When yellow and blue make nothing at all

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From The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:


n. the tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it—whether through envy or pity or simple foreignness—which allows it to drift away from the rest of your life story, until the memory itself feels out of place, almost mythical, wandering restlessly in the fog, no longer even looking for a place to land.


My father looked through me as he died. His coffee-brown eyes blazed with an amber-like illumination. They glowed. His black pupils were the size of peppercorns and appeared to be suspended in the petrified grasp of ancient sap. My sister and I turned to the nurse and insisted, strongly, those were not our dad’s normal, everyday eyes. It was desperately important—to me—she understood the forces at work in that room at that moment. “They’re beautiful,” she said. As a hospice nurse, she saw death daily. Looking back, I know she was aware my dad would be gone within minutes.

I had never witnessed anyone die. Dutifully, I had read all the hospice brochures outlining patient care. The most solemn pages listed common signs of imminent death but there was nothing about eyes that appeared to be focused on something invisibly bright.

His eyes were locked on something I couldn’t see but could feel. His time has come, child. I asked everyone in the room to give me 30 seconds with him, alone. I rattled off an audacious, but short, to-do list and pleaded with him to run to Jesus. Run. Then, I frantically called the rest of my family back into the room to be by his side. He was still breathing. With every exhale his lower jaw jutted forward in a snapping motion, as if he were trying to eat the air. We pressed our hands onto his body and cried words of love. His jaw stopped reaching. His chest stopped rising. His eyes stopped glowing.

Without a stethoscope or medical training, each one of us leaned away from his body and looked at each other in agreement. He was gone. I can’t say what anyone else was feeling or thinking. I was stupefied, bewildered, and grateful to have been given such a gift; to watch a beloved one gaze at glory’s indescribable light.


When I came upon the word exulansis a few days after my dad died, I recognized its truth. It was coined by a man named John Koenig for his innovative tumblr, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. He wrote of the word’s origins at Facebook: “From Latin exulans, “wanderer,” after the Latin name of the Wandering Albatross, diomedea exulans. Albatrosses spend most of their life in flight, rarely landing, going hours without even flapping their wings. Like they’ve disowned the earth, but can never leave it. And of course the albatross is a symbol of good luck, a curse, and a burden, and frequently all three at once. Sounds about right.”

Sounds about right.

I’ve only told a few people about my dad’s eyes. When I do, I immediately regret it. Eyebrows rocket up. The person blinks, then nods. “Wow!” Head-tilt to the side.

I guess you had to be there.

Each time I tell someone, it diminishes. Doubt flares.

Maybe it was exhaustion, grief, a desire for meaning, his medications? I speculate I got it all wrong that day in that room. The Light of the World was there; or maybe it was the way the sun bounced off a car across the street, then off the wall he was facing? I still believe my dad was saved. But that outlandish sense I was witness to something miraculously beautiful in room 238 is threatened…by me.

Was this what it meant when Mary “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart”? (Luke 2:19)  She knew others would find her experiences not only foreign, but beyond rational explanation. The shepherds told of a host of angels singing over a newborn king. She did not. As she rocked and nursed her little one in the coming days, weeks, and months, she must have revisited that holy night. She sank into the sweet hay of memory, finding a fogless place to land.


There is no way to share everything that transpired between my dad’s diagnosis, his death, and his memorial service. It’s not necessary, nor do I want to broadcast everything that happened. It’s also impossible to adequately capture the magnitude of continual mercies. Each arrived like an arrow, swift and true: A burst of energy here, insight there, peace, the perfect song, a bite to eat, roses blazing fragrance, the moon and stars aligned in the west, a hand squeeze, an inside joke, clean sheets, a well-timed visit, outrageous challenges.

The one-month mark looms later this week. I’m learning what grief is and what it isn’t.

Grief is a state of mind that continually flings itself to the past to rehash what happened.

Grief is a state of mind when the present is invaded by unexpected reminders of the person lost.

Grief is a state of mind when you accept the future as a dad-less place, empty of the color he brought.

It’s like a rainbow with the green sucked away. It’s not right. It’s not normal. How can yellow meld into blue without wheezing green? It’s impossible to picture an abrupt line in a rainbow outside of bumper stickers and Lisa Frank notebooks. Grief is the most impossible emotion to grasp, and that quality of grief is what makes grief, well, grief. It is confusion tinged with wary anticipation. It’s nonsense, like a green-less rainbow or a dad-less me.


In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis grappled with the same desire to define grief. In chapter 2, he wrote:

“And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.”


I think Lewis would have appreciated the word exulansis and the definition even more. It’s helped me pin down new emotions and enabled me to not expect others to fully get it. Of course they don’t, just as I don’t understand how my widowed mother gets through the night. Or the morning. Or the afternoon. I have the strong impression, however, she must have been gifted with her own “illuminated eyes” moment along the way. It’s something she ponders. It’s something she treasures. It’s something she may have tried to express once or twice but found diminished and returned to her with a stain.

You can grieve alongside someone, but you can’t share it like a sweater or split it like a cookie. Telling our stories of what happened is an attempt to split it away—at first. If I say it enough, maybe I will believe it.

My dad died.

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