You can see the school girl when she starts the story. You can see the girl she was when she talks about meeting him.
“I had this job at the university,” she says. “I had to fill all the condiments at dinner. The bottles at the tables. And I was supposed to wipe the tables. Students were responsible for taking their trays and dishes back, and for their trash, but a lot of them left their trays for me to clear too.
He always brought a large group of friends. And everyone sat around him like he was the focal point. And he stayed later and later as the semester went on. For a while his friends stayed later with him, and then they started leaving and he stayed and helped me clean up. He took the trays and offered to walk me back to my dorm. And then he was there every night. There was never anyone else.”
It’s the kind of love story you hear in romantic comedies. So sweet and specific that it can’t be true. Her face when she told me this story, more than forty years later, the way she loves him with the same wistful devotion, the way it makes her a girl again. The way love struck her. This is what I’ve been thinking about since he died on Friday. It isn’t fair. People are supposed to get some good fortune and some bad fortune. We’re supposed to experience the entire spectrum of human experience — the suffering and the triumph. And it isn’t fair. There aren’t enough love stories like hers that sustain themselves for forty years. Fifty years. Sixty years.
I’m so sad. I want to write her a letter, but I can’t. It’s her love story that breaks my heart. It isn’t his death, tragic as that is. It’s the love I mourn for. My beautiful friend. Her beautiful heart. What happens to that glow inside you — the glow of love — what happens afterward? Where do you go afterward? How do you get up out of bed, and drink your coffee, and talk to people, and tell the story over and over and eat a sandwich, and put on clothes and drive your car? How do you keep being human? We’re failing all the time.
I need to go outside and dig a hole. I was supposed to finish the front yard a month ago, and then I tried to cut off my thumb, and earned myself a respite, but it’s healed for the most part and I need to finish digging. The ceremony is not lost on me. Chop wood, carry water. Our whole lives could be grief if we let them. Our lives could be an endless processional for the things that fade. The people who go too early. The unfairness of it all. I have to go dig a hole because that’s what I have to do. But there is no better place to bury my sadness than in the earth. The leaves like coins in the sunlight. The Virgin Mary still and benevolent in the garden. The bell chiming on the porch.
She got her love story for 40 years. And I’m sorry. And I’m happy. And I’m angry. And I love her. And I love him. And I take breaks to cry, to remember. That man could bowl like nobody’s business. He had the most ridiculous laugh. He told me he had been trying to read the same book about Roman history for 30 years but never could get more than midway through. Make peace where you can. Make peace where you can. Make peace where you can.