Wednesday, June 30, 2010

long gone

A long time I have lived with you
And now we must be going
Separately to be together.

-- Nancy Woods

She dreamed that they were in a boat together on a calm sea, he at one end and she at the other, under a warm sun, in a mild breeze. The boat was of gold and the sea was of blue.

Then the boat split in two. The sea poured in and both of them were sinking. The parts were still joined by two golden chains. She had golden shears, and she cut the chains with them. The two halves of the boat drifted apart, but as their tracks diverged they both were healed. Each part became a whole; each part floated safely on separate currents. His boat receded, and receded, into a region of cobalt blue. She was enveloped in orange light. She came to a dock, and disembarked. She found that she was in a crowd of people, who looked out with her into the blue – that cobalt blue where he had gone. He had gone to sea, and she had come safe to land. She was not alone in the orange light of evening. Or was it morning? Or was it mourning?

She told me her dream a few days before he died. In the telling, she was already distancing herself from it. The telling of a dream requires what Freud called a secondary revision. And by the time I tell it to you, it becomes tertiary – or maybe quaternary. I’ve already selected the elements and filtered the affect according to my own prejudice. But this, for what it’s worth, is what I see in it.

It is a brave and living dream. This was not her first time; she had loved two husbands, each for a quarter of a century. When the time comes, she will be buried between them. In losing the second, she was living the first loss again. The details came back to her, in a kind of re-presentation called abreaction. She didn’t know whether she could bear it. She asked for help. She told her story.

She didn’t cover her grief. She was doing, I think, just fine. She didn’t cling to him. She wouldn’t be drowned, or let their love be deathly. She cut the chains. The two of them would be safe only if they separated. She let him go to the place where he had to go, and she came back among us.

I’ve never seen such courage. She joyfully paid the price of love. She had broken her heart, and offered it again, and it was breaking again, and she let herself bleed.

And what, I ask, is the alternative? Never to venture from the land, never to feel the sea wind in your face, never to travel on ocean currents that exceed our plans to fix them.

There’s a fairy-tale phrase that we grow up with, but after a time we must grow out of – “they lived happily ever after.” The happy ever after is what comes after the story’s problem has resolved, after the prince and his true love have married. But as grownups know, that is just the beginning of their troubles. Even if their love is true, the course of it cannot run smooth.

I grew up with the “adventures” of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. These were not real adventures. No Nelson ever traveled anywhere. Nothing important ever happened. Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky were stuck in a living death, the happy ever after. They lived to numb themselves; the pitchers of martinis were always just outside the frame. The purpose of the story was to prevent any passion, and offer reassurance to a traumatized public that it’s good enough to venture nothing.

The generation that devised these entertainments and gave them to the children was the one called “greatest,” the generation who, abused by Depression and by War, set out to make a world where adventures were forbidden. They told us their story in movies, in public monuments, and in television network documentaries narrated by war correspondents. These correspondents later became our TV anchormen. We could never match their story, because new stories were against the law – the code of grey flannel suits, of housewives who cleaned house wearing pearl necklaces, and of loyalty oaths. Because our parents had been through hell and partially survived, we were all required to be happy ever after.

Ozzie and Harriet are long gone. In kindness I hope that whichever of them lived to lose the other had a genuine grief. Some say that death is the wage of sin. But grief, I say, is the deposit and the proof of love.

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