The sweet melancholy of autumn: in such loss, a fertile splendor, too

I have long been quiet, the weeks slipping by in silence on the page despite the daily churning of my life, hurtling as it always does through the fall.

Autumn has always been one of my busiest times for performing weddings. The couples I’ve had the great blessing to marry in September and October have touched me in so many different ways, with their stories of hope abandoned and re-ignited when least expected, love sparked at first glance, enduring vows of the heart officially recognized at last, and the exaltation of all they never imagined being held dear.

Grace and Levi, whose wedding I performed in October, found each other after she'd resigned herself to a life of solitude.

Grace and Levi, whose wedding I performed in October, found each other after she’d resigned herself to a life of solitude.

But the fall is also my season of grief, the splendor that surrounds me as the trees surrender their leaves in a blazing farewell a reminder of impermanence, of endings that carry us through dark passages to an invisible light, of all the ways we begin again after holding barren joys and the tumbling scraps of our lives.

October 15 marked the three-year anniversary of my father’s passing to cancer and other complications. I began my calculations in September, going back year after year and then counting forward, looking at calendar dates, plotting memories as markers, and repeating it all again. At first what began with almost a detached disbelief became a fervent act of refutal. No matter what my rational mind knew, it just didn’t seem possible that I had been without a father for three years. The moment between pressing my lips to the cool swarthiness of my dad’s cheeks when the breath left his body and now felt stunningly close and so impossibly distant.

My dad, proud and happy to receive this Father's Day gift

My dad, proud and happy, to receive this Father’s Day gift

It didn’t compute, and for reasons only grief knows, confounding, erratic beast that it is, year marker three felt more bruising than the one that had come before it. Yes, I did agree to offer a writing workshop on grief and loss in the same month in which I said goodbye to my dad. Yes, preparing for that class — sifting through the sorrowing work of other writers, exploring exercises that called up memories and emotions still surprisingly raw and bittersweet — tugged at deeper seams of sadness.

But now that November is here, and I am in the wedding lull that comes between the holidays and spring, it appears I have been swimming with much more. Whatever I eked out in October, tearing between moments of fleeting presence and grand distraction, longs for a deeper breath, a greater opening.

In the weeks since performing my last wedding, I keep unearthing slivers of melancholy. They flash through me at the most unexpected times: belting out a song while marveling at a lavender sky driving alongside the river, folding eggs into pancake batter in the kitchen, even dancing during Zumba.

Any happiness, large or small, may be a gateway. I cannot decide if it is the unbridled zest of embracing pleasure and beauty that startles the heart, reminds it of what it still grieves. Or if the cut of sorrow is so deep it throws every joy into sharp and bright relief. But I am acutely aware of this teetering of opposites.

I miss my father, yes, in a way that sometimes defies all our tales of silent rupture. I yearn for him, for his voice on the other end of the line, calling me “darling,” for the advice he sought to give for ages I’d long outgrown, for the steady reassurance of love miraculously immune to the dints of friction and sour words. Though I know he was with me for every step, even felt his pride, I wish I could tell him of Africa, of my travels to Tanzania this past summer, and the threads unspooling their brightness around a future unknown.

Sometimes I think it is because of Tanzania and the time I spent volunteering with orphans that this three-year-old grief is a slow and quiet heaving in my chest. I will never pretend to know what it is like to grow from birth without the presence of a loving parent, or to be abandoned by the tender age at which so many of these children arrived at the orphanages where I was placed. But brushing so closely against their loss, dwelling each day with as much heartbreak as I did joy seem to have left me more deeply attuned to my own heart’s wanting.

I remember how the Tanzanians I met would react when in asking about my parents, they learned my father had passed: the immediate silence followed by a billow of compassion. “Pole. Pole sana” (“I am sorry. I am very sorry”), they would say, pressing me into a warmth irrelevant of the passing of time, as if not even 10 or 20 years, and the comfort of a mother I adore, could ever be enough to suture such a shock.

Agnes tries to take a video with my phone while Teresia cuddles up to me.

Agnes tries to take a video with my phone while Teresia cuddles up to me.

Yet I know this sorrow is about more than a smarting anniversary. Every day, I miss “my” kids, the little ones who clambered all over me during playtime, who slipped their hands into mine with such easy trust, cradling my face and peppering me with cries of “Teacher, Teacher.” Sometimes in the middle of my daily minutia, their voices and smiles will come to me — Agnes giggling at my first spray of kisses on her cheeks, the tall and lanky Clara insisting “me little” when I couldn’t heft her into my arms like I did the smaller kids, Beatrice singing in soft Swahili as she pushed the hair from my face — and I ache to hold each one.

But what I miss, too, is who I discovered myself to be among these pure and radiant souls: the keeper of a love so large it staggered me. The more I gave from that place, the deeper I connected to an essence I’d previously glimpsed only fleetingly, the pulsing of a truth that whispered this was all there is, and all I am meant to be.

I know that woman is still there, underneath and moving with all that defines my life on these shores. But her presence is a muted one, that love a chafing grace without the capaciousness of my days and purpose in Tanzania to hold it.

And all these sorrows, these splinters of loss and grief, push and pull against each other, trooping into these moments of greater stillness and space.

So I let them speak, here and now, even as I grasp all that is good and heartening in my life. 12189897_1055872331104154_6148206273207474690_n

For it is fall, and the beauty is heartbreaking — the thin sunlight, the withering earth, the tang of burning crimson and gold, so much slipping away, with revival a psalm on the wind.

4 thoughts on “The sweet melancholy of autumn: in such loss, a fertile splendor, too

  1. Beautifully written, as always, Naila. I can’t wait to be in your radiant presence next week when we meet in Chestnut Hill…to hear more about how you are now as you continue evolving. Lots of love!

    Like

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