And yet. She is not home. A letter from family was waiting for her in the pile of mail. A reminder of what has been lost and what still remains. And she looks at me, with tears in her eyes, and I am… what? A promise for the future? A passing and momentary shelter? A visitor in her space? A long-term connection?
I think that this is one of the reasons she speaks as she does. If I am temporary, then what she says doesn’t matter. If I am going to stay around, then she can show her real self to me.
We’ve had large doses of real this past week. Real laughter. Real joy. But also real struggles. Real attitudes. Real conflicts.
And in these moments of real, I am often so lost. I don’t know how to be the best version of me. I don’t know how to say the right thing. I don’t even know what the right thing *is* a lot of the time. I do the best I can, and just trust that it will be enough.
I think that in many ways Sunshine feels the same. Her words are not always a test; they aren’t directed deliberately at me. Sometimes it’s a pattern of behavior. She has learned how to survive in her world. When she gets angry with me or hurt or scared, she is going to fall back into the behavior that has protected her in the past. She is just trying to live.
The thing is, I often disrupt that pattern, because I don’t react the way others have in the past. It’s not always perfect and patient. But it is rooted in love and care for her. It’s not special and is often flawed. But it’s in the range of healthy responses. This can be a disconcerting thing.
When you have lived through relational trauma of a certain kind, it’s not something you can forget. It is not something you can shut off and pretend didn’t happen. It’s not something you can walk away from and understand how to interact in a healthy way. When you have lived through these things, your world doesn’t work the right way. But you make sense of it. You learn to live there. The wrongs in that world are normalized, and you figure out how to feel okay in the space around you, even when that place looks completely messed up to everyone else. You begin sentences with phrases like “At least I have…” or look at ways it could be worse. You learn to exist there, and it is familiar.
And then something happens—the last straw, the gradual building of frustration or fear that overwhelms and somehow makes you brave. And you draw a line in the sand, and it doesn’t make much sense as to why it was this time, this moment, that you chose, because really, it wasn’t that much different from all the other moments. But it was the one that made you reach for something different. It was the one that broke the fragile world you lived in.
And suddenly and rather unexpectedly, you find yourself living the Life After. And everyone tells you that you are brave and strong and this is better. But the Life After is the one that feels odd.
I have a sisterhood of trauma with this girl. I have been living the Life After for almost ten years now. I have learned things that she is still struggling to make sense of. My own losses are never far from me, but I have the gifts of age and time and perspective.
But I know the way it is getting to the Life After. I know what it is to watch your world go dark. I know how it feels to be in a waking nightmare. I know how much it takes to draw that line of no return, and how the weight of it isn’t known until later.
And I know how the Life After is. How terrifying it can be. How people tell you to keep swimming, but the world is a jello mold you are up to your neck in. All you want to do is not drown. All you want is to know that maybe soon there will be a direction to move.
And you wonder if the decision you made was the right one. If it had played differently an inch this way or an inch that way, if life would have gotten better. Or worse. Or if you would still be alive.
Living in the Life After is the loneliest of places.
And there is a line in your life forever. The you before, and the you after that moment. That choice. That freedom, and loss, and ownership, and betrayal, and joy, and destruction, all together in your soul, defining you forever.
Life After is not waking to color. It is waking adrift trailing the dross behind. Separated from the bad, but forever linked to it.
Life After is its own sort of torture.
I remember the way I had no words for so very long. I had no voice to speak of my world.
I remember the way the anniversary of things felt—it is not a celebration, but a choking mourn, the doubt of decisions made, the brokenness over others’ mistakes.
I remember the way you read others’ eyes in the Life After. You learn to speak to the right kind of eyes. You learn to listen to the context of the question, not the content. And you speak lies, or smoothed over truths, to the wrong kinds of questions and wrong kinds of eyes.
I still do that.
And I know that it never goes away, that line separating life and Life After. It takes a long time to find home again. And even longer to understand that “home” won’t ever again be unmarked by the things that have happened.
I know that these are the things she is trying to figure out as she comes back to this home that is not home but could be home. I know that the anger and the fear and the sharpness aren’t all directed at me, but at what I represent, and at what she has lost.
I am being watched for the way I live in this Life After. It’s not so much my mistakes she sees, but the way I function in this world. She monitors how I choose to process pain and fear. She pays attention to the responses after the conflict, and how I make choices like forgiveness and continued communication despite ugly emotions.
And it is because of this that after these conflicts she brings me floods of information, the outpouring of the soul, the processing of this Life After.
I don’t know how a heart can hold the things hers does and still have room for me. Her story is not mine to tell, but as I listen to the pieces, I am amazed at this girl. She is so very brave and strong and faithful and loving.
I admire the way she is living this Life After.
And I am so honored that she chose to include me in it.