“We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? Help,” he said, “is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly. So it is, that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. It is like the auto-supply shop over town where they always, say, ‘Sorry, we are just out of that part.’”
I had a conversation with a friend recently wherein I felt absolutely helpless to help him. He reminded me of Paul Maclean in the story, A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean.
In that story, Paul is the younger of two brothers. He is wild and untethered—free as a bird, popular, and a very big fish in a very small pond.
Except… he isn’t wild and free. He is tethered to the depth of his own pain, to his sense of unworthiness and his tendency towards heeding the call of spirits, gambling, and showing the world just how tough he really was. He was feisty and stubborn, to say the least.
Norman is the square older brother who follows the rules. He’s the writer—the one who tells stories on paper, the one who goes away to college, the one who seems… quieter. Not as shiny. More sensible, and therefore more boring.
I have always felt a deep connection to the story. To the lyrical turn of phrase in Maclean’s writing, to the sentiment behind loving family without fully understanding them, to feeling constantly misunderstood and under-estimated.
I watched the movie version of this story today, in hopes of finding a deeper understanding of what my friend is currently going through, or possibly a different way to connect with him that might be more helpful.
Instead, I found myself in a pile of tears as I realized another layer of understanding of my own family, my own sister, and my own appointed role in it all.
It hit me that Wendy was much like Paul. She defied the rules of our parents with a ferocity and unapologetic glee that I rarely see depicted in books or on screen. And I, of course, am like Norman...
In one scene of the movie, Paul, Norman, their mother, and their father (a preacher, played by Tom Skerritt) are sitting around the dinner table. They all turn to Paul and ask him to tell a story. Instantly, my mind flashed back to the tales Wendy used to tell—dramas about her kids, her man, her work. Or maybe something about the fire chief, a fire the community rushed to put out, or maybe another story about another animal that had found her.
I watched through blurry vision from my tears as Paul stammered, searching his memory for a story to tell.
Quietly, Norman says, “I’ve got a story.”
Three pairs of eyes turn to him, and he softly says that he’d been offered a professorship at the University of Chicago. A moment of deep pride shown on his face as for once—Norman took the spotlight in his own family.
The camera pans to Paul (played by Brad Pitt).
The look of pain and unworthiness in his eyes is incongruent with the loving smile that has crept across his face: a genuine mix of disappointment in himself and pride for his brother’s hard work and good fortune.
I know that look.
I know it all too well.
But there is another layer to this story.
Towards the end of the movie, Paul, Norman, and their father go fly fishing. Norman and the preacher sit high on the banks, tired from catching their own trout, as they watch Paul scope out the river and finally spot a fish he wants to try and capture.
They watch in silent awe as Paul artfully sweeps the fishing line out across the water. It lands inches away from the fish, and it latches on—taking Paul for quite the ride down the sharp rocks and rushing waters of the Big Blackfoot River. That fish is so big, so strong, that it’s all Paul can do to simply hold on to the line as he’s whisked downstream.
Eventually, the water calms, and Paul comes up for air. He captures the fish, reels it in, and proudly holds onto it as Norman and their father look on with amazement.
Norman narrates, “At that moment, I knew, surely and clearly, that I was witnessing perfection. My brother stood before us, not on the bank of the Big Blackfoot River, but suspended above the earth, free from all its laws, like a work of art. And I knew just as surely, just as clearly, that life is not a work of art and that the moment could not last.”
Soon after that perfect moment, Paul was killed.
“Do you think I could have helped him?” he asked.
“Do you think I could have helped him?” I answered.
We stood waiting in deference to each other. How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?
(I have asked myself that question about my sister. I know my dad has, too.)
I was fortunate to witness my sister's perfection.
I saw the way she fell head over heels in love with motherhood. Not with her older children, but in her later years, when she had Kasey. I’d never seen such awe, such patience, and such flowing love in my sister as I did when Kasey came into our lives.
My sister’s perfection was a bright shining beacon in that brief time. She had darkness. She had pain. But Kasey opened her heart in a way she’d never been open before, and when that happened, I knew I was witnessing magic. And that magical love spilled over onto her other children, as she realized, perhaps for the first time, that these beings had shaped her, changed her, and defined her in the best possible ways.
I’ve been missing Wendy a lot lately. I realized earlier this weekend that I can’t quite remember the exact color of her eyes, and what they looked like. I can see them in pictures, of course—but when I close my eyes and picture her face… the details have started to fade.
I miss my family.
And I often feel like I’m supposed to live this huge life to make up for my mom’s and sister’s lives being clipped so short. As if I owe them, or my family, or myself, or some other entity, or all of the above, because I’m still here.
I know that isn’t logical.
But grief never is…
“It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”
“…you can love completely without complete understanding.”