Imagine the following situation. A couple has been married for decades but now he has contracted a terminal illness and is dying. His wife has always prided herself on being there for him when he needed her, but now she feels helpless. Meanwhile he is scared and angry and is thrashing around in a welter of conflicting emotions. One of these is that he can no longer protect her, once a source of pride. What do they do?
According to Lucille Clifton, they may blame each other.
I’m pretty sure that my former colleague is speaking from personal experience when she reveals this. Her husband Fred died of lung cancer in his fifties (he did not smoke), and “husband and wife” must be autobiographical. Writing the poem after Fred’s death, Clifton lays out some of the emotional dynamics of their ordeal. Because of her uncompromising dedication to the truth, Lucille is able to talk about something that most would rather not.
In doing so, she gives the rest of us a gift. We experience a wide range of thoughts and feelings when we encounter suffering and heartbreak, and some of these we are ashamed of. We may even deny they are there. Lucille, however, brings them out into the light so that we may confront them and figure out what they mean. That is a necessary step if we are to move beyond them.
Here is Lucille’s poem:
man and wife
she blames him, at the last, for
backing away from his bones
and his woman, from the life
he promised her was worth
cold sheets. she blames him
for being unable to see
the tears in her eyes, the birds
hovered by the window, for love being
not enough, for leaving.
he blames her, at the last, for
holding him back with her eyes
beyond when the pain was more
than he was prepared to bear,
for the tears he could neither
end nor ignore, for believing
that love could be enough,
for the birds, for the life
so difficult to leave.
Let’s make a tally. She blames him:
–for backing away from life (which suggests cowardice)
–for backing away from her
–for having promised her that the warm sheets of love are worth the heartbreak of cold sheets she is about to encounter (better to have stayed invulnerable and settled for a cold sheets all along rather than experience this pain)
–for being unable to see the tears in her eyes, which is to say, for being unable to acknowledge how much she is suffering
–for being unable to acknowledge the death she foresees, the birds hovering by the window
–for undermining her belief that love is all we need
–for, again, leaving
He blames her for:
–not allowing him to leave, to die, in spite of the physical pain
–for forcing him to acknowledge her suffering when he wants to concentrate on his own (in other words, his own suffering is doubled by the pain of watching her suffer)
–for her believing that love is enough—and for having gotten him to invest in that belief—even when it obviously isn’t
–for her seeing the birds, which is her premonition that he is going to die
–for having created together with him a life that he doesn’t want to leave. It would be easier to die if he didn’t care about this life.
Our anger over premature death can get directed at any number of targets, including the one we love the most. Blaming the loved one makes sense. After all, he or she has made us vulnerable. It would be easier to die, we think, if we hadn’t fallen in love.
But if love did not carry with it that potential pain, it would not be love. As hard as it may be to do so, we can embrace that pain. We can give ourselves over as completely to the suffering as we gave ourselves to the love. Or put another way, every time we experience the suffering, we can choose to see it as an indication of the depth of our love.
In other words, we can stop fighting it. And stop blaming.
When my oldest son died, I felt pain beyond anything that I could have imagined. For the longest time I blamed Justin and I blamed myself. But in the course of grieving, I learned to let go of my anger and be grateful to the pain because it kept my connection to him alive.
It has been ten years since he died, and although I don’t think about him all the time—sometimes not for several days at a time—from time to time I still experience searing pangs. I have come to treasure those moments.
Tennyson wrote, “Better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all” in the process of trying to make sense of the death of Arthur Hallam (in In Memoriam). And while the lines have lost some of their power because they are so widely quoted–they verge now on commonplace truism–they are, nevertheless, true. We are courageous when we give ourselves over to loving because we risk such intense heartbreak.