This spring, when all those first shoots were coming up—snowdrops, the spears before crocus or daffodil set to bloom, furled leaves curled, practically fetal—I kept thinking again and again how impossibly tender and small and delicate the green seemed. How new the green was, how improbable that a plant could push through cold earth, even through snow—and thrive.
Two words kept springing to mind in the fledgling warmer, lighter world—warmth, of course, arrived in fits and starts this year—and those words were durability and fragility. Had I never pondered the pairing of those ideas before? I must have, but somehow, not this way. They seemed twinned, the toughness of a toddler taking first steps, inevitably to fall down repeatedly or the crocus to stand with purple greeting after a spring snow, and the suddenness of snow melting.
The year before, I’d walked through spring’s naissance feeling afraid, overwhelmed, and in love. We were in the process of adopting our baby, Saskia, a tiny, unfurling leaf herself, and her birth father objected. He threatened to contest the adoption and so vulnerability became a constant state. With each day, we loved her more and what’s more the love between all of us, like leaves at first tiny possibilities, real but minute, was turning to summer canopy. How could our love for her be so strong and shady, so established, and yet remain a tendril, a handhold, at risk of being undone by a man she’d never met before? After seven months, the legal process ended, almost abruptly, when he failed to get a DNA test or formally press on with the contestation process beyond making an initial set of objections. Relief was a flood followed by waves. And yet, for months after the legal piece was settled, I continued to feel bruised. I did not instantly believe in our leafy canopy more for the papers. I think I began to see one’s belief in durability is most true when holding onto its twin, fragility, and revering how the two work in consort.
A few weeks ago, a friend wrote a piece in the newspaper: a lovely meditation on how the chalkboard in the family’s dining room served to remind him, in retrospect, about how his father constantly encouraged the asking, and answering, of questions, the essay prompted by his father’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. In the intervening weeks, his family learned the cancer was inoperable and hospice came in and death followed quickly. It was stunning, even from afar, how what seemed so durable, the grandfather answering emails from his grandchildren about such as, “What is it in onions that makes your eyes water?” to fragility, hospital, then the hospice nurse offering days not weeks.
I’d been down this path before—both the losing a close relative to pancreatic cancer, my tall, solid, vital, dynamic aunt, May Shayne, who seemed through the eighteen months (long for that disease) like she was just too vital a person to disappear—and the losing of many others, both close and not as close, to myriad other circumstances. I can talk about how humor sometimes helps, how you kind of have to sit with loss before you feel your legs regaining their strength to keep walking because there is no avoiding grief—and no outrunning it, either—and I know it’s different for every person, no one “right” process. I’ve learned a lot and I know nothing, except I carry inside my fibers now how loss triggers that sense of shock and sadness, and that jumble of all the rest. No matter how traveled, like a midwife catching babies, certain passages remain mysterious, even if familiar. Fragility and durability should no longer surprise me. And they still do.
The two other paired words that rise up, constantly, surrounding these moments—and others—are bitter and sweet. Bittersweet is one word, as well. The marriage between bitter and sweet, the idea that we carry both with us as a constant seems something we at once abhor and embrace, embrace and abhor. During those months when Saskia was “ours” but we feared wasn’t necessarily going to remain “ours,” I thought about this juxtaposition a great deal, how the sweetness—of loving others—is so perfectly, unabashedly sweet (complex, too, don’t get me wrong) that the bitter comes as a direct response. If we didn’t love so fiercely, we would not mourn so thoroughly. Perhaps, you cannot fully know one without the other. And perhaps, that idea is, in its way, comforting.
*This is for Bill & for Karen