Climbing Through the Crayon Box, Searching for Saudade.


My wife is dead. An unknown heart problem in her 40s. The shock of her sudden death has sent me digging through crayons trying to identify my emotions.

Blue Denim holds my cold, clenched fists of anger. Royal Purple radiates the bruise that oozes under my skin. I like green, so I draw each green crayon across the paper, but none calm me like being in Yosemite. Shamrock is too bright. Granny Smith Apple too warm. Forest Green comes close — grainy and gray like grief.

The colors of sorrow are the primaries. They’re also a thousand shades. They take me to the edge of what should have been, if she had been allowed to live. I color the hard sky Steel Blue because I no longer believe the True Blue crayon. I color the earth Rojo Oscuro and Maroon because it’s stained with the blood of my dead.

In the left corner I swirl three dark colors — Timberwolf Gray, Silver, and Black — but my darkness is different. It’s Pewter. Charcoal. Midnight Slate, and they don’t make those crayons. When a person dies, life is reduced to colors without form, the tohu va vohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ) of Genesis, the chaos before there was light, but I feel no assurance that light will return.

I color outside the lines because grief has erased the boundaries of polite. Destroyed my belief in cause and effect. People say, “Work hard. Follow the rules, and happiness will come.” That curtain in Oz has been yanked down. Compassionate people die. Hateful, greedy, pompous people don’t. At least, not often enough.

Crayons do not speak of ethics, only emotions. They don’t say she wasn’t supposed to die. They don’t say the doctor missed something. They don’t say the paramedics messed up and didn’t restart her heart soon enough, which is what they are trained to do. Isn’t it?

People say, “She’s dead. You have to move on.” They’re right, in time. But her death was wrong and I am not going to accept it. I will never be okay with it, and I will carry this anger the rest of my life. But somehow I will learn to live with it. Color me Cantankerous Cardinal.

I am a bucket of emotions, swept along in a flood that surges from one feeling to the next, and I can’t control them. I am Vicious Violet. I am Raging Red. I am the Buffaloed Blues.

What is the color of loneliness? What is today’s shade of despair?

I have been broken by something I cannot see or name. This is deeper than melancholy. It’s the Portuguese saudade, of desperately longing to reach out and touch her hand once more. Hug her warm body close. See love for me shining in her eyes. But she is never coming back, and I fear that if I look in too deep, I will find that only emptiness is left.

What crayon is going to color that?

I try every crayon in my box of 96. My paper is a rat’s nest of colored streaks and swirls. While the crayons have helped identify what I’m feeling, they aren’t helping me dream of what comes next.

I create my own colors, and find hope in the wonder of Impossibly Peach. The iridescent sheen of Indigo Bunting. The passion of Totally Mad Magenta. The delightful shiver of Elusive Moonbeams.


MarkLiebenowMark Liebenow writes about grief for the Huffington Post. His essays, poems, and reviews have been published in journals like Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry, Citron Review, Swink, Crab Orchard, DMQ Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. The author of four books, he has won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, and the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay awards. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and named a notable essay by Best American Essays 2012. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. You could contact Mark via his website.


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