Ode to Joy

Until recently, I luxuriated in all the standard delusions we adopt in order to move through life. I believed that statistics applied to everyone, especially to my people. That tragedy would not strike my family — just others. That healthy babies lived. That life, mostly, made sense, and that we are, mostly, in control.

When I learned that my cherubic, book-loving, avocado-crushing, six-month-old nephew, Otto, had died during a nap — from no discernible cause — I couldn’t wrap my head around it. My worldview was smashed. How could someone who was the epitome of “alive” suddenly not be? He would have turned one on 12/22/21.

I have spent the last six months in a position I can best describe as grief-adjacent. This isn’t entirely accurate because I have my own grief and an Otto-sized hole in my own heart. But my grief isn’t what’s keeping me up at night. It is seeing the heartbreak on my brother’s face when we FaceTime, feeling it in my sister-in-law’s texts, hearing it in my parents’ voices, and continuing to process the animal agony I witnessed, and absorbed, when I flew to Otto’s home immediately after he died. It is wondering: will we ever be OK?

I have faith that we will be OK, and a knowing. I can see, in my mind’s eye, my brother and sister-in-law reclaiming and expanding their joy. My rational mind backs this up because I have witnessed others walk through this fire and come out the other side. I am starting to understand that extraordinary suffering is, actually, a part of ordinary life.

When he was on this earth, Otto was pure joy. So, therefore, is his spirit, which brings much-needed comfort to his family. To honor him on his birthday, I want to say this to the millions of others who are suffering: you are not alone. You feel isolated, as though no one can understand your pain, or see it, not because millions of others aren’t standing in it with you, but because so many don’t want to believe it exists. They are afraid to acknowledge your extraordinary pain because they don’t want to believe it could touch their ordinary lives.

But Otto has taught me not to look away — that I have a responsibility not to. Despite the pandemic and ability to hide behind social media and digital communication, we do better as a community, and community depends on communal support. I must accept that the health and wellbeing of my people are, largely, out of my control, and love them unreservedly anyway.

This is the extraordinary part of the ordinary human condition.

To those of you who are suffering, I acknowledge and honor you. I walk beside you. I wish for your healing, for my family’s, and for my own. Extraordinary suffering knows no boundaries and, ironically, despite the feelings of isolation it brings, connects us all.

To those of you who would rather push these truths away, I urge you to honor Otto — a magic angel baby, who continues to bestow goodness to his people, and to the world — by turning toward those you know who suffer. Do not pity them. But see them. Stand with them in whatever ways honor both them and you. Acknowledge that we are united in our vulnerability to loss and pain, and by our extraordinary ability to love each other through it.

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