“Next year has to be better.”
I remember thinking those words as 2011 came to a close. Sometimes, in that waning December, I itched for nothing more than the turning over of a year that had brought too much loss and suffering, not only to my family and me but to so many others in my life. We were all longing for a reprieve, for something golden and gentle to enfold us in the coming months, to light up our lives and gift us with renewed and vibrant purpose.
This December, as I prepare to greet 2013, it would be easy to think along similar lines. In a year of unexpected challenges in just about every area of my life, change has been both the threat and promise looming around the bend. It seemed as if I were constantly perched in its loosely clasped palms, which could fall open at any moment and set me soaring or tumbling — the choice would always be mine — into unknown territory.
Beneath the surface of so many ordinary days, a quiet agitation stirred, and though I could only guess where such restlessness was leading, I trusted the destination would be for my ultimate good.
Then in October, my father died. Even though he’d been in precarious health for months, following years of battling one ailment after another, this was one change I wasn’t prepared to face.
Who, after all, is ever equipped for such life-altering loss? And my dad, though frail, was possessed of such a mighty faith and determination that I suppose I never thought he would give up, never imagined he’d surrender his spirit so willingly, facing the end with such clear-eyed and peaceful attentiveness.
Could this have been the change I’d been bracing for? Had all the months of vague vigilance and anticipation really been leading to another lesson in loss? I’d only just begun to feel as if I were emerging from the shadowed maze of grief, having lost a father figure the year before, when I was once again capsized into devastating emptiness.
And so 2012 will slip away on a tide of sorrow. But while it has been a hard year, I refuse to make it a bad one, to proclaim good riddance, as I did last year, to the months that have been unkind, to all that has felt unfair.
For the truth is, the blessings have been many. The moments where I’ve felt deeply loved and connected, the joy that has erupted like blossoms of a long-awaited spring, the wonder and inspiration that have tucked their whispers into the string of the routine — all have reminded me that grief and loss have a way of throwing our lives into Technicolor. Even while the heart is heavy and sadness is a steady companion, all that is beautiful about living becomes even dearer with the weight of memory and longing. We lean more intensely, more gratefully into those pockets that sing of our aliveness, teaching us that no death is in vain that allows us to more fully and consciously inhabit our own days.
Less than a month before I would head to St. Lucia to be with my father in his final hours, I was floating on top of the world. I had just returned from a tour of Italy and Austria with my mom and family friends, where every destination had filled me with a giddy happiness or reverence. The trip, a celebratory adventure of a lifetime, was like a flare drawing my mom and me out of a year of deep grieving into the arms of brighter hope. Even before I’d set off, I’d felt like a new chapter was about to begin for me, with life leaking its sweetness in surprising bursts into the days before we left.
Exciting new opportunities and invitations beckoned from unlikely sources and I took off for Europe riding a wave of momentum I was sure would usher me through the doorway to something even more marvelous when I returned. Though I was busy playing catch-up in those first few weeks, I never doubted those instincts. And then the news came: My father was hospitalized with deep-vein thrombosis and other complications. He was growing increasingly weak and emaciated, and the prognosis was grim.
I left for St. Lucia and what would be the most heartbreaking days I have ever known. In the weeks since, I’ve sometimes wondered what it meant to be brought so abruptly and painfully from the high I’d been on since before leaving for Italy. Why was it in the moment when everything seemed about to change for the better, when I was buoyed by wild joy and a sense of boundless possibilities, that I would be visited once again by the kind of pain that leaves little room or energy for contemplating anything else? As I’ve been tending my heart and my depleted reserves, all that felt so exhilarating and expansive not that long ago seems to have evaporated, and I cannot see too far beyond a dim immediacy to imagine what may have been blown in on those auspicious winds or what awaits on the other side of my journey.
But I try not to dwell on the whys and hows of such a quicksilver turn of circumstance. Somehow, I know I needed Europe, needed the lightness and elation and magic of it all, to have the strength to attend my father’s deathbed vigil. I needed to remember all that is good and capable of being resurrected in a bruised and broken heart to endure having that heart felled and steeped in fresh melancholy once again.
For the depths of our suffering also has much to teach us about our capacity for joy. If we are patient and trusting with the former, remaining open to where it will take us, we will find its well is never deeper than the latter. Often, it is because we have held great pain that we are able to embrace even greater happiness when it arrives and to learn to cultivate it as the fount that never runs dry.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times