The early morning hours of March 16th were some of the hardest, loneliest I’ve ever faced. I’m not going to share exactly what was happening–that’s too intimate–but suffice to say that I was trying to keep my beloved on the life raft in the midst of a stormy sea.
Richard was restless and not in this reality. I talked him back to this world several times and tried to get him to sleep. I thought he would be safest if he stayed in our bed. The bed became like a life raft, a small safe square. I was bone weary, but slept diagonally across the bed so that I could feel if he moved. I slept with my hand holding his wrist and the instant my hand grasped his, I remembered two things: Theodore Gericault’s painting, “The Raft of the Medusa”:
and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Sonnet XXX”:
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.
I recalled the painting because of its despair, panic, confusion. It was in one of the art books I had as a small child and the image has never left me. When I got to college and took art history, I learned the story behind the scene. One hundred and fifty desperate people, clinging to a rickety raft after their ship was lost off Mauritania. They endured two weeks in the open ocean and faced starvation and madness. Some resorted to cannibalism. Only fourteen survived. Even as a child looking at Gericault’s painting, I understood the horror of the situation. My college professor was the first one to point out to me the tiny ship on the horizon. Every fiber of effort on the raft is focused on reaching for the hope of the distant ship. A life raft, filled with death and madness all around, but a single dot of hope so far out on the horizon. This is the image that came to my mind as I clung to Richard’s wrist, in the dark, on our life raft.
Along with the image of the raft came Millay’s line “Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink/And rise and sink and rise and sink again.” Just a few weeks earlier, I had been thumbing through a poetry anthology in search of something to read at our wedding. This poem was about love in its most steadfast form, but I couldn’t bring myself to say the line about “Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,/Nor clean the blood.” I couldn’t say it. We had tried everything to clean his blood and every science betrayed us. But the poem came back to me that night with its image of the spar, the wood we drowning folks cling to in order to rise, even though we may sink again.
Loving someone is hard. Loving someone as they die is hard. Some people walk away–“I might be driven to sell your love for peace.” I did not. I would not trade the memory of that night. I know I would not.