The Weight We Carry

Sometimes, it takes the weight of an elephant to let go of what is no longer ours to bear.

 minute read

Sara Graves

What is the weight on your life? Look for it. And when you find it. The thing that is resting on top of you. Grieve it and let it go. - Nayyirah Waheed


There are the years that ask questions and the years that answer. 2019 was both.  

Towards the end of 2018, my husband and I separated; and, in the wake of losing my marriage, I too lost a city that I loved, a past that I clung to, a future that I dreamed of, and the only version of myself that I believed I was worthy of being. Life was excruciating, and I was unrecognizable. So, in some reckless calculation of proportion, I resolved that to make my grief smaller, I would need to make the next season of my life discernibly bigger. Africa seemed like a sizable place to start.

In socializing this nascent (if not illogical) idea at work, a fortuitous research opportunity emerged: I was invited to go to South Africa to collect and present my data and research for two months. Here, I would seek to make and give sense to how sustainability leaders were building their psychological resilience, amid mounting ecological, societal, and financial challenges. Cape Town’s crippling drought or its country’s deepening disparity were two of such issues. Of course, this study became no more about trying to help these individuals navigate their inner lives and collective losses, as it was about me trying to process and accept my own.

One afternoon before leaving, I went for coffee with a girlfriend who had just returned from a walking safari on her honeymoon. As I shared my plans, she wrapped her arms around me and whispered, “Sara, I was reborn in the womb of Africa.” Her veracity unquestionable, I smiled and nodded to the universe: A rebirth? Yeah, I’d really like one too, please.

January arrived and, with it, my flight to Cape Town. 

Upon landing, smoke had enveloped the once blue sky: not far from where I was staying, forest fires were ravaging Table Mountain, and the city’s reserves, once full of water, had nearly run dry. An allegory, or so I thought.

“Hon, do you have a plan?” my dad asked, discerning the despondence in my voice when I called to let him know that I was safe and sound.

“What kind of plan?” 

“A suicide plan.”

“No. No, Dad! I’m just broken-hearted. And tired." 

“Your mom and I are only ever a flight away. Remember: impermanence. You two were together for nine years, and it will take time to move through this, but you will. I promise. And, just think: your sister will be there to give you a giant hug before you know it.”

He was right. Jess would meet me in Cape Town in March, at the end of my research visit, and together we would fly to Tanzania to embark on a childhood dream come true: a sister safari in the Serengeti. 

The days and weeks in South Africa that preceded her arrival were punctuated by profound moments of heartache and of healing; of unbeing and becoming. Between dualities, everything brought me tears. My grief was bottomless and brutal, but, in retrospect, vital too.

"My grief was bottomless and brutal, but, in retrospect, vital too"

As work came to end, my trip with my sister began. Thirty-six hours and countless adventures that only we could get ourselves into later, we finally made it to Tanzania. By the fifth day of our safari, we had learned to set our alarms for 5:00 a.m.: sun-ups in the Serengeti were teeming with life, and to imbibe every scent, every sound, every colour, and every creature was to feel the possibility of another planet; another way of living. 

That morning, we watched as the first hint of dawn, a sublime sort of orange, leaked out of the eastern horizon and slowly erased the stars. A new day beamed before us, but, if we craned heads far enough back to the west, the moon stood pinned to a sky showing no signs of surrender. It was exalting, this feeling, to sit in the interlude of day and night. 

For a moment, and I hated myself for it, I wondered what it would be like to share these early hours with the man I once shared the world with. Standing side by side, might such grandeur and possibility be just enough to bring two people back together?

As I worked to re-configure reality, our guide, Bosco, hollered, “Girls, grab your things! Let’s go see some animals!”

I swallowed my answer whole and hopped into his jeep.

We spent the next few hours imbibing the magnitude and magic of the Serengeti. In between animal sightings, Jess, our guide, and I exchanged stories, coffee, and crepes on the hood of the car. We watched ten thousand wildebeest migrate south; we witnessed two sister lionesses care so absolutely for their eight cubs; we saw an elephant, giraffes, zebras, and rhinoceros navigate daily life, void of the vestiges of human conquest. And, through it all, I came to see what we have always been told: that the world once lived, grew, and thrived without the tyranny of clocks, commercialism, and comparison.

Eventually, as the temperatures rose and the animals grew weary from the heat, we returned to our camp for lunch. I dug my notebook out from the bottom of my bag and began to document the morning: 

Minutes into our drive, while looking for the elusive leopard, we saw a large male elephant. Alone, if not lonely, his stature was formidable and his broken tusk unforgettable. And yet, even in the midst of such vast and breathtaking beauty, my head and heart continued to oscillate between here and home. Even here, I readily return to some reverie of what was, when all I want is to be fully, unshakably here for what is. Grief and shame are surely lonely, but they are also cunning; in the thick of separating you from others, they too separate you from yourself.

I finished journaling and retreated to our tent to change; and, more truthfully, to meditate in some desperate attempt to drop back into the day.

"Grief and shame are surely lonely, but they are also cunning; in the thick of separating you from others, they too separate you from yourself"

Around 3pm, I zipped up the doors to our canvas home and began the short walk back towards my sister, where she and our guide were waiting for me under the sun. Our camp was shrouded by trees, but the limited visibility never felt menacing, and the quiet belied any danger. 

When I turned left onto the footpath, though, a 20,000-pound elephant stood not 30 metres away. I recognized him from the morning, and maybe, in some distant way, he remembered me too.  

As we locked eyes, his gaze leveled me. His ears began to beat back and forth. He trumpeted. And a stream of shame came flooding back. Fuck. Why didn’t I research this scenario? 

The elephant charged at me, and I did the only reasonable thing I knew how to do: run. As the heavy drumming of his feet grew louder, the earth now trembling below me, I sprinted straight into a sea of thorn bushes.  

I remember being kicked to the ground so forcefully that any sense that I would survive was knocked out of me. Trapped under his weight, thoughts of those I love carried me to a faraway place. I questioned how my mom would survive this: She won’t, I thought, she’s already lost her twin, an ardent elephant activist, and the irony of my death will be too cruel. I pictured Jess flying home with my body; without her sister. I ached for her incomparable laugh: the kind that reminds you just how rapturous life is, if you let it. I felt the left side of my body break; I held my head tighter. I crumbled at the thought of my dad; I wept wondering if he knew how wholly he had my heart. I made Faustian bargains with the universe, pleading for my friends and family to be near. As I screamed for help, I howled inside: How the hell did I get here?

Minutes later, and without warning, the elephant vanquished. I was alone: I was alive.

My sister and the camp workers rushed into the bushes, dragging me out and placing me on a couch outside of our tent. As Jess worked tirelessly to find a medical evacuation plane, I lay there, stunned. 

Time passed, and, as the sun fell, we were told that the plane couldn’t land—we would have to drive to the airstrip. A group of people whom I had never seen before carried me on a cushion into our guide’s jeep and slid me gently across the laps of two men who worked at the camp. Despite the excruciating pain that silenced me as we maneuvered unpaved roads that were brokered only by potholes, I begged Jess not to tell anyone what happened, least of all our parents. I was buried in self-contempt: the accident was all my fault, or so I believed; everything that had ever gone wrong was. And I couldn’t bear to see that truth mirrored back and intensified through anyone else’s eyes.

"I was buried in self-contempt: the accident was all my fault, or so I believed; as was everything that had ever gone wrong"

By dusk, we made it to the air ambulance, and, by the middle of the night, a hospital in Kenya. The days that followed revealed a series of physical injuries—a broken pelvis, a shattered tailbone and sacrum, and three herniated discs—which meant that we couldn’t readily leave. 

At one point, I asked my sister to text my therapist, Elizabeth, to let her know that I wouldn’t be able to make our upcoming session. Lovingly heeding any request, Jess ambiguously shared with her that I was in an accident, and that I was okay; that I would be okay. When Elizabeth checked in with me a few days later, I replied: “I feel really grateful to be here—like my perspective is shifting.” 

Eventually, Jess and I were cleared to go back to San Francisco for surgery. The nurses wrapped us in hospital blankets so that we wouldn’t soon forget our time at MP Shah (as if it were possible). Following our goodbyes, we took an ambulance with a travel nurse and respiratory therapist to the tarmac, and boarded the plane by way of the catering and cargo lift. I spent our commercial flights from Nairobi to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to SFO, on a stretcher, suspended from each plane’s overhead luggage compartments. Somewhere across the Atlantic, I asked the travel nurse for a glass of wine, as if it might somehow soften the edges of loneliness and pain in a way that the ketamine and morphine hadn’t. Hours later, in an ephemeral bout of feeling sorry for me in my horizontal boredom, he acquiesced and granted me a small pour of dry Riesling to swallow my next round of painkillers with. Before I knew it, we were in California. 

Out of surgery, I woke up to learn that two screws had been successfully and permanently placed across my pelvis and sacrum, and that a two-inch thorn had been removed from the bottom of my foot. 

My mom beside me, I turned my head and gazed out onto San Francisco: the city that I once lived and loved in; the city that I had to leave to heal from; and the city that I had to return to to heal in. I was immobile, and everything that once felt right was 40 floors below me, and entirely out of reach: there should be a word stronger than regret, I thought.

As the days passed, my therapist and I finally connected over Zoom from my hospital bed. After two years of working together, I ached for her wisdom and equanimity more than ever.

She asked if I remembered texting her from Nairobi. “Of course. I wrote that there was a perspective shift transpiring…” I trailed off, realizing she still didn’t know what had happened.

“Well, when I read that message, I thought that you had been rescued by the Indian god Ganesh.”

I was embarrassed not to know who that was, so I quickly Googled his name. “Elizabeth: Ganesh is an elephant. I was trampled by an elephant.” 

Shocked, she proceeded to ask about the event and my injuries. As I unravelled the details of both, she softly replied, “Ganesh guards the gate to the pelvic floor; to the root chakra; to the very foundation of belonging. He also has a broken tusk, which represents not only retaining the light of our lives, but also the letting go of darkness that no longer serves us.”

“The elephant that attacked me has a broken tusk on the same side,” I uttered, stunned. I went on to tell her that I had spent so much of my time in Africa drifting back into a familiar past, an illusion of certainty, so that the future—a formidable cloud, terrifying from a distance—stood veiled. I realized then that we often don't remember what we want to remember: we remember what we can't forget.

"I realized then that we often don't remember what we want to remember: we remember what we can't forget"

“But, in those minutes under his weight, everything was so precarious, so precious, that I didn’t have time to pine for some derivative of a life that was no longer mine. The elephant threw me so forcefully into the present that I had to relinquish any claim to the past; he brought me so close to death that I realized that all I wanted was to be so fully alive.” 

Elizabeth paused. “Ganesh is the remover of obstacles and the deity of beginnings. I think that you were weighed to the ground by the heaviest mammal on earth to teach you that guilt and grief are no longer yours to carry. You can let it go, Sara. You can lay it all down.” 

A year later, I understand that sometimes a journey makes itself necessary. A sojourn, or some euphemism for the very thing that brings us to our knees, gives rise to a kind of a willingness to introspect, to reflect, and to teach us that we carry our thoughts not until they leave us, but until we leave them.

"Know that not every hour you remember is a better hour simply because it is gone"

If you must leave a world that you lived and loved in, where all your yesteryears and halcyon days are buried deep, know that not every hour you remember is a better hour simply because it is gone. Know that you don’t have to be so loyal to your suffering that your healing doesn’t stand a chance. And know that, while turning back is one kind of death, and moving forward is surely another, there is an entire world on the other side of letting go. And I promise you this: it will be beautiful, too.

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