Monday, May 06, 2019

Everlasting Love and the Meaning of Life

Ok, y’all get ready for some really heavy stuff.  This is the real deal.  Meaning of life and all that. Seriously.  Now maybe y’all don’t think I’ve got what it takes to talk about that.  But you’ve all heard me say, just about forever, “This is the romance of the century.  I just don’t have time to write the book.”  Well, here it is.  Distilled.  The essence of why that works, how it happens, what makes it real.  And it’s not that Larry and I were so special (of course, though, we were and we are, but so are you) it’s just that we took care to recognize what was happening, while it was happening.  We paid attention.  We took note.  We gave credence to it, and treated it with care, with the reverence it deserves.

And you’re still reading, so you’re asking yourself what this ‘it’ might be.  It’s love, of course.  Isn’t everything?  But that’s such a general term, used in every hackneyed greeting card sentiment.  It’s selflessness, giving.  Ditto.  It’s not going to be summed up in a word.  I have to tell you about us.

Larry was diagnosed as a teenager, with a terminal disease.  That is, he was told he only had a short time to live.  He was 14 years old, and told he would not survive his teens.  By the time I met him, at 33, he’d had surgery to remove one lung, had been in and out of the hospital and told he was dying every single year since.  So when he asked me to marry him, I was faced with the daunting prospect of marrying a dying man.  Told you.  Heavy stuff.  It didn’t take a lot of convincing, though, that whatever time I could have with him would be better than skipping the sad part. (I had no inkling, then, what being a widow meant.  The sad part, indeed.) And frankly, I was 29 years old, and that’s not a particularly bright age –apologies to twenty somethings everywhere, I promise, each decade will bring its own enlightenment – so I had a youthful point of view.  If I was only going to have Larry five years, I imagined I would have Larry, exactly as he was, for five years, and then I would not.  That’s as far as my mind stretched.  I didn’t fully understand his disease, although to be fair, neither did the medical community, but deterioration wasn’t part of my thought process.

And miraculously, thankfully, I had that man for thirty years.  Three entire decades.  And we spent the first decade dealing with that prognosis, battling it like an enemy, fending it off, and raising children and having careers and making a life the same as every couple in their thirties does.  We battled each other, too, and emotions ran high – love and anger and laughter and sorrow – and somehow, we came out the other side, children reared, careers settled, and the next twenty years took shape in the mountains.  I was running a bed and breakfast, and taking care of Larry.  At first, he was helping, now and then.  But progressively, he just could not.  Others filled the roles he’d once held.  Handyman.  Photographer.  He became more and more housebound and as a result, so did I.

And through it all, I was sure I was the most pampered, spoiled wife on the planet.  And Larry was sure he was the lucky one.  You hear that, now and then, in a particularly successful marriage.  I want to tell you what it means.  In my case, it means I was married to a wonderful man, with whom I was head over heels in love, and he had only a short time to live.  For me, that meant that every decision was based on making sure that he had the richest experiences.  That his dreams all came true.  If he wanted something, it became my quest to obtain it.  If I overheard him mention something he would enjoy, it became my quest to make sure it happened.  In time, every decision I made was based on making sure that Larry had the absolute most wonderful life possible.  And of course, without having any idea it was unfolding that way –something I’ve only learned in hindsight- I was making sure I had the same.

Because, you see, Larry was doing the exact same thing for me.  He knew he only had a short time, so he wanted to make the most of it.  And for him, making the most of it meant being in love with me.  How do I know that?  Because he told me all the time.  All.  The.  Time.  Every single day.  We had a little ritual of toasting every day.  With wine glasses, with coffee cups, with cheetos or the remote controls.  Didn’t matter.  The thing was, we had to look each other in the eyes and mean it.  Even on the crappy days.  That’s not always easy, folks.  But we did it.  So yes, I knew he loved me completely.  And he knew I loved him.  That wasn’t ever in question.

Over time, this developed into a giving relationship, and I mean everything was a gift.  Everything I did was a gift to Larry.  And everything he did was a gift to me.  I never sat a plate of food in front of that man that he didn’t light up and say, “Wow!” Ok, now and then it was with humor, but he always followed it up with a thank you.  And for most of our lives together, Larry cooked, a lot!  And received the same accolades and the same thanks.  Whoever cleaned the kitchen got thanked.  Hang up the clothes from the dryer?  Thank you!  Make iced tea, you are so wonderful.  Take out the trash, oh gosh thanks.  Bring me ice water, you are a blessing.  Because each of these was treated as a gift, by the giver and the recipient.  And when your focus is on giving the one you love gifts throughout the day and throughout the years, there is no time to focus on what you don’t have, whether that is time or energy or things.  You’re far too focused on love.

And there you are.  Together. 
“I’m the spoiled one.” 
 “No, I am.” 
 And while making Larry’s dreams come true, I accidentally made myself this magical life.  And he made his magical life making my dreams come true.  When every single thing that you receive all day long is a gift from the one you love, it gets pretty easy to live a life of gratitude. 

Think about that for a moment. 

When everything you receive all day long is a gift from the one you love…


Sunday, March 24, 2019

A Singular Pilgrimage

I’m pretty sure we live this life in the singular.  We come into it alone, we go out alone, and we live all the in-between alone.  That’s not to say we don’t have company.  Family, friends, community, humanity, it’s all there.  Around us.  With us, even.  But you do live in your own head.  Alone.  (Except for that nagging, incessant voice that won’t shut up, especially when you’re trying to fall asleep, but even that’s just you.)  And while we make this journey in the singular, we do find companions to share the trip, to walk alongside us, and there is joy and satisfaction in that.

The plurality that comes with friendship and family and marriage, is more a one-plus-one than an equals-two.  Your singularity isn’t replaced with duality.  It’s paired with another’s singleness.  Finding your partner in life, your mate, your soulmate, will not relieve you of your oneness.  You walk your journey alongside that person.  And when you’re weary, he’ll stop beside you, and allow you to rest your head on his shoulder.  And when he is injured, you carry him.  And when there is joy, you dance!  But your journey is, daily: your journey.  Yours alone.  Each day, you decide to continue in the company of your mate.  Each day, albeit with a heavy price, you have the option to remove yourself from this pairing.  That’s the nature of the singular pilgrimage.

I don’t wish to discount that which is created by our pairings.  You plus me, my friend, we are more than just a pair, walking singly side by side.  We create a friendship, a relationship, love, and a shared history. Neither of us have that alone; it exists because we share this walk together.  And this phenomenon is why we seek others.  It’s why we search for our soulmates, why we forge friendships and alliances.

But what to do when your soulmate’s journey ends before yours… You aren’t gone.  You didn’t die.  Your pilgrimage did not come to an end.  You stop.  You rest.  You feel the great loss of that shoulder upon which to rest your weary head, the place you’ve become accustomed to resting.  And the one person you’ve relied upon to shore you up during difficult times, that’s the one who is gone.  The very one you need most to help you weather the loss, that’s the one who is missing, leaving only empty space beside you.  There you are, still on your path, still with a journey ahead of you.  You’ve lost more than a traveling companion.  You’ve lost more than your place of rest.  You’ve lost that which you created together: the friendship, the love, and the shared history is now only your memories.  It only lives in that voice in your head, talking to you as you try to fall asleep each night.  So much is gone.  So much.

And yet, you journey.  This isn’t a matter of choice.  Each on a singular pilgrimage, weaving in and out of each other’s paths, forging alliances, making a difference, love and hate, comfort and fear, good and bad, weaving our tapestry of individual threads.  Yours is blue and mine is yellow, and looking back from a great enough distance, we see green.  But we know.  In our hearts, we know.  Blue.  Yellow.

Time, life, it all goes on, even while we stand still in our paths and grieve, or rest… or dance, when we can.


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Farewell to Wendy Mills

How many thousands of times have I said, "Once you're my bride, you're always my bride!" I've meant it, too, every single time.  The brides that pass through these doors carry a bit of my heart away with them.  The grooms are my heroes, knights in shining armor, sweeping their darlings into their arms and taking them off on great adventures, as they Happily Ever After.

Today, Wendy and Ever After met face to face.  This woodland faerie sprite of a creature, joyful and loving, whisked into my life one October afternoon, and promised to love Blake for the rest of her life.  And so she did.  So she did.

And on this day, nearly a year after losing my own true love, I can offer no words of comfort to Blake.  I can say comforting things - of course. And I can give excellent advice, things that have helped heal my own heart.  I can say to him: find your gratitude, and live in it.  Search hard and dig deep, for the things that she meant to you, and hold them dear.  Be grateful.  Be thankful.  It will get you through.  And later, maybe, those words will help.  But not today.  Today is for the heart-wrenching gut punch of grief.  The relief to see her stop suffering.  The guilt for the relief.  And the overwhelming sorrow that drops you to your knees and makes you cry out in an unfamiliar voice.  Today is for sadness, and while I can't help with that, I can empathize. Sometimes, that's enough.

For Blake: I can offer you this.  I love the way she looked at you.  The way she lit up when you came into the room.  I saw her light up like that once when she was facing me, not you, and you came in behind her.  She knew you were there, and just glowed with pleasure.  It was the day she made us the turkey dinner at the Creek House.  The day she taught me to cook the turkey upside down, to keep it moist.  A day filled with laughter and newness and discovery and two couples head over heels in love with each other.  

I've married a lot of couples.  A lot!  And they're all in love and they're all promising Happily Ever After, but not all of them share what you had.  What you still have.  I saw a kindness and a tenderness in you that I doubt you shared with the rest of the world.  You didn't shine it on me, or on Larry.  But you lavished it on Wendy.  I saw it while you were in Maggie Valley.  I saw it again, over and over, when we went on the cruise.  

And I can give you one more thing: I don't know if this will fit into your world.  It does in mine.  I realized one day that just because Larry died, didn't mean I didn't love him any more.  So.  I'm a woman in love.  And being in love is a joyous thing.  Every so often, in those first moments, first days, first weeks after losing him, every so often, a little glimpse of the joy of loving him shone through.  Be watchful for them.  They will sustain you.

And always know that when you were gazing at her, your heart so full, she was doing the same.  If she can, I'm sure she still is.  I wish you peace, my friend.


Saturday, January 19, 2019

Shared Experiences

Ok, so this is enormous.  My esteemed and much admired son-in-law lives all the way out in California, three thousand miles and a couple of lightyears away from me, here in Central Florida.  We are separated by distance, states and rivers and mountains, time zones and the Continental Divide, age and gender and politics.  And yet I love him more than ice cream.  This fellow is dear to my heart.  And clearly, he loves my stepdaughter, because he stays married to her in spite of having two, count 'em two, -shall we say 'challenging'? mothers-in-law.  As it is with most parents, it is an ongoing thrill for me to watch them organize their lives into workaday and parenting and being a happily married couple, a vibrant part of their community and productive members of society.  We love to see our children thrive.  But I'd like to think that even if I'd never met them, I would admire these people.  The fact that my son-in-law enjoys my company is hugely satisfying, and I am grateful for it.

During my visit to them last fall, I stole away with said son-in-law to do a bit of necessary shopping (I needed something protective for the wine bottles I intended to transport in my luggage) and he chose the time to show me the sights.  We stopped into the Jack London Square 'First & Last Chance Saloon' est 1883, and sat at a rickety table on a crooked floor and tipped back a cold one.  Steeped in literary wonder, we talked about my book clubs back in North Carolina and Florida and he suggested, much to my surprise, that we two have our very own book club.  Just the two of us.  I was reeling, and it wasn't attributable to the architecture or the alcohol.  It was the notion that he'd be willing to share such an experience!  Reading a book at the same time, discussing chapters, talking about what the author must have been trying to convey and how it resonates with you, how it changes you (because books change you) is something that cements friendships and relationships in a way other things do not.  It is an intellectually intimate process.  And you know both yourself and your friend on a level not anticipated before you started.  So this.  This was big, all right.

I was delighted when he said we could begin with Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain.  It's a book I kept intending to read, but had not.  I was eager to begin, but you know how life is: it interferes with pretty much all your plans.  So here I am, months later, ready to start.

Meanwhile of course, there are those other two book clubs.  It's winter now, so I'm in the Florida club.  It's a long established group and they've been generous about including me.  The books are interesting, the process more formal than the fledgling Carolina group, but I enjoy both clubs for different reasons.  I've just gotten the next book for February in Florida.  It's a biography and not particularly interesting to me, but I'm sure once I start reading, it will capture my attention.  Biographies are like that - I enjoy them.  It's just not one I'd have chosen.  That's the beauty of a book club, you never know what you're going to get.

The Carolina book club chats online.  It's one of my favorite things about them.  It's very rarely about the books.  We save that for when the group gathers for discussion each month.  No, the online chat is typically very social.  We talk about our kids and household projects and the weather and vacations and share all sorts of silly memes, generally book related.  A woman recently shared a picture of a book cover with a moving story of reading that book to a sick friend.  The conversation was about the process of reading aloud to another person, and I was reminded how very much Larry enjoyed it when I'd read to him.  I never did read to him in the hospital.  When he was there, even for extended periods, even unconscious on life support, I never did read to him.  I just talked to him, as if everything was fine.  Rubbed his feet.  Combed his hair.  You know, stuff.  But not reading.  Now in hindsight, that would have been nice, too, but I have no regrets on this matter.  Conversation made it feel more normal, and more like he would wake up just fine, any moment.  So I didn't read to him there.

I read to Larry at home.  We started rather incidentally, on a long night-time drive.  We were on the highway, far from a city, and radio stations were sporadic and static filled.  Larry said, "I don't want to fall asleep.  How about finding something to read to me?"  And we had such a good time, I read whole books to him, on a regular basis.  It was way more fun than watching TV.  I'd read to him.  He'd rub my feet.  It was lovely.

So today, I finally got around to checking out Kitchen Confidential from the library.  I generally do this electronically, and read it on my iPad.  Today, two copies appeared on the screen: an ebook, and an audiobook.  Oh my.  I hadn't thought about getting an audiobook.  But those things are chopped up and never quite what the author intended.  And if you're reading, especially nonfiction, half the fun is trying to 'hear' the author as intended.  I noted the big red band across the audio version.  It said, "Unabridged!" And then, my breath caught in my throat, because underneath, in very small print, "Read by the author."  By the author.  By Anthony Bourdain.  Anthony Bourdain, who died last summer, who I'm never going to get a chance to meet in person, who I admired so much, who would not mind one bit that I'm not using 'whom' in this sentence...   Well.  I clicked on the audio version.

Bourdain is going to read me his book.  Himself.  I won't have to wonder which syllable or word he wanted to emphasize.  He'll be doing it.  Every nuance of what he wanted to convey is going to be given to me, like a gift.  Like he's talking, right to me.  Everything he wanted to tell, what he wanted me to know, he's going to say.  Like a book club with two members, just me and Tony.  Like a long lunch.  Like old friends.

And then, to share all of this with my son-in-law.  I'm blown away.  This is going to be the richest experience!  I couldn't wait to share it with you all.  Signing off, turning up the speakers, off I go, to Parts Unknown....