After an unusually wet spring and a strong windstorm, a 40-foot oak tree fell in our front yard. We were able to find a tree guy nearby to cut it up and haul it away, and even grind the stump that same day. To the neighbor walking her dog, or the occasional visitor from across town, it appears now as if the tree never existed. When they look at the front of the house, it is missing. But they don’t know it. When I look at the front of the house, I feel an emptiness because it once stood proud and sturdy.
My heart aches in a way that theirs cannot. It’s not just that something is not there…it was and now it’s not. It is missing in a way that differentiates a hole from a blank space. Or the absence of a grand tree versus the decision to never have planted one. This unusual longing, this ache, has a special word for it. It is saudade.
Saudade is a term often found in the literature and music of Brazil and Portugal. Like many rich words, it has no English equivalent. This word came to life in the 15th Century when Portuguese ships sailed to Africa and Asia to open trade routes. Wives, children, and elderly parents stayed behind and suffered a strange sadness for those who departed into the unknown. Some voyagers disappeared in shipwrecks, others died in battle, many simply never returned. The family fragment shouldered a constant feeling that something big was missing from their lives, a yearning for the presence of the loved ones who had sailed.
Saudade has been described, perhaps best, as the presence of absence.
It is more than something being missing or absent. Like the impression left in a lump of clay, it bears the distinct mark of something that was, but no longer is. Saudade is the moment you realize how important people are in your life, but also the moments you have not fully lived with them. It is remembering your sailed husband or son, feeling the emptiness, and knowing nothing else can fill it. Even more strangely, the absence is a presence in your soul that you treasure. As a wound that aches to remind you of something precious that is gone, you welcome the hurt to remember the joy.
I have felt saudade for many things on this journey: my energy, my security, the chance for the heavy cloud to lift even for a day, my ability to plan for the future. Others experience this longing for the distant and the unreachable with even heavier hearts: for children taken too young, for marriages lost to carelessness, for lives dissolved into poor decisions. We all know this mysterious missing.
The evidence of my saudade is not a physical hole or an empty imprint. It is a piece of hardware. A metal box protruding from my chest that threatens, at any time, to knock me off my feet to keep me alive. The subtle ache reminds me of what has been, the limitation-less life I once had. The presence of that box reminds me of the absence of my naïve security. But in classic saudade fashion, I welcome that ache. I do have a hole representing losses, as we all do. But without those craters, those rude potholes, we may have sped through life and missed the important scenes. The scenes where God shows up.
Just days before my surgery, I wrote in my journal:
Reality of the surgery is setting in. I haven’t begun to process this on so many levels:
- Surgery, by definition, hurts. I don’t like flesh wounds.
- I will have a foreign object in my body for the rest of my life, and it will stick out of my chest and be very visible so I will be reminded of that every day of my life.
- This device is notorious for giving “inappropriate shocks,” or going off when it doesn’t need to. 30% of people who get one develop anxiety disorder.
- This is the last resort, as the doctor said, “last card we have to play” before transplant. I’m scared more than anything that it won’t help me.
God did show up, and in a big way. My improvement was much grander than anyone anticipated. But it is not a cure. I still have heart failure. I still have that hole and that dreaded device. The ache reminds me of what was lost, and some of it was for the better. I lost my security, but I found trust. I lost my wholeness, but I found a strange joy in the brokenness.
We all suffer from saudade, as we sail through this dangerous life, and allow others to voyage on without us. The presence of the absence is both painful and comforting. Like the majestic oak or the grand life plan, we knew it once, we remember it, and we passionately miss it. But as Christians, we know eternity is here and when our existence takes a sharp turn at the edge of this life, we will fully know and experience God, and finally have our saudade satisfied.