Parents: some day you might have the pleasure of joining your children on college tours. You will walk with them beneath sturdy elms and past neoclassical structures named for decidedly non-ethnic people from days past. You’ll soak in the honor of helping your excited offspring decide where to spend your money to serve a thinly-veiled agenda of ditching you. When that day comes, this could be its least festive highlight:
Love is strong as death.
That’s the inscription on my alma mater’s clock tower. Love is strong as death. The 16-year-old me was instantly suspicious. If love is strong as death, that’s a tie. Meaning that the best thing you will ever have in this life is no stronger than the worst thing that will happen in this life: the loss of a loved one. Fan-freaking-tastic.
I somehow overcame the bleak future presented on the Carrie Tower at Brown, and instructed my parents to send them my money, buy me some extra-long twin sheets, and get out of my face. My seventeen-year-old freshman self accepted that while love might not win out over death, sex, unscheduled Wednesdays, and my first hours hanging out in a coffee shop were sufficient to avert a major existential crisis. Back when my breasts and buttocks were closer to my brain, I spent less time thinking.
This is my “somebody died and I’m scared” moment. I’m 39, my husband is 45, and I am helplessly watching my neck’s and boobs’ growing estrangement. Somebody died, and I’m scared. I didn’t know her well: she was my husband’s cousin’s wife. Like us, they met in middle age. They were together 14 years, having planned on a lifetime. They got one—her lifetime. Over at 50.
At 53 he got another. So far it has been all about death and love. And catering, and accepting hugs and condolences, and apologizing for death’s inconveniences—travel, standing in the cold, fumbling over what to say to the people you hadn’t met. It’s been a reverse wedding, the widower thanking guests for joining him as he begins life without her. It’s been about the hollow thud of the first shovelful of soil hitting a casket. When life really stops. It’s been forgetting that sound, which is the only way to continue.
It’s knowing that there’s an empty apartment waiting when the crowd disperses.
Next will be healing and adjusting, though how these things will happen we can’t say. Rebuilding, certainly. But what? All that is certain is that even if love survives death, companionship does not.
Someone’s spouse has died, and because I love my own, I’m scared. We say we couldn’t survive a day without the other, but we must, so we will. Love and death are tied, but life inevitably wins out—for someone.
I freely confess that this doesn’t make me think about my daughter at all. Like every parent—including those whom I just witnessed burying their late daughter—I expect to pre-decease her. If I’ve done right by her, she’ll miss me but love her life and the people in it too much to remain heartbroken for long. If I’ve done my job well, she will be mad at me because I took so few pictures of us, leaving her little to show her own kids. To which I say, screw you. I paid for college.