I was chatting on Twitter with a friend who lost his mother this year after she fought a long, difficult battle with cancer. When I mentioned the overwhelming amount of paperwork I feel buried in after my husband’s death he remarked that when a loved one dies it’s very difficult because we must expend all this energy to erase the life of the one whom we are grieving. It seems so cruel.
And in some cases in order to cancel Alan’s existence it wasn’t enough to produce a death certificate but his birth certificate and our marriage license were also required which I found equally depressing and funny. Alan was a packrat who kept everything, so I waded through his drawers of papers to find this proof of his life with which I was going to erase that very life. As I was searching I found a box filled with every handwritten letter I had given or sent him.
I was, by far, the hopeless romantic between the two of us, oftentimes leaving him little notes—I actually packed his and our daughter’s lunch every day and would still leave both of them notes—from the very beginning of our relationship. I have always loved handwritten, personal letters; they are so much more tangible, intimate and sensual than the digital correspondence to which we have become accustomed in the 21st century. There is a certain anticipation and excitement when one sends a letter and eagerly waits for a response; to see the other person’s handwriting, to touch the object they once touched, to tuck it away in a special place are all of the things we lose with electronic communication.
I don’t have many notes or letters from Alan, but apparently he kept every single one I wrote to him. It was too painful and too soon for me to read all of the letters and notes now. So I picked two of them to look at—the first one a birthday card in the shape of a motorcycle (I don’t remember how I managed to find that!) and the second a letter I sent during a year in which we were dating long distance. In 1999 I got my first teaching job in New England so I moved here while Alan finished up graduate school in New York and we wrote letters, called and saw each other whenever we could. In a letter during this time apart, words that so haunt me now, I said to him: “In case you haven’t already guessed, I really miss you. I can’t wait until we can be together again…I thought what you said on the phone tonight was so touching—that it is unnatural for us to be apart.”
Yes, unnatural for us to be apart. Someday I will show these letters to our daughter so she will remember how much love we shared. But I also feel like I need to show her that the best way to honor that love is for us to move on and find happiness in other ways.
One of the later letters of Paul Celan to his lover Ingeborg Bachmann, when it was obvious that their love affair would never work out and they were doomed to be apart, keeps occurring to me. Celan writes to her, “Life is not going to accommodate us, Ingeborg; waiting for that would surely be the most unfitting way for us to be. Be—yes, we can and are allowed to do so. To be—be there for another. Even if it is only a few words, alla breve, one letter once a month: the heart will know how to live.”
A daily and delicate balance of grieving and yet moving forward. A life lived to the fullest but now erased. The heart will know how to live…