Wednesday, November 14, 2012
The Tang of Emotions
Yesterday I was driving to work and looking at the incredible beauty of the trees. For a while I thought fall was going to bomb out - the leaves were dull and lying brown on the ground. But suddenly it was as though every tree I saw was brilliant red, coral, orange, and yellow. I kept slowing down to look; I wanted to enjoy each and every one. I felt high on the amazingness of it all.
A few blocks from work, I saw an older man by the side of the road. He was holding a gas can; his car had obviously run out of gas. I felt teary, thinking about older people and their vulnerability, how so many of them are living hand to mouth, how some are sick with no one to take care of them or help them maneuver the intricacies of doctors and insurance and Medicare.
I went from happy to sad. Just like that.
Toward the end of his life, my father cried quite a bit. He would be talking on the phone about something in the news, maybe a child being hurt, and the phone would go silent. I would hear a sharp intake of breath and then he would start talking hesitantly about what had happened. Many things could reduce him to tears.
I've been thinking a lot about that this week. When we lose someone we love, two things happen. One, the sadness around the loss is added to the sadness of all other losses we've suffered. It's exponential. Secondly, every loss we suffer makes us more empathetic to the losses of others, so we feel theirs more keenly.
At eighty-eight years old, my father had lost his mother and father, his wife, two sisters, and all but about three or four of his good friends. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. The amount of sadness he had felt in his life is hard to imagine. It must have weighed a ton.
My father knew how to laugh too. He laughed heartily at a good joke or grandchild's antic. He loved a clever cartoon. His laugh was loud and tears ran down his cheeks sometimes when he couldn't stop the hilarity from roiling up.
What I decided after all this thinking is that as we get older, some things do become duller. Maybe our eyes get cloudy, we say "Huh?" more because we don't hear as well, our knees and shoulders creak when we move. But what gets sharper is our ability to feel deep emotion, to empathize from a place of our own cumulative sadness and happiness.
Someone behind me on the road to work may have thought, "I wish that old woman would just go on." But the glory of those trees and the poignancy of that elderly man by the side of the road stopped me yesterday and I needed to feel the tang of emotions that welled up.