I met her just once, at a Christmas party.
She was admiring a cockatiel in a cage just off from the kitchen. Brooklyn, it turned out, loved animals. She had a cat who had been her faithful companion during an extended season when she was bed bound. My cat would not have been so patient.
Brooklyn and I had many things in common. She was a writer, too, her wry wit well suited to satire. Humor is hard to master. I admired her instantly.
“Where do you write?” I asked.
“Well, on social media mostly,” she replied. “It’s a different medium. Shorter. It takes a lot of time and energy to be sick.”
Brooklyn wasn’t in the kitchen with the other girls because she received all her nutrition through a tube, a result of a long battle with multiple chronic illnesses.
I left the party thinking we might become friends. I would write her. Maybe I could pick her up some Saturday, since she didn’t drive, when the weather was nicer, when she felt better.
Then a few weeks later, she announced on social media that the battery of treatments she had undergone hadn’t worked. I decided not to comment on her post, it seemed both too intimate and too distant. I meant to write to her.
She wrote about dying, led her friends, family, and followers through it on Instagram. I meant to do something more than “like” her posts. I prayed, of course. I was going to send a card.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine.
I learned about the conflict through people who work for the same organization I do and live in Russia, Ukraine, and the surrounding region. I met some of them once. Some I’ve only spoken with through Zoom, laughing early in the morning as we stumbled through technical difficulties. I waited to hear if they were all right. Were their homes being shelled? Would they be able to get out? Did their family members have their medication? Would they be sent to fight?
I shielded my phone screen from the bright light of a perfectly quiet spring day, reading updates from a war zone. Each bit of good news brought relief and forgetfulness. I could slip the whole situation into my back pocket.
There’s a kind of God-like audacity to being able to fit the whole world in your hand. Maybe we think God could forget us because we can, and do, forget a whole world in our pockets.
Then Brooklyn passed.
I felt guilt first and then wondered if I had any right to grieve? We met once.
And do I have any right to fear, to lament, to feel particular kinship with my co-workers in Eastern Europe?
There is no connection between Brooklyn and Ukraine except perhaps a trite metaphorical one—something about perseverance. No, Brooklyn and Ukraine are two griefs observed that feel connected because of their chronological proximity in the particular context of my life, a random connection that doesn’t feel random at all.
This is a new, strange way of meeting Death and its shadow—as an observer, maybe even a voyeur, peering through a glass screen, the world in my pocket. Here, Death is presented. Perhaps not tidied, but presented. We can choose to partake.
And if I can get out of it, wouldn’t I?
Yet there is a draw to suffering. Not a twisted magnetism like that which pulls our eyes toward a traffic accident. I hope it is a nobler thing—an urge to test our strength and compassion by stepping into hurt. Such a desire could be considered virtuous.
Of course, there is very little risk in such a test. Wars a world away and the friends of a moment are love’s tide pools—the danger of drowning is low, shallow.
And what can we do from the safety of a tide pool? We are offered a world where we can know much but do very little. A prayer, a donation, a few words. Then…
But maybe the God-like audacity is thinking only or mostly of “what we can do.” Does a focus on doing vault over humble lament? Yet apathy can wear humility as a disguise…
So, what then? Where is the line is between voyeur and vigil-keeper?
The line between Russia and America is in the Bering Strait off the coast of Alaska, between the Islands of Big Diomede and Little Diomede. The traditional arrangement of world maps make it look like Russia and Ukraine are on the other side of the world, but we are about fifty-five miles from Russia. We are closer than we imagine.
The borders of intimacy are as arbitrary and fragile as the lines between nations, as the place we cut the globe to make it flat, shallow. We are as close as we choose to believe.
I am reminded of a man who wept at the tomb of his friend.
“If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” the friend’s sisters cried. Because we view grief through our funny, human notions of proximity and “close enough” to make a difference, “close enough” to care.
The man at the tomb knows that his friend will not be dead for long. And yet he chooses to weep. He chooses to be human. He chooses grief. Weeping is ugly and God-like.
When we choose to hold the grief that comes to us through the lens of the worlds in our pockets, there is something God-like in that, too. It may be the bare minimum. I doubt it’s truly noble, but maybe it’s close enough.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.