The joy in grief. The grief in joy.
I am really fortunate to live in a small neighborhood with neighbors that offer their fenced in backyards for my dog to run around in, who come over to fix our broken garage door, that snow blow my driveway before 6am, and who leave presents for our newborn daughter in our mudroom. One of my neighbors is a little quirky. For the sake of this post, I’ll call her Mary. She rarely leaves her house, except on trash day. On trash day she emerges from the house for a few minutes to move the trash cans of her immediate neighbors off the road and to the bottom of folks’ driveways. It’s hard to tell if this is an act of kindness or an act of extreme organization and cleanliness. She lives with her brother, whom I’ll call Jeff. Mary tells hard to follow stories about her ancestors and where they are buried. When I first met her I introduced myself and it took about a year of brief conversations to finally coax a name out of her. A social butterfly she is not.
After living in our house for about 4 years, Mary surprised me. We had just started keeping chickens. She spotted me outside and called me over to her front stoop. She stood half in her house, half emerging from behind the door. She passed me a small paper bag. I opened it to find a wooden spoon that had a small chicken figurine on the tip of it’s handle.
I was taken aback. I was so touched by her thoughtfulness. The fact that this often awkward and odd neighbor had been so incredibly generous. That she saw the chicken spoon and thought I should have it. I loved it. It’s still one of my favorite spoons. It reminds me that kindness doesn’t always come with warmth and a smile, but can be just as disarming and real.
A few days after we brought our daughter home from the hospital, I spotted Jeff outside. He meandered over to me and quietly told me that his sister had passed away a few days ago. I brought my hand to my chest and opened my mouth, but nothing could come out. Finally, I sputtered out how sorry I was for his loss. I felt so sad. Her oddness, gruff exterior, and random acts of thoughtfulness had warmed her right up to my heart. She died the day before our daughter was born. Both Jeff and I felt the timing was significant.
Since then, Jeff has always had a special place for our daughter. Come Halloween, we find a paper bag with a hand-drawn witch on the front filled with candy. We get Christmas cards with thoughtful messages written inside. He is very kind. And he feels this connection to our daughter. His sister left the earth and the very next day our daughter entered it.
There is something about the dance of death and life so close together. Some say it’s a reminder of cycles and balance. Of course I understand this concept, but the reality feels so different when it hits your own life. The complexity of life close to death and death close to life is the sort of thing that brings more questions than answers. It’s a reminder of how intricate and layered life can be. Joy is never pure. Neither is mourning. While thinking about my daughter’s birthday, I thought about the first anniversary of the death of my neighbor. While remembering the death of his sister, Jeff thought about the first birthday of my daughter. It’s as if the emotions overlap and weave together into a single piece of rope made up of many threads. The complexity can be overbearing and hard. But, it’s also the only rope we have to hold onto.