Grief is a sacred journey

Bookends of a Marriage

At a motorcycle race in 1967

On a September afternoon in 1966, when I was a 21 year old student at Cornell, I met an older man—he was 25—in a motorcycle shop in Ithaca. His muscular body arched over the skeleton of an upside-down motorbike and grease smeared his Levi coveralls and hands. Vic was a graduate student in astrophysics, but my lust had already landed hard on the motorcycle racer in him.

One winter’s night, we sat in his tiny apartment in downtown Ithaca listening to Buffy St. Marie and drinking cheap red wine. He read me this poem.

Because hate is legislated…written into
The primer and the testament
Shot into our blood and brain like vaccine or vitamins

Because our day is of time, of hours—and the clock hand turns,
Closes the circle upon us: and black timeless night
Sucks us in like quicksand, receives us totally—
Without a raincheck or a parachute, a key to heaven or the last long look

I need love more than ever now…I need your love,
I need love more than hope or money, wisdom or a drink

Because slow negative death withers the world—and only yes
Can turn the tide
Because love has your face and body…and your hands are tender
And your mouth is sweet—and God has made no other eyes like yours.
~ Walter Benton, This Is My Beloved

Two years later, we read this poem at our wedding, taking turns reading the stanzas and weeping. Twenty-five people huddled around us in a friend’s living room where we’d retreated from cold rain and fog. The energy intensified until one woman fainted.

Elaine & Vic, 2007

Many years later, we had survived disappointments and learned the art of compromise.  Our passion, tempered by age and cancer, still survived in a gaze or caress. On our 39th anniversary—we thought it would be our last—we read our marriage poem, alternating stanzas, weeping. We each chose a second poem for that day. He read his surprise, and I read mine. We’d chosen the same poem.

…When men and women come together,
How much they have to abandon! Wrens
Make their nests of fancy threads
And string ends, animals

Abandon all their money each year.
What is it that men and women leave?
Harder than wren’s doing, they have
To abandon their longing for the perfect.

The inner nest not made by instinct
Will never be quite round
And each has to enter the nest
Made by the other imperfect bird.
~ Robert Bly, “Listening to the Koln Concert”

On our 40th anniversary, just days before his death, he withered in a hospital bed in Strong Hospital in Rochester. I turned off my cell phone, closed the door to the hallway, and sat by his side. He had no voice, so I read our poems to him. First Benton, then Bly. I put my arms around him and we wept over our coming separation, but we had weathered a life together and emerged with our passion and idealism intact.

“I don’t know what will happen to me,” Vic whispered, “but I know I love you.”

***

What poems create a container for your love? I hope you enjoy reading some of my other blogs about marriage and loss, such as Continuing Bonds, Speeding to Strong Cancer Center, or Creating a Grief Ritual.

23 Comments
  1. The poems that speak most to my own loss aren’t contained in words but cycles of the moon, the sun and stars. Sharing these exquisite words of poetry to convey, not just contain, your expression of love and compassion is a gift to me as a reader and widow. Thanks. You continue to inspire and blaze a path for others who walk a similar trail along grief.

  2. So beautiful, Elaine! Vic comes alive for me in these reflections and I’m very grateful. xoxo Liz.

  3. Oh sure now.you.just.made me cry on my am bus.commute..love gita

    • Gita, what an honor that you are reading my post on your ride. You’ve spent a lot of time on that commuter bus this week. I’m grateful it’s available and eagerly await hearing what happens today.

  4. Crying too. Wow.

  5. This is so moving to me, and affirming of the role of poetry in helping us express the ineffable, hold the uncontainable. Years ago, I was in a Ribert Bosnak workshop with the two of you, and was touched and impressed by you both. Sending my appreciation…

  6. (I meant “Robert” of course.)

  7. Elaine, I cried as I read this, reliving your joy and pain as well as my own.

    Thank you.

    • Thank you, Lynne, for reading and letting me know this touched your joy and loss. Love is so much more complicated than I thought when I was 21 and first met Vic.

  8. Elaine, I so love how the erotic and the spiritual are expressed in your posting. It’s such a powerful combination – different frequencies of the same vibration.

    • Thanks for that observation, Pat. You show me what you’re getting from my words–and that makes me a better writer. Yes, eroticism and spirituality were strong in this relationship. What a gift!

  9. Here’s one, dear Elaine, evoked by this post and an Image of dear Vic . . . hope you enjoy.

    I follow him around the room.
    He’s hunched a little forward,
    As if carrying some precious item
    In his chest.

    Humor in the way his head wags a little,
    A rumble of respect, somewhere
    In the low portion of my spine.

    He’s pointing at a bald man, shining face;
    Behind glasses the eyes question
    An answer, and nothing at all.

    ‘Take note of this one, my friend.’
    ‘My friend’ has so much warmth in it
    That some shining rises in my chest.

    And fills my face.
    ‘He’s connected to the lineage
    Of Suffering and its Dissolution and Return.’ I can only smile.

    What is it that sparks such things?
    The Friend is there.
    How do we tell when it is real?
    The Friend lets you know.
    When will I see The Friend again?
    When you are seeing.

    • Beautiful and deeply moving, Fred. Thank you for this gift. Look forward to seeing you soon and asking questions about the images. That’s me. Always questions.

  10. Since I became a student of the subject of grief and loss, sometimes I get odd reactions from friends/family when I talk about the books I read. I am so taken with poignant expression; I’m in awe when people share such personal experiences ~ like you have done ~ so authentically. Here’s just one example: “It is ironic how grief has a way of thrusting you into the present. Grief would take me deeply inward across boundaries I had never gone in myself, places I feared most. The biggest initial hurdle, I came to understand, is Surrender. I did not understand it at first, but surrender would be my access to healing – surrender to the permanent unchangeable fact of my loss; surrender to the end of our sweet life. Surrender to what IS, not to what was or might have been. Surrender was both a process and a path. My choice was only to take it, or resist.” That’s from Kristine Carlson’s book ~ Heartbroken Open.

    Thanks for sharing your written expression of love and loss ~ Bookends of a Marriage. It was so lovely.

    • Lynne, thank you for your encouragement and for the quote from Kristine Carlson’s book. I agree that surrender to grief is the only way through loss–and that through acceptance, we grievers (everyone at one time or another) can experience a heart-opening initiation into deeper layers of self and new paths in life. I lead a Hospice bereavement group for women who lost partners or spouses called “Standing in Our New Lives.” These women agree that it’s necessary to accept, let in the painful reality of what is, and build anew from there. And I haven’t heard one woman say that she would give up the love she still experiences to save herself from heartbreak.

  11. Thank you for inviting me to your blog. I always knew how much you loved each other. And I know
    what happened to you will happen to all of us who
    love deeply and yet you, and I and all who experience this kind of commitment would never exchange it for anything else, despite the inevitable
    suffering.

    • You are so right, Julianna. Wouldn’t exchange it for anything. And of course it wasn’t all love and sunshine, but also arguments (mostly fair) and irritation and compromise. But when Vic got sick, all the other stuff dropped away and love is what remained. I miss him, but also see that new and surprising parts of me develop now that I’m on my own. I honor your good, long marriage, too.

  12. Oh, Elaine. You’ve left me in a puddle of tears ~ again. Poignant and beautiful. Thank you . . .

Leave a Reply