Strains of “In the Bleak Midwinter” have been accompanying me on my wintertime walks. Yet “bleak” is the last word I would use to describe these glorious winter days. The sparkling snow, dazzling sunshine, and deep blue of the sky against white birch branches offer solace to my soul. Still, the carol rings true, for in this midwinter, bleakness – a sense of desolation, loss, and despair — shrouds the land. Many dear to me have suffered tragic losses – of brothers, mothers, sisters, children, friends, partners and spouses – to cancer, suicide, alcohol, a hit-and-run driver, injury from a fall, dementia, sudden death, and sheer despair. An aggrieved world spins out tendrils of affiliated losses — of community and country, safety and security, watersheds and wild places, touch and tenderness and trust; family and faith — whether in god or humanity or the future. Thousands have lost the tangibles of jobs, shelter, savings, and physical capacity, and millions more the intangibles of dreams deferred, hopes for a nation, and belief in the basic decency of our fellow humans. And then there are the ordinary, everyday losses. As a friend recently posted, “I am grieving. I miss Sunday breakfasts at the cafe. Live music. Dinner parties. I miss seeing people smile in the grocery aisle.”[i] We are all suffering utter and ongoing loss.
One year ago, on New Year’s eve, I buried my father’s ashes. It was an incredible experience to orchestrate the funeral and burial of the man who begat me. He was nowhere near a Hallmark greeting card kind of father. He was complicated and difficult in ways both minor and severe. Yet, this was the man I called “Dad,” and I was left to deal with the baggage of his life. I cried in a way I had not cried before and felt a kind of sadness that, when given over to, seemed fathomless. There is no real answer to grief like that. I decided that one must just confront it or become it or traverse it. And, there were things to do, practical things, such as repurposing clothes and rehoming cats, for which no one, I believe, could ever be totally prepared. I did not resent what I had to do; I just did it. These things were hard for me.
Yet, despite the pain, something in that loss was deeply freeing. There was no progenitor in the person of my father to come before me now, so there was suddenly no sense (however falsely constructed it may have been to begin with) that someone stood between me and whatever it is that was and is coming at me. There is no longer even the false perception of a windbreaker, no frontline, no wise man, no one to shield, no guide. There is just a naked sense of myself in the world, and though others surely came before me and stand around me now, on an existential level, I am not answering to him any longer.
A friend of mine has been in hospice with Alzheimer’s. And she died today. There will be a day when I write about Barbara… what a great friend she was. How I hate that she is no longer in my life. How I know how hard it is for her spouse to lose her. How hard it is when someone so vibrant leaves your community.
But writing about her was not what I could do today. And today is when I had this blog due. I decided after I learned that she had passed – to garden. Barbara used to help my wife water the garden. It was something comforting and familiar and useful that she did with us.