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Erin Cleary

  • Erin Cleary


Updated: Apr 19, 2022

When I lost my father one month ago today, it was not unexpected, but it was a surprise. I will save my tribute to the man for another day when I can do justice to his life from a less mournful place. Since grief is the order of the day, I hope you will read on to share a little of my own strange and magical experience over the last month.

Since November 11, it feels as though I have been living in a fever dream. It didn’t help that just days after our loss, we were all diagnosed with Covid and forced to spend the following few weeks in quarantine. It was among the strangest, most grievous times of my life as emotional and physical discomfort battled for my attention. My zombie-like state left my mind numb, unable to distinguish one reality from the other.

My dreams filled with flashes of childhood memories, hazy and disjointed images emerging from the shallow, disrupted sleep of illness. My mind at once pulled those shards of memories close, longing to piece them together, while my aching heart thrust them away to avoid the piercing pain of grief. Even wakefulness became a jumble of mismatched ideas. It was like looking into a kaleidoscope, mesmerized by the beauty of the colorful arrangement as the hand impulsively moves, and the colors shift within. What was visible will never appear the same way again. It’s gone. Forever.

I was not able to equate my experience of those weeks to a kaleidoscope until after they had passed. In those days, life was a confusing, painful, beautiful assortment of disorganized pieces. But then, a lovely and kind librarian I know recommended the middle grade novel Kaleidoscope by Brian Selznick. In describing it, she struggled to find just the right words, saying something like, “It’s about grief, but it’s not. It’s…beautiful. It may help you, but maybe not. You should read it. It’s about more than grief. I don’t know. It’s…”

Yes. She was exactly right. This book is all those things, and that nonspecific description helped me be patient through the tangled narrative until the pieces found enough connection to create something I have never experienced in any other work of literature. Selznick communicates everything I couldn’t as my opposing yet connected emotions manifested like lightening surges, cinematically illuminating the sky with anachronistic flashes of childhood memories and final moments.

Kaleidoscope is a collection of dreamlike scenes drifting on somber melancholy. It is about life, death, loss, grief, joy, friendship, beauty, and magic, revealed through 24 distinct chapters. Each short story is connected inextricably with the others as colors, words, emotions, and characters overlap mysteriously, confusingly. Then, when Selznick gives the reader more clues to what is happening, there is a tender, kaleidoscopic effect on the heart. That tiniest shift changed the pain and beauty of my own experience just like the gentle turn of a kaleidoscope changes what a viewer sees. This book is not about a kaleidoscope—it is a kaleidoscope.

As I read with the hazy head tilt of memory, connection and curiosity, I wondered how it was possible for Selznick to see into my mind, even though the images he created are ones I’ve never seen. What is this tribute to the universal experience of emotion he has offered as a gift to the grieving?

No, I didn’t truly understand it, and I don’t think that’s the point of it anyway. Here for the first time, it was as if a book completely understood me. There was something alive and breathing about it, like a sympathetic friend sitting beside me, gently and lovingly waiting for me to speak. This is a book that will resonate a million ways with a million readers, and perhaps differently for the same reader upon multiple readings.

I cannot offer this book a greater recommendation. Be prepared to be confused, but continue; let it embrace you and then toss you around until you ultimately come out changed. I now have my own copy of the book and plan to read it again and again until the grief parts speak to me less and I begin to feel the comfort of the healing parts. Then maybe a few more times after that. Who knows what magic there will be then.

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