Every family has its own tragedies. It’s the price of being human. A lot of times, the tragedies are the woes that come with growing up, growing old, and dying. The stuff that everyone goes through. And then there are the families that are haunted by the larger spectres of alcoholism, drug abuse, and other such demons.
My mother’s family was never what you would call a healthy bunch. And what some people don’t seem to realize is that unhealthy living (in this case, smoking, drinking, and abusing drugs) will eventually catch up with you. My mom passed away in 2010 of lung cancer. Then, my grandparents died (some months apart) after living with ailments caused by years of smoking. After that, my uncle and then my aunt died of drug and alcohol related causes. Out of my mother’s immediate family, only my aunt, Aunt C (who I’ve mentioned before) is left.
What a horrible tragedy. To have all the people you grew up with, most who were there with you from birth on, to be gone. And Aunt C is in her fifties. It’s not like she’s in her seventies or eighties and this is just the natural order of things. She has other people around her who love her. I’m sure that’s a comfort. But it’s not the same as the people who raised her, the people she grew up with.
There’s this photo I have, taken when I was around five or six. It was taken around Christmas. I think Dad was holding the camera because he’s not in it. Anyway, in it is my mom, Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, Aunt P, Uncle A, my little brother, and me. A few weeks ago, I was looking at it and thought, “Everyone save two people in this picture are dead.”
It’s a dislocating feeling. For a brief, mind-numbing feeling, the transience of life makes your gut plunge. So, I have a very good feeling regarding how Aunt C feels. I don’t know exactly because I’m not her, of course. But I have a very good idea.
Therefore, for Thanksgiving, my husband and I packed up and headed down to be with Aunt C and her brood.
And that is the beauty of tragedy.
I know, it sounds crazy. But. If you let it, tragedy will teach you how better to live. What’s the saying? You don’t know what you have until it’s gone? Well, it’s true or it wouldn’t be a cliche. We don’t always know how good we have something until it’s gone or damaged or threatened.
That’s why so many of the best stories begin with tragedy. There’s a character and their life may not be the best but it’s there and it’s good. And then something happens. Someone dies. Something vital is stolen. They’re betrayed. Something happens that shakes their world on a fundamental level and then the story follows them as they reorder their life. As they learn from the tragedy and rebuild.
The greatest tragedy, the one you can’t recover from, is when you lose somebody and you let it make you hard. Instead of cherishing those who are left, you close yourself off so you aren’t hurt anymore. Most people don’t bounce back from that, unfortunately. And then what you have left is eventually gone. There’s not even the memories of having cherished what was left before it was gone. And you can’t go back to reclaim that.
When I looked at that picture, I realized I either had to cherish Aunt C now or risk losing her. And she wants to cherish me but I have to also make the effort from my end. I have to be available to her. Myself and my brother both, in our own ways.
Whenever I write a story about a character who loses something, I reach back into that well of tragedy. I think about Aunt C. I think about that picture. I draw on it, shape it, and apply it. The beauty of tragedy isn’t just that it makes you cherish what you have left, but that you can also make something from it. You can use it to bring enjoyment into someone else’s life, or warn them. You can use it to be a better person and show other people how to be a better person. If you don’t, if you just let it seal you off from everything and everyone, you’re damning yourself to loneliness and darkness.