There was a scene in a book I read once about a little boy who drowned. His story was rendered with such exquisite detail and carefulness that the effect was as beautiful as it was horrifying. Years later, I can still recall the light that fell on the green-glass surface of the river; the algae that clung to weightless limbs, unburdened; soaked ringlets pressed flat to the cold, milk-white skin of his forehead. He was peaceful, angelic, pure by way of a tortured twisting for air that wouldn’t oblige. I don’t remember the name of the book or the boy, but I remember that his family knew there was something wrong with the way his mind worked, and they kept him sheltered in hopes of protecting him from the cruelty of all the working pieces and moveable parts of a society that doesn’t care for mental illness.
At the time I remember thinking how unfair it all was — the loss certainly, but also the hiding, the pretending, the obscuring and dodging all because his mind worked differently. And this family couldn’t openly grieve. They couldn’t grieve for him in life — for the challenges he would face and the obstacles he would have to overcome. And they couldn’t openly grieve for him in death because of the secrecy. But they couldn’t celebrate him either. They couldn’t celebrate this beautiful boy’s life because fear and uncertainty overcame them. They turned away from the light and bent toward darkness, and there they remained until their boy wandered off on a summer day in seek of the sun on his skin. But what he didn’t know is that the sun can burn and it can blind, and it did both to this boy whose pale skin turned scorching red after minutes, his eyes mistrusting of the brightness. He just wanted to sit in the shallow river under the shade of giant trees and feel the water rush over him.
This scene came rushing back to me when I heard about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, and it didn’t take long to connect the two. We will all carry a form of darkness at some point. And if we aren’t the carrier, we feel the complicated and multifaceted weight of a loved one who bears the burden of carrying it, and we admit — sometimes quietly, sometimes pleadingly, sometimes silently — to helplessness. But we don’t openly talk about mental illness or addiction or infidelity or financial ruin or anger management or any number of various brands of darkness. Not really. Maybe we do in the comfort of anonymity behind a computer screen, but not in real life. Not when we or someone we love is in the thick of it. Because let’s be honest: Some small part of us thinks that we could avoid or confront or control that particular darkness. We wouldn’t let that darkness overcome us. Until it creeps up without warning and slips its spindly fingers around our throats.
We all carry darkness. How many of us are bending toward it now?
So this is me choosing light. This is me disclosing that I am struggling with my own mark of darkness and someone in my family is struggling with a different kind of darkness and maybe my neighbor is struggling with something else entirely and maybe the mom in the checkout line behind me is struggling with the same exact thing as me and maybe the person who cut me off in traffic is distracted by their darkness and maybe my child’s teacher is struggling to hold that light in her hand today and maybe the nurse who snaps at my child feels her darkness like a cloak around her shoulders.
Maybe we should start talking. Maybe we should start asking the tough questions. Maybe we should invite darkness to the conversation more often and be willing to listen with open hearts and open minds. Because it’s not the darkness we should fear, it’s the silence. And because sometimes we all need to sit under the umbrella of giant trees and feel the water rush over us.