She has no idea how much I admire her. What an honor it is to be in her company.
Therapists are supposed to be this bastion of objectivity. But sometimes it’s impossible. Sometimes I find myself an audience to something so profound, so human, so beautiful — well, I more or less stop what I’m doing, shut my mouth, gape and tremble. The Voices Within tap me on the shoulder and pose the incredulous, wry, rhetorical question: “They give you money for this, Steven?”
“We had the kind of marriage that other people wish for,” she says.
Her husband is dead. Eight months now. After 46 years of marriage. One minute he was lining up a drive on the second tee; next minute he was dead. That’s how it is for human beings. Sometimes people just die.
So, for a while, she was “fine and busy.” That’s what grieving people do in our culture. “Keeping busy, doing fine.” And so it goes. The folly of the damned. It’s a strategy that lasts on average plus or minus six months. Followed by The Collapse.
The Collapse can come in any of several forms. Crippling depression. Acting-out behaviors. Drinking. Drugging. Gambling. Feeling crazy. Acting crazy. Raging. Self-destruction. Suicidal ideation, or its “kissin’ cuzzin”: “I wish I wasn’t alive.”
Suddenly “busy” and “fine” stop working. And then they come for help. Or a loved one pretty much drags them in under protest.
She says it again: “We had the kind of marriage that other people wish for.” And then adds: “Oh, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes it was The Clash of the Titans.”
A smile blooms on my face even as I do battle with the lump swelling in my throat. I think of the Alanis Morissette song “Everything:”
You see everything/ You see every part/ You see all my light/ And you love my dark/ You dig everything of which I’m ashamed/ There’s not anything to which you can’t relate/ And you’re still here.
Yeah, that’s it. The outrageous, dear, dear paradox of great love affairs. The faults, the injuries, the injustices — even the unlovely stuff becomes part of the breathtaking bond. In a strange way, its strongest part.
We agree, her and I, that sometimes healing grief means accepting some things that will “always suck,” things that will never be entirely OK, parts of life that will always be an uneasy truce and a baleful coexistence, such as …
… sleeping alone. Grieving people will tell you that beds are h-u-g-e. Like lying on a raft in an endless ocean. That the night robs them of movement and details and easy distractions found in the waking hours. Deafening silence becomes an amphitheater for emptiness. Months later their hand or leg will still be reaching half-awake, searching for purchase with a slumbering mate … and finding nothing but rumpled bedclothes and air. And the grieving pilgrim wants to rage at every cell in her body: “Stop being surprised! I. Am. Alone. He is gone!”
The habits of love and flesh are the last to get the news about death.
… and eating. There isn’t a table small enough not to dwarf a setting for one. How to find the motive to cook for one? Few things are more uninteresting or flavorless than food divested of the symbol of love and relationship. So grieving pilgrims eat by rote: standing up, sitting in front of a chattering television … or not at all. They simply forget. Mealtime just slips their minds.
I listen, I guide, and help where I can. But she’s doing most of the work. Already she is weaving the legacy of this man’s love into a cloth of humble gratitude.
I think she’s the richest woman alive. I think only the most blessed and fortunate — not to mention courageous — people will ever be lucky enough to hurt this much.
You heard me. Suffering is the only possible outcome for choosing to breathe the rare air of a great love. Her tears are her honor. Her decision to endure is her husband’s legacy.
One last time she murmurs: “We had the kind of marriage that other people wish for.”
Oh, dear woman. Everybody wishes for it. Wishing is easy.
You found the wherewithal to choose it.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at skalas@ reviewjournal.com.