Is April indeed the cruelest month?
Spectacular cruelties and kindnesses have abounded this month, but I don’t think this is an aberration in the calendar year.
Sometimes April blasts us with snow. It always brings copious flowers. The season is complicated for us in a distinct way, because my husband died on the season’s first full day, but spring was not among his illness’s three seasons in hell.
April’s cruelty is rendered in T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, “breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain./Winter kept us warm, covering/Earth in forgetful snow, feeding/A little life with dried tubers.”
Bursting lilacs, the color of a drop of indigo ink stirred into a bowl of cream, can be a glorious sign of life renewed and color restored.
In my household the same flora also brings on months of sneezing fits, an unfortunate linkage that pales next to the symbolic weight these gorgeous flowers carry in Walt Whitman’s poetic lamentation for Abraham Lincoln’s death.
So how is it that the same sight, the same season, the same symbol, can represent both birth and death, immense loss and renewed hope?
For the bereaved this is not a stretch. It happens every day.
When Vice President Biden spoke last week at a police officer’s memorial service, some of his words came as a parent who–like the slain officer’s and my husband Jim’s parents–had outlived a beloved child.
He told surviving family members that they would know they will be all right when they see an everyday sight–perhaps a baseball field–that reminds them of the person they lost, and find a smile reaching their lips before tears reach their eyes. He assured them it will happen.
Sometimes now I can pass a Little League field where Jim coached and smile instead of crying, seeing him clearly as he spent endless spring hours there with our sons and their teammates, all of them filled with energetic enthusiasm. It mattered not that the team occasionally was dubbed–by its coach–the “Bad News Bears.” They loved to be out there with their dad.
I can look at purple wildflowers and smile at the memory of when he brought them to me, instead of weeping at the thought that he never can again.
I can look at a happy bride-to-be’s engagement ring and remember the spring days of our engagement instead of the seasons of Jim’s sickness.
Among Andrew Sullivan’s past poems for Sunday was May Swenson’s Spring Uncovered, in which signs of spring at first seem to represent a shearing loss, a stripping away. But then spring fowl bring light and life again.
“Gone the scab of ice that kept it snug,
the lake is naked.
Skins of cloud on torn blue:
sky is thin….
But autumn fruits upon the water,
Plumage of plum, and grape, and pumpkin bills:
Two mallards ride, are sunny baskets;
they bear ripe light.”
Walt Whitman’s poem ends not in a vortex of grief and loss but with lilacs and birds and stars entwined with the speaker’s still-singing soul, as they are in my memories of Jim:“For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”