Lessons in Permanence and Impermanence



BY JEAN MARIE JOHNSON

Text to brother: Happy or Winky? Who flew off of the second-floor porch?

Response: Happy. Winky was murdered by Lucky.

Text to brother: Oh, right…then we tied Lucky to the doorknob to show him the error of his ways. Thanks!

An ironic name, it turns out, Happy was our resident parakeet who loved mashed potatoes and perched on our kitchen faucet waiting to catch a drip. One day, an elderly member of our household, not exactly family, decided to treat Happy to some fresh air by taking him onto the wilds of our second floor, apartment-style porch. Sensing the possibility of sweet freedom, Happy took flight in the direction of the maples that lined our street. We walked in vain until well after dark, calling out to him, pleading with him to return. It was just a bird. 

Winky soon took up residence in Happy’s birdcage. I don’t think I allowed myself to become as enamored of his antics, lest I become too attached. I had learned that lesson and closed off a bit of my heart in the process. However, Lucky, our honey-colored mutt with feisty, street smart savvy, was more than intrigued. Instinct getting the better of him, Lucky took Winky out with one agile air-borne leap. It was just a bird. Just another bird.

Fast-forward to the morning of Monday, April 13th, several decades later, the day after Easter Sunday. With the mighty fury of Mother Nature herself, the largest oak tree on my property was completely uprooted. It fell over my fence, striking the back porch of the neighbor behind me. While the damage was significant, we said our thanks that no one was hurt and were fortunate to have escaped a worse fate. Dawn broke as we took a good look around, zeroing in on the cleanup, the scheduling of contractors, and the back and forth of insurance claims. In the midst of the coronavirus and other, more personal concerns, we put this unfortunate and unexpected event in its right and proper place: we had it in perspective.

Later, after the adrenaline-filled flurry of task-focused phone calls, emails, and conversations began to wane, I noticed that my reason was taking a back seat to my emotion. Everything had been instantly annihilated and replaced by a ginormous gaping hole and this prostrate behemoth of gnarly roots and limbs. …it was just a tree, just a fence, just a garden my well-schooled logic scolded. With a profound sense of loss, my heart said otherwise. I had been working on that scrappy section of my old yard since late last summer, envisioning a woodland garden. My neighbors had gifted us with hostas, irises, Solomon’s seal, daylilies, Lenten roses, and on and on. It was to be my legacy garden, an ode to friendship and community.

And then I allowed “the all of it” to hit me. Every loss, regardless of how seemingly small or trivial, evokes grief, feelings of helplessness, and, underneath all of that, the crux of the matter…the sense that nothing can be counted on. I was suddenly flooded with memories of Happy, of Winky, and a thousand other things, all necessary experiences in their own way, experiences that introduced me to the inevitability of loss, to the first experiences of grief, and to that unwelcome and frightening sense of powerlessness.

In the wide span of time between then and now, I have known many losses. Death, theft, betrayal, financial insecurity, health conditions, and so on. Most of us have. I no longer fear them because I no longer cling to the illusion of permanence, the promise of security. Now, finally now, I know that love and beauty and all good things come for a time, presenting themselves to us as gifts to wholeheartedly embrace, to take into the fullness of our experience. Many are temporary. I accept the grief that accompanies their passing because I also understand this about the universe and its ways: there will always be love and there will always be beauty as long as we don’t shut ourselves down or try to dictate the terms. I cannot control how these gifts will appear or manifest in my life, but in this knowing, there is a joyful permanence.


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