alice’s office every day recounting little bits of Mandy’s life to her. Soon we were sharing poems, songs, and life.
If you know me you know I do not like horror movies. I saw The Ring in the theater and nearly dug a hole with my nails in the arms of the man next to me. I saw Candy Man in 6th grade at a sleep over and didn’t get to sleep until 9th grade. So when a couple people in my book club recommended the Babadook to our group I was hesitant to trust that they were recommending a movie to me that I could handle.
Before I knew it I was promised an hour of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (a funny new comedy on Netflix right now) after the movie as well as being nestled together all tight and close on the couch with blankets and having everyone agree to tuck me in that night. No tucking in necessary; this movie turned out to be a gift of grace to me. While it’s scary, it had purpose and put many hard things into words for me.
*** I am about to spoil the plot of the horror movie here, so please see it if you can before you read on***
The story begins with a woman, Amelia, and her son, Oskar, in their drab house in Australia. There is no color in the house, and not much light either. It’s depressing from the opening scenes. We come to find out that the Amelia’s husband died while driving them to the hospital to deliver their son, Oskar.
Oskar knows his mother resents him for being the reason his father was killed. Soon Oskar has major behavior problems and has to be taken out of school. He has a huge imagination and tells his mother that he will protect her from the Babadook, a monster that Amelia believes he made up.
During bed time reading Oskar pulls a book out called The Babadook. Amelia has no idea where this came from. After Oskar falls asleep that night Amelia takes the book to read in the kitchen. It is filled with scary images. The odd thing is, there are many empty pages at the end of the book, as if it wasn’t finished being written. She rips up the book and throws it away. When Oskar brings up The Babadook again, Amelia tells him to let it go, the Babadook doesn’t exist.
It wouldn’t be a horror movie unless the book showed back up all taped together – so that is exactly what happens. Amelia, terrified, opens it up to see that it is all there and more of it has been written. The line in the new portion reads, “The more you deny, the stronger I get.” Mortified, this time she burns the book in her back yard.
Oskar continues to bring up the Babadook and Amelia continues to deny it exists. After a few close calls with the Babadook, Amelia finally sees it and she swallows the creature- a scene that only makes sense if you see it. At various points this creature takes her over and causes her to do things that she would never do. Oskar knows what is happening and reassures his mother that he will protect her. Amelia doesn’t know, but Oskar has rigged the basement and will try to help his mother come to terms with the Babadook. In a fit of anger Amelia runs to the basement to harm Oskar as she is momentarily controlled by the Babadook. He binds his mother with rope and caresses her face, reminding her that he loves her. The creature is eventually vomited out.
The movie ends with Amelia going into the basement to feed the Babadook and Oskar asking if he can ever go in the basement. Amelia lovingly strokes his hair and says, “not today but someday.”
For me, this movie personified grief so well. The more I try to deny that something hard, or even horrible, has happened, the more my grief owns me. The hard work is looking our babadook in the face, and saying the horrible exists and it has changed us. – the hard work is letting the secret out. It’s been seven years since Mandy died and I get a lot of comments like, “Well that was a long time ago.” Inferring I should be over it by now. While the same sting isn’t there, if I don’t go tend to the Babadook in my basement, my babadook can take over.
The reality is, as the movie pointed out so well, the Babadook never goes away. It’s always there in my basement. The Babadook no longer owns me, I own it. If I feed and tend to it well I have the freedom to go to and from my basement when I need to.
I miss Mandy oh so much and Mary Alice’s death is a new wound. Both were strong women who have changed my life.
Today, in a way, I am inviting you into my grief, to come on this journey with me. It’s mildly embarrassing and partially horrible. I want you to meet my babadook.