In her new book Lost & Found, Pulitzer Prize–winning essayist Kathryn Schulz comes to an understanding similar to the rabbi’s: the experience of grief and sadness and the experience of love and joy always happen at the same time, even when we are not fully aware of how much they are connected. In her lyrical and deeply thoughtful memoir, Schulz recounts the emotional confluence of grieving for her father following his death and falling in love with a woman, whom she soon married.
Schulz’s title, Lost & Found, establishes the structure of the three-part memoir. In “Lost,” the book’s first section, the author expresses her resistance to euphemisms for dying such as “passing away.” Such metaphoric language, she feels, “turns away from death’s shocking bluntness” and instead “chooses the safe and familiar over the beautiful or evocative.” Despite her rejection of such evasive language, she finds herself turning to one particular phrase after her father dies: “I have lost my father.” The idea of losing a loved one rang true to Schulz. As she writes, these particular words “seemed plain, plaintive, and lonely, like grief itself.”
Schulz spends much of the “Lost” section exploring not the details of her father’s death or her own grieving, but the multiple meanings of the word “lost.” She first recounts its etymology, discovering that the word emerged from the Old English verb meaning “to perish.” For Shulz, “to lose” has “its taproot sunk in sorrow.” Over time, the word “lost” began to take on a wider variety of usages. We can lose our keys or lose a game. We can be lost in thought, or lost in a book. And we can lose our minds and lose our hearts.
As Schulz begins her intensely logical analysis of the word’s implications in various circumstances, the reader might be tempted to wonder if the author’s riff into these abstractions is simply its own kind of evasiveness — another way of looking away rather than reading the words in the pocket filled with grief. But Schulz’s intellectual meditation on the language of loss is not an effort to pivot away from pain. Instead, it is an effort to open grief up to a larger and deeper kind of engagement.
Schulz returns to her family’s story with a broadened perspective. Long after the family’s decision to stop treatment and begin hospice, Schulz comes to the awareness that part of her loss was that “everything that happened in my life from that point on would be something else my father would not see.” That is, the loss she felt most acutely was that she knew she and her father would no longer be able to share in an ongoing life together. He would not see whatever might be newly found.
Schulz experienced intense grief at the loss of her father, but “one thing above all others made it bearable,” she says: “[T]he year before he died, I fell in love.” So begins the early pages of the book’s second section, “Found,” which details how Schulz initially fell in love with C. and how their relationship grew. These scenes are full of sweet romance, starting with the story of how, shortly after their first meeting, her mind underwent a “life-altering reorganization” as she imagined their future together. Next, she gives her account of an evening stroll during an early date: “I can still remember the exact route we took,” writes Schulz, “and also the wending way we walked, now closer and now farther, the shifting amount of space between us suddenly uppermost in my mind.” She recounts the magic of making pancakes together in the middle of the night, and the morning’s reality of seeing her new partner settling down with a mug of coffee and a legal pad to start her work day. In its own way, this everyday scene was equally magical: “[T]here she was, going about her life in my home,” realizes Schulz, “going about her life in my life.”
Just as Schulz does in the previous section, in “Found” she considers the variety of meanings and usages of the word that makes up the section’s title. She analyzes the difference between finding that is recovery and finding that is discovery. “Recovery essentially reverses the impact of loss. It is a return to the status quo, a restoration of order to our world,” she explains. “Discovery, by contrast, changes our world. Instead of giving something back to us, it gives us something new.”
Unlike in the first section, however, in the book’s second part Schulz has a constant awareness of how grief is always waiting for her in her other pocket. “Lost” and “found” are opposing concepts, just as grieving and falling in love are, yet both change our perception of our place in the world: “What an astonishing thing it is to find someone. Loss may alter our sense of scale, reminding us that the world is overwhelmingly large while we are incredibly tiny,” writes Schulz. “But finding does the same; the only difference is that it makes us marvel rather than despair.”
The stunning final section of the memoir is a description of what lies for Schulz between grief and joy, between what is lost and what is found: the symbol of union the author uses in the middle of her title, “&.” She points out that until almost the 20th century, the end of the English alphabet was not the letter Z but the ampersand symbol. When schoolchildren recited the alphabet, it was the last symbol they pronounced. “And” is not an ending, writes Schulz; it is a word that leaves us hanging, waiting for what is yet to come.
Schulz finds a series of deeply touching ways to honor and celebrate both the conjunction and continuity that her entwined experiences of losing and finding love have shown her. Life, she realizes, is clearest in the forward-moving union that “and” promises: that moment when we’re alive with both grief and joy, both the knowledge that we are nothing and the awareness that the world is waiting for us. This gorgeous memoir is heartbreaking and restorative all at once.
Hannah Joyner is a freelance critic and an independent historian. She is the author of Unspeakable (with Susan Burch) and From Pity to Pride.