Monday, December 17, 2012

A survivor's view of the world after tragedy

Hollis, who is mighty, and 
 also knows how to drop the
 F bomb with class. 
People come into your life when you don't expect them to, don't even wish for them to because you wrongly believe you've no room at the inn. Later, you realize you not only have room at the inn, but a few deadbeats living there for nothing. After you boot them to make space,  you realize this new friendship will more than help you through the wretched moments that life may bring.

This friendship will make you a better person.

My cousin Hollis Cook, is six years younger than I am. We lost touch with each other after my parents divorced and I moved from the area. I can't remember how old we were when we last had a conversation  of length but I remember that we were very young and that even as a small child, she was loud and lively and  direct and obstinate and - joyous.

It was decades before we saw each other again, but over the summer, she found me on Facebook.
She was going to be in the neighborhood.
She wanted a reunion with the family - maybe a cookout.
She wanted to catch up.

After she surfaced, I thought about that feeling you get running into a friend from high school in the supermarket. You see them cross the end of the aisle, and you want to know where they live, how they look, if they stayed married, if they're successful, if they have children now... The wisp of an idea crosses your mind that you might resume your friendship but you look the other way.  There's so much to talk about but you have only time enough to get through frozen foods and head for the car if you're ever going to arrive at the end of your day on time.

You move on. But you wish you knew, still.

Hollis is a person with a history of  tragedy and loss so staggering, I both craved a chance to hear her story and feared she'd tell it. Before she was a teenager, she lost her father and fifteen-year-old brother in a  plane crash. Before she was an adult, a fiery accident left her with massive second and third degree burns that required an extended hospitalization at the Shriners Burn Institute in Boston. Multiple surgeries and skin grafts helped restore her function and movement but the therapy and reconstruction which followed, I remember hearing, was excruciating. A few years ago, she lost her remaining, younger brother to lung cancer. 

At the cookout, without a trace of hesitation, Hollis walked toward,me, arms open, laughing that loud laugh - music from my childhood. "I knew when I saw those glamorous sunglasses it was you," she said. "God, I remember when you lived in Miami and came to visit us in New Hampshire and I thought 'wow, she is so glamorous.'"

You'd be charmed too. 

In her instant and easy conversation, Hollis recalled for everyone's benefit the times and places we might all recall, before and after the plane crash, and not with sadness but with simple, sweet nostalgia. Of me she asked the kinds of questions only a compelling, savvy and  interested person would ask, while I asked the kinds of questions an eleven-year-old who's been told to speak to the adults at a cocktail party would ask. Like this:

Hollis: "So  you have one more and he's leaving for college, how do you feel about that?"
Me: "So where in Florida do you live exactly?"
Hollis: "So your husband is gone all week,  how is that for you?
Me:  "So where do you work?"
Hollis: "So you wrote a novel, how did you start doing that?"
Me: "So you don't really mind the heat?"
And, so on.
Eventually, Hollis said the F word which makes me like anyone immediately, if they are otherwise well-spoken, and I checked on those vacancies. 

I thought of several things in the days after catching up with Hollis, but mostly about that unique view of life you detect in those who have triumphed over monumental loss. They don't survive, they conquer. They don't avoid the pain of memories but cull them as they heal. They move not away from devastation, but toward hope, and ultimately toward peace.  You sense behind that loud laugh, and joyous embrace, an unwillingness to sacrifice life a second time to the weight of grief. 

This view is demonstrated in the post below written by Hollis in the aftermath of the horror in Connecticut. If it seems impossible that life will ever feel safe again, that evil is everywhere and has only yet to be discovered, have a look at things through the eyes of someone who could have turned from life to face the wall, but said, instead, "I think the F not."

By Hollis Cook

I couldn't sleep last night. I kept thinking of Maple Street School and the little stairs that went down past the library to the new Kindergarten room that had just been built, of my dear friend Kimber who works there and must be shaken to her very core...of our cubbies, and singing, "red and yellow, green and blue", of how proud I was when my dad came in his suit for my 2nd grade parents night and sat at my tiny desk, and how sad I was when I realized I had misspelled "clothes" with "close" throughout my entire booklet about the seasons. 

I was lucky enough to grow up in a small town surrounded largely by people who cared about each other, who cared about me--when I was hurt and hurting, but not lucky enough to be unscathed by the ravages life can deal out. I was tempted, as I have been my whole life, to think of how unfair life is, God knows I know that more than most, but the temptation I did resist. 

So as your thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims and the citizens of you find yourself remembering the safety of your own elementary school, please resist the thoughts that we live in an awful world and that things have "gotten worse". If I can do that, I know you can too. There have always been, and will always be bad people--regardless of how we look for clues or search our mental health system or our laws. Since the beginning of time there have been horrible, shitty, evil people who do atrocious things to the innocent victims around them, including children, without reason; laws and armed guards and pills don't stop them; they weaken and scare the survivors. 

We can stand together and be there for one another with open hearts and open eyes. Resist the urge to watch endless news cycles trying to "explain" this. Bad people happen, mean people suck, and good people stick together.


  1. Very well said. By both of you. I really did need to hear those words today. I'm having a "life sucks" sort of day, though I just looked out the window and saw snowflakes, which always cheers me up. I love snow.
    And I think we should trade cousins. Mine don't call me glamorous.

  2. Yes, snow has magical healing powers. It always strikes me how it slows everything down a little. We've all had trouble this week, I believe. Indulge yourself a bit.