Bringing to Mind: Endings
"Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more."
~ Virginia Woolf
On a balmy, rainy day In early December I met a friend in the city for our annual holiday lunch. When the waiter brought two miniature glasses of port to the table I was transported back to a day I'd shared this Portuguese treat with a man I used to love. A man who after three years of togetherness drove three hundred miles to tell me the relationship was over, the distance between Maine and New York too difficult to navigate.
Not his usual relaxed, happy-to-be-there self that last evening, he stepped out of his car, stiff-bodied, guarded, hurried to the living room wrapping himself inside the wide wings of his favourite chair. My body told me there would be words I wouldn't want to hear - "I can't do this anymore".
"No need to discuss it...", he said, "...I've made up my mind." That was it. An abrupt, heart-chilling break with nothing more to say.
In the 6 years following that ending, sounds of conversations shaped in words of love repeated in my mind - shared laughter, promises uttered and plans made - inescapable, relentless memories I couldn't shake. Two people, seemingly so similar, now without knowing. We had the same love for long walks in the woods, both grateful guardians of hunting dogs, each the owner of a beloved Volvo wagon. We read poetry aloud, preferred red wine, loved and practiced photography, gardening, cooking, fixing things that were broken and piling up twigs and tree limbs thrown to the ground in dark Maine storms. Long talks quieted only by sleep continued uninterrupted in morning light. Our signatures were impossible to tell apart. Our energy high, our love of life ready for the surprises and gifts of each new day. Two people who believed in love.
I understand the healing effects of time, the benefits of distraction and living well and deliberately, but when it was over, when sadness and regret persisted, the only thing that helped was to replace those echoing, loving words with memories of the other side of who this man was - the man whose critical, dismissive remarks took me by surprise, cut to the quick, changing my inner landscape of joy and warmth to one of uncertainty and vigilance. Recalling the hurtful memories was the fuel I needed to push aside the despair of longing and regret. I wrote a list of hurtful things he'd said and mailed it to myself, "To Be Read When You're Feeling Sentimental".
When memories grew too large, reading it aloud brought me back to the work of reconstructing the life I'd known before.
When we were together I saw my ability to overlook the negatives as a kind of resilience, a willingness to commit, acceptance of the flaws we all carry..."No one is perfect, certainly not me"; I would say. "Look at the big picture", "He's basically a good man...", etc. But, critical remarks have a way of eroding trust, turning the vulnerability needed for intimacy into caution. By the time he announced his leaving, negative comments, especially those about my appearance, had begun chipping away at my confidence.
On the day of the Christmas lunch I was past the hurt and anger, freed of the disappointment, left only with the good. Reminders of something once special would show up every now and again, this time sparked by a tiny glass of red wine. Traveling home, filled with cheery holiday sentiment, I sent a note to the old love telling him about the port, wishing him Merry Christmas.
Before this man, there was always something positive left over from past relationships, lingering feelings of warmth, recognition of a time in two lives that mattered for the time that was. This was different...a coldness I'd never known, the intensity of the relationship matched by the intensity and certainty of its conclusion. So, I expected no response to my holiday message, and that was o.k. My spirits wouldn't be dampened.
Early one morning in February his name was there in my inbox. As I began reading, the words seemed wrong, off, too strange, jagged and jumping everywhere on the page - "...a severe deterioration of health". Was this a mistake? Was this from someone I didn't know...had it been mixed up with his email address? His name...? This man whose identity was one with strength and stamina and good looks, this man who rode bikes, ran marathons, climbed mountains, lifted weights and crossed the icy peaks of western mountains, was now "...in need of care 18 hours a day". I was frozen. How could this be?
A million thoughts darting about - memories of things said, questions, an urgent need to understand..what was he saying? Strangely, in the midst of confusion, I remembered how critical he'd been of others less strong, less vital, less fit - others whose bodies were less than perfect. All at once, all together, pictures and memories of someone whose life was all about the best possible habits of health, demanding physical activity, excellent diet, were blurred by words I couldn't grasp - "...severe health problem". This can't be.
I carefully worded a note asking if we could talk by phone...would he be willing? I had to hear his voice, I had to make sense of what he was saying. He agreed.
In that call I learned that a year earlier when his limbs began to weaken, he met with specialists who told him he was likely suffering from the effects of ALS. By the time we spoke he couldn't lift his arms or walk.
The words, "I can't even make myself a cup of coffee", swirled with visions of him in his cottage on cool Maine mornings. There he was, eagerly packing a thermos of freshly brewed coffee and buttered toast he would carry in a bag through the woods to a bench he'd placed on the bay ridge at the foot of his land. Now, in his orange baseball cap, watching the tides signalling it was time to search for clams, or capture the misty landscape in his camera, or swim across to the deserted beach on the far side of the water.
On that call, I heard something familiar - "I can't do this anymore." No discussion. A clean break. Things no longer useful must end.
I felt more awkward than at any time in my life. What do you say - really say - to someone who can barely move, someone saying this is not life, no way to live...what stupid, cheery uplifting words do you use? "Maybe you'll improve"..."Maybe they'll find a cure..." - "Find joy in what is..." - thoughts running through my mind, stayed in my mind. I couldn't pretend. I could only listen. I could only breathe, just enough for him to hear me, to let him know I was there, to know I would witness but do nothing to change what he was thinking.
He ended the call softly, whispering the last shared words I hear in quiet moments... "I'm sorry things didn't work out."
Last week I received another email. This time from his daughter, telling me her father took his life under a Maine law allowing death with medical supervision.
A different kind of ending. No more emails to myself, no anger to struggle against. Memories that will always be. And as long as they are, there will be no true ending. I move forward, grateful for having known this man who brought me to love, a man who made me mad, made me laugh, a wild, enthusiastic, energetic, life-loving man who fertilized my soul with a mixture of joy and sorrow.
The way of the first ending was charged by the fragility and pride of ego. Death has taken its force, silenced and stilled its intrusions.
Fly high, my friend.
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