One of my students once said to me, "Ms. Browne, you are the youngest person I know." He was twenty at the time, and I was thirty-five. So I guess I was fairly young, but he didn't mean that kind of young. His statement actually confused me, but I took it as a compliment, because I felt it that way from him. My main mission as a teacher was to make learning as fun as possible. So I knew the student wasn't saying I was immature; he was saying I was young at heart, fun-loving, and that I had the ability to see the lighter side, the hopeful side, even when faced with the worst. I never discussed this with him; it's just what I felt he meant.
All these years later, I consider his statement again. A year after my student made that pronouncement about me, my mother died in a car accident, her face bashed against the pavement on Highway 80 while driving home from buying towels on sale at a discount store in Vacaville. Her death was brutal, and her life was hard; she grew up in poverty, never knew her biological father, and her stepfather sexually molested her. She was never able to get the help she needed, emotionally and psychologically. Then she died a violent, sudden death.
Terrible things happen. Terrible things are happening as I write this. Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth wrote, "Life is a horrific opera, and the horror is the background for the wonder." I think that is a terrible statement, and when I first read it, soon after my mother died, I recognized its truth.
And I recognized that I had always lived with this truth. Or at least for a very long time, at least the horrific opera part, ever since I was a child and my parents, whom I loved because they gave me all the measure of love they possessed and more, spent many hours trying to destroy each other it seemed, drinking and fighting and carrying on a drama of mythic proportions, a drama so vast and terrible, I spent fourteen years of my adult life as a young woman living alone, because to live alone was the better, saner choice than living with people. I denied myself a family of my own because of my fear that somehow it would end up like my life with my parents. I feared I could never be a good parent, that if I had a child, he or she would love but also fear me like I loved and feared my parents. I feared them and feared for them. I knew, one day, if they stayed on the path they were walking, that the worst would happen, in some way, some form. And then that day came, and my mother, after the difficult life she had lived, died in a horrible way. There was nothing I could do about it, nothing I could have done to prevent it. It was horrific, and where was the wonder, Mr. Joseph Campbell?
The wonder is that we live at all. That we get to have the chance to live, that the planet earth is here. That it is all miracle, even though the horror is the background.
In the film, Sling Blade, the mentally challenged character, Karl, is haunted by the task given to him by his parents when he was a small child: to dispose of his deformed, unwanted, newborn brother. As an adult, Karl reveals this secret, and when he does, he says, "He (the brother) ought of had a chance to growed up. He would have had fun sometime. Little feller."
He would have had fun sometime.
I think this is my deepest abiding philosophy and spiritual belief:
We are here to have "fun sometime."
So that is what my student meant so long ago when he said I was the youngest person he knows. I know how to have "fun sometime," because this is the wonder inside the horrific opera, besides the wonder of being here at all.
In January, it will be the 20th anniversary of my mother's death. My mother, despite her haunted life, knew how to have fun a lot of times. She had the wildest, truest laughter; I can still hear her laugh, throwing her head back and laughing with her whole body. It was her greatest gift to me, other than her love. She gave me the kind of love I don't believe she ever received while growing up.
It is a wonder.
Causes Susan Browne Supports
Run Together, A Race to Raise Money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society