Heaven would never be heaven without you.
Richard Matheson, What Dreams May Come
They sat face to face, heads bowed as though in prayer, foreheads touching, arms entwined like Baucis and Philemon transformed. His oxygen tubing coiled lazily to the hospital sunroom floor, trailing like a translucent vine to the silver tank hissing near his slippered feet. His breathing was less piscine, no longer the desperate, gaping gasps I’d grown accustomed to.
“I’ve never seen him so relaxed,” I said.
“She calms him down.” His daughter stood next to me in the doorway, frowning, resentful, arms crossed tightly over a funereal black Fairweather pantsuit. “Eases his COPD. That’s why I bring her to visit.”
“They live in the same building?”
She nodded briskly.
“It’s so nice he and his wife can still be together.”
She shot me a withering glare, irises swirling a turbulent indigo. “Her? Oh, she’s not his wife. Mom passed away twelve years ago. She’s just someone Dad met in the nursing home.”
I nodded diplomatically, saying nothing. She looked like much more than a friend to me. I knew what his daughter was thinking. Usurper. She’s not Mom. Never will be.
When I looked back at them, her father’s friend had vanished. My wife, senescent and enfeebled, now occupied her place. She caressed the back of his neck, relaxing him, their wintered hair interwoven, joining his life breath with hers to form a single, serene rhythm.
An odd vision, I told myself. Nothing more.
A familiar foreboding wafted up from a shadowed corner of my mind, asking, Would she? Would my wife really love someone else after I’m gone? After all our years together, after a lifetime of shared passion and sacrifice, could she really love another man?
Impossible, I told myself. Our commitment to each other was as firm and unyielding as a taproot sunk deep into nurturing soil. We tut-tutted the instability of modern relationships, smugly assuring ourselves that we were superior to the fickle narcissists roaming today’s shattered social landscape. We accepted each other completely, tolerating the quirks and antecedent emotional baggage that accompany close companionship. We read each other’s mind with disconcerting ease, an interlacing of psychic DNA that allowed us to speak in half-finished sentences or the silent exchange of a meaningful glance. I thought of us as Aristotle’s ideal: a single soul, rent asunder into two bodies, now reunited.
I apologize if my idealism makes you want to throw up, dear reader, but the fact is, my wife and I really do get along quite well. And, ironically, idealism is the most likely source of my torment. I’ve wallowed in it since birth, from the bodice-ripping covers of my mother’s dime-store romance novels to the cinematic fantasies of passionate, star-crossed lovers that blazed before my eyes. It’s a belief system our society perpetuates from the moment we exchange our first Valentine’s card. We all fall for it, like a marlin snatching at the bait. And no matter how many times we’re thrown back in the water, we never stop hoping that pulp literature is gospel and that Hollywood is right, that flawless love awaits us all in our glorious Technicolor future, just a come-hither glance or a mouse-click away.
Maybe all that lies on the other side of life is oblivion, a vast, lightless wasteland filled with despondent souls sobbing over futile dreams.
And if you believe that, then you must also believe that idealized love is undying love. Imagine your teary-eyed heart’s content waiting for you on the other side of Death’s cruel rampart, desperate to renew the love the two of you once shared. Think of Cathy’s ghost in Wuthering Heights, calling to Heathcliff across those windswept Yorkshire moors, a seductive image of doomed lovers destined to reunite. It’s one to which our hearts respond, weeping and sighing, besotted with the notion of transcendent love. (Yet, why is it we avoid the fact that before they can walk hand in hand forever, Cathy must first lure Heathcliff to his death?)
Regardless, my inner Heathcliff never fails to respond to Cathy’s plaintive call. I’m no different from every other romantic fool. But life has a habit of slicing into your belief system like a thug’s serrated shank, and it grows harder each year to cling to romantic ideals in an age of fuck buddies and Tinder quickies. The cynics are everywhere, and they sow my mind with doubt. Maybe she and I are not Aristotle’s soul reunited, destined for eternal contentment. Maybe she’ll find happiness in the arms of another man after that last spade is patted over my grave. Maybe all that lies on the other side of life is oblivion, a vast, lightless wasteland filled with despondent souls sobbing over futile dreams.
In my darker moments, in my times of doubt, my inner voice rises, cackling, Such fine and noble sentiments, my starry-eyed dreamer. But how do you know? How can you be sure that she’ll forsake all others and be waiting for you in eternity? If you’re so convinced of this grandiose love that transcends loss, then why am I here?
Look within, fool. Gaze into the darkest depths of your heart and tell me what you see. Is it your wife, faithfully tending the smouldering memory of the last incandescent kiss each of you shared?
Or is there just an empty pit, strewn with the blackened, long-abandoned memories of your so-called immortal love?
So many doubts, so many fears haunt my sleep, murmuring petulantly of loneliness, of abandonment, of love forgotten and lost, of love renewed with another. What if she finds someone else to love? Will she be happier with him than she ever was with me? Will she choose to be buried next to him? Will she forget me? Will my lonely, untended stone crumble away, toppling into forgotten earth?
Always, I awaken with a gnawing sense of guilt. What right do I have to demand such devotion from her? What right do I have to condemn my wife to a widowhood of loneliness and fading memories? Why can’t she marry again, to seek comfort in her old age with someone else who loves her?
But if she were to really love another, how would I feel if she appeared before me in Heaven, holding his hand, not mine?
I’d want to die, all over again.
She sits in a chair by the frost-etched window, an autumn-coloured comforter warming her lap, drawn and frail at the end of her days. Death has slipped in on stealthy feet, touching her mind but not yet carrying her away, stealing memories, erasing parts of the past. My sons stand beside her, coaching her as she studies the curling, faded photo in her lap. She struggles with a picture of me taken a few years before I’d passed away.
“I know that’s the cottage on Lake Huron, but that man…” She lifts her glasses and touches the print to her nose, lips seamed together in fierce concentration.
“C’mon, Mom, you know who that is. That’s Dad.”
She studies the picture awhile longer, then sighs, dropping it to the floor. “I’m sorry. I just don’t remember him at all.”
Each spring, my wife and I have a ritual. Each spring we walk among the dead, threading our way along winnowed rows of weather-worn stones, pausing over eroded testaments to undying love and families reunited. The stiff, yellowed grass, still flattened by winter’s crushing burden, crackles beneath our steps like slivers of frosted bone. A joyful chorus of songbirds fills maple, oak and ash, heralding spring’s victory from each verdant branch. Chipmunks scurry alongside, racing back and forth across our path, bushy tails flashing a nervous semaphore as they snatch peanuts from our outstretched palms.
We unfold a sunflower-gold blanket on an untilled area of the necropolis, basking in the vernal warmth. She rests her head against my chest, sighing contentedly, critiquing the memorials we’ve passed, discussing plans for our own. She gestures enthusiastically, drawing pictures on the clouds: a double headstone; no, a single, large headstone; ceramic photos of us beside our names; beneath, a carving of two hands clasped in unison. I suggest an inscription: “Together we walk in Elysian fields”. She approves with a kiss.
Morbid? Perhaps, but every committed couple has this conversation at some point in their relationship (or at least they should). Discussing our burial plans doesn’t bother me. Her plans for our resting place only reinforce her commitment to me. Besides, I’ve grappled with Death too many times to be upset by such talk.
Not that familiarity with my opponent ever made me callous to my patients’ suffering. The dying are as helpless as the moment they first drew breath, and, just like infants, they need endless attention and compassion. As I bathed them, as I changed their incontinent pads, as I comforted them in their despair, I hoped that their moment of transition would be as Mark Helprin wrote: “Neither pain, nor floods of light, nor great voices, but just the silent crossing of a meadow.”
This I do know: love can be stolen from us by Death’s cruel scythe. …I also know that love can grow again in the souls of those left behind.
And then what? Are we the same trembling souls we were before we died, blinking with wide-eyed wonder as we ford undulant fields of emerald grass and vibrant wildflowers dancing on the wind? Or are we transformed into our true selves, formless beings of pure light, exulting at the familiar sight of a paradise long forgotten?
I wish I knew. I know so little, and I fear so much.
This I do know: love can be stolen from us by Death’s cruel scythe. My entire nursing career taught me that. I also know that love can grow again in the souls of those left behind. Even in the bleak, windswept winter of our lives, love can blossom unexpectedly, like a crocus in the snow. Its hardy shoots reappear, flourishing in the desolate soil of our loneliness, drawing us together until our branches entwine and the linden becomes indistinguishable from the oak.
I also know that the limited concepts of love and commitment I cling to simply do not apply in that palace of wonders lying just beyond the meadow’s edge. To impose them on my wife is to be the old man’s daughter, refusing to accept her father’s companion, clinging with unrepentant loyalty to the undimmed memory of a beloved mother lost.
However, knowledge and acceptance are two very different things. The struggle between my heart and my mind goes ever on. The only bulwark left to me is faith: faith that my wife and I will be together again, bound to each other for all eternity by a love transformed.
And so, I wake each day and banish my fears to the darkness, cherishing each moment we have left together. And when the day is over and starlight pierces evening’s shadowed gloom, she is there, waiting in the doorway for me. And she enfolds me into the warmth of her loving embrace, and we kiss and we talk and we dance away death, laughing and rejoicing in that little piece of Heaven we’ve managed to create right here on Earth.