Three years ago I attended my 60th high school reunion. At the Friday night banquet I surveyed the crowd: We had almost 600 in our graduating class, so even 60-plus years later we had a good group. But as I looked around, I wondered: Who are these old people? Answer: They were the people I grew up with, spent a remarkable period of my life with. Many of them I remembered all the way back to elementary school.
Who are all of these old people? My classmates and I.
This did not keep us from celebrating. We reminisced. We laughed. We even talked about the future. But somehow underneath it all was the awareness of loss.
Metaphorically speaking, there were empty chairs all around — empty spaces once filled by classmates now gone. The loss was palpable. In addition to the loss of classmates, most (perhaps all) had lost both parents; many had lost spouses; several had lost siblings; a few, like Alice and me, had lost a child; and at least one of our classmates had lost a grandchild. Empty seats, and hearts not empty, but hearts not as full as they once had been.
Life is like that. Life is filled with loss; increasingly one’s life is filled with loss. But life is also filled with love. And nothing in life is more intimately connected than love and loss. The depth of loss is directly related to the depth of love. And the depth of love is directly related to the fear of loss. What we love most, we most fear losing. What we don’t mind losing, we don’t really love. It is part of the metaphysics of love, the nature of love, the character of love, to love most deeply those who, if lost, would create the most pain, sometimes agonizing pain.
One of the most ecstatically happy experiences of my life was the moment I laid eyes on Kathy, our first-born. The moment of deepest sadness, nothing else comes close, was her death.
We had gone to the hospital the night before Halloween, 1964. Alice went into a labor that was to last for hours, and in that Atlanta hospital back in “ancient times” husbands were left very much in the dark. Once Alice was admitted I never saw her again until Kathy was born 20 hours later. Communication virtually nil, I had never experienced such anxiety. And then, I remember the first time ever I laid eyes on her. Wrapped in a blanket, in a bassinet, behind a glass window, there she was, so beautiful, so peaceful, the stuff of which dreams are built. All who are parents understand.
And many of those dreams were realized. She grew from a baby to a little girl, and we loved her. She grew from a little girl to a teenager, and we loved her. She moved through college and law school, and we loved her. She became a prosecuting attorney and, eventually, a law school professor, and we loved her. She married and became a mother herself and added more love into our lives.
In addition to all that love, for me there was the remarkable pleasure of working with her professionally. We edited three books together. What a loving and joyful life we had with Kathy.
And then we lost her.
For the first time in her life at the age of 45 she went into a depression. She came out of that depression once, but the remission did not last and at the age of 47 in a depression so deep she could not bear it, she took her life. We lost her, a loss that is and always will be very much a part of who I am, who Alice is, who we are as a couple.
Alice recently came across the reflections of an old person on loss and grief. I do not even know who this old writer is. It appeared anonymously. It seems so wise. Here it is with a few modifications and additions:
I am old. What that means is that I’ve survived, so far, and a lot of people I’ve known and loved have not. I’ve lost best friends, acquaintances, co-workers, grandparents, mom, other relatives, teachers, neighbors, and a host of other folks.
I’ve never gotten used to people dying, never have, but here’s my two cents about losing those whom we love. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don’t want it to “not matter.” I don’t want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love that I had for that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love.
Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love.
As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float.
You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating alongside you [and you hang on to one another, floating together so that neither of you sinks]. For a while, all you can do is float. [All you can do is keep on keeping on. All you can do is walk and not faint.]
In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come farther apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function.
You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection or the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything, and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.
Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come farther apart. You can see them coming: an anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas. You can see the pain coming and, for the most part, prepare yourself. And when the wave washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out on the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.
Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. But you learn that you’ll survive them. And other waves will come. And you’ll survive them too. I would add: Having lots of scars means, among other things, that you have had lots of loves.
Alice and I have cried because one we loved so deeply died. And most of the readers of this newspaper have cried because ones so loved have died. And if you have not cried, you will because you love. And despite the pain, there is nothing greater in life than love.