People ask me if I’d like to meet another man and start a new relationship. They ask this hesitantly, gingerly, as if maybe they shouldn’t bring it up. The first thing I have to do is assure them that this is not a delicate topic, they’re not going to see a horrified look on my face as if they’re suggesting something unimaginable. No, I tell them, imagine it by all means–and then let me know if you know someone I should meet.
I did try to meet someone in the modern way, online. Puny gleanings for the energy (and quarterly membership fees) it took. A few nice men, usually far away, and unless you fall massively in love, neither the other person nor you are often ready to get into a car and drive and drive just for a spontaneous cup of coffee or even dinner, the little steps that are often part of any courtship. I met an interesting man locally, but in today’s parlance, he was just not that into me.
Ironically enough, it was during the first few years after Bernie’s death that I felt the greatest urgency to meet someone new. I’m still not clear what fueled that. On the one hand, I was still grieving, processing lots of impressions and memories, and on the other I was trying to build a new future. Little sensitivity given to the present.
And then I did one of my periodic historical clean-ups, as I call them, going through many items Bernie and I had, and found a photograph of him and me in the garage of our home. I’ve shown this before on my blog, maybe wrote about it. It was taken on the day they took the ramp away from our garage because Bernie was now able to take steps from the car rather than needing a wheelchair, which also meant that he could come up the stairs and sleep in our bedroom instead of downstairs in the makeshift bedroom in his office.
He still walked tenderly and carefully, no sensation in his right foot at all (it would never come back)—but he walked. It sounds like a small thing, but anyone who’s been through this can tell you that when someone passes that milestone, you want to throw a birthday party to end all birthday parties. So, after the ramp was taken out Rami Efal took this photo of us both by the back steps to the kitchen, looking ecstatic. Looking triumphant.
I’d always thought our relationship would have an Act 2. Act 1 was mostly about Zen Peacemakers: bearing witness retreats, the move to California and then Massachusetts, my beginning to teach, Bernie changing his teaching, building a new headquarters up here, giving up on a new headquarters, talking every minute of the day (it seemed) about how to make things work.
Act 2, I thought, would consist of a more personal life, a more private life in which we’d pay more attention to each other, own and explore our couplehood deeper, enjoy getting older together with less distraction.
Instead, Bernie had a big stroke on January 11, 2016, 11 days after I began a year’s sabbatical from teaching. Just one side of his body functioned. It changed everything. Work was no longer the big theme, coping was. And while he triumphed over the ramp and the steps and the wheelchair, crashes happened, too. A year later he was still working hard for snail’s pace progress; he had to exercise a lot just to retain some mobility.
When he died, he died suddenly. No chance to say goodbye. Certainly, no chance for an Act 2.
I looked at the photo for a long time and put it on the main altar in the living room. I see it every day. As soon as I did that, I lost all sense of urgency about meeting someone. I dropped out of the online dating site and left the whole thing up in the air, as if I’d come to terms and no longer felt the need to stay in a dark room endlessly retrieving and processing memories. We’d had our life, it had been very, very good, and there was no need to look elsewhere for something to make up the loss. Loss was an endemic part of having.
Still, I’d like to meet someone new. In our family there was no good model for couplehood, it took years of on-the-job practice and training, and I wish I could put what I learned to use. The writer Iris Murdoch wrote: “The tragic freedom implied by love is this: that we all have an indefinitely extended capacity to imagine the being of others. Tragic, because there is no prefabricated harmony, and others are, to an extent we never cease discovering, different from ourselves.“
More briefly, she wrote: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” If I have needs, wants, dreams, things I care about, the other person does, too. The other person is as real as I am. In Zen terms that may mean not real at all, and if so, we’re all equally unreal. Loving someone else means growing and expanding my capacity to imagine a being in all his fullness other than me—and, at the same time, completely different from me.
It took me many years to make that turn, and even after Bernie’s leaving, I’d like to keep on making that turn all the time.