I'm not naturally pensive, or I say I'm not. I've been chirping so long I've lost my lower register, maybe never allowed it to develop, and who's to say if my natural song is canary or whale? In any case, I don't inhabit unhappiness comfortably.
It is common for happy people to believe that sadness without diagnosis is pure self-indulgence, and as I've gotten older it isn't enough to be rational. I must feel rationally – no, practically -- and happiness is the most practical emotion I know. In practice this requires a bit of social trickery, public acceptance of despair and private repudiation, a mental contortion of knowing and unknowing. I must be a magician who refuses to levitate, a stubbornly flightless bird, and that hasn't been difficult for me. Outside of a kitchen, I wouldn't expect my own magic to accomplish anything, nor would I trust feathers to keep me aloft when I see so many seagulls plowed into the asphalt on my daily trip across the bridge, downy piles of pale gray and dark purple, and on the trip back there is only a smudge. If flight is not an infallible power, I have no use for it, or any others that have the potential to turn out very badly. Optimism works best when you limit your outcomes.
Given my Panglossian ways, I'm always surprised when the most enchanting time of the year – Christmas – kicks off a good six to eight weeks of emotional turbulence. It starts the minute I get out my Christmas cards and open my address book. Nowhere else is it laid out so flatly: those I've kept and those I've lost. There's my brother's address. I'm not sure I could find my way there anymore. Nannie, the farm's address and that of the nursing home just beneath it. Granny, Aunt Floy, Uncle Billy, Uncle Odie, cousin Ricky, my father-in-law. It's a list of tragedies, alphabetized by surname.
It's also a list of those I've neglected. High school and college buddies, former roommates, neighbors and co-workers, all with dormant addresses after I failed to follow them to their next job or new city. My guilt is proportional to distance and the agreeability of goodbye. Relationships frequently cool without the heat of proximity, and people change. It's okay to let go, move on. But there are those on the list I never lost passion for, and I lost them anyway. Dana is one of those.
We were neighbors on a cul-de-sac of flimsy starter homes. She had two boys the same ages as my son and daughter, and they grew up together like a tumbling litter of puppies and were frequently dumped into the tub as a filthy pack. Old photos of my family gathered around the kitchen table, the backyard grill, a birthday cake or a Christmas tree, are as likely to feature her children as mine.
At that point in my life I was a vague, decorative thing, an impressionist painting that merely suggested a woman, habitually charming – an unscrupulous talent in a young person – and as wise as a pet store finch. Dana was a little older and a lot more substantial, with a wide-open face, a generous smile that pushed her cheeks up to her eyes, and a directness I've always associated with those from Northern climates. (I suspect no one wants to beat around the bush if there's ice on the bush.)
Her husband Don was a burgeoning alcoholic who on the weekends accelerated from funny to foolish in fifteen beers. Accidentally but foreseeably, he set fire to the front lawn, threw a golf club through the windshield of his truck, and one Sunday morning – in jolly horseplay – tossed his oldest son into the air and failed to catch him on the way down. Their son was unharmed, but Don was broken with remorse. Later that day, I was in their kitchen when he sobbed into Dana's neck, and for probably the thousandth time, begged her to forgive him. I watched a dozen hard feelings cross her face before she settled on a soft one, and she said, "You didn't mean to." Until then I had no idea that kindness is a choice.
My family was the first to leave the street, a few miles away, and we kept in touch. Then the Air Force moved them West, then overseas, beyond casual contact, and for years I received sketchy updates via chance encounters with mutual acquaintances. Don was sober. They divorced. Dana was in Virginia.
Two years ago, when I'd almost accepted I'd never hear from Dana again, a Christmas card arrived. I joyfully copied her current address in my book, and put a return card in the mail that very day, anticipating many years of exchanged cards, updates and photos. A week later Don called to say Dana was dead. Simply dead, at forty-nine, when her heart just up and quit. I shake my head when I come to her name. "That's impossible," I say aloud, firmly.
I could get a new address book, start over, but that would be a temporary solution. Before long someone will have moved on or died and soon the new book would be full of messy cross-throughs and vacant names that make me teary even as I'm signing our cards with cheery script. I know sorrow is not a choice, yet mine seems willful, and thin too, when I am capable of soaring happiness the very next minute. Only grief of poor quality would wear so unevenly, and only a loon, a dodo, a cuckoo, one of those diminished birds, would continue to send Dana a Christmas card. Because optimism works best when you limit your outcomes, I provide no return address.