This is the time of year when I tend to get a bit melancholy. Yes, the excitement of the holidays is approaching, but with that comes a reminder of the loss of my dad, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack the Monday after Thanksgiving. After his death all I wanted was a family of my own, but lately, frankly, the holidays have only served to remind me of my inadequacies as a parent. Retirement has been a much-anticipated gift, but weirdly I’ve also been mourning the end of a career I was passionate about. Raking…and raking…and raking leaves reminds me incessantly of the impermanence of most things. And for the last two weeks my heart has been hurting for the friends and family of a former student who was killed in an accident, and for two dear friends who lost much-loved pets within a few days of each other.
All of this has me thinking about the other side of the “coin” of love, that of loss. It sounds trite, but it’s nonetheless true: unless you choose to not love anything, you are going to experience loss. It is an unavoidable part of being truly alive. And because I tend to find meaning in the world through what I read, two books this week have reminded me of the inevitability of loss.
El mundo de afuera (The Outside World), has not yet been translated into English, but if you read Spanish I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Author Jorge Franco won the prestigious 2014 Premio Alfaguara for this novel, which narrates the story of a kidnapping in 1971 Medellín, Colombia. The wealthy older industrialist who has been kidnapped has a daughter, Isolda, who he tries to keep hidden from the “outside world” in a castle he had built to emulate those he admired in Europe. Despite his best efforts, the Beatles and mini skirts invade the castle grounds, and when he sends Isolda away to a boarding school, he ends up losing her permanently to a mysterious illness that kills her. The man who orchestrated his kidnapping, “Mono”, also loses everything, including the ransom money he never ends up receiving and finally, his life. The characters are brilliantly realized, and there is just enough humor to keep the story from being overwhelming. What I really liked is that even the “bad guys” are shown to be human, with their own specific fears and sorrows that motivate their actions, however questionable. With touches of magical realism (think a gentler Gabriel García Márquez) and down to earth dialog, this novel is a powerful reminder that no matter how hard we try to hang on to what we love, we can never really avoid pain and loss.
A similar vein of loss runs through Alice Hoffman’s The Story Sisters (Crown, 2010). As tends to happen when I read one of her books, I finished this in one day, and when the mother of the three sisters who are its primary protagonists dies of cancer before being able to reconcile with her oldest daughter, I sobbed (which I have not done with a book in a long while!) Ultimately the remaining characters are redeemed through love, but along the way there is a seemingly never-ending series of losses that serve to remind the reader that nothing is permanent. Some reviewers found the constant string of misfortunes and deaths to be overwhelming, but I found that it served to reinforce a basic truth: loss is painful and inevitable, but love makes it meaningful. Reading the novel at this particular time proved to be a cathartic experience for me.
At my yoga classes, we have been focusing on gratitude, and it occurs to me that I should actually be grateful for my sadness. It means that I have been given the great gift of love. When those around me are hurting, I always feel frustrated by my inability to find the right words of consolation. But I suppose all I can really do in these situations is to offer my love and companionship as they move through that inevitable part of really living, loss.