Speak, Memory: Joy and Anguish

A couple of weeks ago now, we went to the meeting that we had been anticipating to find out whether my mom’s IL-2 treatments worked.

No change. The tumors didn’t shrink and the tumors didn’t grow. It wasn’t the best news and it wasn’t the worst news. It was just news. So. Here we are.

Every nerve ending was on edge in November and December, then all relief to be through that battle in January, and now the doctor says see you in three months. If things look the same then, see you in another three months. And so on. Wait and see.

Pretend like I don’t exist, the doctor says.

Except for months we have been living on the precipice of mortality, worrying over the unknown growing.

Go, live your life as normally as you can, he says.

It is only this black and white after a snow storm, when the wind is still, the snow is heaviest, and the air is just a hair above freezing.

Except life isn’t normal anymore, not once you have turned your eyes from the immediate and stared into the frightening gray of the future. As the “why” questions dry up, shrugged off and unanswered, we are left with “what now.” We are left with “how,” how do you turn your eyes away from the cliff and walk as if there is a guardrail protecting you from the fall? How do you swim, swim, swim with no bobbing buoy in your line of sight, nothing but distance and waves and water either increasing or decreasing in depth but still the bottom always just out of reach?

I have wondered these things for myself and for my mom and for my immediate family. What now, now that we have tried the thing that was the hardest and its slim margin of success was missed. What now? Go on living like usual and miss something, skipping through every day at the same pace as before?

Or in light of this new normal, change.

41e9i1o2bqcl-_sx310_bo1204203200_How do we move on from this precipice back onto the trail of the every day?

I’ve been listening to Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, and throughout his narratives this strain appears, to grasp simultaneously the light and the dark, the grief and the joy, the loss and the thing still held: memory both bright and shadowed. In one such moment, Nabokov remembers his father being thrown up into the air by a group of men, but he only saw him suspended in mid-air through the window. Nabokov writes:

And then, there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin.

I was riding along, smiling at the image of Nabokov’s dad soaring through the air, coasting along I-77 North toward work and then suddenly, that open coffin. He does that, over and over again, smashes joy against grief.

A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness. A bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.

Grief, loss, and death are the “swarm” of flames, the “bumblebee” in the room of otherwise simple, joyful memory. Now all joy is creased with pangs of anguish: this too shall pass away, our hearts say, don’t hang on too tight, don’t rejoice too long or loudly, even this joyous moment will be gone, soon.

But even in our darkest agonies we can also find mercy, we can also find grace. This is the awful, awesome fullness of life: the brief seconds of loss echoed forever in an eternity of joy, and vice versa.

hold-on-to-both-rails-sarah-marie-wellsA critical part of this journey is learning how to live by holding onto both rails–joy and anguish–live by holding these two truths together, living full lives, open and vulnerable to both joy and pain. We don’t neglect one for the other or expect one to replace the other; here they are, together.

So, here we are. So, go on.

In this space of joy and anguish, anguish and joy, let me rejoice (again, I say, rejoice!) and share this delight from Valentine’s Day. You know those mountains and valleys I talked about a couple weeks ago? I found the summit.

It is not all tears and weeping and waiting, by any stretch, this life; it’s a whole lot of it, all of it, all at once.

Looking Back:

Plant railway rails” image from Oukins via 7-themes.com.

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

One thought on “Speak, Memory: Joy and Anguish

  1. Such grace and beauty, in the face of the biggest fear most of us can ever confront. Wishing all of you healing and love..and finding joy in every moment. None of us can truly plan, or hope for, more than “the now.”


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