Life, Spoiler Alert!

In defence of melancholy (when consumed with caution)

Life is more enjoyable when taken seriously.

-Christian de Nogales, Psychiatrist

We had agreed to meet for lunch at the Bains des Pâquis, Geneva’s city beach, a perfect destination on a sunny day.

“It’s raining; where shall we go?” Helena texts me.

“Let’s go there in spite of the gloomy weather; you and I love melancholy.”

She sends a thumb up emoji.

We sit inside the open cafeteria’s wooden barracks and talk about ageing. Helena is 40, I’m 56. Her mother is dying. Alzheimer. I’ve seen her deal with her mother’s diagnosis for the past two years. The initial blow, the denial, then the fight, the anxiety, the powerlessness, the pain, the acceptance, and now the desire for it to be over.

“She’s alive, but I’ve already lost her,” she says.

Observing the silvery drops gleam on the window panes, the grey clouds over the lake, I tell her I’m writing a poem in defence of melancholy.

“I long embraced this defamed sentiment,” I say, “with caution. I know it can bring you down.” I want to warn Helena as an older sister would. Melancholy can hand you over to depression, “Melancholy is a good companion as long as you can keep her at arm’s length.” ‘Embrace’ ‘keep at arm’s length,’ my ambiguity is flagrant.

She asks me about Trudi, my senile mother-in-law. At 88, she too, is losing her capacities, one by one. I’ve observed the slow process.

“It’s like you’re watching concentric circles in the water. You know, when you throw a stone in the water it provokes concentric outer circles. Well, the same but the other way around. Imagine watching a video of this in reverse, instead of the circles growing outwards, they disappear towards the original one. One outer circle at a time slowly drawn in, sucked in towards the innermost centre, a life sucked back into its bare bone.”

I hadn’t thought of this metaphor before, it’s curious how our minds work. Thoughts are sometimes constructed in the mouth, at least for me. I’m sure my husband, of German mother tongue, thinks in his head. Back to the image, the outer spheres represent the worlds and activities my mother-in-law belonged to. I think for instance of the English Speaking Catholic Community of Bern. It had been her husband’s idea to attend that church weekly when they returned, in 1976, from a year in the US, it would help the children practice their English, he said. The family became a centre stone of the parish, and vice-versa. Not only did the parish disappear from Trudi’s life, religion, once such an important part of her identity, no longer seems to occupy any space in her mind. Gone too are her extended family, her circle of friends, (with the exception of Dorli). She does recall, however, the time she spent in Rome, when at age twenty, after serving breakfasts and doing the rooms at an albergo where she worked, she wandered freely through the streets, a guidebook under her arm, the sunshine in her face. Single and with no children, never before, never again did she experience such freedom. But now, only the closest nuclear circle remains. Her sons, her daughters-in-law, Spitex, the home care staff arriving every day to help her with her morning hygiene.

“My mother-in-law’s slow fading provokes so much sadness in me, but it’s not only for her that I grieve,” I say hesitantly, I’m about to confess my self-centeredness. “I think I am pre-grieving my own decline.”

Helena assents, I see once again we are on the same page.

“It’s about ourselves,” she says.

“It’s as if I’m watching a film, and through some sort of transference or projection, I feel it’s me in her place. And the spoiler wants to tell me how it ends! I want to call out “No spoiler! No life spoiler please!”

We laugh.

“The thing is, we haven’t seen the full movie of our lives yet, it’s still in the making. We have a say on how it develops! But it’s hard to silence the insistent spoiler. He won’t keep quiet. He says, ‘It gets worse at the end, you’ll slowly lose your faculties. You’ll lose your mind. Your husband too.’”

That’s one of my greatest fears, together with losing a child. ‘Shut up,’ I want to scream. ‘Let me enjoy this while it lasts. My life now, my current sense of control. Don’t ruin my present by offering projections of my future self. Don’t pretend to know the entire plot. Perhaps this ends well. Don’t rain on my parade!’

“Actually,” I tell Helena, “that’s what melancholy is. The constant awareness of death in the room. My grandfather, a psychiatrist, kept a skull on his desk, he said it was his reminder of,”

“His deadline?” Helena interrupts me.

We laugh and wonder if that is indeed the origin of “deadline”.

“Have you read the book Bitter Sweet, by Susan Cain?” Helena asks me. I tell her I haven’t, and I make a mental note to search for it.

“Melancholy is my subtle reminder that the movie of our lives is advancing to an end.”

She smiles, “that’s exactly what Cain says,” she tells me.

“Melancholy also arises when we realize this is as good as it gets. When we recognize the imperfections in our lives. Perhaps we wished for a more fulfilling career, a better, more peaceful world, ”

“A more handsome husband, more interesting friends.”

“Yes. As I see it, melancholy, if ‘consumed with discretion,’ helps us come to terms with who we are and what we have achieved, it helps us assess our ‘achievements’ and ‘failures’. In a way, it helps us have greater sense of agency.”

It’s time to go. As we stand up I tell Helena, “Thanks dear, it’s comforting to find someone who does not avoid melancholy”.

“Any time,” she says.

The rain has stopped and a full rainbow appears over lake Geneva. We look at it and have to laugh, “It’s almost like the skies have heard our conversation, offering us the dark and the light.”

One Comment Add yours

  1. Lorraine Curran-Vu says:

    Another evocative piece,dear Ximena. You nailed it.


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