One sunny Sunday afternoon in November of 2004, Richard and I took a walk down to Fell’s Point in Baltimore. We sat on a bench by the harbor and watched the gulls dip and dive around the trash cans. A bright white paddlewheel boat–The Black Eyed Susan–rocked against the dock. I told him how the flower, black eyed Susan, always made me think of Van Morisson’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” I sang the chorus.
A pack of Cub Scouts climbed up to the bridge to ring the brass bell. The sun was warm but weak. I was glad for my jacket. The boys rang the bell then chased each other down the ladder to the deck then the dock then across the brick courtyard behind us. The sunlight sparkled off the diamond engagement ring that Richard had given me a few months before. His grandfather Jack had given it to his grandmother Sadie in 1927 and she had worn it for 75 years. Now he had given it to me as a sign of his trust in our commitment to each other. We held hands and I remember thinking, “I’m really happy, right now. Right here.”
Then a phrase entered my mind and it stayed with me for years: “It’s all one life.” It’s all one life.
Here’s the detail that’s missing from the scene I’ve described above. Richard was feeling pretty good that day after his third round of chemo, but it hadn’t put him into remission. He told me a half-truth that week, so as not to break my heart with disappointment and fear. He said his doctors were calling it a “partial remission.” It didn’t take.
We left the safe confines of the guest house on Johns Hopkins campus to walk down the hill to the harbor on a sunny day. It was the first walk we had taken together outside in months. I worried most of the way that his energy wouldn’t hold out or that we might need to find a cab to bring us back up the hill. For years I had chased him all over Europe on our adventures together but now I was shortening my steps and slowing my pace so he didn’t tire too quickly.
Sitting there in the sun that day, I had a sense of wholeness about the whole situation. For once, I wasn’t piecing it apart into the parts I accepted–the love we felt for each other, the joy of rambunctious kids, the autumn sun, the promise of a boat–and the parts I fought against–leukemia, chemo, guest houses, unknowing, weakness, change. I had space in my heart and my mind in that moment for all of it. It’s all one life.
Before that day, the mantra “it is what it is” had been helpful, but I could only use it as an antidote for each piece of information, each separate challenge that came our way. It was a one thing at a time kind of mantra. “It’s all one life” was a rare expression of wholeness and acceptance in that chaotic time, when every day, hour or minute might bring with it some blow to our life together.
After he died, I wondered, “If you could do it all over again, would you?” My answer was yes. Even with the horror of that year and the emptiness after he was gone, I wouldn’t have traded the good times in exchange for missing the bad. To quote Garth Brooks, “I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.” Or with Fartbuster, after our divorce….I asked myself if I would have been better off never having married him? These are impossible questions because changing one thread of my life would have put me somewhere else and I wouldn’t have heard the Cub Scouts ringing the bell aboard the Black Eyed Susan as Sadie’s diamond sparkled in the sun. Even if my beloved was dying beside me.
It’s all one life. I couldn’t have been the mother who looked into my first born’s blinking eyes and whispered, “Hey! I’ve waited my whole life to meet you!” if I hadn’t been the woman who brushed his eyes closed after they had left this world to look upon some other. It’s all one life. And I’m glad it’s mine.