What could I have done with this year I am losing to grief? Built a boat? Built a house? Learned to sail, even paddle more smoothly? Set my hands to filling things, stomachs with food, walls with art, my child’s head with knowledge, my ears with sound?
Instead I emptied. Emptied my own mouth, screaming. Emptied the first house, my husband’s clothes from the dresser, his papers from the desk, his boots from near the door, emptied the bedroom of the bed we shared together. Emptied, too, my eyes, my lungs, weary of weeping, just emptied.
The table at Thanksgiving too, was emptier. I ate at Hy-Vee while watching people shop for groceries. I ate the Hy-Vee pumpkin pie and shared the Hy-Vee sweet potatoes with tiny melting marshmallows with my son, wishing I were cooking cranberry sauce for a crowd, looking around a table that was full, not a single chair empty.
Let’s be clear. I have much to be thankful for. I feel this keenly, and often. Perhaps when you experience loss you learn to love more fiercely what remains—the roof over your head, the food on the table, the coworkers who make you laugh, the living child, those few individuals who make the time to reach out to you consistently when you are struggling. But once, I had a brother. Once, I had another child in my belly. Once, I had a husband. Now I have but their ghosts. You can love what you’ve got and still sometimes feel broken.
Last night I was grateful for the black birds on the bare tree branches. They reminded me of the shadow silhouettes done of my brother and me as children, a side profile of our faces cut out in black construction paper and pasted on another lighter piece of paper. The setting sun had streaked the full clouds in a pink tipped with orange, like long strands of billowy cotton blown out in a broad v from a single point of origin, the birds, a shadow cast in black against this sky, sharp, defined, starkly beautiful. The cold air was an acceptable ache, and I just stood there, breathing.
It came to me then. That grief and gratitude are not mutually exclusive organisms. They can exist independently, or even together. Perhaps sometimes, even interdependently. After all, can a person really know what they’ve got without knowing the depths of what they don’t?