He would have been 60 yesterday, my late husband.
But he didn’t even live to 50.
In 2000, he went on his usual 3 times a week bicycle ride out towards Beaver Lake, turned at the Conoco station (which, because they used to rent canoes out there, he always referred to as the “Canoe-Co”) and headed home.
Instead, he bicycled into eternity, as I have written before.
The unreality of driving over to Fayetteville, Arkansas, once a week, working with the gifted, compassionate, funny psychotherapist William F. Symes, never failed to strike me, sometimes with as much emotional force as that small Chevvy pick-up had physically struck Ned. How was it possible? How had this become my life? How could it be that Ned was no more, would never return, and the assumed future we had shared was equally vanished, and now I was left to come to a therapist’s office to discuss this impossibility as if it were real when it could not possibly be?
Nevertheless I went.
One day after we had worked together for some time Bill Symes said, “You keep saying, ‘I’m never going to be with anyone again,’ Crescent. ” In a tone of some incredulity, he continued, ” So, is this something we actually have to spend time discussing? Something you actually believe?”
I thought about this. “Yes, I believe it, ” I said.
“Oh-kay,” said Bill, with an exaggerated, eye-rolling sigh. “So, why do you believe this?”
I shot back, “Because Ned and I had, for the better part of 23 years, something most people don’t get for 15 minutes! Who am I to expect to get that twice?”
Symes shot back, “You co-created it for 23 years, who better?”
I took that in.
I began to experiment. Instead of saying, “Ned was the love of my life,” I started saying, “Ned was the love of the first part of my life.”
And eventually, a few years later, I met, grew to love, and lived with but did not marry, David Koff.
By his own disclosure from the first, David, an activist and documentary filmmaker, had once suffered, but was now “in recovery” from, depression. Still, filled with vitality, a devoted gym-goer with (at 62) a body a 25 year-old would envy, a warrior against injustice, it was hard to believe. David was kind, smart, funny. We were easily compatible, enjoyed and respected each other, were companionably loving. Did I miss the near-constant overt expressions of affection, the vibrant sexuality and flirtation, the shared spirituality and full emotional in-tune-ness Ned and I had had, that David and I did not? Yes, of course. But I came to feel, well, this is what loving someone as an adult is like. I told myself, “This is a different course in Relationship School, CD. You have a different kind of learning and growing to do with David.” And to some extent this was true.
But then the depression David had alluded to when we first met came roaring back. It grow to an out-of-control wild-fire. There were therapists. New medications were tried. Hospitalization discussed. I could still remember the 3 hours he used to spend daily at the gym, five days a week, eagerly; yet now to get him to walk to the end of the block became a struggle, requiring much persuasion on my part. There were days when he was silent. I was exhausted, perplexed, angry, at wit’s end, lonely.
“I miss you!” I said to him once, early in this period. “I miss me too,” he said, sadly.
I told myself something that had been true for me. “The harder it is to go through, the better it is on the other side. He will get through this. There will be golden days for him on the other side of this. For him; for me.”
But it turned out that this was true for me, not him.
Three years after the depression returned, David took his life.
Somewhere in there, I noticed I had gone back to saying, at least to myself, “Ned was the love of my life.”
When I began, yet again, to date, after I lost David, I started making a disclosure of my own, if it ever looked like it might become sexual (which for me always meant there was a larger compatibility).
“Look, there’s chemistry between us, ” I’d say to the possible gentleman-in-question. “But if we follow it, please know that while I’m very loving and affectionate, if you’re looking for a grand all-consuming kind of passion, I’m not it. The capacity to be ‘in love’ ended for me with the death of my husband.”
I believed this. And, had a couple of pleasant-enough flings on this basis.
Then I met the man I sometimes refer to affectionately as my Alpha Dude (he does not want his name mentioned, nor his picture shown, in social media). Somewhere during our first lunch, I realized that he had an incredible mind: agile, curious, original, interesting and I thought, “Whoa! This is a very special guy. I do not want to let him get away without knowing him a whole lot better. ”
When he got up to use the bathroom, I texted my best friend: “On a date. I think this may be the one.”
One day, maybe our second or third time together in bed, I realized things had progressed without my giving my disclosure. I propped myself up on one elbow.
“Did I give you the rap?” I asked.
“I don’t know, what’s the rap?” he asked.
I gave him the rap.
He eyed me wryly. “Rethinking this, are we?” he said.
In two days, Alpha Dude and I will celebrate our second anniversary, albeit apart from each other (he’ll be working in LA, I in Arkansas; he lives in New York, and I in Vermont, though I spend winters elsewhere. “It’s complicated,” as they say on Facebook. Still, there has never been a period longer than two weeks since we met when we do not manage to have at least a few days together).
He just came and went for the sixth time to Arkansas, to the small town in which I lived with Ned for so long, where, since David died, I have been spending part of each winter. This time he was here for three days around Valentine’s Day. One night we went out for dinner at the local Thai restaurant. As we left, we were hailed by two friendly acquaintances of mine, Johnice and Debbie. Debbie asked where he was from. He told her New York. I said that he was a California native, and, knowing how people down here tend to feel about Californians, added, teasingly, “We try to forgive him for that.”
He piped up with his Southern bona fides. “Well, I lived for ten years in Mississippi.” And then, truthfully, with pitch-perfect Mississippi inflection added, “My mother always said she was born in Biloxi, but raised in Mobile.” From there it somehow devolved to him jivily explaining how he had wanted to buy a pig but a man tried to sell him a hawg, and he tried to take it back, but it was his fault because he never should’ve bought it because it was in a poke… and what were going to do about these Chinese stealin’ our data, and lawd, they was a passel of ’em.
By this time my acquaintances and I were bent double laughing. He excused himself to go to the bathroom and indicated, with a head-gesture to me (out of their sight-line) that he would be ready to go when he returned.
Johnice said, “It sure is good to see you laughing again, Crescent.”
I heard myself say, “Well, I never thought I would ever love someone in as many ways as I loved Ned, and now I do.”
He emerged from the bathroom, and we left.
But, as happens when you accidentally speak aloud a truth you had not previously recognized, the words continued to reverberate.
I had not said, “As much as I loved Ned.” For if there is a measurement that is accurate in these realms, I do not know it. And does one not one’s capacity to love change over time and with experience?
And I had not mentioned David. I do not know how, at least not yet, to put him into the equation. Which David? The David I knew and loved well, if not passionately, for five years? The tortured David increasingly eaten by a disease that is, I believe, physiological in nature but symptomatic of violently disordered thoughts? I lived with that David for another 3-plus years, and it was very hard. Then, when David chose to exit life, it was an act so violent it mostly overshadowed that earlier lovable David. And that is its own pity. (Indeed, my truest moments of grief in this instance come when I recall the happy David, who had left me, and himself, long before he ended his actual life, so intolerably painful).
And yet, I live uneasily with this: though I truly loved David, even at his best I did not do so in as many ways, in as many areas, as I did Ned, with whom I shared every color of the spectrum I had, or then had.
As I do, to my amazement, with my Alpha Dude. I haven’t had all my surprises yet.
And perhaps the spectrum, now, is even wider than it was with Ned, when I was young. Then, mortality had not tried me the way fat, cooked in a hot skillet, is “tried” from bacon. I suspect I am more capable of love and loving now in part because of loss and grief. Because of having been loved by and loving these two very different men, one torn from life at the height of his joyful powers, the second of whom chose death. Because of them, I am better at loving, and I understand the terms: nothing is for keeps. I am probably more humble, and less controlling, because I know how little can be controlled. Which is humbling.
Thus age and experience give one more colors. This is also true for my Alpha Dude, who is my present (and I hope for the duration) partner, who also been tried by grief and loss.
Yet I can’t chalk this up just to the passage of time: more colors are not inherent in aging. In fact I had watched David’s colors fade and diminish over time till there were only a few shades of inky gray. One of the great unanswerables: why are some saved and some lost? Why does what sinks one person compel another to rise?
Resilience. Love, the capacity and desire for it, the willingness to want it even when you know it ends with loss: all mysterious.
Spiritual love is not mysterious in this way, though it is also not understandable by the mind. Objectless, loving because it is love itself, and thus it is its nature to love: it is “the peace that surpasseth understanding,” so why try? When we are in it, there is no “we”, only it. And later, when we return from that state, we recall it as sublime, but cannot re-experience it at will: for when it comes again (and it does, but only by what’s often called grace) again there is no we, no I. Just it. Or It.
But interpersonal human love… that is a mystery. It is also the petri dish for personal, psychological, and emotional development. For acceptance. For release. It asks, and gives, so much. It is neither safe nor simple. I learned these things with Ned, and in a wholly different way, with David. And I am learning them anew.
And I know, now, that love can be real even if its palette is limited with certain people, for I did love David, despite there being fewer shades.
But oh how overwhelmingly glad I am again to find unlimited colors as my dear Alpha Dude and I collaborate, creating the mutually made picture that is our eccentric, funny, hot, interesting, engaging late-life passion. I love him not as I did Ned – of course not – but in loving him, I do so in just as many ways.
This fills me with wonder.
For finally, what is any of this life for except but to keep learning and learning how to give and receive love? Time takes a life, takes all lives, takes those we love… but it does not and cannot take life, or love, itself.