At a Loss for Words

I’m told there are words in Romanian (“dor”) and in Portuguese (“saudade”)—those two outposts in the geography of romance languages—that cannot be easily translated. The concept is a combination of longing, yearning, loving, and missing, wrapped up within melancholy and/or nostalgia, but not exactly any of those things and more precisely all of those things and then some. To see the consternation on the faces of native speakers when they fail at trying to put the idea into words is testament enough that there are some realities for which there are no easy conversions.

Of course this does not mean, as only the silliest of linguistics students likes to parrot, that the hearts and minds of those peoples are deeper, larger, and more poetic than ours. It just means that a concept we are fully capable of experiencing ourselves has never been uniquely nominated in our tongue. Why that’s the case, I don’t know; English has its own set of peculiarities and untranslatable ideas.

But the point I’m interested in is the juxtaposition of love and sadness. Here’s my theory:

  1. Love is transitive.
  2. As such, love requires an object to spend itself upon.
  3. If the object of love is removed, the current is blocked, dammed.
  4. That blockage results in pain.
  5. That pain we call sadness.

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Rose By Any Other Name

This is a story that is more about what I don’t know than what I do.

On the Friday night after Thanksgiving, the third night of Chanukah, my neighbor Rose, next-door neighbor to St. Linda, died. Just three or four days before, her adult son who lived with her—retirement age himself—had called to tell us that his elderly mother, whom we had seen less and less in the last month or two, was in home hospice care and did not have long to live.

Could I come see her? I asked, for she had been a wonderful neighbor and I had loved her greatly.

His simple reply: She doesn’t want any visitors.

So instead, I kept calling to check in on her, the last time the night of Thanksgiving from my sister’s house, the high shimmer of candles at the edge of my eyes, straining to hear over the sound of wine-soaked merriment. She’s okay, he said. Please let me know if there is anything I can do, I replied.

He called Saturday morning to say that Rose had died. She was ninety-three years old.

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Waking My Mother: Lost and Found

When someone dies, we say to the surviving family members, “I’m sorry for your loss.” And we mean it. But there are other ways than death to lose someone dear—or someone who should be dear.

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell explores these varieties of loss in her latest poetry collection, Waking My Mother. The poems reflect on her mother’s dementia and dying; on her mother’s relation to Angela and her siblings when they were kids; on the emotional complexities of living, after her mother’s death, with memories of a mother she wasn’t loved by.

Yes, this is the tough stuff that O’Donnell takes on in these poems. And she takes it on with grace.

One of the hardest things to take on—perhaps the hardest to read about—is her memory of her mother’s succession of lovers after their father died.

Other girls’ mothers

sold Avon, Bee-line, Tupperware.


My mother took lovers.

Young ones. Dark ones. True ones.

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The Final Roll Call

As a little girl, I remember watching the grownups in my hometown Episcopal church cross themselves, and feeling like there was a secret I was not yet privy to but wanted to know. Sometime in high school, I started crossing myself at will, at the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” mentions, but also before and after communion, and whenever I thought it might fit.

The first time I felt silly. After that—though I didn’t understand why—I liked this small movement, this physical manifestation of something that must be outside, but seemed also inside, something I wanted to be a part of.

When I was in the Army, my friend Darren died. We were both helicopter pilots, had met in flight school where I remember him not only tall, blond, and always smiling, but playing the guitar. We crossed paths as our units transferred responsibility supporting the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia; but he didn’t die in a helicopter. He died on his way to school, riding his motorcycle along a four lane street in early morning, thirty-five miles an hour, when a truck turned in front of him.

Darren laid his bike on the road to slide under the truck; he was wearing full leather and a helmet. By the time the driver realized what was happening, he stopped the truck on top of Darren’s chest. Darren was Medevaced to the hospital and then transferred to Tuscon, still breathing, but when they cracked his ribs to assess and repair whatever damage lay beneath, the tiny bit of pressure holding together a torn aorta released, and he died on the table.

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The Long Wait

My mother’s quavering voicemail was right: I hadn’t called in a long time. I justified my neglect with the assurance that I’d called on her birthday, I’d called on Mother’s Day, I’d made my dutiful calls even though I suspected she was mad at me. I made them and she didn’t answer. I hadn’t called in a long time, but goddammit, neither had she.

My mother’s tears always put a knot in my gut. Once as a boy I fell asleep on her bed, and woke to her weeping. On the television were men, some in brown uniforms, some wearing white sheets. They stood shouting in the parking lot of our local library. The next day Mama put a letter in our mailbox, and the newspaper published it. A week later, angry people were calling our house. Mama argued with some, hung up quickly on others. I beat her to the phone once, and a woman asked: “Just what is your mama’s problem with the Klan?”

Only God knows what my mother would have done to that woman, had she possessed the power to reach through the phone.

Years later, I wrote something that enraged a cabal of neo-Nazis. They circulated pictures of me and my son on their website. “One day,” Mama warned me, a mixture of frustration and delight in her voice, “you’re going to write something that will get you shot.”

She used to marvel at my stubbornness, as if it were some mysterious property that had settled unaccountably under my skin.

This stubborn son knew he should call his stubborn mother. I knew, I knew, but I didn’t anticipate it going well, and I couldn’t spare the emotional energy. Not before this demanding work week. Not before this big meeting. Not before I got over this early-fall fever.

The weather had finally cooled, which often summons a memory of the summer we lived in tents in Tennessee. My brothers and I lived more in a nearby lake than out of it. We sweated through that summer and there wasn’t much money and I thought maybe we would live in tents forever. One night my mother took us to a cool, dark theater, where we watched “Grease” and I fell in love with Olivia Newton-John. I don’t know where Mama got the money, but what a blessed night she gave us.

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