Making Me Understand: Saudade (Elizabeth Bishop and Tom Jobim)

Making Me Understand is an occasional blog feature where I analyze what a particular work of art or the work of a particular artist means to me right now.

I just attended the bar mitzvah of one of Young J’s closest friends. Yes, it’s a Thursday morning. In more observant Jewish communities, traveling on the Sabbath to attend a classmate’s bar mitzvah would be prohibited, so today was the bar mitzvah for family and for the middle school class, and Saturday morning will be the service for family and friends. The bar mitzvah boy is chanting from the Torah portion both times. He did a wonderful job today, and we all got to discover that the soft-spoken, shy kid we’ve known for ages has a beautiful and melodious singing voice.

It didn’t occur to me to skip the bar mitzvah, even though my father passed away just six weeks ago today. More observant people will often avoid attending happy events or concerts after a parent dies, and the period of mourning lasts for a year after death, during which, as I just read in a book a former colleague wrote, a child is supposed to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, three times daily in memory of their parent.

The four of us walked to the synagogue this morning in high spirits, moving quickly through the not-quite-spring chill. We were excited to hear the bar mitzvah boy, and we didn’t want to be late. After the Torah reading, however, it was time to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. I was in an unfamiliar place, separated from the rest of my family by a barrier because men and women sit separately in an Orthodox synagogue. My side was populated by parents and teachers and Young J’s female classmates. I was the only one who stood as a mourner. The only other mourner in the small room was a man who raced through the prayer so fast, I couldn’t keep up with him. A second chance came up moments later to say Kaddish again, and I didn’t bother. Like, oKAY, Judaism. I give up already! 

After the service there was a lovely breakfast, and J and I watched as Young J’s class assembled in different groups. I could have sat there in a corner observing them like an anthropologist all morning, because watching middle school dynamics is so fascinating. But then I had a chance to speak with Young J’s friend’s grandparents, in town from California, and they were so lovely. Young A was there and at a certain point, Young J came and complained that A was cramping his style. It was nearly time to leave and take him to school, anyway, and Young J had warned me that Young A and I were not to walk back to school within several blocks of him and his class.

As I prepared to leave, I felt myself approaching the wall of grief that I find myself slamming into periodically these days, usually without warning. I thought of my father, and how he wouldn’t get to attend my sons’ bar mitzvahs. I started wondering what kind of speech he might have given.

I had promised Young A a detour on the way back to school, to watch a subway train from the bridge above the tracks. So we stood in the cold sun and waited, and I was grateful for the diversion from my encroaching gloomy thoughts. As soon as I dropped him off at school, however, I succumbed. Maybe it was a teacher who stopped me in the hall and hugged me, because I hadn’t seen her since my father passed, and who wanted to give me words of comfort (which always seem to work the opposite way for me). Maybe it was just my time to grieve. I kept my head down walking home, and as soon as I came through the door I started sobbing. And there is still Saturday’s event to get through. “I’m not ready! I’m not ready!” I said, over and over.

I’m not ready, but I still have a busy day to get through. Lunch with a friend (who is, like me, a member of the Dead Dads Club, so she will understand), then some translation work, and then a lecture in the evening and possibly drinks with friends after. My grief needed to be confined to a very intense cry, and I found myself going straight to the final line of this poem by Elizabeth Bishop, an American poet who spent her final years living in Brazil (my birthplace).

Pink Dog [Rio de Janeiro]

The sun is blazing and the sky is blue.
Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue.
Naked, you trot across the avenue.

Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!
Naked and pink, without a single hair…
Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.

Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies.
You are not mad; you have a case of scabies
but look intelligent. Where are your babies?

(A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.)
In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch,
while you go begging, living by your wits?

Didn’t you know? It’s been in all the papers,
to solve this problem, how they deal with beggars?
They take and throw them in the tidal rivers.

Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites
go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights
out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.

If they do this to anyone who begs,
drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,
what would they do to sick, four-leggèd dogs?

In the cafés and on the sidewalk corners
the joke is going round that all the beggars
who can afford them now wear life preservers.

In your condition you would not be able
even to float, much less to dog-paddle.
Now look, the practical, the sensible

solution is to wear a fantasía.*
Tonight you simply can’t afford to be a-
n eyesore… But no one will ever see a

dog in máscara this time of year.
Ash Wednesday’ll come but Carnival is here.
What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?

They say that Carnival’s degenerating
— radios, Americans, or something,
have ruined it completely. They’re just talking.

Carnival is always wonderful!
A depilated dog would not look well.
Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!

* Carnival costume

“Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!” was the perfect expression of my feeling today, and my anticipation of how the happy events I have scheduled will feel. I will always feel like escaping, and yet… I can’t afford that feeling. I don’t want to have my expression of grief inhibit my joy for a full year. But I am finding that grief is like a Mylar overlay on a map. It will be there as long as it needs to be, I can peel it back for a bit, but it is important to have it.

The figure of the pink dog is also the expression of my feeling as a grieving person — and even as a person with cancer — moving through worlds wholly unconcerned with either thing. One feels apart, and one can even feel at times like an outcast. You walk into a room dressed in your fantasía, but you carry an unseemly burden (or burdens) with you, slung over your shoulder, and the crowd parts to let you through.

Brazil is my birthplace, but not much else, because I moved to the United States at five months old, and never returned. I have no ancestral ties there. But it seems to have left indelible traces in my DNA, or in my soul. From the Bishop poem, my thoughts jumped next to the classic song about Carnival by Tom Jobim, “A Felicidade.”  These are some of the English lyrics:

Sadness has no end

Happiness does

 Happiness is like a drop

Of dew on a flower petal

Shines quietly

After light oscillates

And falls like a tear of love

Happiness of the poor seems

The great illusion of Carnival

We work all year

For a momentary dream

To make a Carnival costume

Of king or pirate or gardener

And everything is over on Wednesday

Sadness has no end

Happiness does

This song is the perfect expression of the very Brazilian concept of saudade, “a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.” It helped me to remember that happiness can end, because my happiness is not very long-lived these days. It is good to remember we can return to a normal baseline of sadness.

I had understood there were five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. But between stages four and five, perhaps there is room for saudade. It makes a lot of sense to me.



Making Me Understand: “Souffles,” by Birago Diop

(Making Me Understand is an occasional blog feature where I analyze, in brief or at length, what a particular work of art or artist means to me right now.)

When I was in junior high, I hated school. I hated being in my skin. I reached my current height of six feet right around eighth grade. It was not a source of pride.

But beginning in seventh grade, I had a Happy Place, and that place was French class. I loved my textbook and its little cartoons and dialogues and photos of Paris and the countryside. The language came to me almost effortlessly. And I loved the poems in the textbook, which we could memorize and declaim in class for extra credit.

My textbook in eighth or ninth grade, Scènes et Séjours, included a poem somewhere in the middle of the book that spoke to me with its incantatory vibe and authoritative tone. I was just starting to discover poetry, and this one really intrigued me.

There was no biographical note about the author. There was just the poem, and my assumption that the author came from Francophone Africa. I loved the poem so much, I not only memorized it — I also, at the end of the school year, bought my copy of the textbook.  I have toted it around with me ever since, even to college, where as a French and Italian major, I mostly had no actual textbooks, just small, obscenely expensive imported paperbacks of novels to read, or sheaves of photocopied poetry or plays or literary criticism hand-selected by my professors.

I took the textbook out the other day when the refrain of the poem refused to leave my head and I couldn’t seem to find a standard version of the poem online:

An English version (one of many that can be found online) is here.

Birago Diop was a Senegalese writer, veterinarian, and diplomat, whose childhood was steeped in folktales told by griots. As a writer, he became affiliated with the Négritude movement.

One analysis of this poem emphasizes its source in Animism, the belief that there are souls not only in living things, but in all things — and that there is no separation between the spiritual and material worlds.

No surprise, then, that this poem has resurfaced precisely now, bobbing like a cork in my mind as I begin to make my way out of the initial shock of my father’s death and into the unfamiliar process of situating this loss within everyday life.

Since losing my father, many things have been revealed to me about the way the departed make their presence known in the world. Not just the Velcro I spoke of in my previous post, and not just the glimpses of the many other things my father loved popping up where I least expect them. 

I find I have new ways to interact with people I may have known for a long time, who dealt with the loss of a parent before I did, and who now welcome me to the (admittedly sad) club. We can talk about things, find points of intersection, and muse about how well our fathers might have gotten along.

There have also been unexpected communications from beyond, mediated by people my father might not even have bothered to speak to while he was alive. This week, I found myself unexpectedly in receipt of such a message from my father, transcribed by someone who was a stranger to him, someone I have known casually for a long time, someone for whom communication with the dead is a normal occurrence.

(I would have laughed if he’d ever called me Princess)

I wanted to believe it was a put-on, and “Princess” nearly threw me off. Who can wrap their head around their dead father reaching out in this way, and in such unfamiliar handwriting?

What the person who mediated this communication did not know was that this particular week,as I headed in for my next brain MRI, I’d really need that sort of reassurance, whether or not it was actually from my dad. My anxiety this time was tempered by grief, but it was still there. My continued health is not a foregone conclusion. But I have outlived my father, which at several points might have been a less certain thing. I wouldn’t say this gives me a sense of comfort, really. It is just one less thing I have to dwell on.

Yesterday morning, I went for my scan. Today, I saw Nurse Practitioner Rajni, who told me right away that my MRI looked just fine. I told her my father was dead, which was news to her, because the last she’d heard, I was headed down to see him (and asking what to do about taking my medication that needs refrigerating). I narrated his final days for her, and each time I do this for someone feels like a bandage being ripped off, a wound reopening.

Being back in a medical setting was not easy, neither yesterday at the MRI facility (where I was largely okay, except for a brief moment when the technician placed my IV and my vein collapsed and she had to start over, and I thought of the many times in the hospital that my father was stuck), nor today, when Nelson, my favorite technician at Dr P’s office, consoled me as I cried while he took my vitals. He too was on the verge of tears, telling me about losing his father to cancer four years ago.

Last night before going to sleep, I realized this would be the first time I’d get scan results and not be able to call my dad to tell him. (I dissolved into tears, of course.) This morning as I was rushing to my appointment, I saw my father’s plaid shirt draped over a chair and knew I’d need to wear it.

My father’s shirt was there with me, getting the news. In the past three weeks, I have tuned in to things (choses), and also to beings (êtres). And I think I might have learned the lesson that this poem implanted in my head so long ago: Les morts ne sont pas morts.

We said goodbye

A now-unfillable cup

My father passed away just after midnight on February 1. He had turned 82 years old on January 30. We buried him today. Friends who have been through the loss of a parent told me to be alert to signs or messages from my departed dad. They were there, in the heron I spied by a pond as our procession drove by; in the traffic on the highway; and even in the completely random appearance at the cemetery of a piece of Velcro that stubbornly stuck to my glove (I had always associated my dad with Velcro because he is the one who first showed it to me, and he used it for many things).

I’ll have a lot more to say about my father in coming weeks. For now, I’ll just say, I miss you, Pa.

An unopened package in search of a project


Worry doll

My father has been in the hospital for two weeks now. He suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage while out running errands two Sundays ago. He’s at a very good hospital and getting the best of care, but if anything the last two weeks have shown us how much better it is to not to have to be in a hospital at all. He’s suffered from a couple of hospital-acquired conditions which the doctors are still trying to resolve. His brain seems to be stabilizing, though, which provides some slight encouragement. Also, from the first day there, he has been perpetually concerned with making sure the bills are paid on time.

I feel grateful not to be the one who is sick, but that is most of what I feel grateful for at the moment. To say that my father is not fond of hospitals is a gross understatement. I hate that he is stuck in one for the time being. I am grateful my mom can be by his bedside most of the time, and my brothers can as well.

Living a couple hundred miles away is hard. I was there for a couple of days at the beginning, but ten days, and a million reversals of fortune, have now passed. I will take the bus there tomorrow, and spend the night in the reclining chair by his bedside, so my mom can have a break. I wish I could do more. It is so difficult, feeling pulled between two poles, between my daughter & mother roles.  I know I’m not the first to go through this, and I won’t be the last. I’m just the next in line.

When I was there last, I was casting about for something that my dad might like to fidget with, because his hands have been restless. I found this wooden figurine on his desk, and took it to the hospital with me. He wasn’t quite able to grasp it easily at that point, so I brought it back home with me.  It was been my worry doll, my reminder, my focal point. Sometimes the kids come and put it in a funny pose.

I’ll stay by my dad’s bedside tomorrow, and come Tuesday morning, I’ll get to be the first to greet him on his birthday. I can’t stay long, but I will be there, to give him a kiss, to show the video the kids made for him… and to wish him the healthy, long life that seems so far from his grasp right now.

Farewell, my friend

2018-01-13_11-Kent Island and Eastern Neck Island (and Chesapeake Bay Bridge), by Ken Lund on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons
Kent Island and Eastern Neck Island (and Chesapeake Bay Bridge), by Ken Lund on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Getting this message through the ether was the first moment I realized all of my typing here might do something other than help me:

Deborah, your blog is like a parallel life to mine at the moment – I feel stronger knowing that someone else is experiencing exactly the same side effects and riding the exact same emotional roller coaster as I am. Wishing you continued strength

This was my introduction to someone who would become my melanoma pen pal. We were contending with the same disease, and receiving the same treatment. But the similarities ended there. She had been diagnosed with melanoma at the age of fifteen — a mole on her temple. She had it removed surgically, and there was nothing else… for twenty years. It returned with a vengeance, and she had surgery to remove a parotid gland and lymph nodes. Tumors kept appearing. She had been treated with immunotherapy, as I had been. And, at the time she wrote to me, she had begun the same targeted therapy combination that I take — and was the very first person in her country to be taking them.

At the time she got in touch with me, I had been through a lot of medical and personal drama — being declared NED, and then, 24 hours later, finding out my brain was riddled with tumors. Getting a job for the first time in years, and having to leave it to tend to my suddenly declining health. I had found a therapist to talk to every couple of weeks, but didn’t have any support group I could participate in. This has been an issue I have contended with ever since my melanoma metastasized and I underwent treatments that, while absolutely mainstream, fell outside societally accepted norms of cancer treatment, simply because the general public hadn’t heard much about them yet. I was referred to places such as Gilda’s Club, but every time I picked up the phone to call them, I imagined myself walking into a support group meeting, looking the picture of health with all of my hair and no nausea… and I couldn’t do it. It seemed analogous to walking into a Weight Watchers meeting when you desperately need to lose twenty pounds, and having everyone else glare at you because they have further to go. I have since found a melanoma community on Facebook that provides the steady stream of support and treatment data points (and more than occasional heartbreak), but I didn’t know about it then.

I was so relieved to have a pen pal who echoed the very same things I was feeling:

I find that people say that I am very brave — it’s not being brave, it’s just that you really don’t have any other choice but to keep going … I am no different from anyone else, there are days that I just freeze with sheer panic and terror, other days I am angry at the stupid things people say to me, or if I’m honest, the fact that I just want to be like other people my age… with no worries.

We struck up a friendship, and we’d write each other every few months. I’d worry when I didn’t hear from her, and she was not on social media so I couldn’t passively check in. We shared vacation photos and news of our families. She was a doting aunt to two nieces. She sent in a donation for our bike ride when we were raising funds for cancer immunotherapy research.

My friend had a hard time with the side effects of our treatment, though, including one of the most common ones — fevers that would land her in the hospital every so often, and taking medication breaks until things stabilized. I fervently hope someday there will be a scientific reason for how and why these side effects happen (or, in my case, do not), and better ways to control them when they do happen.

Things took a turn for the worse for my friend in May 2017, and she was referred to the palliative team. After this point, there were many ups and downs for her, and a number of hospitalizations. I received an email from her last August, in which she reported good scan results, and was excited to be going home from the hospital.

I didn’t hear from her again. I felt strongly that something was very wrong, and emailed her on November 16, a brief note to send my love and tell her I wished her well. From the country stats I get through WordPress, I could tell she hadn’t been checking in on my blog. I periodically searched for notices online, and last night I found one: She died on November 17.

I have been at this cancer thing for a while now — anniversary hoarder that I am, I noticed a few weeks ago that April will mark five years since my initial diagnosis. You would think I’d be used to losing people, but it doesn’t work that way. Every loss is a knife. Every loss is a chasm opening into the center of the earth. On the Facebook group, which has over two thousand members, not a week goes by without the death of a member or a spouse or a child.

In a time of miracle treatments, and success stories (so far) like mine, in a time of falling cancer mortality, and even in a time where an article can be published that uses the “c” word in the headline, it is very tempting to focus on the positive, especially if you are the one with cancer, or your loved one is. And then yet another wrenching loss comes along to remind you that this is not a good business for anyone to be involved in.

I miss you, my friend. Our beastly disease struck you so early, let you live two decades with the illusion that you might outrun it, and then ended your life in such a merciless way. I hope where you are it is sunny and a lot like Italy… a place that you and I both love. Xoxo


Considering I’ve been at the blogging thing for three years, I’m surprised this never happened before! I uploaded an unfinished blog post today. I’ll get back to actually writing it soon, but email subscribers have already seen the contents. Sorry for the spoiler. I’ll take this opportunity to wish you a happy new year! All is well here (well, considering), and I hope it is the same with you.

46 and still kicking

Facebook Overdose, by mkhmarketing on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

I failed to post here on my birthday (other than editing my age on the About page — that was actually the very first thing I did). I’m only a bit surprised about it, to be honest. I’m sure that you, my most beloved and faithful 3.5 readers, have noticed a dropoff in posts here. I guess that stable health (well, comparatively stable, pneumonia notwithstanding) makes me less likely to keep returning here, to the scene of my illness. Much in the same way that my habitual and lifelong journaling habit turned out to be something I was doing while waiting for my actual adult life to start, keeping this blog was a lifeline at my sickest and most anxious and mortally afraid moments — and I hope that in the event things become gloomy again, I’ll feel the same — I’ve also felt that posting here sometimes feels like an impediment to other progress. I know that other types of social media have been that type of impediment to me. I’m trying to find a way to renegotiate my Facebook involvement, but since it has formed part of my daily life for twelve years now, that is easier said than done.

Last year I launched a Seven Year Plan on my birthday, and with the exception of one month this year, I did manage to check in with myself on a regular basis. I was open to changing the nature of the plan throughout, and was amused to find, as the year went on, that I got a lot of satisfaction from striking things on the list I’d made, and not because I had accomplished them — not by a long shot. Instead, it turned out that when you make a bulleted list of things you want to achieve, that list may be coming from somewhere external to yourself. And if you are setting goals for yourself that would please others, that will soon make your self-esteem plummet — particularly if you know as many superachievers as I do. Striking through those goals was liberating.

I also noticed, when it came time to read over my monthly check-ins, that I was bored to tears, and I had also made so many excuses to myself. SAD! 

I know I accomplished things this year, but this process wasn’t helping me to spotlight them. So, while waiting for my eye checkup with Dr. D yesterday, I wrote up a new list of goals for Year Two of the plan. They are 100% more vague, but I feel 100% more excited about accomplishing in those areas. And my monthly check-ins won’t be written anymore. I’m going to make a mini-portfolio each month, with anything from a diagram to a drawing to a photo of a paycheck or of work I’m doing on my laptop. So much of my plan centers around doing creative work that it seems a shame to miss the opportunity to do it creatively. When the monthly check-in reminder pops up on the 13th of each month, I want to be more excited about it.

Dr. D, by the way, said my eyes are looking fine. But he keeps nudging me to consider progressive lenses. I realize I’m at the age where they would be beneficial, but I just can’t give in yet, and I told him so. My extreme stubbornness has helped me quite a bit thus far, and my slower adjustment from long distance to reading distance is not a threat to my health or safety (or that of others) yet, so I will wait for the progressives, thank you very much. Dr. D then insisted on showing me that perching my glasses on the end of my nose might improve my vision for reading. (Nice try, Dr. D.)

I hope you are all keeping warm and doing the things you love, in between doing the things you have to in order to get by (which in my world includes taking medication and calling my elected officials).