It was dark when we drove away from the penguin parade in Australia. My three children were asleep in the backseat and Maddy sat next to me, navigating alongside of the spotty GPS system that had poor connectivity in the rural countryside. I kept accidentally flicking on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal whenever I wanted to change lanes, which is what happens when you aren’t used to driving on the opposite side of the road. I felt inept at converting kilometers to miles and slightly terrified about the prospect of a wombat or a kangaroo jumping out into the road.
It is daunting to become a beginner again in the simple tasks of life–like driving–especially on a different continent. The mistakes you make. The stress and frustrations and worries. The second-guessing you do and the humbling experience of messing up, over and over again.
But there was also something a little exciting about it too. Kind of a reminder that there are still many aspects of life that haven’t been explored or experienced. There is more to learn. More surprises. Life can be eternally stimulating and adventurous and challenging, even when life is also disappointing and tedious and soul-achingly sad. Somebody like me needed those reminders.
We were an odd bunch, the five of us.
Me, a 36-year-old white woman.
My three children, half-Japanese, young, spirited.
Maddy, a redheaded 19-year-old, my late husband’s former student.
Maddy babysits the children. They hold her hand and like to crawl onto her lap as if they have always known her. She knows what they like and how to put the littlest one, Peter Jack, to sleep when he is restless and rowdy. She knows that Eloise likes to be read to and enjoys having her nails painted. Maddy treats Ethan to bagels whenever she picks him up from school. We lack a word in our language to describe somebody who is family in all ways except blood. Whatever the word would be, that is what Maddy is to us.
During our drive back to Melbourne, Maddy and I debriefed our day. We had just seen the world’s smallest penguins on St. Phillip’s Island. We braved the chill of Antarctic winds on the first day of the Australian winter as we waited for sundown, our eyes transfixed on the ocean where thousands of penguins swam in from each night on their way home to their burrows. The penguins waddled past us in small groups, their beady eyes darting around with vigilance. We witnessed the song and dance of their mating rituals, heard the chorus of their social noises that intensified as the night grew later, and smelled their distinct odor that reminded us we were in their territory. A few hours later, when there were no more penguins returning from the ocean, we got up to leave, and on our way out we noticed a clear black sky glittering with a million bright stars–a novelty for a bunch of city folks.
Earlier in the day we pet a koala and played with kangaroos. We ate potato leek soup and grilled sourdough bread and enjoyed views of the bay. Cape Barren geese ambled by our dinner table and my children played near the fence that surrounded a cow pasture. The kids were happy and content despite everything that had happened to us.
I was checking off items on my personal bucket list. Living life by my terms again.
But despite the euphoria, it could only ever be “almost perfect.” I could only ever be almost happy. No matter how sated I felt, there would also be a tinge of sadness. A niggle of guilt. It lurked even in the best of circumstances. When one is sentenced to a lifetime of grief, their happiness comes with the anchor of remembering who is not there. Although you learn to live with it and manage to forge more happiness and create new memories, the void remains. You simply learn how to use the empty space.
We would not have known Maddy if my husband hadn’t unexpectedly passed away on that fateful April morning, and if she had not been a student in his anthropology class, or if she hadn’t meekly offered her babysitting services in the early days of my grief. It took one cosmic roll of the dice to change the trajectory of our lives. If one thing had been different, we would not have been there, in that car, in a country 8,000 miles away from home. We would not even really know each other.
A week after the penguins, we walked through intermittent rain in Sydney looking for an opal gallery at the request of my gem-obsessed 8-year-old son. He wanted to see Nessie, whoever and whatever that was. Ethan is just like his father with his enthusiasm, database of knowledge, and the articulate way that he can explain facts with a mature vocabulary. Even the way he looks in his glasses reminds me of my late husband. Ethan is a part of Kenneth that has not been taken away from me yet, and sometimes I feel as if I am constantly holding my breath, not wanting to disrupt the universe’s equilibrium.
We ascended the escalator to the second floor and entered the open floor plan: fake dinosaur exhibits to the left, and to the right there were glass-covered display cases filled with opals for sale.
“It’s here, it’s here!” Ethan squealed from the place where he ran ahead. “Nessie!”
I expected something impressive and big, perhaps attached to a piece of gold jewelry, but instead we stared at a fossilized dinosaur. We had just seen dinosaurs in the Melbourne Museum, so I was a bit confused about why this was a big deal to my son. My youngest two children pressed their fingers against the glass, trying to figure it out too.
“This isn’t a giant opal,” I said.
Ethan turned to me and rolled his eyes. “Don’t you know how opal is made?” He proceeded to mansplain.
Fifty percent of Nessie–who happened to be a nearly intact fossilized plesiosaur–was opalized. That’s what made Nessie rare and priceless. Opals are formed when a mixture of silica and water settle into the fissures created by a dinosaur’s decomposing bones.
I leaned toward the glass and noticed the rainbow-colored opals where there was once bones. I tried to imagine the opals forming over the span of millions of years.
“It’s mostly silica, Mom,” Ethan said. “Silica. Not too much water. Silica.”
But I was interested in something else.
I continued to listen to his explanations, dutifully snapping photos of him as he inspected the exhibits. I tried to look interested in his hobby, much in the same way I once faked interest in his father’s coin collection.
We are an odd bunch.
I thought about Ethan’s beloved opals. Those precious gems formed in the space where death carved out the living. Something beautiful that filled a void.
That was us.
The odd bunch, formed in the fissures of what used to exist of our family. Something new and different and valuable; beauty that would not be here without loss. Proof that not everything is over in death. Life can still be worth living.
After the Australia trip, I went to dinner with an old friend. This friend had seen me through my rebellious teen years. She witnessed bad relationship choices in early adulthood, and also watched me blossom into a wife and mother. She was at my husband’s funeral and saw my debut as a young widow. Now she has seen me struggle to make sense of a new reality as I attempted to rebuild my life.
“Do you think Kenneth still exists?” my friend asked. “Or do you think he’s completely gone?”
My friend is Christian. I am Buddhist. We both know that we do not agree with each other about what happens after death, but that didn’t matter in this conversation. We were talking about something different. Not about what we could or could not see, and certainly not about our beliefs. This was about feelings. One, in particular.
“I think his energy still exists,” I said. I felt certain that the love we shared had not disappeared. It simply changed.
Sometimes I wonder if Kenneth gave Maddy to us. It felt too coincidental that she came into our lives just as he left, that we knew her through his loss, and that part of the bond our odd bunch shared was a mutual love for him. Perhaps it was fate that put her in our path at the right time, just when we needed her. Everything aligned even as our world fell apart.
I know that Kenneth’s love still exists. My husband was a teacher, and I have seen the torch of his love carried in the eyes and hearts of his former students. The love is found in his family and friends. Acquaintances who had been touched by a conversation. People who he helped. Neighbors. Those who knew him from afar. Maddy. The kids. Me. The way each of us continues to love others, paying forward a love that has traces of his existence in it.
That love has been re-shaped, reconfigured, and transferred into the space in-between what was and what exists right now. This transmuted love is the glue that holds our odd bunch together. We are proof that love transcends everything, and that beautiful things can be born out of loss. Love is what gives us hope; love is the strength and courage we need to move forward even in the worst of times. Love is the bridge between the old and the new.