Grief is a sacred journey

Until It’s Time for You to Go: 1967

On a bitter March afternoon after my Chinese government seminar at Cornell, I hurry down the hill toward Seneca Street. I stomp up the crooked wooden steps to Vic’s apartment, grateful to be out of the wind. He greets me at the door with a hang-dog expression.

“I’m sorry, Elaine. This is too much, too fast. I don’t want to hurt you.”

My heart clenches, but I know the routine. He puts my suitcase and bag of books on the back seat of his battered black VW bug and drives me to my empty apartment. I spend a night crying instead of studying. Then at 2 am, he calls.

“I made a mistake. Please come back.”

Alone after midnight, Vic has been listening to Buffy Sainte-Marie sing our song.

You’re not a dream
You’re not an angel
You’re a man
I’m not a queen
I’m a woman
Take my hand
We’ll make a space
In the lives that we planned
And here we’ll stay
Until it’s time for you to go

As usual, Buffy’s love potion fills him with longing and softens his fear, or maybe he’s just horny. Either way, I’m willing.

In early April, he breaks up with me again. I cry until dawn, but he doesn’t call. In the morning, I walk across the Cornell Quad to my favorite study nook in Uris Library and stare out the window overlooking Cayuga Lake. In a few hours, Vic shows up.

“Elaine, come to my apartment?” he whispers, more urgent than apologetic. “We need to talk.”

“I can’t do this,” I whine. “It hurts too much, and besides I’ll flunk out.”

“Come on, Elaine. I need to tell you something. Things have changed.”

I don’t trust him, but go back to his apartment anyway. He proudly shows me a letter he received that morning from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They agreed to fund his trip to a physics conference in Germany in July. Standing in his tiny kitchen, I lean into his muscular solidity, inhale the smell of Old Spice, and foolishly agree to live with him a few more months. Then he’ll go to Germany and I’ll go to Berkeley for graduate school.

We have scrumptious Golden Delicious apples and juicy sex for dinner.

The closer we get to the date of Vic’s flight, the more I cry. We both cry now, weeping while we make love until sorrow displaces desire with misery. When I board a bus in July, I fear I’ll never see him again.

I visit my grandparents in Ohio before going west. Alarmed by my swollen-eyed grief, Grandma sets me up with an embroidery hoop, a needle, and a candy tin full of colored thread. She sits in her small rocking chair embroidering pink flowers on a pillow case. I sit opposite her embroidering a white square of cloth with two stick figures, one with a red beard and black curls and the other with straight brown hair. The cartoon figures hold hands, smile, and dance. It’s silly and girlish, but I mail it to Vic’s conference address anyway.

After a few weeks of Grandma’s comfort, I fly to San Francisco. I stall out in Palo Alto, move in with my brother, and get a job helping a professor with research—typing and filing mostly. Even though I registered for an intensive semester of Chinese language, I avoid Berkeley. I’m not interested in speaking Chinese. I don’t care about graduate school, haven’t figured out how to pay for it, neglected to apply for a scholarship, and do not have a place to live. I fret and wait.

Safely across the ocean in Germany with no strings attached, the needlework demolishes Vic’s resistance. When he returns to Ithaca, he calls me in Palo Alto.

“Please come back to Ithaca. I miss you.”

“Only if we live together,” I insist. “You’ll have to talk with me when you feel trapped, because there won’t be any place for me to go.”

When my plane leaves San Francisco, I do not look back. I don’t care about missed academic opportunities. I have just turned 22, and I am sure. Absolutely sure.

This love of mine
Had no beginning
It has no end
I was an oak
Now I’m a willow
Now I can bend
And though I’ll never
in my life
see you again
Still I’ll stay
until it’s time for you to go

***

You might enjoy these other blogs about love and life in the 1960s: Bookends of a Marriage and At Peace Bridge: 1967.

22 Comments
  1. Luscious and beauty filled.
    thank you once again Elaine!

    • Life is full of hard knocks. It’s good to remember the delicious parts–but there were hard knocks then, too. We both learned how to love, and that’s what counts.

  2. Jesus Christ, Elaine! Once again I am weeping while reading…you are truly a gifted writer. Don’t stop (stop).

    • Thank you, Gail. I get a little embarrassed about telling these intimate stories, but I’m getting used to it. Love is good. I won’t stop.

  3. Hi to a Buffy fan

    • Hello to you in the UK. I recently read that Buffy wrote this song for her alcoholic husband, even though she never knew when he would disappear. Once my husband surrendered to love, he didn’t disappear until his death, but love stories always end in separation, one way or other. Buffy seemed to understand the inherent sadness of life, and I loved and love her for that.

  4. Anthony made me read this at dinner. I couldn’t stop the tears. I am living this. Thanks for making me not feel alone.

    • Oh, dear Veronica. I’m sorry. I hope your lives settle into clarity. It’s hard not knowing where things are going, but it is a tumultuous time for everyone I know. I love Pema Chodron’s approach: Be curious.
      Your SF blog was wonderful, by the way. Sending love your way.

  5. I’m with Gail (althoug weeping in my office isn’t very professional). Stop. Don’t stop. Such beauty in your words, Elaine. So much to soak up about love.

  6. Elaine, thanks for bringing back Buffy’s words–I loved her then, too. And thanks for the beautiful story of you and Vic–so young, yet so clearly right to be together.

    • Thanks, Lynn. I hear the words to that song in my head these days, perfect for any kind of leaving–breaking up, betrayal, or the unstoppable departure of death. I didn’t think of it that way in my twenties, but now I know.

  7. I knew the words to this song when it first came out and the tune came into my head when I read the lyrics of Buffy St. Marie’s song. But until this moment, its meaning for me in my own grief had not been so obvious. I am a willow.

  8. god that’s incredibly beautiful. and i m an atheist
    tears in my eyes. thank you elaine

  9. how do i share to the book of face?

    • You figured that out, yes? If that little Facebook icon at the bottom doesn’t do your bidding, then copy the link into the “What’s on your mind box?” at FB. Thanks again.

  10. Dear Elaine,
    You share your heart so openly and generously! Rufus mentioned that I would enjoy your blog (having lost my partner of ten years last March)–he was right. This one speaks to me loudly right now…I’ve twice lost my nerve as this new love unfolds. But all the barriers and challenges seem to be dissolving like soap bubbles. I appreciate your sharing the memories of first love, and lasting love!
    Thank you. Ava

    • Thank you, Ava. It’s nice to hear from you (and to be connected to Rufus on FB after many years of only knowing he was somewhere in CA). Thanks for your comments on my story. I’m happy you are finding love again. Seems to me that there are always barriers and challenges, but in some cases for mysterious reasons of the heart, we are willing to take a chance and make ourselves vulnerable for the sake of sweetness. I hope all goes well for you–and for the two of you.
      Warmly, Elaine

  11. Dear Elaine,

    You are such a wonderful writer. I read Leaning Into Love in one sitting and started again from the beginning, immediately. I wish I could walk to the knoll with you, see the lupine, give Willow a hug. You have much to teach and you have achieved my greatest aspiration: grace.

    Would you send me your mailing address? I would like to give you some of Leonard’s poetry.

    If you are inundated with reading, I will understand.

    Thank you,as always,
    Ava

    thank you for the gift of your story. I am encouraging my loved ones to read it, too.

    • Dear Ava,

      I’m basking in your love and support, Ava. Seems when we love intensely in this life, we must also grieve intensely. I’m glad to send you my address and will do that by email. I look forward to reading more of Leonard’s poetry. I’ve read a little on line. If you send your address, I’ll send a copy of Vic’s last book if you’d like it: Modern Physics and Tibetan Buddhism: Toward a Union of Love and Knowledge. It’s written for nonscientists (like me) and his devotion to Buddhism and the Dalai Lama shines through every page. The Dalai Lama wrote the introduction.

      Thank you for telling others about my book. Because I’m an unknown writer, word of mouth is so important and helpful.

      With love and sisterhood,
      Elaine

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