Love stories are most often told from the beginning — from before love has stolen into the hearts of unsuspecting strangers or friends or perhaps even bitter enemies. Love stories mostly tell of the delicious, exhilarating fall, as gravity shifts and orbits realign. As spring bursts into shocking blossom with bees in attendance and nests overfull with the sharp insistent beaks of new and hungry life, and then the slow spreading warmth of summer, its steady blaze and drowsy hum a soothing, timeless sun-drenched hammock.
The love story I’m thinking of today, however, I first knew in its autumn, with the longed-for children suddenly grown and offspring of their own (one of which am I), the work mostly done, the leaves crackling on the wind and quiet hands held across the armchairs. Oh there was travel, and social functions, and community service, and family gatherings, and all the richness that years of striving can build, but remains somewhat invisible to the young and unattuned eye.
What I noticed more than this, and later on, was the winter. The warmth and marriage and children of my own prompted my awareness of love that had gone before, of archetypes echoing bittersweetly all around, particularly in my own family tree. Cushioned in the softness of young motherhood, I gazed at my grandparents with newfound awe, so brittle with age but soft in their way, gnarled hand patting gnarled hand and a few scant words somehow uttering great and epic sentences, whole histories conveyed with smile or shrug between pills and long naps.
I watched them quietly delight in what they had made together, this family, this life. Their eyes danced in their feeble and tired bodies. They shuffled and wheeled about their daily life, met each pain in passing, noting the physical diminishments with resignation and grace, accepting the small mercies and pleasures with gratitude.
And then the snow began to fall in earnest. Hospitalizations, complications, setbacks. Unreachable pain. Separation. Frozen apart, frozen in time, no hope of a thaw. Utter, fathomless fatigue.
We did what one does at the bedside of death. We sat with her for days, husband and sons and daughters and grandchildren, learning her body anew even as it wasted away, memorizing the rhythm of her breath, the hue of her translucent skin, watching her pulse leap its uncertain dance, a thread connecting now to now to now, each iteration in wonderment of the next. We named our love, showed her our grief, thanked her for the gift she had been, promised we would go on together, that she had taught us well. Her still-blue eyes peered at us like twin stars, reflecting the icy fire of worlds in the making, until at last she sank into tremulous sleep, and remained there, both distant and near, for days.
And then she was gone.
Her husband, my grandfather… I don’t think I’m ready yet to give words to what he did. He is mostly silent, and perhaps feels mostly alone now. I don’t know. Their story is largely unknowable to me, and what continues on for him, in him, I can only imagine. The winter of his love was harsh, and while I hope there will be spring again on some faraway shore, I cannot know it for certain.