A visual expression of the mixed emotions of the holiday season.

mixed emotions at year’s end

December is a month of layers. Not just the warm shirts and sweaters of my Northern Hemisphere locale, but layers of feelings and memories, love and loneliness. In 2019 it brought resurrection, when I smiled my first genuine, spontaneous smile after nine months of wearing a public face and privately drowning in a black lake of tears and despair. The feeling of that smile, the difference of that smile, broke over me in gentlest waves of astonished pleasure and hope for the future.

While my brain was recovering from its neurological crisis—medically described with the worrying language of lesions and the –oma suffix that sounds as though it should be as warm as a childhood friend’s grandmother, but instead bodes ill—a neighbor’s actual brain cancer was worsening, her confusion and dependence advancing. She was only about twelve years older than me. The last time I saw her, her face seemed transformed, broad and blank where she was once focused and lively with extroversion and kind wit, as her husband slowly walked her up the sidewalk near their house. His right arm around her shoulder, his left hand clasping her left arm. That was before the darkest dark, balsam fir and wood smoke suspended in cold air, the extra cars parked up and down the street and the telltale lit windows of that same quiet house, seeming kindled as if all the light of their lives together were gathered there, where friends and family gathered after her memorial service.

I’ve been wanting to write about that smile, that neighbor. I was going to try today. Then I learned that a beloved mentor who has been battling cancer is now preparing for hospice and death. Someone who, after that resurrection, helped me find the ground under my feet and a path forward, in the space of one long beautiful conversation in February 2020. I met him in person for the first time late this summer, among people who’d known him much longer, at a party whose theme was “Why the Fuck Not?” I’m an introvert and had to compel myself to stay three hours until his speech, then left when the dancing began, music and voices rising above the grass to the roof-line and beyond. My windshield needed replacing, so it was better to drive the hour north before dusk and the refractions of oncoming traffic. That was my official logic. —And here I feel I should have more to say, but I see no way, I really see no way, to uncouple the joy and the pain, the love and the hurt of this life, and no way to capture it whole. Layer upon layer, wave after wave.


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