When will life feel like life again? I am wondering. My daughter and I have just come in from shoveling the walk in front of our house, and I have gone in to the bathroom—to use it and to have some time alone. As I sit, I’m thinking about loss and love, those constant mental undercurrents ever since my husband passed away two years ago from the horrific disease of ALS, and I found myself grief-fogged, stunned to be raising our small daughter alone. Today I am wondering, specifically, if I will ever experience real love again, or if my relationships will feel like one lover getting me from point A to point B, ad infinitum until the final point of death.
I am wondering in particular about a man I like. I just sent him an email, and suddenly I am sure I said too much, was too helpful in a teacherly kind of way, and now if he ever did have an attraction to me, I have eradicated it by being too honest. Now if he likes me at all, he must only like me as a kind of pedantic, motherly friend.
I open Poetry magazine at random to these lines by Wendy Videlock:
but sitting here the afternoon,
I’ve come to believe
we do share a love affair
and a belief—
Good sign! I think. Maybe I wasn’t wrong to send that email after all.
It isn’t a fable and it isn’t bliss
That’s right! This is all happening on another register. Something less fantastical, but more real somehow.
Maybe I just need to be more patient, let things unfold.
“Do you want to play a matching game?” my daughter calls in to me. She is five and loves making up games.
“Okay,” I say.
“A matching game under the table beside the radiator?”
“Sure.” I have not gotten up yet.
“And it gets even better than that!” she says then. She is leaning against the door, the same way I used to when my mother would go in to the bathroom to escape my endless questions. Mourning any break in our conversation, I’d even resort to passing her notes under the door.
“I made it up myself!”
“You made the cards?”
There is no sense trying to read Poetry. I wash my hands and come out. “Are you sure there is a match for all of them?” I ask.
“Well, I hope so,” she says.
She crawls under the kitchen table then, and I crawl after her, crouching down and bending my neck uncomfortably. “Well, that’s what I’m hoping anyway, that there is a match for everyone,” she is muttering to herself as she lays out the cards. “But, you know, some may have gotten lost.”
We play the game with the help of a flashlight. My daughter’s eyes are shining, and for the first few minutes we are playing, I feel tenderly alert again, almost as if I am in one of those spotlit moments of being watched. That was how life with her father always felt to me. Awakened, conscious, as if the three of us existed in a triangle of sight and our true seeing of one another swung us up into heightened awareness. It was fun, so much fun, to be a family.
But now I think I am being watched only by my own excitement. My expectation that someday, someone may be with us again. Love is another dimension, I think, and right now I am imagining just the first new glimmers of its possibility, and I have missed it so much, this feeling of being loved, of someone seeing us and wanting us, that I am suddenly about to spill over.
“Why are you crying again?” my daughter asks.
“Oh, you know,” I say. I am distracted thinking about the past and the future, and my daughter is alert, so she makes all the matches, and then I am thinking, this is a bad sign, a very bad sign. Maybe I have had all the matches I will ever have?
Out of sympathy, my daughter lets me pick up the very last match. But, just as I’d feared, there is a lone card that has lost its match forever.
My husband got sick when my daughter was two and he suffered from ALS for the next year and a half before he died. With ALS, or Asymetrical Lateral Sclerosis, the nerve cells stop sending signals to the muscles, so the victim loses the ability to do something everyday, dying relentlessly, incrementally while his mind remains intact. First Richard had a sore foot, then a weak knee that we thought he had pulled doing yoga. Soon after that, he could not walk, then he could not lift himself to a sitting position, then he could not use his arms to play guitar, write or feed himself. He died suffocating, like all ALS victims, when the paralysis spread to his torso, and his muscles could no longer open his lungs. Through this long decline, I cared for him, and had to come to understand the essence of love free of expectations, devoid of a future. As he lost the ability to parent, move and speak, I had to commune with his presence rather than his body, his essential being rather than any personality based on what he could do. And this uncommon understanding of love has thrown everything else in life off balance for me. I am so aware of the other side of life that I feel asymmetrical in my relation to others. Or perhaps what I feel is just a stranger symmetry, as I experience life always in relation to death, as I encounter what is always in relation to what it is not.
Last Friday, I was at a very strange spa with some friends. It is a Korean spa where everyone wears gym shorts and giant T-shirts—styles we haven’t worn since seventh grade PE—and then sweats in rooms encrusted with coal or amethysts, stones said to balance the chakras. It all sounds very New Agey, but the place is also crowded, Asian, open all night and filled with people escaping apartments, sleeping in the movie lounge.
We were sitting in the café, scrubbed and makeupless, and when I glanced at the wall of mirrors, my skin looked so sallow and my iron deficient under-eye circles looked so dark that I seemed a stranger to myself, some nondescript shade. “I just don’t know when life will feel like life again,” I said to my friends.
“You’re looking at it!” one answered, tucking into her spicy noodles. “This is your life!”
Maybe it is because it was my birthday. Or maybe it is because I had recently seen a film by Thai filmmaker Weerasethakul Apichatpong called “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives,” but I felt all that evening that we were some kind of afterlife. I felt strangely anonymous, like had already stopped caring about how I look, about what body I am in.
“Doesn’t it seem like these people could be ghosts?” my friend asked, reading my mind. “Like we could be ghosts?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think this is what it must feel like, to be here, but not here.”
My daughter has just invented another matching game and wants to go back under the table to play it. It has three times as many cards and a spinner that she has made out of coffee filters and a toothpick.
One more hour until bedtime.
It all goes very slowly. It takes a long time with this many cards haphazardly arranged under a table, lit by only a small flashlight. And I am weary in the way that only a single mother can be—a single, grieving mother with no relatives in town, and no adult diversions except for her one monthly splurge on a babysitter to do something like a spa evening. She loves these friends, but let’s be honest—they were always the kind of friends she’d see maybe once a month. Now her central relationships are those that were most peripheral, because her central relationship is gone and she doesn’t have the time to develop a new central relationship. I am tired like only this person can be.
But somehow, for a minute, I stop my self-pitying and resign myself to the fact that this is just the game right now. And once I accept this, I begin to do very well. I pick up four matches in a row, as if somehow I know just where the right numbers are. I get so many matches that I basically just bow out at the end and let my daughter pick up the rest. I figure I have gotten enough.
This is a common fallacy about life and death in our culture, which is both uncommonly privileged with choice and long life expectancy, and unusually afraid of mortality. We think that we will die when we have had enough, when we have lived enough life and accomplished what we meant to accomplish. But that does not always happen. When we really love—other people and life itself—we have never had enough. My husband had not had enough of his life, and I am still in my thirties. I really have not had enough.
“We’re widows,” my friend’s friend said to me a couple of months after Richard died. “Isn’t that weird, we’re widows.”
I shivered. Richard was 23 years older than me, and we had lived in such an unconventional way, and our relationship had had such an unconventional tenor, I didn’t feel that the word “Widowed” had anything to do with me.
“I am fifty-five,” the friend went on. “I’m too young to be widow!”
“You are,” I said. “And I’m 36.”
Life with him was lived at the pitch of a fairy tale, which means it was that good and that bad. When he was ill, it was unbearable to imagine losing him, and also unbearable to imagine losing our life together, with its shared creations and clarity. I did not see how I could continue without him and only learned to through our long and painful parting. We were impassioned about each other, our child, our shared work as writers, and we didn’t know how to live at a more casual pitch, which is what life seems to ask of me now. How do I live at this new pitch, the pitch of the online pitch? I wonder now.
I decided this week that I had done enough meditation and hibernation with my daughter, and I am actually strong enough to begin … at least imagining a new relationship. So I did what people do. I visited my Facebook page and put up a new picture. I emailed the three men I find genuinely interesting. One is in France, a sculptor. One is a pilot in Atlanta. And one is here, a family friend, but seven years younger than me. Not one of them fits a formula of what should work for me, but each one of them is shining to me in his singularity.
As I did this, however, it occurred to me that this is the opposite of what someone does when they create a dating profile. A dating profile relies on an algorithm that eliminates what you do not want in order to match you with what you do. But I have never known what I’ve wanted until I’ve met him. And then it has just been him.
I have had the idea that if I just keep living my life with authenticity, if I just follow my own deepest interests, I will someday meet my next love. This theory led me to take my daughter into the wilderness of Belize over our winter break. We stayed in a little thatched roof hut beside a river in a rain forest, and I was happy communing with nature that way. When we got back to the States it was Christmas, and I was talking with my sister-in-law, who was encouraging me to just “put myself out there.”
“Make a list of what you need,” she said. “You want someone around your age, professional, educated, someone in the same city ...”
“Not necessarily,” I said, knowing I’d pretty much do anything for real love, which to me means real life.
“Okay … well …” she said. She was genuinely trying to help.
“I was thinking maybe I’d meet someone in Belize,” I said longingly.
“You were up in the mountains with Mayan subsistence farmers!” she said, laughing.
“I placed a jar in Tennessee,” the poet Wallace Stevens wrote. “The wilderness rose up to it, And sprawled around, no longer wild … It took dominion everywhere. The jar was gray and bare.”
It was a jar like what you put the ashes in, but it could have been anything. The mind needs an idea to pool around, something to offset and organize its inchoate thicket—in my case, its sadness. Now his absence is the jar in my inner Tennessee, the thing that focuses and colonizes my grief. The wilderness of mind and feeling needs such a thing, I think, sort of the way the self needs a beloved in order to know itself. Not all selves, I guess. Surely there are some people so evolved or self-sufficient that they can be reflected only through their journeys and their work, but this self does. Having had such a beloved, how can it not want one again—albeit a completely different one, one who is only himself?
Love is the dimension of the present, I think. When you are fully in love, you are not muffled in the fog of the past or the future. You are not sitting under a table with your child, failing to see her dimpled hands and bright eyes because you are thinking about life three years ago, when she was smaller and her father was not yet sick. Sometimes I would be drying her off after her bath, or reading her a story before bed, and I would look up, and he would be standing there in the doorway, supporting himself with one hand, just watching us with such love. Like he was trying to memorize us.
“Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear, Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair!” my daughter is chanting in the bath. “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bunny, Fuzzy Wuzzy had no honey! Fuzzy Wuzzy was a chick, Fuzzy Wuzzy had no … hmmm. Fuzzy Wuzzy was a chick. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no? Mama, what rhymes with chick?” she asks.
The other hard thing about single parenting is there is no one to laugh with.
She is on a wily campaign to stay up later. Every time I try to catch her little wet body, she starts saying, “One more trick! just! one! more! trick!”
She is most excited about the “dead man’s float” in which she lies on her back with her body and face slightly underwater and sees how long she can hold her breath. I look at her little body nearly taking up the length of the tub now—how he would loved to see her growing body, how I wish he could see how beautiful she is becoming—and think of how long it has been since I’ve had sex, since any man has touched me. Three years. It is hard to know how to count this, because I went on touching him when he could no longer touch me, given the nature of his paralysis.
“I keep thinking of those babies who die because they are not touched,” I said the other day to my friend.
“Doesn’t your daughter touch you?” she’d asked, as only someone can who takes for granted all of her husband’s hugs and tickles and little daily nudges.
“Yes, and I am thankful for that. But it is not the same,” I’d said. And I am thankful for that too, it occurs to me to think.
I can’t imagine a man waiting this long to be with another person. How long can I go on holding my breath? And yet, how do I learn to swim in a new element, as sex and relationship now will surely be?
After her bath, my daughter cannot decide between a book on Cro-Magnon man and Harold and the Purple Crayon, so we start on both, and while I am reading Harold and the Purple Crayon, she insists on getting up to find a purple crayon to hold.
“You are a conniver!” I call out after her.
“What’s a conniver?” she asks.
“Someone who is always figuring out how to get what they want,” I say. “In your case, bargaining in order to stay up just a little bit later.”
Bargaining, I think, one of the stages. When you will do anything, anything just to live a little longer, just to have them with you a little bit longer.
“Oh, then, I am actually the exact opposite of a conniver!” she says, without missing a beat. She is clever, like he was. “I never break the rules, I never get in trouble, I only do exactly what I am supposed to do …,” and now she is grinning so widely and so persuasively that I can see she is one of those people who is going to create her own reality, and get the other people around her to believe it. Just like he did.
But as Harold looked down over the other side, he slipped.
And there wasn’t any other side of the mountain.
He was falling, in thin air.
But luckily, he kept his wits and his purple crayon.
He made a balloon and he grabbed onto it.
I did have one crush. Right after Richard died, I saw a friend of mine from graduate school, and the attraction that had been between us was still there. He came to visit and was wonderfully fun and sweet, but it seemed somehow that our relationship had happened, aged and ended before we’d even had it. Like some kind of big, glorious wave on the horizon that fizzles long before it reaches shore.
Afterward, I was talking about it with my brother, who a little younger than me, the same age as this friend. He listened, and then he said, “You know, guys have a lot of fantasies. It’s actually crazy how many sexual fantasies guys walk around with all the time. But widow really isn’t one of them.”
This friend just emailed a video he took during our visit—of my daughter dancing. We’d been sitting on the couch watching her, and he had pulled out his phone to capture the moment. There was some ancient love poetry on the coffee table and I was leafing through it, looking up to see my darling daughter as she twirled. I remember everything as being infused with light, so much light that it was hard to see. The red leaves of the maple outside threw a mottled blush over our hands, over my little daughter’s skin. The wooden floor shone into a reflective surface and glowed to hold her as she spun. My friend reached over and put his lips against my hair and breathed in. He stroked my arm with the hand that was not holding his phone. “Your skin is so soft,” he’d said quietly.
Death had not hardened me, love and loss had not hardened me, but I am afraid that the two years since that moment have. He fell in love with someone else, moved across the country and married. I threw myself into work and the day-to-day survival of single parenting. And yet it was so kind of him to save this little video, and to send it to me these years later.
But when I opened the file, it was all hard lines and ordinary. It was a little girl who had no father stopping and starting, spinning around while her mother sat on a couch and swooned. She still had chubby, rosy cheeks. She was not the girl she is now, and I was not this woman. Now she is taller, and less expectant somehow. She still dances, but she doesn't look up so often with an adorable smile to make sure that someone—a man who loves her—is watching.
How could the light have been that different—the way it looked to me, compared to the way it looked to him? I wonder now. I thought that moment was a beginning, infused with sunlight. And this is the fear, isn’t it, that in our perceptions and feelings we are really alone. Maybe, I think, love is another dimension because it is reflective. After all, real love is predicated on really seeing the other. The seeing externalizes the other’s inner self, makes it real, and when the seeing is filled with love, love makes us more real.
But the only thing magical about the video is the music my daughter dances to, which seems like a message I was not ready to hear until now. It is a duet by the band Stars, and in it, the male lead sings:
He held a flame I wasn’t born to carry
and the female sings
I’m still in love with you, I’m still in love with you …
In the algorithm I must come with too much baggage, the frightening tinge of death, and another man’s child to care for. But in my own mind, I have seen love through to the end, and so I’m free. I am not reeling from divorce or disbelief in commitment. And having loved and lost I believe in love more than ever.
Yesterday, I was talking to my sister-in-law on the phone, who is an excellent athlete. She explained to me that during pregnancy the body opens more capillaries in the heart, and this increased blood flow actually enlarges the heart, so she became a better runner and swimmer after she became a mother. “That’s how I feel,” I say. “Like now, after experiencing mothering, caregiving, death and grief, my heart just has more capacity.”
I was chatting away, waiting for my daughter to get out of school, standing just inside the big reflective doors, and the brighter light of early spring had begun to skid and shine off of everything. I watched all the fathers lining up, talking a little, checking their phones. And I remembered the dream I’d had the night before. Some man—I could not see his face—picked my daughter up and kissed her—peck, peck, peck, all over her face. They were laughing, she was squirming to get down a little, and they were familiar and happy to have all that affection. I was a few steps behind, watching them. And when I woke, I realized how I much have wanted this—to see my daughter as adored by someone else. As much as I’ve needed that for myself, I have needed it for her.
Maybe we stand in the atrium of the next dimension, I think. We know something about life, my daughter and I, that anyone would see if he looked far into our eyes. And this atrium has its own light filtering through, slowly, slowly, that I could call the light of hope. One hope is that someday, someone else will see the light that I do.