Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Heartbreak of Cherry Blossoms

My recent sadness at the departure of visiting family reminded me of this essay, written nearly ten years ago. I searched for it in my computer files and up it popped. Unlike many titles, this one stays with me, and I think about it when when spring arrives in Seattle and the cherry trees bloom.

For almost an entire year I've looked forward to the last two weeks of April when my roving Canadian family (on sabbatical) would be staying with me. Their house in British Columbia, leased for the academic year, wouldn't be available for them until until May 1. When I was asked last summer if, by any chance, they could live here for a couple of weeks in April, I was thrilled and eagerly anticipated it all these months. But then . . . so quickly, the figurative cherry blossoms blew off. Poof--it was over.

Here's the essay written almost TEN YEARS AGO. Sometimes my old writing doesn't hold up--I write sometimes just so I can 'move on.' But this one? It still speaks to me.

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June 2006

   A photograph of my youngest granddaughter in newborn slumber greets me each time I sit down to use my computer. I have carefully arranged my software shortcut-icons around the edge of the lavender fleece blanket, which envelopes her as she sleeps in Grandpa’s lap. I can see her picture out of the corner of my eye every time I pass the den. She is ten days old today—already twice as old as she was when I snapped the picture, and I am wondering how much she has changed.

   Not that I wouldn’t recognize her. I am certain I could pick her out in a lineup of a hundred babies, even if we had not had the chance to meet at the end of her first earthly day. I saw her again when she was five days old, and enfolded her tightly swaddled little self in my arms. But this morning, when I turned on my computer and saw the picture of sweet Mae filling in across my monitor, I thought my heart might break.

Initially I was surprised by how I felt. My gut reaction upon seeing her picture, with her eyes tightly shut against the world, was to change the computer wallpaper. What about a photo of our garden in its full rhododendron bloom? Or the rocky Oregon seashore snapped last autumn? I realized that I was feeling a pang of deprivation, the loneliness that comes from having grandchildren who live elsewhere—whose lives are not entwined with mine. I recognized it as similar to my feelings when I see cherry blossoms.

Since my college days forty-five years ago, the sight of cherry trees in full bloom invariably makes me want to cry. Although the obvious reason for my tears would be the breathtaking contrast of the trees against the sky—the way they burst into the drab, still-wintry scene to surprise us like cheerleaders—only recently have I identified the real reason for my reaction. It is the fleeting quality of the bloom that I find upsetting, the foreshadowing of disappointment. A display of blossoms—even a spectacular one such as the dozens of blooming trees at my alma mater’s central quadrangle—lasts only a week or so. Then the petals fade and drift or blow away. Cherry blossoms are a tangible reminder of how fast the moment disappears. Obviously, my reaction is the glass-is-half-empty type, yet I think of myself as a person quick to celebrate wonder, one who enjoys life’s smallest pleasures. But certain things seem to trick my imagination into projecting absence instead of appreciating presence. I usually see the positive image in those psychological optical-illusion pictures, but with cherry blossoms it is though I can see only the negative space.

Observing contrail billowing from a jet plane in a clear blue sky has the same effect on me, but without the weeping. Instead, I just have a sensation of longing for something unnamed. I used to think my reaction was a yearning to travel. But recently, as I tried to explain to a friend why I feel that way, I realized it’s because contrail evaporates so fast. I want it to stripe the entire sky before it begins to wisp away, so the foggy thickening as it dissipates is almost unbearable to watch.

Little Mae lives two-and-a-half hours away from me. For the next few months I can see her frequently, possibly even once a week, but in a year she will be moving with her parents several hundred miles away. My other grandchildren have always lived a thousand miles away, so I have never been acquainted with their yearnings or sadness, their day-to-day achievements and little triumphs. They don’t know my foibles, either. Two visits a year never let us get past the acquaintance stage.

If I give voice to my disappointment about not living closer to my grandchildren, well-meaning friends quickly jump in with a hundred suggestions for developing and maintaining long distance relationships. I am willing to try them all, but nothing takes the place as frequent flesh-and-blood contact. The absence of easy-going rapport with my grandchildren is painful, for even when it is circumstantial, deprivation has no salve.  

I know I should enjoy the cherry blossoms while they are blooming, and contrail shouldn’t make me sad. I know Mae lives close-by for the time being. Perhaps my knowledge of how transitory our time together is will afford a deeper level of delight in the moments we have together—more than if the experience felt endless. Of course her picture on my computer monitor will stay put; it is too beautiful to replace. And ephemeral happenings—the pink puff of cherry trees or the blanched streak of contrail—bittersweet as they are—teach us to stay in the moment. And that, after all, may be the one lesson we can’t have repeated too often.

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