Over the past week I have caught myself repeatedly muttering, “La vita e’ triste.” You see, my Roman mother-in-law Anna is visiting for the month of June. Over the years, despite Anna’s broken English and my inability to speak Italian, the two of us have forged a means of communication that works. Sometimes we speak through silence. Most times I lean on Anna to translate whatever she wants to say into English, and, on rare occasions, I shamelessly attempt to articulate complete thoughts in Italian.
Despite Anna’s joy over seeing us, there is always an undertone of sadness to her visits. Her son and her grandchildren live in the United States; she lives in Italy. Piergiorgio left Italy almost twenty years ago and has not returned home. He will likely never return to Italy, at least not permanently. He is American now. His children are American. And, while I am blessed to have him, his mother has suffered greatly. Piergiorgio’s mother and father (who we lost far too early) were wonderful parents. They gave him and his brother beautiful childhoods. They were good and loving parents who placed their children above all else, and yet that was not enough to keep my husband with them. Piergiorgio’s is an adventurous spirit. There was something that called him here. Unfortunately, with my happiness, came Anna’s sufferance. Where there is great joy there is also great pain. Such is life. La vita e’ triste.
I am so puzzled by life. Recently my son inquired, “Mommy, why is God a bully?” He continued, “You know Mommy. Why does he let us love people and then take them away? Why?” I have noticed that Jack has been preoccupied with aging. My father, who will turn seventy within the next couple of weeks, is Jack’s best friend. He and my mother also suffer from Parkinson’s disease. This weighs heavily upon my son. Jack knows that we do not live forever. He cannot reconcile himself with the fact that, while we were gifted with the capacity for incredible love, those we love will be taken from us. Why? I was caught off guard. How do you answer that? How was I to answer that? I responded, “Don’t worry Jack, we are all reunited in Heaven with those we love.” But Jack does worry. I worry. What is the point? Why would a benevolent God allow, nay…create, such a painful life? We are born; we love, we rejoice; we suffer; we lose; we die. La vita e’ triste.
Of course, there is great, unbearable, catastrophic sufferance, and then there is the gentle sadness of living. I wouldn’t dare to even venture into the topic of the former. That I cannot even begin to comprehend. I am talking about the small things we all suffer as part of the natural course of life. As young children, we are forced to ride the tides of life. We change schools and say farewell; we move to new homes and say farewell; we lose grandparents and say farewell. As young adults we move away from family and say farewell. As parents, we devote our lives to our beloved children and then release them into the world, only to be left empty and alone. We continue to say farewell. As elderly, we say farewell to friends and spouses. We witness ourselves become obsolete even as we continue to live and breathe. La vita e’ triste.
And all the while, despite all this sadness, we rejoice. Babies are born; friendships are formed; lovers are wed; beautiful music is created, delicious food is consumed. We laugh heartily. We enjoy sunrises and sunsets. We cradle our infants and cuddle our children. We sing. We dance. We enjoy this beautiful life. So how is it that life can be so, so sad? This is the great paradox of living.
I think of one of my favorite pieces of music, Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa. It is a work full of silences, silences which fill the listener with anticipation and excitement. These silences are followed by the intensely beautiful and melancholy strains of the violin. The violins pulse like metronomes, speaking the language of love and passion as they count down time. Everything is finite. All must end. The music tells us so. The end of the first movement of Tabula Rasa, entitled “Ludus,” is so dark and forbidding that I almost cannot bear to listen. And then, like angels whispering from the heavens, the second movement, “Silentium” begins. And it is peaceful and sad. As I listen, I picture a lover cradling his dead beloved, all the while, angels sing the sad song of finality and eternity.
After listening to Tabula Rosa, I feel more human, happier, sadder, more complete and more understanding. Perhaps that is the point. To understand this life, with all of its joy and sufferance, we must view it and listen to it, as we view and listen to a work of art. We must be detached, apart from, yet fully emerged. We must understand and embrace life’s intrinsic sadness. We grow old. We love. We lose. We laugh. We cry. We live. This is life. Such is life. In our final act, we die and others lose and suffer. La vita e’ triste.
Yet, there is beauty in our delicate frailty. Joy, sadness and loss is part of our human condition. In order to appreciate this life we must observe it, as if lying supine under the surface of water, and watch life unfold above, knowing we are hopeless as the currents move us in directions beyond our control. In our hopelessness, we relinquish control and cherish all of it. Life is wondrous. Life is beautiful. Life is sad. La vita e’ triste.