“I finally understood what life is about; it is about losing everything. Losing the baby who becomes a child, the child who becomes an adult, like the trees lose their leaves. So every morning we must celebrate what we have”….Isabel Allende, 1995
Tragic loss is different, more profound than what Isabel Allende describes, but she gives us permission to talk about loss that is natural, though often painful. We are all very quiet about this kind of loss precisely because it isn’t tragic. We feel guilty at feeling it because so many others know real pain.
When my children were small, we made snow horses and coasted down hills on sleds; we rolled and played all day and slept well all night; then came kindergarten for each and they would never be all mine again.
They went off and began giving pieces of themselves to their teachers and friends. By ninth grade they were a little distant and awkward and searching. We had tried to raise them to fly free, but it was hard to let them go. It hurt.
The family company grew and the son who was running it moved it to an industrial park and moved himself and a piece of it to Maine. Now I walk down the streets of the waterside town where we began and it is as alien as I am empty. We had started in a one car garage, then a store front, then a converted Safeway. Now three children and nine grandchildren are scattered on the East coast. The children are gone; the company is gone; the buildings are empty; the blank slate we began draw on in 1950 is blank again. They have prospered, but they have gone.
My life is good. I review movies, I live in a place I love, but tears come for the kind of loss Allende describes – loss of the homes we made in six cities where we left the bookshelves I built, for the Friday nights at McDonalds and the movies, for dinner table arguments when we didn’t have to be careful of the chemistry, for coasting with three little people clinging to my back, for trying to loosen the red laces on frozen ski boots, for the full heart that felt five people would love each other forever. For buildings full of hard working people, for a little town I thought might flourish with our help, for the naïve dreams that were reduced to real estate ads. Friends talk about the success of the company, the fun of my reviewing, and the good lives my children have built. They are right, and I am grateful.
But Isabelle Allende is also right. Life is about losing everything. The trick is to use all the strength of the memories as a lynchpin for loving change. To mourn change is to lose what lies in front of us now. Most of the time I do quite well with the absence of my little people.
Why do people say “It’s only a material thing, it’s people that matter.” Not for me it isn’t. Not when a red boot lace brings back the crunch of icy snow, a boat brings back a dark haired little girl standing in the prow, a gym brings back a little red haired boy dressed as a wooden soldier with two big rouge spots on his cheeks, a pile of sand brings back a little girl making a birthday cake with sticks for candles, a baseball brings back a towhead building his own pitcher’s mound. How can I explain my reaction every time I pass a particular spot on a mountain where a brave little ten year old lost his ski and walked all the way from top to bottom alone? How can I explain that I will always love Hyatt hotels just because a tiny two year old strode down the dock and said, “Oh my goodness, I like it.”
I hadn’t understood that we leave pieces of ourselves behind in people and places we have loved. I may love what life is now, but everything and everyone I loved back then, I have lost. They have taken fine, proud new forms, but Allende is right. Life is about loss, and I hadn’t understood until now that everything you build, you build to lose. It’s not a bad thing to remember with love as long as we make sure that we too fly free into the future just as we raised them to do.