On The Skirts of Tragedy

Once someone looked at me during a conversation and said plainly, “You’ve experienced a lot of tragedy in your life.” At the time I didn’t have the clarity to contradict them. But it wasn’t true. Their statement was simply false – I, myself, have not experienced great amounts of tragedy. I have only observed it, as a spectator in the great gladiator fight of life.


While growing up I was surrounded, as you know, by a large cement wall. This kept tragedy on my doorstep, and never inside. When we ventured out in our Toyota Hilux I would see children with swollen bellies and red tinged hair – cardinal signs of malnutrition. I would see girls my age hauling unclean water from miles, to last their family a single day (maybe). I would see the signs of poverty, illness, the results of a long struggle against war and fate. I would see the shadow tragedy makes on others, and be safe from his strike in my generator lit, food filled kitchen.


During high school I saw the same sites. Outside my school borders there were people living in tin houses with tarp roofs. There were people with little farms trampled by starving goats. There were children waiting in line for hospital visits that would never save them from the ailments of being impoverished. Within my school I knew people whose parents were exiled, whose families were in danger, moving from one bombed out country to the next. I watched as my friends cried over their losses, the deaths, the sorrows they had been asked to bear. I watched as tragedy snuck around in the night and bit those unaware heels. My feet were unmarked. My prayers were for myself, my own pain, conjured within myself. I was safe from tragedy.


When university came, I was faced with tastes of tragedy. My heart was broken. I was lost. I made friends and I lost them, one to death, one to leaving, and some to the evils of time and fear. I remember sitting at my friend’s funeral, staring at the open casket in a state of disbelief. I remember her laughter, her conversation, the plans she had that will never be fulfilled. But she wasn’t my childhood best friend, she wasn’t my daughter or sister as she was to others. She had walked into my life for a time, and I happened to be close when her time was over. It wasn’t a tragedy. It was an occurrence.


I have another funeral this Friday. The mother of some dear friends, an untimely death of a loving parent and an inspiring woman. An unfair and cruel attack of the shadow I have avoided for so long. And still, this is not my tragedy. I can feel for them. I can cry for them. I can pray for them. But I will not look this darkness in the eyes every morning and choose to push through – that will be their fight. Their tragedy. I will simply stand with the outliers. Smiling with condolences.


Often I wonder when my time will come to be struck with tragedy. Though I know this is an unusual, possibly even psychotic thought, on which to dwell. Still, it lurks in the back of my mind. Why have so many of my friends had to bear so much and I have to stand there, with my life lined up and offer empty words of comfort? Why have I had to watch as circumstances destroy those around me, held them in their fits of crying, stopped them from destroying themselves, when I can wake each day and know – my parents are alive and they love me, my fiancé is alive and he loves me, I am alive and I am learning to love myself. These are truths I take for granted, and my friends are faced with the opposite daily.


Perhaps it’s selfish of me to want tragedy. I’m exhausted of being one from whom comfort comes. My compassion is depleted. My sympathy is running on empty. And my guilt is only accumulating. My guilt for observing so much depravation and giving nothing back. My guilt for watching my friends lose so, so much, while I plan for a life of growing fullness. My guilt at being happy and healed when so many I know are in the very midst of despair, stumbling around, shrouded by the cloak of tragedy – true tragedy.


Perhaps my role is very straightforward among those in pain – I am meant to comfort and to relieve, not to bear. As I study to be a nurse this reality becomes even more apparent. As I zip up the bags of those deceased, or numb the pain of accidents, or hold the hand of the crying, I am only one who relieves, only one who is standing on the side lines, offering what I can to dissipate some of the hurt. I can only soften the blows dealt out daily by this fallen world. I can only hold the hand of someone else, and even as they squeeze all their sadness into my fingers, I will never feel the weight of their tragedy in my being.


I have not experienced great, overwhelming tragedy in my life. I have had unpleasant encounters with it. I have been served the unfortunate appetizers of tragedy but never been consumed by the whole festering meal. For the sake of those I know, I wish I could give more in the way of empathy, more truth to the words “I understand” but I can’t. I’ve only even observed sweeping tragedies – from my own backyard, from reading the news, from hearing the stories of those closest to me. I’m still dancing on the skirt of tragedy, praying I never experience it fully and hoping the guilt of praying such a prayer is silenced by all the condolence letters I send.