Now the nights have curled up around the edges of the day; the grass is sleek with dark ice that dissolves into ridiculous, extravagant sunlit beauty, all spun gold and cerulean blue. An earthy dampness lingers just beneath every step, a mustiness that’s reminiscent of the early life of spring, and if you look closely you’ll see more: errant blooms on azaleas, viburnum, rhododendron. Buds quicken upon a branch even as its leaves gently release, one at a time, until it’s bare but for the fat ripeness that remains. Echoes of new life, here, in the turning of the year.
Yesterday, I planned to leave today to visit my cousin as she convalesced in a nursing home, sick with cancer. She was to have her nails done. Today, I’ll go instead to be with my family as we all grieve our cousin’s death. Barely a month between diagnosis and death: the speed of her leaving is hard to take as a blessing. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, we think. She wasn’t supposed to leave, not like this. She was meant to be old; she was meant to have her nails done. She was meant to plan our weddings, and to grieve at all our funerals. But she never was old.
A friend sends a picture of a bald eagle he’d seen by the French Broad River. It was devouring the carcass of a young deer, tearing at it piece by piece. What a beautiful bird, we think. Strong, fierce, proud. Our eyes averted from the faun. Death be not proud, though some have called thee so… why should she have grown old after all, other than the inescapable selfishness of our desire to have her stay? The eagle, in its mysterious strength, the very image of freedom, doesn’t respond.
How did freedom become something so…terrible? This eagle, like any raptor, is a solitary hunter, someone who survives in a kind of seize-and-consume economy. Free to take what it pleases, not dependent on the permission of a crowd. Yet this afternoon I saw a skyful of swifts that were like music in their ephemeral dance. I saw a dandelion spill its crown of seeds into the breeze, each seed lifted into the breeze, rising and falling with the wind. I saw a leaf, just one, tremble at the tip of a blaze-gold maple, before it, too, released its grip. Which one of these is the truest image of freedom?
Sometimes, I hear a small voice say, maybe the most genuine freedom is in letting go. That’s not my natural inclination. At any point in time, I would have chosen to stop those swifts in their tracks, affixing them for all time in any given shape, any one that caught my attention. I fell in love with each one of them as it happened, mourned its loss until I fell in love with the next one. If it were up to me, I’d never abandon the starry aureole of the dandelion flower; if, by chance, one were to grow into a crown of silvery seeds, I’d preserve it forever in its perfect orb. Each maple leaf, perfect in its color, never changing, never falling. But, like the country lyric goes, How can I miss you when you won’t go away?
In some theories of childhood development, there’s a stage in which one develops what’s called “object permanence”; that is, understanding that even though one can’t see or touch the object at the present moment, the object is still there. The game of “peek-a-boo” is played at this stage, a gentle tug at the attention: see? I’m here. Even though you can’t see me, I’m still here. Peek-a-boo, I see you. Without these moments of loss, the joyous reunion can’t happen either. I see you! By letting go, there may be the freedom to be found again, again, and again.