In the springtime of life, youth gazes at the future with wonder and trust, as if angels whisper promises meant only for our ears. Decisions are made. Life is planned. We enter adulthood with the heart of a child.
As every seasoned adult knows, hearts are sometimes broken by those involved in the decisions we make, promises betrayed. We are left standing in unfamiliar territory, with our sense of logic cruelly intact, and question what went wrong. Often, we learn from our mistakes and those of others and go on, determined never to repeat history.
There is no greater sorrow, though, than the loss of someone you care about. While some deaths are rationalized, as when terminal disease leads to a somewhat predictable death, it is no less sufferable than a sudden death. Whether expected or unexpected, the result is still the same. We lose. Forever, it seems.
For those of us who believe this physical body is a temporal dwelling for an immortal spirit, we look forward to the bittersweet moment when we are reunited with those we've lost. Some believe that can happen even while we're alive. Be it through vivid dreams, visited by those we've lost, or unearthly happenings that can only be explained spiritually, we sense our grief is shared and known by those who have passed on. Though no longer a part of our lives in this physical realm, we aren't as alone as logic would have us believe.
Recently, I received the kind of phone call we all dread. A boy I had dated, when I was a teenager, died suddenly. It was a death that shouldn't have happened. Jamie was only 46, in excellent health, a husband and a father, smart, witty and one of the most gentle and compassionate persons I have ever known. His wife requested an autopsy, the body was cremated and a memorial service was planned to celebrate his life.
While I never once considered not going to this memorial service to support his parents, people whom I love, as time approached to make this journey, anxiety crippled me. I lost both my parents and my husband, so death is not unfamiliar to me. As this anxiety grew to disproportionate levels, though, I raced through the gamut of how death is always unfair, hating the fact that we must endure this kind of irrevocable loss. Yet, nothing I did or thought relieved this anxiety. I couldn't sleep the night before I traveled 350 miles, and I had to stop at a motel before I reached his parents' home. Fortunately, the service was the following day, and I promised Jamie's parents I would arrive at their home early the next morning. I didn't sleep that night either. I had good reason to be sad, to grieve as deeply as I did for his parents. Only six weeks earlier, they had lost their only daughter to a three-year battle with cancer. Now, their only son had died after a short illness. I couldn't begin to fathom the intensity of their grief, and I questioned why any parent, regardless of age, should ever have to endure this kind of tragedy. I ached more for them than for any personal feelings I might have felt. Or so, I thought.
With little sleep, I arrived at their home later than planned. We wept. We talked. We had some breathing time before we made the drive to where the memorial service would take place. Their son's best friend, Wally, arrived shortly after I did.
I hadn't seen Wally in thirty years. That amount of time definitely changed the way he looked, but recognizable were his mannerisms and his eyes and his haltered speech. As Wally and I sat in the back seat for the hour long drive, he told me his wife had left him one day without any warning. He had found out months later she was lesbian. I told him my husband had died from AIDS, not cancer, as he had wanted everyone to believe. We commiserated about marrying spouses who had intentionally deceived us.
At the Quaker memorial service, I listened to intelligent, articulate people share perceptions of the man they knew so well, the boy none of them knew as well as Wally and I. Strangely, though, I found myself being introduced to someone I began to realize I didn't value thirty years ago. He had been the first man in my life who loved me. He had also wanted to marry me. I liked him as a friend, but I didn't love him enough to marry him.
As I sat in that pew, I thought quite differently now. Jamie embodied all the virtues I thought had existed in the man I married. Though I ached for Jamie's wife and his son, I knew they had been loved by someone who knew how to love, devoted to them in ways I had never experienced in my marriage.
After the service, I went to the back of the van because I needed to be alone, also needing a cigarette, and I needed to cry.
Whatever my reasons had been for not valuing Jamie then, now I clearly realized the mistake I had made. I'm not the kind of person who would have wished upon Jamie or his family something as unconscionable as a divorce or the death of his wife or anything that would have separated him from the joys he so richly deserved. Nor do I think my life should have gone any differently than it did. He had a son, and I had two daughters. That kind of joy can't be exchanged for want of what could have been.
However, as I stood behind that van, confined to a middle-aged body and a set of circumstances that reflected the decisions I had made, I grieved for exactly that: for what my life could have been had I married Jamie. When I acknowledged that, I understood the depth of my pain. I also understood why I had dreaded this experience so much. Throughout the years, Jamie's happiness had meant a lot to me. I was relieved to know he was happily married, marveled at how devoted he was to his son and pleased his professional life was so successful. For it to have ended so suddenly at too young an age seemed doubly unfair, mostly to him.
I told him that as I stood behind that van, uttering to God what can't be expressed. Much to my amazement, an unlikely wind loosened a single leaf. Only one. I watched it drift by me, slowly and deliberately, as if sent. It was brown and slightly withered, but I heard it say, "I know. It hurt me too. But I'm okay. I've always been okay. I still love you, though, and I always will."
I picked up that leaf, clearly mindful that several leaves should have fallen from those old trees. I beheld this gift as a sign, either from God or from Jamie. It was as if my utterance had been heard by Jamie, even then, and that he was glad I had said what I felt, for his sake as well as mine.
I questioned this experience, but only until I thanked someone who had shared his thoughts during the service. I told him what he had said had touched me deeply. He asked who I was, and I told him. He smiled and said, "I know who you are. Jamie talked about you from time to time." I stood there, quite speechless, held my pocketbook close and touched the tip of that leaf.
I don't understand death. I don't understand events that come into our lives which leave us shaken and brittle. I can rationalize all I want, find meaning and spout intent, but clearly, the truth is: I don't know why we must endure these losses. Being a writer, I'm compelled to make sense of what makes no sense. Like an artist, I paint pictures with words. I create characters and conflict and offer resolutions. It's my profession. The older I get, though, the less I know and the less I understand. Maybe what happens, eventually, is that we get to a point in our lives when we can say, "I made a mistake. I'm sorry I hurt you. I'm glad the pain I caused didn't stop you from loving."
How much simpler, though, to return a smile when it's given and step a little closer when genuine kindness is offered. Maybe take that hand and listen more passionately to what is being said. Leave our clipboards on the curb and dare to enter paths where love so innocently treads. To be childlike, yet wise enough, to know the difference between old songs and the whispers of angels.
Barbara Mikan is an agented author of a narrative nonfiction memoir and several mainstream novels. Widowed at the age of forty, she raised one daughter who recently married, showers her twelve-year-old with more hugs than her daughter cares to receive and caters to ten well-fed cats in a turn-of-the-century home in northeast Ohio. She writes professionally, occasionally cooks and too often scoops litter boxes.
Visit her web site at http://www.aurorablue.org
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