The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

The melancholy comings and goings and what we leave behind

Last December, I flew to Portland to say a final goodbye to my dad.  In some ways, he left our lives so suddenly.  One day, he was jogging in the park across from the house, planting potatoes and tending his strawberries and kiwis, experimenting with cooking, considering global challenges.  The next day, his car coasted into a tree…which led to the discovery of the tumor nestled in his brain.  “Say goodbye,” the surgeon who did the biopsy advised.  “Just in case.”  I cried in a Newark, NJ airport lounge as I talked to him on the phone and did my best to tell him how much his stories and dreams had shaped my life.  But it wasn’t goodbye, then.  Last December, as I stood with my siblings and niece at his bed in the living room, it was.

Going back exactly a year later led bubbled up a lot of feelings.  Feelings of goodbye.  As I walked through the Portland airport into the Portland rain, I wondered what it will be like to move to Portland next summer–to live there for the first time since I was two.  I’ve been a Midwesterner since I left Ethiopia for college in Illinois.  What will it be like to be on a coast instead?

My family was a goodbye family.  My parents left for Ethiopia, saying goodbye to their parents in Oregon and Iowa, knowing they wouldn’t talk to them again–except through letters–for five years.  My grandparents knew by the time they saw us again, I would be in elementary school.  The baby my mom was pregnant with would be ready for kindergarten.  That’s what people thought they knew.

Instead, the baby who was born in Ethiopia didn’t live to see his first birthday.  My dad talked to the end of his life about what it was like to sit, stunned, in the Addis Ababa living room that filled up with Ethiopian neighbors who sat with my parents, silently, knowing that sometimes grief overwhelms words, knowing that just being with someone who is in sorrow is sometimes the only comfort a human can give.

I came home from Portland to sort papers.  Today, I sat and re-read an article I’d read as I was thinking about the Lanie stories.  “Wildebeest, in their famous migration across the Serengeti,” the author writes, “learn by following their mothers–or aunts if crocodiles get Mom.  But the golden horde [of monarchs] moving south through North America each fall is a throng of leaderless orphans.”

Somehow, a butterfly that dries her brand new wings in the hot Winnipeg sun has to “find her way back to the same grove in Mexico that sheltered her great-grandmother.”  It’s a mystery scientists at Monarch Watch and other projects are trying to understand.

Today it seems so obvious I was gripped by that mystery.  I’m fascinated by all of us who circle and dance the dance of trying to find home.  I ended my day at the newest American Girl store in Kansas City.  They’ve loved Lanie’s stories, they told me, and they’ll be sad to see Lanie go.

When I left the store, the geese were filling the sky with their melancholy traveling sounds.  On we go, I thought, with our comings and goings, so full of goodbyes, trying to leave something precious and hopeful behind wherever we can.

3 thoughts on “The melancholy comings and goings and what we leave behind”

    • Thanks for the encouragement. Some things are utterly primal, I guess. Like anniversary feelings. My mom is having trouble tracking reality these days and yet she had to be coaxed out of bed while I was visiting this time, and I’m convinced that in her cells she feels this anniversary date, even though it took her a long time to really absorb and understand that my dad is gone. Grief is ever surprising and unpredictable, I see.


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