In these matters joy and sorrow can be surprise guests

Sometimes, happiness startles me, the way it floats, unbidden, into an ordinary moment and lifts it up in song.

I am driving the back roads of Bucks County, on my way into the office from an assignment, when it slips in, slow and incandescent. Perhaps it was sparked by the conversation I’d just had, the candor and genuine curiosity of a chance exchange between strangers on the street and the way we’d leaned into each other, eager to share something of ourselves beyond the fleetingly mundane.

Or maybe it is the effulgence of autumn that unfolds its feathery warmth, as I can’t help marveling at the trees dressed in their finest gold and burgundy, and the blue skies fanning out across such a canopy. When I stop to get something to eat at a store along my route, the woman behind the cash register and I chat like old, or perhaps new, friends, lingering in our laughter long after she has bagged my purchase, pressed my change into my palm. And I wonder if she feels it, too, the electric hum of some small grace winging its weight through the air.

All I know is I am grateful for that moment and every one that follows, as I move through the hours with an expanding buoyancy. I know I can’t capture this feeling or pin it down. But as it flows through me, it seems to touch everything and everyone I encounter until I am fairly aching with how much beauty a single day can hold. It is only on the drive home later that night, as I am singing along to a collection of my favorite songs, belting out the lyrics with gusto, that I am struck by the dichotomy of so much happiness.

It is the eve of the two-year anniversary of my dad’s death. Of course, it’s been in my consciousness, though I’ve learned in the last few years the anticipation of such occasions can sting more than the day itself. And indeed, the memory of loss has recently been a more constant companion, sorrow a rub I cannot escape.

But on this night, even with the flash of sadness that sears my awareness, I cannot deny my bright and ample guest. That gladness is what brings my dad closer to me, knowing how much he loved music, and how many memories were fashioned from evenings where the sounds of his extensive record collection filled our living room. I imagine him smiling from above, not only because of the freedom that is now his but because this is what he wants — to live on in the space of such joy, even as those of us who miss him continue to heal and to grieve.

On the actual anniversary, my brother tells me he feels stronger, too, this year and is also holding the image of our dad smiling. It may be expected, that the passing of time dulls the ache, gentles the longing. But I have heard of loved ones in mourning who feel less swamped by sadness as each year passes only to be assailed by a grief that feels raw and consuming at the five- or 10-year mark.

And just two weeks later, I myself will attend a dinner at a friend’s house only to fight back tears when she seats me next to her father. At first, I enjoy our breezy banter, laugh at his deadpan jokes.
But somewhere between the food being served and the silent, gustatory rapture that follows, I am struck anew by his presence beside me. I think of what it would be like to sit beside my dad at a table where I’ve prepared the meal. I imagine how I would call him up, invite him to dinner on a Saturday, for just the two of us, or maybe a small group of friends, and how he would relish entertaining them and raise his glass to the chef. Suddenly, my eyes are swimming. A sob, mercifully quiet, catches in my throat.

I reach for my glass of wine, turn to stare at the counter behind me and then fasten my attention on the contents of my plate. When I finally regain my composure, I am relieved to note my struggle has been a private one — or at least deliberately overlooked.

There may be no accounting for happiness sometimes, but grief, I have also learned, is its own wily animal.

On the date that would have been my dad’s funeral, six days after his death, I am recovering from a cold. My body still aches, my throat rasps and I have a lingering cough that’s been keeping me awake. But as I am sitting at my kitchen table that night, I hear the first jubilant notes of Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening” on the radio. I rush over to turn up the volume. It’s not a song I often hear, but it has always taken me back to our house on the Morne in St. Lucia, where I can almost feel the evening breeze drifting in from the balcony, see my dad in front of his record player, with a stack of albums beside him, and Simon’s voice serenading us all. He is doing that dance of his, the one that hovers somewhere between intent listening and conducting an imaginary band as he shuffles his feet. And he is beaming.

I am, too, as I dance around my living room, hands pumping the air, reaching heavenward, as if he could high-five my fingers, grab them and twirl me around. In that moment, I am fairly delirious with joy, certain he has sent this song to me, as hungry for this connection as I have been for some sign of his nearness. I dance, with a grin that won’t quit and a giddiness in my limbs — until I begin to cry. It’s the perfect, beautiful release, a welling sorrow on the heels of so much happiness, as if we could ever know one without the other, as if we could ever betray our hurt by grasping at any such wild and cheerful thing.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times


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