To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
I used to work in a cemetery. I was the receptionist/admin and I dealt with all kinds of grief every day. I handled the grief of those who had recently lost a loved one and came in to schedule the burial, I directed mothers who had lost a child to the graves they couldn’t remember because of heavy, Midwestern, snow…and I saw countless husbands and wives, now widowed, come in with flowers on birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.
There was one gentleman in particular, who’d come in to pre-plan, with his wife. They were older, though not old, she had lovely, short, silver hair…he looked fairly spry and strong. They came in to plan for the future.
About a month later, her cancer came back.
At this time, I’d just gotten engaged to my husband. And we were awash in love and all the feeling one has while planning a wedding. I had a wedding to plan. This gentleman would come in and he’d ask about the plans…he told me to keep a journal because “It goes by so fast and you’ll want to remember it all…you’ll want to remember it when you need it.”
He still came in, frequently, no longer asked about the wedding, but I would always ask how he was doing. You get a lot of people who, in their grief, are unpleasant…difficult. He was always polite, always kind.
One day, it must have been a hard day. I asked him how he was doing…and he didn’t answer for a few moments…then he looked me in the eye and said “You know something?” and I looked at him and he said “Remember. Every love story ends the same way.”
And he walked out of the office.
My uncle died in May. He’d had cancer, brain cancer. He survived about 16 months. I still remember the phone call from my mom telling me that he’d had a seizure…that he’d collapsed…that it didn’t look good…15 months later…”You have to leave work…they think” and she paused, gasping for air and composure, “They think this is it.”
His daughter was married in August. She walked down the aisle flanked by the same men who, 3 months earlier, had carried his casket down the same, church aisle.
I went to a friend’s wedding this weekend.
She walked down the aisle alone.
Her father had died 6 years ago.
Her sister, my best friend, collapsed onto my shoulder afterwards saying “I want him, daddy, to be here so badly…and no one understands…no one knows how hard it was for me to be up there…no one knows, C, no one knows…” and she cried into my shoulder and I told her “You were so good, sweetie, you were so good. You were so strong and brave and wonderful” and I said all the right things.
And I grabbed a tissue, running outside into the crisp night air to calm myself.
It took awhile. I have 28 bug bites to prove it.
Today is my wedding anniversary. And there are people who should have been there. And were not.
Weddings are joyful occasions. They’re there to bring you together with the people to love, to celebrate people who will, in the translation from an old german set of vows, be together til “Death first parts us.”
Until Death first parts us.
Every love story ends the same way. And you make the choice that, in the end, you want to spend a time with someone that will be finite. That time you will be with your spouse will come to an end. There is no choice. You have left your heart open and said “I know how this story ends.”
And up at the alter, in your beautiful white dress, across from your dashing husband, with freshly trimmed hair and a sharp, pressed suit, will say “I will love you, til death first parts us.”
But you won’t stop there. You will love beyond that first parting. You will love them every second, every minute, every painful hour beyond that first parting. You will love until you can’t breathe for grief of losing them. You will love even though you don’t want to get up in the morning. You will love, though all is lost. You will love, looking at their old suits, and putting them in the bag for the thrift store. You will love them as you hold their old sweaters close to you in the night, praying for one more moment with their scent, as though their ghost was there.
You will carry that grief with you through the grocery store, up and down the stairs of your home.
And you signed up for it. You said that you would love them. And you will love them forever because “you cannot change your heart. When you love someone, you love them.”
Every love story ends the same way.
Love for your friend, your spouse, your parent, your pets, your everything. Every love store ends the same way.
Because it ends.
Someone will die. And you will have to make plans. But you can’t help loving any more than you can help breathing. Because if you close yourself, think of what you’ll miss.
But I watched so much pain this weekend. In the midst of such joy…there was such terrible pain.
And I can’t tell you whether we love because of it or we love in spite of it. But my friends, still we love.
And on my anniversary, without any words of the challenge I had set before myself, I will leave you with the song I had sung for our wedding. Where my husband stood before me, having lost both his parents. Where I stood, missing friends who should have been there to celebrate. Knowing that, in my joy, in the incandescent, bright, painful joy that is a bride before her groom…every love story ends the same way.
Its what you do before the end that matters.
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
As a seal upon your arm;
For love is as strong as death,
Many waters cannot quench love,
Nor can the floods drown it.
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
As a seal upon your arm;
For love is as strong as death.
-Rene Clausen, inspiried by Song of Solomon