Last week, my uncle died. I reread the first few pages of The Year of Magical Thinking because reading is what I know and I trust Joan Didion.
She opens with, “Life changes fast. / Life changes in the instant.”
This is how I understand things: Losing my uncle meant wishing I’d seen him recently–– the last time was over a year ago. It meant fumbling through memories and coming up with the exact way his voice sounded when he said my name, my mother’s name, my brother and father’s name. His voice in greeting bounced around my head over and over. Nostalgia. Bearish hugs. Being tiny in his gigantic adultness and eating candy and the way his cologne smelled mixed with sweat while he worked at a computer.
My loss isn’t the hard one. I have enough memories for padding but not so many to suffocate. I didn’t live with him. I didn’t find him collapsed in the morning. I didn’t make the call on an autopsy. I can’t imagine what my aunt is feeling, or my cousins.
My loss isn’t grief, but instead sadness, strangeness. A reminder that things happen to loved ones while you’re away. “Life changes fast. / Life changes in the instant.”
Joan Didion writes about the year following her husband’s death. She says of her book, “This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”
She says, “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Whether you’re far away from someone you love or sleeping in the next room over, life changes that quickly.
I miss my uncle. I recently saw an artist statement that used the Portuguese word, saudade. The artist Elizabeth Freeman defines it as a word without an English equivalent, “a melancholic yearning for something that is lost or likely never to return.”
It’s that kind of missing. It’s saudade for my uncle, for people I’ve recently told goodbye and people I’ll be leaving soon, even if only temporarily. It’s the kind of missing that makes me ask, “What about what happens while I’m away?”