A few months ago I wrote here about spending time with my seriously ill husband, and my experience of coming to terms with the end of a love that had been everything to me.
It took years to accept that love was over, and what I eventually took from that lonely, arid time was painful instruction on the power of human attachment.
When I visited A last year, desperately ill after a massive stroke, unable to speak coherently and only intermittently recognising me, our life together did indeed parade itself before my eyes, and I laid many things to rest as I sat for weeks beside his bed, holding his hands while he struggled to tell me he loved me and always would.
The miracle was, that after everything that went wrong we did still love each other. I wasn’t altogether surprised to find that in me, because I am very bad at endings. The life may no longer be a shared one, but something in me, deep in my belly, refuses to entirely let go of the love. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing, it just is. So I can look at someone I loved years ago and think oh, yes, I loved you and oh yes, the ending was hard and I hated you for a while, and oh yes, though I don’t want to do anything about it and my life has changed, still there is tenderness, and gratitude for what we knew together.
Grief is an altered state. It can take you by surprise, long after you think you’ve done with it. It becomes less wild, less consuming as time passes. It can take on a sorrowful tenderness that for all its softness, still wrenches the heart. Grief can be triggered unexpectedly, long after you think you’re done with it, and you find yourself needing to hide away while you work out what has suddenly gone wrong with your breathing, and why out of nowhere you badly want to cry.
For example, I walked into a room today where someone was playing Mendelssohn’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, #2 in D Major. I listened to this Sonata, along with the Brahms #1 in F, during a very rough period in my marriage, during the last of many journeys A and I made together, down the Mekong, through Laos. I’ve heard both many times since, of course, but never without some emotion, the power of which has lessened over time. Yet today, for reasons I can’t explain, I heard the familiar first movement as if I was back on that long boat, sitting on my backpack beside A, both of us silenced by the misery of knowing it was too late for this journey or any other journey together, and neither of us able to end it.
I don’t have a list of things I want to do before I die. At times I think, vaguely, of travelling to places I’ve never been because it would be excellent to leave the earth having seen as much of it as possible. At times I think I want to go back to the place where I was born one more time, because every time I return to that North Yorkshire country I feel a primitive and powerful sense of belonging that I have never felt anywhere else.
But lately I’ve been thinking that these things come a poor second to love, in all its frequently unexpected and varied manifestations, and it’s likely love that tops my bucket list.
Today my friend said, there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship is there? There is, I said, after a while. The perfect relationship is the one where you care enough to bother struggling through the shitty bits and find you still want to stay in it. The perfect relationship is the one where you don’t want to struggle through the shit, and you have the decency and the courage to leave before you cause anymore damage to yourself and the other. Love is required for both. Isn’t it?
Today I re-learned that nothing ends when you think it has. This annoys me, because I don’t live easily with loose ends. Somewhere along the way I’ve got it into my head that one must have “closure,” resolution, well-defined endings in order to move onto anything new. But actually, I’m coming to think that’s crap. My life is a chaos of ongoing love of varying kinds and depths, and I can’t think how to tidy up any of it. Perhaps I don’t have to? Perhaps instead I must learn to live with the disorder of a functioning human heart? Perhaps for years to come I will unexpectedly feel grief for my husband, for my dead mother, for my friend, for everyone I’ve loved and will love, with various degrees of complexity and difficulty, success and failure.
There is a human being. There is love. That is all.