Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving in a Time of Loss

This Thanksgiving is, for me and my family, a time of mourning. On Tuesday of this week we celebrated the life of my father, who passed away a few short weeks ago. I sit now in my childhood home and find myself expecting to see my father at every turn.

It's easy to fall into melancholy memories, to sit there in the aching remembrance of a childhood whose pains are long forgotten but whose joys are as clear as they're out of reach--joys bound up with my father, who is now gone. It's easy, in such moments, to lose touch with the spirit of gratitude that we celebrate today.

The experience of loss is part of the human condition, and it is often felt most keenly during the holidays, when established rituals are pregnant with memories. On the first holiday after a loved one has passed away, the empty spaces left behind are especially potent: the place where she sat, the role he played in preparing the meal, the story she always told, the distinctive resonance of his laughter.

You look with habitual expectation and find yourself jolted by absence. With time, of course, the habits fade. The absence no longer hits with such a shock. But it remains an empty space.  And as we grow older, there will, inevitably, be more such spaces.  

This year my family confronts my father's absence--my father who was always the attentive host, the one who raised the glass in our welcoming "Skål," who always made sure everyone had what they needed. How can we help but feel his absence, so fresh and vivid, as we sit down to the Thanksgiving feast? What does it mean for this holiday, whose purpose is to offer thanks, to turn our eyes upward in a spirit of gratitude, to thank God for the gifts of life?

Part of the answer is offered afresh every day by my children. When I find myself falling into the past, longing for what is gone, I'm grateful to my children who exist so wholly in the joys of the present that I'm forced to live there too. And I'm thankful for my own childhood and the family that made it possible--imperfect as all human families are imperfect, but defined by the kind of love that casts a long shadow into the future. 

Were it not for that love, I wouldn't feel the ache of loss. Those who are gone move us to mourn because, when they were with us, we were present with them, attending to them, loving them. And so loss must recall love, and love must flow out again into this place where we find ourselves now, this place where joy waits to be tasted along with the feast. We honor love by loving. We revere treasured memories by make new ones. 

Another part of the answer hit me on Monday night as I was sitting at the table with friends and family who had arrived in town for the memorial service. We drank wine from the wine rack my father had filled (with his impeccable taste), and we told stories and laughed (and cried) and ate together late into the evening. We were living and present to each other, thankful for who my father was and for each other. We were alive and living our lives at the table together. 

And I thought about the final notes of the violin piece I'd composed for my father's service. A "double stop"--two notes of a chord played together. And the thing that struck me is this: When you play two sustained notes of a chord on a violin, the interaction of the sound waves audibly produces the third note in the chord. If you listen carefully for it you can actually hear it. It's there, sounding clearly above the other two. 

And of course my father was there, in just that way, as we gathered at the table. And as we gather for our feast tonight, he'll be there again, sounding clear and true.

No comments:

Post a Comment