here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life…)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
In mid-October, I was sitting at the deathbed of my beloved, thinking about love. The man I’d known for 31 years, partnered for 27 of them, was slipping away. He wasn’t in pain. He was dying of acute kidney disease, a quiet death of exhaustion. His appetite had long disappeared. He was so thin his handsome face had sunk into its bones. His eyes were still deep blue when open, but already looking at another world.
He was the new minister at a neighborhood Presbyterian church when I met him on a September Saturday afternoon. I was checking out the church hall for an environmental meeting that I was chairing. George came bounding out of his secretary’s office. He was there working on his sermon — at the last minute — since his own office was such a mess. He had on a bright green sweater with a hole in the neck. He talked non stop. All details I was to become familiar with.
In no time he had elicited that I was an ex-Catholic, that I lived down the street, that I didn’t go to church but thought about it occasionally now that I had a little boy, that I valued the idea of a neighborhood church. But, I said, I’m prime Unitarian material. Wouldn’t you miss the Christology? he asked. Not at all, I said.
And yet I did end up at his church. He was the most exuberant human being I have ever met, a trait that would alternately enchant me and drive me mad for the next three decades. He was enthusiastic about everything — his work, his church, his friends, his family. He had a passion for the sea. He loved his boat. He loved sailing. He loved people, loved talking to everyone he met, ever promising and failing to ‘make a long story short.’
Everything was grist for enthusiasm. He relished dawn and was out early. He soon found out which of his parishioners was awake then, and called me at seven one morning. “I bring you glorious news,” he announced, in a tone that sparked visions of the end of world hunger or, at least, a trip to Paris. “We’re starting on the handicap ramp today.”
I enjoyed all this energy but was happy to be buffered from it by friendship. When we realized after a few years that we were in love I was disappointed. I thought it would ruin our friendship, would bring complications in its wake.
Which of course it did. Lots of them. Love is not easy. Or, perhaps, love is easy but living it is complicated. Certainly it seemed easy for him. He loved love and brought all that exuberance to day to day loving. I was so moved by this. My mother had suffered from depression and died in her fifties. My father had been remote for much of our life together and reserved even at his warmest. My ex-husband had been suspicious of love. He didn’t believe in saying ‘I love you.’
Now I was hearing those magical words all the time. Suddenly Christmas was merry, Easters were joyful. We were dancing in the living room, sailing to nearby islands for the night, welcoming one new year in Venice. My extended family blossomed. Grandchildren began to arrive. This rush of warmth into my life was one of the most enchanting things about loving George.
Exuberance isn’t necessarily a relationship skill. He was as complicated as the rest of us. Our twenty-year age difference added to the complexity. In my forties, with a child, a house, a business to run, I would have appreciated his having a more practical side. But there was no domesticating this wild man. I kept trying, not noticing, until it had already happened, that this wide-open energy had instead held space for me to un-domesticate.
We were both shocked when, approaching sixty, I said I was ready to close my business, rent the house, and head out into the unknown. But he agreed. His sailing days were coming to an end. He was ever up for the next adventure. So we launched ourselves into some of the most wonder-filled years of my life. That story is here.
There are over 1.4 million minutes in 27 years. In every one of those minutes this sacred being, making his last journey, held a part. By turns those minutes were joyous, stormy, peaceful, maddening, fun, ordinary, wild. Sometimes a mix at once. Not one was dull. And all of them, even the stormiest, held the great consolations and mysteries of love, ‘the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart.’
And keeping them together. A great, cosmic, gravitational force. Both tame and untamable. It can shatter us and yet also give resonance and joy to the quietest, humdrum day. I had done a lot of loving before my son was born when I was thirty-six. But mother love was eye-opening: so full-blown so instantly that for the first time I could apprehend that I had been swept into a current that was already flowing. Love is, and we enter into it.
I entered it at birth, for the boy who was waiting for me when I got here. My brother, Perry, died in June, four months before George. He was the boy I shared a swing with when we were both tiny enough to fit. The boy who ran with me through the magical woods of an early childhood home. My deepest solace when my mother succumbed to depression in our youngest years. A source of endless laughter and quiet knowing. My pal for sixty-nine years.
He was the oldest current in my river of love, and the easiest love of my life. We didn’t face the daily challenges of blending lives and personalities that romantic partnership entails. There were none of the responsibilities and fears of motherhood. We could just love. From the beginning of my life we never questioned it, never faltered. It was a rock I stood on.
My beloveds were two in a devastating flood of death this year. In February I wrote Weathering the storm: living with the power of cataclysm. I wasn’t even responding to the pandemic, which had just begun to make itself felt. But I may as well have been. At least 1.6 million people have died around the world. So many fearful and alone in hospitals, unlike George and Perry, who died surrounded by love. These losses are so unfathomable that it’s hard to think about them, impossible to ever come to terms with what was allowed to happen. And there are so many who have not gotten sick, or survived the virus, but have lost work, businesses they poured years of their lives into, loved ones they poured their hearts into.
This agony is another current of love, for all the people we will never know who now have enormous holes in their lives, empty places at the table, lonely beds. For the people fearful of the future, afraid they can’t feed their children, unable to see their families and friends. Humans are not alone in their ability to feel for their kin. But we may be unique in our ability to imagine the pain of someone far away, and send love in their direction. We are woven together — a worldwide tapestry of human hearts — by the mysterious bonds of such a love.
In the face of all this, I was blessed by the gifts of another love — my passion for the natural world. The powerful comfort of trees, the delicate, intimate solace of flowers and ferns, the grounding strength of mountains. Even during the most restricted time of our shelter in place, I could walk from my house into a green land that held these immense consolations. The flowers accompanying this essay are from that time of deep communion with a small area of my neighborhood.
The E.E. Cummings poem that starts these songlines opens and closes with the words ‘I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)’. The fact that there are so many hearts to carry is literally heart breaking. Yet the grace-filled paradox is that grief caused by love will also be healed by love. The continuing love for those who have gone. The love for those still here. The love of life, for being a breathing, sensing, embracing presence on our luscious planet, with all its incredible beauty and its terrifying perils. As a cosmic force love is boundless. There may be limitations on our ability to love, but there are none on love itself.
With the courage such knowing brings, I send love to you all as we cautiously open the door to a new year, carrying each other in our hearts.
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