One of our longtime friends, Donald, has lost his wife to an aggressive form of brain cancer, which took her in barely three months.
I was reading Julian Barnes' latest book, "Levels of Life", when I got the news. Barnes' book explores, among other themes, his grief following the sudden death of his wife, the editor Pat Kavanaugh, from the same illness.
That unstinting yet poetic exploration deeply influenced how I spoke to Don, when I learned what happened.
I had already underlined this observation:
"Early in life, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven't. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven't. Later still—at least, if we are lucky (or on the other hand, unlucky)—it divides into those who have endured grief and those who haven't. These divisions are absolute, they are the tropics we cross."
Don and I spoke at length one evening, on the phone, and I recalled this passage vividly:
"I swiftly realized how grief sorts out and realigns those around the griefstruck; how friends are tested; how some pass, some fail. Old friendships may deepen through shared sorrow, or suddenly appear lightweight. The young do better than the middle-aged, women do better than men...
I remember a 'dinner-table conversation' in a restaurant with three married friends of roughly my age. Each had known her for many years...and each would have said, if asked, that they loved her. I mentioned her name; no one picked it up. I did it again, and again nothing. Perhaps the third time I was deliberately trying to provoke, being pissed off at what struck me not as good manners but as cowardice. Afraid to touch her name, they denied her thrice, and I thought the worse of them for it."
He also finds the source for his pain, supplied in a letter from one of his friends, a widow:
"...she wrote to me, 'The thing is—nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain. I think if it didn't matter, it wouldn't matter.'"
And "it matters" because of how Barnes views love:
"Love may not lead where we think or hope, but regardless of its outcome it should be a call to seriousness and truth. If it is not that—if it is not moral in its effect—than love is no more than an exaggerated form of pleasure."
But grief, he says, "does not seem to occupy a moral space. The defensive, curled position it forces us into if we are to survive is more selfish. It is not a place of upper air; there are no views. You can no longer hear yourself living."
No surprise, then, that Barnes considers taking his life, but realizes, "insofar as she was alive at all, she was alive in my memory" and asks himself, "... how am I to live? I must live as she would have wanted me to."
Without Barnes' witness to the wildness and depth of his grief, I might have stumbled through a conversation focused on facts and details. But thanks to his magnificent writing, I was able to stay with my friend to reminisce about their love for one another, and the passage he had recently entered.
Conversations with bereaved friends grow more frequent. I hope to be present to each as he or she wishes—to not avoid mentioning the absent partner, as Barnes' friends (and some of my mother's) did, perhaps in a misguided wish to "not bring it all back".
It's a scary conversation when one is relieved of sure-fire comforts and clichés, but it's real, and it is just one of the ways we can take care of one another, as this generation faces its last decades.