I drove home alone Friday night. Sunset raged crimson, gold, and violent – flames licking the sky – and mountains faded to silhouettes against the blazing horizon. In the back seat, the dog panted quietly. I gripped the wheel with both hands as if the car was sliding, but the road was straight and dry. There were no cars in front of me and none behind. Still, dread chewed at my insides. I wanted to pull over, scream at the world, and just once stop the incessant tick of time. Instead, I continued to drive.
The house was dark when I arrived. I turned on the lights, set the kettle to boil, and built a fire. The dog barked. Headlights lit the trees outside the window. The front door opened and my husband burst through it with a phone to his ear and a bag of groceries cradled to his side. A gust of wind followed him, chasing a few dead leaves across the tile floor. He looked at me and smiled.
I checked one worry off my list. There had been no horrible accident and he was fine. We made dinner, sipped tea, and threw the backgammon dice – all the while chatting about the small events that comprise our daily lives.
While we talked, the dread gnawed a hollow in my chest, would not be tamed by tea or touch or tenderness, and when the phone rang and I saw the caller ID I was not surprised. “This,” I thought, “is the day my son dies.”
The voice on the other end of the line informed me my son had been drinking, was contemplating suicide, and had not been seen or heard from in some time. I checked his phone log online and confirmed there had been no calls or texts for more than eight hours. The story, though familiar, left me terrified.
With police help, we found him – unharmed, but drunk out of his mind – and I breathed a sigh of relief. The inevitable wouldn’t come tonight. There would be more time.
Seven years ago, the disease stole my son and replaced him with someone I seldom recognize. Since then, I’ve wrestled with a demon named failure. I’ve argued, pleaded, and prayed. I’ve tried tough love and compromise. I have been furious, hopeful, determined, and desperate, but my will cannot combat my son’s lies. My nurture cannot make him sober. My love cannot force him to stay alive. According to all the standards by which society measures us, I have failed as a mother. I didn’t raise my son right. I can’t save him, make him better, or coax him to health. Shame and guilt still torture me in the wee hours of the night, but, according to popular mythology, they shouldn’t.
These days, failure is a prize. In conference rooms and universities across the country, inspirational speakers laud this demon as a necessary obstacle on the path to success. It is an essential part of the hero’s journey, the thing that teaches him what he needs to know, gives him courage, and makes him strong.
They glorify this demon and recount their battles with it like old soldiers. Rejection letters, divorce, money lost, and opportunities squandered are feathers in the cap, notches on the belt, stripes of paint on the belly of a plane. They are the marks of a warrior, the canonization of his struggle, the hallmark of wrong made right. Failure is the enemy, but it is also the process through which the warrior becomes a knight.
I have failed countless times – failed in marriage, failed to get the job I wanted, failed to keep a job I needed, failed to save, failed to spend wisely, failed to get the coveted publishing contract with one of the big guys. I have failed at keeping my skin youthful and my figure perfect because I failed to eat the right foods and exercise. If the inspiration gurus are right, I’m headed for a glorious future.
We all want to believe in a silver lining. There should be a purpose, a reason for the events that drop us to our knees and leave us screaming. At times, we want to control the outcome, make a difference, and be heard. At others, we just want to stop the bleeding. Crushed, broken, and powerless, we’ll believe almost anything that will get us through another day. That is why the statement, “Failure paves the way to success,” is so popular. Unfortunately, it is also a lie.
The root of the word failure is deficiency. It suggests that we are flawed and had we been good enough the terrible event would not have transpired. Though failure is our fault, we can use it to further our goals. The heroine on her journey is supposed to learn from her past failures, glean wisdom from the battles, and turn her weaknesses into strengths so the next time failure raises its ugly head she can slay it before real damage is done. Then, the writer will be published, the entrepreneur will make a fortune, the marriage will last forever, and the mother will never have to utter, “My remaining sons.”
I used to believe failure wasn’t an option. Then I believed failure was a necessary evil I would eventually overcome. In my writing, relationships, and business endeavors I tried to learn from the past so I could correct my deficiencies and avoid repeating mistakes. Then, despite all efforts, a circumstance outside my control would throw a wrench in my careful maneuvering and surface a new deficiency. This happened again and again.
Now, with a slew of successes and failures behind me, I am watching my son wrestle with a terrible disease. I desperately want him to live. I want this more than anything, but I cannot control what he does. Perhaps the real lesson lies here. It is his choice to live or die, not my failure.
In this instance, as in most, I must throw the whole concept of failure to the wind. The only thing I control is what I give. This is a brutal truth. I can’t run or hide. I can’t bury myself under my covers for days at a time. All I can do – all any of us can do, really – is show up, bear witness, and love.