Tuesday, November 28, 2006

21. Tending the Garden

I was working in the office the other day when a coworker/friend popped his head over my cubicle wall and said, “Do you have a minute?” His eyes were twinkly as he swung around the corner and knelt next to my chair.

“Do you remember what you told me that night we went to dinner after John died? How your heart is like a garden? How new love can grow next to the love for the one who’s gone? Well, you were right.”

Tom was describing an analogy I use when talking about grief and recovery and, yes, new love after you’ve lost the most precious love of your life. In Tom’s case, he and John had been partners for something like 20 years. In fact, when John, whom I met first, initially described Tom, it was so long ago that he referred to Tom as “my girlfriend.” We were co-workers, and he was leery of exposing his homosexuality.

It was something that always gave me a chuckle after John finally introduced Tom. No matter how you feel about it, I can tell you that this was a long-term, committed relationship built upon mutual love and respect. Two people could not have cared more for each other.

So it was a shock when John went into the hospital for exploratory surgery for some unexplained symptoms and the stunning outcome was to learn that his body was riddled with cancer. The lymphoma was so severe and widespread that he would not leave the hospital, not even for hospice care.

John was 50. There began in those final days a parade of family members and coworkers to keep vigil and to share their feelings and support with Tom and one another. Even as John lay dying, he mustered the strength to spend a few final moments with each of us. Even people like me, who were not part of his inner circle of friends, but who cared deeply for him as a coworker. John was this great, big, sunny Italian guy, and it was so shocking to think that we were losing him like this.

In contrast, Tom was more the quiet type, at least when I was around. He seemed the button-down counterweight to John’s exuberance. I was frankly concerned about him. I wasn’t sure he’d find the wherewithal to recover, to work through his grief, much less to love again.

But here he was, kneeling next to me and talking about the new man in his life. Or more precisely, how the new man was sympathetic and understanding of Tom’s need to talk about John and to celebrate certain occasions. Tom held out his hand to show me a ring that had been John’s.

“Can you believe it’s been three years?” he said, looking vibrant and healthy. I was surprised. It hadn’t seemed that long. “For the three-year anniversary, my friend and I are going out to dinner, and I decided to wear John’s ring today in remembrance.” Not only that, he told me, he was taking the new friend to his and Tom’s favorite vacation spot in Hawaii. In fact, Tom had spread John’s ashes there in accordance with his final wishes.

On that occasion, one of those “is it mystical, or is it a coincidence?” moments occurred. You can drive yourself crazy trying to discover whether the consciousness of those have passed lives on, whether they can influence the material world. I’ve certainly had my moments with Gregory, and Mario has had his with Izzy. But when you try to scrutinize them with a cold, scientific eye, they become ephemeral and like a riddle in a riddle in a riddle.

John had requested that his ashes be released into the ocean. As Tom stood at the water’s edge and let them fly, he looked out on the horizon to see three whales jumping up out of the waves in unison. It gave him chills. He’s never seen anything like it before or since.

Mario was able to take Izzy’s ashes to Assisi in Italy. I had wanted, along with Gregory’s cousins, to spread Gregory’s ashes at places that were important to him. In my case, it was an accomplishment just to get Gregory cremated. Aurora was Catholic. She had a family plot in a prestigious cemetery. (Yes, status can extend beyond the grave.) Although the thought of that beautiful body consumed in flames was not a pleasant one, I knew it was what Gregory would have wanted. “I don’t want to be buried,” he said, “all dressed up with no place to go.”

Having succeeded with the cremation (my daughter would say that Gregory went to the “creamery”), Gregory’s ashes had come to rest on Aurora’s fireplace mantle. Finally, her neighbor pulled me aside and begged me to let Aurora “bury” Gregory in the family plot. It was killing her to stare at the box and contemplate Gregory’s remains inside.

I agreed. For that matter, I could not have stopped her. One of the lessons of death is that much of what we do in its wake is for the living. If Aurora could rest better with the box of ashes in the ground, well, so be it.

All of this came stirring up as Tom talked effusively of his new relationship and his ability to hold his new love side-by-side in his heart with the old. Love doesn’t die. And love need never be crowded out to make room for another.

Tulips and Forget-Me-Nots


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