Dad, surprised by a shell, Florida, Feb 2007

I was writing to a close friend yesterday that I don’t feel a strong need to see my father, who has now entered hospice and is dying of cancer (and chemo) faster than he was before.

I wrote:

“I don’t feel a need to see Dad and he says he doesn’t feel a need to see me, either. We’ve said everything we need to say to each other about life, and dying and death, in many conversations over a lifetime. We’ve always talked about those kinds of things. That lifetime of conversations and shared silences, and the week T. and I spent in Saba together with Dad (14 yrs ago or so), and my week with him in Fla. almost 3 yrs ago, plus a lot of hiking together when I was a teenager and summer weekends at the lake cabin and all the long drives we’ve taken together, was what I needed, and that’s all enough, as enough as it can ever be in the land of mortals. That’s how I feel about it today, anyway.”

Then within the hour I came across this incredible short essay by Chris Bachelder, “Toward a Theory of Surprise: How Much of Being We Haven’t Encountered Yet”, and what he says here is so what I feel and why I would burst into tears and smile at the same time if I were to speak the paragraph above aloud:

“If ever there were an appropriate time to use the word frisson, this is it. There is, however, no appropriate time to use the word frisson. I’d prefer to call my daughter’s question a surprise, but not a spider-in-the-shower kind of surprise. It was literarily surprising, which is to say it had a large tonal blast radius. I was struck with delight and sorrow, simultaneous and in equal measure. Had my brain been hooked up to the kind of imaging system that is so prevalent and authoritative in our time, I’m certain that some small, desiccated region of my cognitive complex would have glowed like billowed coal. This is the region that handles poetry, metaphor. The region that is in charge of reconciling the irreconcilable, the tiny, underdeveloped region whose impossible job it is to remember the terms of human existence.”

There is something beautifully, wonderfully, and full-of-light surprising about the irreconcilable, liminal feeling of enough — when there is both never enough (time, love, youth, wisdom, time, time) and there is so much more than we could ever hope for.

If you see me in coming days, weeks and months with tears streaming down my face or brimming in my eyes, know that there’s a glowing billowed coal in my brain, because what is feels like so much enough, and I’m losing it and will lose it. And, in the midst of this ordinary catastrophe, all is shattered and lost and all is whole and well.

(Photo: Dad stooping to look more closely at a shell on a beach in Florida, Feb. 2007.)

One thought on “Surprise

  1. I remember feeling that way when I left my father for the last time, twenty minutes before he died. Enough. It seemed as if “we” were now whole, that Dad was somehow transformed to wholeness – or holiness, AND that I felt broken open with immense sorrow at the same time.
    Sending my love…

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