Not long before Joanne, my wife, died, she told me she expected me to love again. She said it would “not be right to waste all the lessons we’d learned,” and I was “too young” never to love again. When I replied that I couldn’t imagine any love ever being as good as ours, she replied, “maybe it will be better.”
She was bedridden by then, disabled by multiple myeloma, and we spent most of our time in her room, talking, cuddling, and receiving visitors. This was after I’d taken a leave from my therapy practice so I had lots of time to think, feel and talk. And pay attention to the children, all of us often sprawled out on her bed.
But after they left for school and day care in the morning, the days stretched out, somehow lengthened by the fact they would be few in number. We were preparing, even though we’d agreed that we didn’t have to accept ahead of time. Acceptance would come on its own time table. (Remarkably, it was possible when it was finally needed a few months later.)
Although I didn’t think of it much in the days that followed, I stored our conversation somewhere in the back of my mind. Those words also awaited their perfect moment.
After she died, I gave myself to grief a little like a new love. I cried and laughed and shared stories. I saw my friends and felt their support, but my own idiosyncratic path of mourning got first dibs on my time, just as a new lover would. I listened to what it needed and tried my best to give it. Looking back, I see that I tunneled into grief, boring my way to the center of my own earth. I found the ore hidden in me. There was music, and gardens and tears, but mostly, me.
And then I knew that I was ready to fulfill the promise that Joanne had initiated; that I would love again. But I was terrified. Now I knew what it meant to let love command me. I would one day lose the person most precious to me. As Rilke said, “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” I felt I was about to go to graduate school! How would I let myself fall over the cliff when I knew how far down the bottom was? But how could I not, knowing the beauty of that ecstatic flight?
On the night I met my wife, I had a feeling. I was going to go out salsa dancing. I didn’t actually know how to salsa dance, so I planned to go to the lesson at the beginning. What could hold me back from doing new things? I had already done the biggest thing I could think of. But nerves held me up. Maybe I needed to take a hot bath, to play a little piano, and take myself out for sushi.
By the time I arrived, I was late and my hands were, despite all my effort, still shaking. Everyone was already paired, ready to listen to the instructions the teacher was set to deliver. I didn’t know a single soul in the room. But somehow, the instructor noticed me, probably looking a bit lost. “Did you want to take the lesson.” “Yes, sorry I’m late.”
She took my hand and walked me to a row of chairs, filled with people who already knew how to salsa. And then, to one person in particular. “Will you be her partner?” she said, and put our hands together. At first, my dancing partner looked just a little irritated. But then she gave me a full look and said, “sure.” I fumbled my way through the lesson, but she didn’t seem to mind. She was a great dancer, helping me through the mysterious steps.
I don’t remember how we ended up on two chairs at the edge of the room, sitting close so we could hear each other over the music. I do remember looking at her red shoes as we talked about death, children and spirituality. I left with every number she had.
I had never had a love at first sight experience, but this was it. I knew. She knew. No doubt. It was a matter of months before she joined me in my home, which was still filled with reminders of Joanne. She said she felt entrusted with me and encouraged me to take my time with all the corners filled with Joanne.
Now I felt the nature of my fear. I would wake in the night, her sleeping next to me, and see her face, a death mask next to me. I would have to confirm she was breathing. My youngest child asked her at the dinner table if she was going to die too. My friends were protective and slow to accept that I was giving my heart again. While I had grieved every minute, come through to a new place, they were still not ready.
But all the while, I heard permission in my head, encouraging me, supporting me to feel every wonderful, awful, scared, courageous, unexpected feeling that came along with choosing to love after losing a love. I never doubted that this was my destiny, my path and my greatest pleasure. And I never doubted that I set foot on this (now) twenty-year path with the blessing I most needed.
In the twenty-one years since that time, I have counted that simple conversation as perhaps the most generous gift I have ever received. What did it take to think of my good beyond her own life, to want the best for me beyond the time we would have together? When I heard the words, they bored into me in a permanent spot deep down. Long before I was ready to find that true love again, they gave me hope that life would, somehow, transform itself.
And so now, deeply in love with my wife of nearly twenty years, I count myself most blessed, to have loved deeply not once but twice and to have learned that the heart can grow to fit all that comes to it.