There is a little belief about swans that right before they die, they sing the most beautiful song – perhaps because they are not known as the most musical of birds in life, I don’t really know why. I sometimes wonder if there was a similar belief about humans, how would we react if we heard someone’s swan song, if we had notice through a moment of beauty that we were about to be left behind?
There are few times in my life that I have been faced with the gravity of where earlier whims and choices have led me. I don’t think that I’ve made a mistake in certain choices that I made, but, rather that I didn’t fully understand that its not always easy to get home when we need to the most. I’ve celebrated holidays and birthdays apart from my family and oldest friends and it is always bittersweet, a little pull of longing in the happiness and celebration; but there is a different edge to when the bad things are happening over there, and you, alas, are here. It stings differently; like every surface is slightly salted and lemon juiced and you keep forgetting that your hands have little cuts on them because you can see the wounds, but you touch something the wrong way at the wrong moment and you can damn well feel them. Little cuts and scrapes that you know will heal, but because you keep reopening them, you know you’re going to see the light trace of scars across your fingertips and palms forever. Its a pain that is distant, until it is not. And in those moments, though you know your presence never had any chance of changing anything at all, you wonder why you didn’t go back more often, why you didn’t stay put.
I’ve been really lucky in my life that I have made friends across generational lines for the last few decades. I’ve been luckier still that it is only recently that I have had to contend with the realities of what it means to know and care for many people who are further along in their journey through life than I am, and that, when the inevitable has happened, its either been after a fulfilled life, or the relief at the end of a long illness. It is only recently that I have instead been faced with the other kinds of losses, the other kinds of griefs that can be borne, where you’re both angry that something has come as an Event that is too early, too out of nowhere, too unexpected, and yet also holding space and gratitude for the time that has been spent with those people, grateful for choices made even in the last year to linger and chat because as humans and not swans we don’t give notice of the end through song. No one ever truly knows how much time we have to enjoy the company of those we care about, and who care about us.
I have had two moments early this year that I don’t think I will ever forget in terms of receiving news that mark a before and an after in my life. Where there was once a then, there is only a now, a new reality that cannot be undone or unwritten. News at my midnight but their daytime that opened a whole range of possible futures that were not ever on the radar of things I thought life would bring; news on a bright Saturday morning in town just a few weeks later, while the sounds of a few overlapping protests ranged nearby, the white dust that almost did not come off my jacket because I sank against a wall with a wet paint sign I did not see because I could not believe what I was hearing. I think my heart cracked both times; I think I lost pieces of my surety in life. It’s a small ache compared to others closer to the losses, for one of them, but I feel it all the same. I don’t think I will ever put this down.
I’ve somehow always been someone who apparently has a face for holding grief; I have had too many encounters when working odd jobs or standing in lines at the bank or supermarket where a hello while waiting becomes a moment where someone else feels able to put down a bit of what they have been carrying with them and implicitly ask me to carry it for a moment. Even more so with people I know, whether I know them well or not. And I don’t mind it. I know how to listen; its a skill I was taught deliberately in several different parts of my life. But I don’t know how to carry my own grief well, not when it is this ebb and flow of news, of waiting, of life-changing, of moving into a time in life when the news that comes in has more to do with possible endings than new beginnings. I carry the ache outwards; it was what I was taught to do. I turn to the people not holding the same ache, or even any other ache of their own. Grief is like the ripples left behind when a stone strikes a lake surface, and we all encounter them at different stages as they spread. I carry mine to people with more distance from any epicenter, and I’ve been lucky to find people who carry me as I find my way through the waves; I’m lucky to have a community that also has made space for my grief from the margins.
I don’t have words to describe the person I lost: a friend, a mentor, but even more than that, someone who taught me what it means to respect people to their core. Someone who lived an ideal of kindness and seeing the best in people. Someone who made it safe to learn and make mistakes. Someone who I looked up to so much as a child, who remained an approachable giant in my adulthood. Someone who taught me the stars, who never really stopped teaching me things. Someone who filled a gap that was missing in my life, and so now, if I poke the wound, I feel that gap twice over. Someone who helped raise one of my dearest friends, who has in the past couple months gone out of her way to check on me and make sure that I was also cared for, and recognize my loss even as she grapples with her own. And if Rumi is right and the wound is the place the light enters, that is where I will feel the light entering for the rest of my life. The care from someone in the middle of the ripples is both the salt, and the light, the promise that the loss is not infinite, that this person lives on in this world through all of us who knew him.
All things are healed with saltwater, be it sweat, tears, or the sea. Two of them are my companions, and the third I will have again when I am home. When I can walk both the sea and lake beaches where I became myself again, and I can remember all the promise of the then. All the promise before the two moments that split the world. When I can say goodbye in two ways, to two different things, to a person, and to what I thought the next decades would bring that is now changed forever. And I will say goodbye, too, to a more innocent younger self that was unprepared for how life would start to change. And this will happen again in my life, I’m sure, without the warning of a swan song. But there were songs by a lakeside once, and once again by a river under the stars, and I hold them with me, and know that they will continue to ripple outwards.