If you happened to pass Pendleton Center for the Arts during the short hours of daylight on December 21, you might have seen something startlingly beautiful. Art was emerging from the building, a long white scroll with calligraphy-like black swirls flowing down the steps and out toward the sidewalk. It was an invitation, a welcome. Sam Roxas-Chua had come to town.
Abandoned in the fold of a tree branch after his birth in the Philippines, Roxas-Chua was adopted by Chinese-Filipino family who later emigrated to the United States, so it seems only natural that his work illustrates the importance of connections. He didn’t just read that night at the First Draft Writers’ Series. He sang — and painted, too. His poems begin in the body, he explained, showing us how his brush swirls until it finds the image that will become words. Oh, this is a poem about water. Falling. Birds. Words, visual art, and music — for him, there is no separation.
We loved him. He’s the perfect writer, I thought, for this night. In all this darkness, he’s helping us tip toward the light.
But I kept picturing that infant balanced so precariously in a tree. That small, vulnerable body. How close Sam had come to that darkness.
In less than a week I would be facing a death in my own extended family, not of a child but of one barely become a man. The loss of such a young life has brought an especially deep sorrow.
How do people bear the unbearable? We hold each other. And somehow, we hold each other up.
Rituals help. For this young man, there was the recitation of the rosary and a funeral mass. The dressing, the Washat service, songs and prayers and spoken tributes, memories, tears. A naming. The ritual of his burial beside his mother, another too-young death the family still grieves. Shaking hands in the longhouse, the meal shared at those long tables. Next December, there will be a memorial and stone-setting.
Children help, too. We can hold them and pretend it is we who are helping them.
And words. Even at a time when my own words felt inadequate, I found myself thanking others for theirs, gifts they found within themselves when they themselves could hardly speak. Help each other, I heard. Ask for help. Acknowledge your pain. Look for kindness.
Why does it comfort us to share our sorrow? Earlier, when Sam let his Facebook friends know how difficult he was finding the days following the loss of his dog, I sent him a poem, one the former poet laureate Ted Kooser had shared with readers of his weekly newspaper column American Life in Poetry — in the hope, he said, that we would join him in wishing his yellow lab Harold well on his “journey to the stars.”
“The next morning, I felt that our house / had been lifted away from its foundation / during the night, and was now adrift … taking my wife and me with it … for fifteen years / our dog had held down what we had / by pressing his belly to the floors, / his front paws, too, and with him gone / the house had begun to float out onto / emptiness, no solid ground in sight.”
Can we find words for the loss of the people we love? We search for them, because the images that flow out the doorway of the isolated self can help us recognize that though each of us carries our own anguish in our own heart, our grief is connected to the grief of others. And when we reach out, acknowledging our pain, we hold each other up. Last week at St. Andrew’s and at the longhouse I felt people doing just that.
Laughter can bear us up, too, and during these dark days it is good to remember that. January’s First Draft writer will be Steve Chrisman, who came to Pendleton for serious positions in economic development and airport management but whose real passion, he says, is making people laugh, “or trying to, anyway.” I hope you can join us at Pendleton Center for the Arts at 7 p.m. on January 18. I’m betting he succeeds.
Bette Husted is a writer and a student of T’ai Chi and the natural world. She lives in Pendleton.