The frogs were in full symphonic mode as I walked through the arroyo on Thursday evening.
It was the first warm day this year — warm enough that we could have the windows open in the evening. A soft breeze drifted down on me as I lay in bed, descending on me like a fine mist.
This is the other side of spring — the one that heralds the coming of summer.
On Wednesday, we had dinner with Tom’s college friend, whose wife had died the week before. They had been together forty years. We hadn’t known she was ill. It all happened very quickly. Diagnosed in early February with an advanced cancer, options quickly ran out. She was ready to exit, she told him, the day before she died. He spent the last two weeks of her life by her bedside, holding her hand, providing comfort care as her life ebbed in the final days.
On Thursday, after I returned from my walk in the arroyo, Tom and I listened to Vaughn Williams’ Third Symphony as we ate dinner, the music providing a cushion for the intimacy born of the fresh awareness that one of us could be the one left behind.
Yet, we were grateful.
I remembered a Russian skater who at 28 years old collapsed and died from a congenital heart defect as he practiced with his 24-year old wife. They had been thrown together when he was 14, and she 10, fallen in love, got married, had a child, and skated together. The kind of skating that is ballet on ice.
Their names were Sergei Grinkov and Ekaterina Gordeeva. She was an Olympic champion, and together they were four time World Champions in pair skating.
About a year after his death, the professional figure skating community paid Sergei tribute with a televised show titled, “Celebration of a Life.” She performed the routine she and Sergei had been practicing the day he died. It was beautiful, but I remembered thinking that something was missing. Perhaps, I thought, she wouldn’t be as powerful on her own – that she had spent so many years being part of a duo, that she didn’t have the chops to be a solo skater.
Then, she performed her solo piece to the Adagietto section of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in tribute to her husband. The power of her grace and beauty was unquestionable. And I understood that what had been missing from the routine she and Sergei had been practicing, was Sergei. What a brave woman she is, I thought, out there in front of a live audience showing us what it means to lose the man she loved and with whom she had spent half her short life.
The phantom limb that is grief.
I had a conversation about God recently with a woman who had lost a child. She wept because, she said, God loves us in spite our being human. I wanted to scream at her, “No! God is in awe of our being human, of our willingness to love even though we might have to endure loss.”
Loss is the price for loving, yet we love anyway. If we’re smart, we don’t hold back.
Our friend recounted to us the first time he saw his wife. She passed by him, dressed in a blue velvet miniskirt and blouse. He turned his head to enjoy the view. Just before she left the room, she turned her head and smiled at him, letting him know that she noticed that he noticed.
Forty years later he was with her as she left the room, the visual not as enticing as the day he watched her sashay by in her miniskirt. It’s not easy to watch someone leave her body behind. And yet, love compelled him to be there with it.
Most of us at some time, and many of us many times, have to dance solo the dance we planned on dancing with another. Even if the relationship was troubled, there is the palpable sense of something missing for which we need to learn a new dance.
It’s what it is to be human.
We owe it to each other to recognize this very fundamental vulnerability of our lives. We owe it to each other to have this recognition be at the core of the debate about entitlements, so that when death does come to claim us, we can leave with dignity, and those we leave behind can find a gentle clearing in which they can endure the price of loving.
Robert Kennedy, when he delivered the news of Martin Luther Kings’ death to a mostly African American crowd in an Indianapolis ghetto, quoted Aeschylus, “In our sleep, pain which we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
He concluded with this, “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”