There is something bittersweet about the loss of a loved one isn’t there? Sorrow, to be sure: that feeling of floundering in deep, dark, swirling water, the ineluctable pain of absence, and the almost unbearable inability ever to see her, hear her, or touch her again. And yet, peeking through all the darkness and the tears, are the memories: the things she said, and that special smile she saved for you as she walked through the door after a day at work, the twinkle in her eyes when she noticed you across the room at a party, the smell of her clothes in the closet you haven’t yet found the need to use for something else…
The very presence of an absence can be a healing balm: a bower in the middle of a heaving city, a pew that creaks with a little sigh not far off a busy road. I had not heard of saudade before, I must confess; I had not even thought of such a thing until I came across it in an essay in Aeon, by Michael Amoruso, a visiting assistant professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts: https://aeon.co/ideas/saudade-the-untranslateable-word-for-the-presence-of-absence And, although it is claimed that the Portuguese word is untranslatable, the ‘presence of absence’ seems to capture the idea. As Amoruso writes, ‘There is a certain pleasure in the feeling. Though painful, the sting of saudades is a reminder of a good that came before.’ It is, in other words, the ‘desire for the beloved thing, made painful by its absence.’
Portuguese speakers ‘complain of ‘dying of saudades’ (morrendo de saudades), or wanting to ‘kill saudades’ (matar saudades) by fulfilling desire. Though hyperbolic, the word’s morbid poetics throw light on how affective ties make for a meaningful human life.’ Interestingly, ‘Saudosismo, an early 20th-century literary movement, was largely responsible for establishing saudade as a marker of Portuguese identity.’
But, although the word may be Portuguese, I suspect the concept, however abstruse on first hearing it, has a uniquely personal resonance for us all. More than nostalgia, and perhaps less than absence, it seems to have the ability to take on loss in different ways, and even at different times. It is not quite longing, and yet all three of these words are embedded like jewels in a ring each of us can wear. I love the idea.
And the more I think about it, the more familiar it seems. I’m retired now, but I spent over forty years as an obstetrician -there is something of the saudade in thinking of that alone, but it also reminds me of the grief I shared with some of my patients over the years. One in particular stands out, I think.
I’d always looked forward to seeing Jessica for her prenatal visits. Apart from early problems with nausea, and some blood pressure issues towards the end, her visits seemed as much social as medical. Sometimes she would arrive with a little bag of cookies for me, and once, a birthday card -although I have no idea how she knew. But that was Jessica: she made it her job not only to brighten up the office with her outrageously coloured maternity clothes, but also with her infectious humour and easy smile.
She never sat alone in the waiting room – she was always reading to some of my other patients’ children while they were being seen, or chatting up whoever was sitting beside her. I could tell when Jessica was there by the laughter.
It was her first pregnancy, and her enthusiasm was hard to ignore. Her eyes danced when she saw me, and if I happened to be behind time, and had come for another patient, they twinkled mischievously, as if she thought I might be teasing her.
I happened to be off call the night she delivered, and so I popped into the hospital the next day to congratulate her. Her short, auburn hair was a little messy, and the glasses she normally wore were folded on the bedside table beside her. The baby was asleep on her breast, but even so, her eyes didn’t disappoint, although they spent most of their time staring at little Matthew, and I could tell that even her smile was divided between us. She was obviously exhausted from the delivery and apparently hadn’t slept in the three or four hours since his birth.
I kept my visit short and after congratulating Jarod, her husband, left to finish my rounds.
“See you in six weeks,” she called after me, as the baby began to stir.
But it’s sometimes hard to keep track of time in a busy office and a call schedule that necessarily mixes deliveries of patients from other obstetricians so we can all have some time off. So I think it was closer to 6 months before I saw Jessica again.
She was smiling when I saw her sitting in the waiting room, but her eyes were not the same, although they warmed a little when she saw me, I think. My secretary threw a warning stare at me as I passed her, but I was too intent on Jessica to pay any attention.
Normally, a postpartum checkup is more of a formality, unless there are specific items to be addressed. So, a pap smear, a quick glance at the perineum to make sure things are healing, advice on contraception and then a bit of small talk about the baby and how things are going.
I was a little surprised that she didn’t bring little Matthew, but sometimes mothers need a break, I suppose, so nothing alarmed me… Until I asked about him, that is.
Her normally dancing eyes suddenly shut and I could see tears beginning to roll down her cheeks.
“He…” she couldn’t speak for a moment, and I offered her some tissue from my desk, afraid of what she was going to say. “He passed away, almost 4 months ago,” she managed to say through wavering lips and then buried her head in her arms.
I wasn’t sure quite what to do. I felt devastated in that moment, and although if I’d just been a friend I would have hugged her, I felt awkward -embarrassed, almost- just sitting behind my desk.
Then, before things became even more uncomfortable, she raised her head, took a deep, stertorous breath, and sent her eyes over to sit on my cheeks. “Crib death,” she said and withdrew her eyes again, to stare at her lap. “We made sure he was sleeping on his back, on a firm mattress in the cot… Nobody smokes in our house… I breast fed him…” She had obviously done a lot of reading about some of the factors that can be associated with SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and was listing them to me out of a still-felt sense of guilt. “I fed him about 3 A.M. and when I went back around 6…” She started to cry again.
But this time, she recovered more quickly. “Jarod and I have been going to grief counselling, and everything…” she volunteered as she saw me about to say something.
And then, there was an almost magical transformation in her face. “I remember he used to gurgle at me, and I think he was beginning to smile -you know, a for-real smile,” she added, to clarify it for me. “And his eyes…” She hesitated for a moment, relishing the thought. “They would twinkle at me -I’m sure of it… And then they’d slip right into my head, somehow, then dance their way out again.” She stared at the wall behind me. “Jarod says my eyes dance, too…”
She was silent for a while as she remembered Matthew. “He gave us so much, you know…” She sighed noisily -as if it helped her put things into words. Then, her eyes crept slowly back onto my face and stayed there. “It even hurts to talk about him in the past tense…” She fought for the right words. “But… His gift was just being in our lives -however short a time.”
Her eyes searched my own to see if I understood, and then suddenly she smiled. It was almost the smile I remembered. She blinked and nodded her head like the old Jessica. “Jarod wasn’t sure there was still a reason for a postpartum visit… But I knew you’d understand,” she said, gathering up her things to leave the room.
I stood up as she headed for the door when she suddenly turned, walked over, and hugged me. I didn’t have the words for it then, but you know, I think we both experienced saudade.
Yes, Jessica, I think I understand.