My wife passed away last January... Humans of New York, February 1, 2016.
62 years. When we hear about long marriages we are in awe; more so these days than we might have been maybe three or four decades ago before the divorce rate went through the ceiling and we say things like 'congratulations', or 'that's amazing', or ask the question, 'how did you do it?' In our heads we may be thinking other things. We may be thinking, 'what did it take to keep that going?', or 'how miserable were they really?', or 'who gave up what in the relationship?', or, even, 'oh, god, how bloody awful.' I've heard these words spoken out loud after the fact, whispered or spoken boldly; it's always about our own fears or self-perceived failures. We know virtually nothing about the couple in question.
When I left my first marriage the greatest loss was the future and the second was continuity. Or maybe it's the other way around. It's hard to say; they're almost equal in value. I've almost given up telling my friends to really stop and think about what they're really giving up when they contemplate divorce. The weight of continuity, the loss of the future is such a hard thing to explain.
I remember this book from the seventies, I'm OK, You're OK. First published in 1969, this was probably the most popular self-help book of the decade. What I remember most, because I've only read excerpts, are the responses to the book which seemed to be a gradual movement toward self-orientation which was a phrase once used in my direction to tell me I had my head up my ass (I probably did) or that I was being particularly self-centered at the moment. I am going somewhere with this (and I'm not blaming the book).
Theoretically I learned that relationship was made up of three parts, two people plus the relationship which exists as an entity unto itself. The relationship is only as good as what you put into it and also, theoretically, one person can hold that relationship together although I imagine it wouldn't be particularly pleasant for that one person who would be doing double the work. What I haven't seen are very many marriages, and I'm not saying they don't exist because I've seen some pretty extraordinary evidence to the contrary, where the relationship exists as a third entity. Mostly I see two people living in a conditional set of circumstances. I am me, you are you (and I'm OK and you're OK) and as long as we're both getting what we want and need out of this, we're OK. Sometimes that goes on for a long time; sometimes not so long. My second marriage was one of those really short ones; it lasted three years. That marriage was extraordinarily conditional, at least on my part; I honestly have no idea what he was thinking. He may not have known either. I don't think we were/are all that unique.
And I do wonder how it's done. I understand in theory. I asked a friend once who'd been married for thirty-five years at the time and I couldn't tell if she was joking or not when she said, inertia. I suppose that could get you through some hard times. It isn't as if I don't understand what I'm losing when a relationship comes apart; I truly do and in some cases it's harder.
Saying good-bye, that first moment, or first moments is not the hardest part. It can be horrifically awful. I sat on the floor and cried with my first husband for an entire day about the loss of our future and each other. I nearly lost my mind when David left although a lot of that can be chalked up to nearly needing to be back in the hospital by the time he left. The letting go is harder because of the things that jump up and bite you in the ass. The man who was married for 62 years has nailed it about love, I think. It isn't about physical attraction, it's a different sort of intimacy entirely. It's about what happens inside the relationship. These are the things that jump out of you because the relationship is still standing there when one or both of you walk away. It doesn't just crumble to the ground. It's in the taste and texture of a memory, shared food and a conversation. It's in the smell of bay leaves I had to remove from the house for several years because they took me back to Rome. Leaving Yankee Stadium in the seventh inning because my ob was afraid I'd go into labor if Bernie hit one out of the park. It's in the memory of the R and N roads of Ireland and a three story walk up just off Route 8. It's in binge watching Game of Thrones and an unfinished story, it's hiking through the back way into the forest, canning tomatoes, moving soil, and the taste of raspberry jam. It's Flurry for the first time and the taste of blended spices in chicken on rice and licorice in a plastic bag. It's knitting on the floor and looking up every once in a while, it's painting a 600 square foot room pale lavender and finding out it was really battleship grey and deciding to live with it. It's the birth of three children, it's the knowing there won't be another. It's a chicken coop full of chickens associated first with one relationship and then dammit, with the next. It's the loss of a beloved St. Bernard who didn't belong to me in the first place but did in the end. A bicycle, a snow blower, two books I got to keep, sea glass I don't actually possess, a spiral, that tattoo on my back I forget I have until someone mentions it on the dance floor.
These are the reminders of relationship, of continuity, of the future. They are the things which exist inside us, some things we may never have noticed directly which come flying out of nowhere bumping in the night, or brush gently against our faces breaking our hearts wide open all over again.
While we sat crying on the kitchen floor, my first husband sobbed, 'but we haven't had our time in the sun'. He was correct. We'd worked so hard to get as far was we were and suddenly it was over, this future we were building. This was the loss of the future and everything we'd been through since I was nineteen and he was twenty-five, these things were the loss of the future and in leaving I left behind the continuity. I had no idea how much that was going to cost me.
In every significant relationship I have lost, we have lost this thing called relationship which contained continuity and the future. All of these things exist in memory as reminders until they wash away and sometimes it takes a damn long time. I think that man will carry the weight of those 62 years for the rest of his life. How can he not?
OK, I know what you're thinking, how many years does he have left? Does it matter?
I do wonder if it's harder for some people than others but I can't imagine it isn't there.