I miss my husband John more than I had expected. The house is too quiet, the cats too cautious, the meals too boring. No, he hasn’t died. He’s off canoeing with friends in the wilds of northern Ontario.
Usually I love being on my own when John’s away, basking in the pleasure of having the house to myself. I savour the stillness, the quiet released by the absence of talking. Usually I sink into solitude as one lowers the body into a deliciously warm bath.
But something is different this year. I miss his physical presence, the space he inhabits when we’re together. I miss putting my arms around him, feeling his arms wrap me, feeling our solid bodies lean against one another. At night, returning from my midnight pee, I close the bedroom door quietly so as not to disturb him. As I head for my side of the bed I remember that he’s not here.
I keep thinking about my widowed friends, and imagine the bell of ‘not here, not here’ tolling for days, months, years. My mother, widowed at 65 years old, spending countless evenings of her long life alone, cooking solitary suppers when for years she delighted in setting food down in front of my father. My newly-widowed sister-in-law, who, in the midst of planning an extended holiday in Italy, repeatedly found herself in tears knowing that her sweetheart, my brother, would not be with her. My women friends who lost partners, each having to climb out of a groundless abyss to regain her footing.
Perhaps the combination of my own ageing and the deaths of people dear to me is finally pulverizing my heart with empathy. More and more I’m aware that staying alive is pure luck. Even though my beloved is still vibrantly alive, my loneliness for him teaches me that our love is a temporary gift. I want to hold that gift, as the poet Li-Young Lee conveys, in “the light of a joint and fragile keeping.”
So we’re dust. In the meantime, my wife and I
make the bed. Holding opposite edges of the sheet,
we raise it, billowing, then pull it tight,
measuring by eye as it falls into alignment
between us. We tug, fold, tuck. And if I’m lucky,
she’ll remember a recent dream and tell me.
One day we’ll lie down and not get up.
One day, all we guard will be surrendered.
Until then, we’ll go on learning to recognize
what we love, and what it takes
to tend what isn’t for our having.
So often, fear has led me
to abandon what I know I must relinquish
in time. But for the moment,
I’ll listen to her dream,
and she to mine, our mutual hearing calling
more and more detail into the light
of a joint and fragile keeping.
~ Li-Young Lee