We all know about Hercules. He was the son of Zeus, king of the Gods, and Alcmene, a mortal woman. Zeus’ wife Hera was jealous of her and while she couldn’t really do anything about the situation, she vowed to make Herucles’ life as miserable as she could. She drove Hercules temporarily mad one day, whereupon in a fit of rage, he killed his wife and children. For atonement, Apollo sentenced him to serve Eurystheus, the King of Mycenae for twelve years. As part of this service the King ordered him to perform a series of twelve labors, tasks so difficult that they seemed impossible. Of course, with his great strength and cunning, and the aid of a couple of sympathetic gods, he accomplished the impossible, and the rest is history.
Sisyphus on the other hand was far less heroic. He was an inveterate sinner and con man, who tricked Hades, the god of the Underworld time and again. Sisyphus eventually ended up in in Hell, eternally condemned to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. I am not sure which of these two stories more closely describes what I go through daily. There are times where I feel as if I have been ordered to perform a series of impossible undertakings, and there are days where I feel as if I have been condemned to a futile task for all eternity.
Sometimes it takes a Herculean effort just to climb out of bed in the morning. What gets me up and going is that I made a commitment to myself to say Kaddish for Jake every day for the first eleven months. So I drag myself to shul at 6:45 each morning. I sit and wait for the end of the service as the words wash over me, so I can fulfill my pledge. I do it for reasons in my previous post, both for him and for me. I brought in a photo of Jake, which sits on a shelf in the back room. I can see it through a doorway from where I usually sit. Most mornings, I can’t even bear to look at it as I recite the prayer. He looks out from the photo, clear-eyed, as alive as he ever was, and I struggle to grasp that he is truly dead.
That task completed, I usually return home and fight the urge to climb back into bed, another test of strength of will. Occasionally I win the battle and continue on with my day. Often, I lose and go back to sleep for a few hours more. Hours I don’t have to bear my burden of grief. Some days it feels as if I am carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, something Hercules did for a spell while he labored to gather the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. He ultimately tricked Atlas into taking back the world; I wish I could find an Atlas to lug this cargo for me. But I can’t. It is my load to carry.
Other days are more straightforward. I get up, do what I have to do that day, and gratefully go to bed. My tasks are far less heroic than Hercules’ but require no less an effort. It’s if I am walking through water, I am exhausted by the end of the day. The daily minutia occupies my time; shopping, writing, my search for work, chores around the home, the mundane routine of everyday life. And for moments, here and there, it almost seems normal. For a moment. And here is where Sisyphus comes in. Just when I think I have made some progress, have rolled my boulder closer to the top of the hill, the enormity of it all comes crashing in and spasms of grief steal my strength. I lose my grasp and the boulder rolls back to the bottom. I dust myself off, lean against the giant rock and start back up the hill again.
Albert Camus uses the Myth of Sisyphus as a metaphor for the absurdity of modern existence. Camus imagines that ultimately Sisyphus could be happy once he acknowledges his fate and accepts that the struggle toward the heights is enough, that “crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.” That when we become conscious of our fate, we are at once bound by the tragedy of futile effort, and yet, can transcend that tragedy to find fulfillment. Lofty words. I am still struggling with the tragedy, trying to comprehend my fate. I acknowledge my crushing truth, yet it persists. The Gods punished Sisyphus for his scorn of the gods, his hatred of death and his passion for life. For what am I being punished? For what was Jake punished?
So I swing between Hercules and Sisyphus. I call on my reserves of strength to make it through the days, celebrating the small pleasures of daily life, the little victories, only to see those efforts undone as grief ambushes me unawares. Would that I could divert clear river waters, as Hercules did to clean the Augean stables, to flush out the shadows of sorrow, the melancholy bandits that have made their home in my spirit. Sadly, that sorrow will linger forever. I am learning to live with it, but I will be pushing that stone of sadness up the mountain for as long as I can foresee.
The good news is that each day is another step forward. I get the rock just a bit higher on the mountain, and perhaps it doesn’t roll quite as far down. I don’t accept that this effort is entirely futile. I will always carry heartache with me, will always mourn the loss of my son, but in time, I am told, that the sharpness of the anguish diminishes to a more manageable pain. I am already seeing that the spasms, while no less painful, are farther apart and shorter in duration. I am learning to manage my chronic sorrow. I have a long way to go; I shall need all of Hercules’ strength, cleverness, and courage before I complete my labors.