by Nell Ovitt
It was spring, and I was twelve, and the world looked mostly ordinary.
Then one morning, my dad went out for a run, collapsed, and didn’t get back up again. It’s very strange when something like this happens, when someone who matters to you dies abruptly. It alters the stitching of your universe and pretty profoundly warps your vision. For me, that April, it made the spring look suddenly garish, taunting—unnatural.
I was also disappointed in myself, because, as a major library lurker, I felt I’d ignored the warnings in the books I loved so much—plenty of plucky young YA heroes had lost one, if not both, of their parents. Hadn’t I read and re-read Harry Potter, Esperanza Rising, and Anne of Green Gables? Parents could, apparently, just die in real life, too. The worst part of it was that, beyond the tidy confines of fiction, there was no significant import, no prophecy or ceremony, no young adult novel plotline emerging from that newly empty space at the table. Just a quiet extinguishing that left me with a reality I never expected to inherit.
But time, in its unflappable vastness, swept brazenly forward with complete disregard for my personal calamity, so I begrudgingly did my best to teach myself that, when I heard the evening bus, my dad wouldn’t walk whistling through the front door again—that the empty space was permanent. For a long time, this was just hard, just an unpleasant and repetitive wrenching, and the unfamiliarity that had latched onto my life tinted everything I saw a strange shade of different. But after a while, I started to notice that this unsettling way of seeing, this weird new lens on my world, wasn’t always bad.
I imagine it’s a little like how it would feel if you could see another color in the usual spectrum: it’s always affecting the image you see, sometimes in a harsh or ugly way, but sometimes in bizarrely complementary shades. An extra, faint ribbon of light from the prism: the grief color. Occasionally, it blights the image, splinters what should be only joyful into bittersweet hues; sometimes, however, its shade contrasts with the moment you perceive, and you know with a sharp clarity that what you’re experiencing is little short of wonder, because you can see its opposite.
This sensation reminded me of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a story that sat on my shelves alongside Harry and Esperanza and Anne, a book about twelve-year-old Jonas, who trains to become his dystopian community’s “Receiver of Memory.” In the story, Jonas’s town chooses to forgo pain and memories of it in order to secure a more tranquil life, and the community’s Receiver keeps the memories deemed too fraught for the general population to navigate. When Jonas’s burdened mentor teaches him how to become the next Receiver, Jonas learns about suffering; however, he also learns about joy, snow, desire, birthday parties—things, large and small, that make life beautiful, despite the persistence of pain.
Jonas finds out he will become the town’s Receiver at the special “Ceremony of Twelve,” an event when all the twelve-year-olds in the community are provided with a personalized job based on their skills and interests. During the Ceremony, you are integrated into the community with truths and responsibilities that cannot be unlearned—whether you are assigned a traditional job or become the next Receiver, you are changed, and changed permanently. After I first read The Giver, I wanted my own Ceremony of Twelve—I thought it would be pretty swell if my town elders had the magical capacity to figure out my future and hand me a neatly packaged destiny during some hallowed community event. As it turned out, my Ceremony of Twelve that spring was ultimately more of an unceremony, though it did, just as it did for Jonas and his peers, change me permanently and teach me things I would never unlearn.
In The Giver, Jonas first discovers the hue of new truths when he notices, in a flash, the color red emerge in his grayscale environment. This burst of red, a fleeting glimpse of something beyond the neutral world he knows, is a herald of the history of human pain and joy that will rapidly change his outlook on the world. Maybe it’s not fair, maybe he shouldn’t have to grow up so fast, but since the Ceremony is over, and his knowledge of the colors will never go away, Jonas chooses to want the world anyway, the real world, the world comprised of terrible, arresting brightness. The red.
I can’t unknow what I learned too early about how precarious our realities are and how swiftly our sight can be transformed. My dad’s gone, and now I see the grief color—sometimes faint, cropping up quietly as a slight and subtle shade, and sometimes as clear and striking as the red in stoplights, in blood, in the sun’s last grasp of the fading day. It can be upsetting, tiring, and, frankly, inconvenient. But sometimes, the memories, the colors, the advanced onset adulthood that I didn’t ask for—sometimes they reveal just how many things in the world are, in fact, radiant.
Jonas chooses—spoiler alert—to take ownership of what he learns. He departs in search of people and places that reflect the truth he now knows—he goes looking for the brightness in the world, afraid, but trusting that it’s out there, because he’s seen it, as well as its opposite, in the gift of the memories. It’s just a working theory, but I think this is how you make your life when you’ve walked through that unceremony of death, when you see that unbidden color emerge to remind you of your history. You can claim what you’ve received, learn to recognize the glimmer of this willful, complex shade, and you can go looking for the brightness in the world.
About the painter: Eric Sorensen is a medical student and artist who loves painting, drawing, and photography. After college he studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. Image: Painting, acrylic medium and fabric dye on panel (2014), part of a series exploring the movement of translucent colors. Find more of his work at ericsorensen.com.
Evocative. Ovitt has the beautiful, rare gift of painting a picture with her words, blended with the insight of “an old soul.”
This is so beautiful, Nell, and your imagery so vivid. I love “the Giver,” and I love that you choose to look for the brightness in the world, even after surviving such a tragic loss.
Thank you Nell. This spoke with deep wisdom to my personal journey of painful continual grief and rich beauty and joy.