In London on New Years’ Day, we were walking through Trafalgar Square. Beside the crosswalk that spans over to St Martins, a knot people surrounded a leg jutting out at a wrong angle. When we got closer, we saw a white-haired lady who had fallen, surrounded by people trying to help her up. She wailed, high-pitched and animal, the kind of sound no one would make on purpose, and came almost to standing. Thomas and I stood there floppily, like people do in an emergency, our uselessness rendered grandiose and apparent. Somehow Thomas managed to recall the British number for an ambulance (probably something he knew from a Dr. Who episode), and called it. Over the course of the phone call we learned that the women was named Jacqueline, she was 70 years old, she had had a knee replacement last year, she had fallen on her hip and was in a great deal of pain, she lived in Guildford. The ambulance dispatcher hung up and we waited. Jacqueline was bright and alert and gorgeous, the kind of women we all hope we’ll get to be when we’re old, like a character being played by Judi Dench. She cracked jokes in a controlled, charming way. She and the woman on her left, Celia, her friend and neighbor, had come into London to go to a concert at St. Martin’s. It was very cold. Celia smiled at everything, asked our names, thanked us profusely, but never laughed once. Eventually the ambulance arrived. We asked how we could get in touch and Celia gave us her number. When we called the next day, Celia had stayed up all night while Jacqueline went into surgery for a broken hip. Chatty in the hospital-room way of someone who hasn’t had a normal conversation in too long, she explained that she and Jacqueline’s husbands had both passed away a few years ago, and so now they had each other. They had ended up together, each other’s final person, spending the rest of their lives together.
Thomas is twelve years older than me, and when we met, in the last year of my twenties, that still seemed glamorous, the idea of an older man like being wrapped in large and expensive coat. I didn’t know then that there is a threshold at which people stop being experiences and start being people. The thing about finding the person you want to spend the rest of your life with is that “the rest of your life” suddenly becomes a finite unit of measurement, an amount of time you can put the calendar, tangible as a day, a week, an hour. Stock romantic declarations set “the rest of my life” and “forever” as synonyms when in fact they’re antonyms. That Thomas is older than me mostly now means that I might have less time to spend with him.
I often think about the women of my grandmother’s generation and generations before that who were still expected to marry an older man, someone to take care of them and all that, and who therefore more likely than not buried their husbands. These women remained, quiet communities of aftermaths, living beyond the men to whom they had promised “forever.” They lived past the husbands they had been taught and expected to depend on, after it had turned out they couldn’t depend on a man to do the most basic thing: keep living. What do we sacrifice each time we allow someone to matter, each time we build a life with someone – what are we consigning ourselves to? George Carlin says that owning a pet is “investing in a small tragedy” but isn’t all of life, then, just investing in a slightly larger one? I think of Jacqueline and Celia in Guildford, two women who have outlived husbands and families, and ended up with each other, in some morbidly arranged romance. We think we can choose whom we end up with – in the parlance of romantic comedies and fairy tales – but really we end up with whomever is left.
One of transitions from childhood to adulthood is defined by the realization of our own mortality, that sudden cold-water shock when we become aware that there will be a moment when we cease to exist and we need to start constructing some kind of narrative that allows us to go on walking around in our life while knowing that that life will end. Another of these transitions is the realization that romantic love is finite, that all relationships end – this starts as something anecdotal, even sexy, a buoyant ability to move lightly across the surface of loves knowing that they’re impermanent and that promising forever is impossible. But when you start working that equation out to its obvious conclusion, you realize that you aren’t talking about the fact that everybody breaks up, but rather the fact that everybody dies. The absolute best realistic scenario is one in which one of two people lives out the last few years of their life in a sort of paralytic mourning.
Love, then, is less a utility and more a preemptive form of grief. Allowing something to matter is simply another way of saying you’re going to care when it’s gone. The fact of being with Thomas maps out my life into a very small handful of time, surgically laid out on a table in front of me. Here is everything I can give you, and it isn’t much.
We spent Christmas with my parents. We had a wonderful time and also, by virtue of my parents being my parents, I spent the entire time trying not to start an argument. When I am around my parents, I am at every moment slightly annoyed with them. As soon as I’m not around them, I am at every moment slightly lonely for them. Each time I leave to go back into my own small life, I am reminded that eventually I will leave for good. As our parents age, if we are lucky enough to know them as they age, each interaction begins to carry with it a more and more corporeal ghost of an unimaginable loss. My time with them is like standing still and watching a tidal wave approach from far off shore, certain in the knowledge that it will destroy everything in its path, and entirely incapable of doing anything about it. Then again, that’s what promising the rest of one’s life to a partner is – promising to stand and watch the disaster we cannot avert as it heads straight for us.
My dad’s favorite sonnet is #73 (that time of year thou may’st in me behold/when yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang/Upon these boughs which shake against the cold/Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang) the one about loving into old age. He always used to recite it about or at my mom. This seemed much more charming and less dire when he was talking about the future and not the present. It will be that time of year for my parents soon. Perhaps it already is. My mom talks about the difficulty of watching friends suddenly “being old,” and excludes herself from the description. In a way she’s right – my parents are in their sixties and boundingly energetic, like long-legged pampered dogs, both still working and traveling, planning adventures of which I’m envious for their retirement. But what happens when your friends start to become living ghosts, reminders of your own mortality?
One of my Dad’s closest friends in New York is - or, I suppose, was-- a deeply impressive and terrifying women, an old-school downtown New Yorker and theatre scene impresario who had once been on the cover of the Village Voice under the headline “The Hottest Dyke in New York” (I never saw this cover but I’ve always assumed she was posing with a motorcycle, in a leather jacket). When I was growing up, we’d visit her and her wife at the same Soho loft they’d lived in since the early ‘70s, with their ever-changing cast of five or six cats darting amongst the houseplants and furniture. We’d sit at their kitchen table and she would tell me stories completely inappropriate for however old I was. I’d listen with wide eyes and think the only thing I wanted to grow up to be was cool enough to be her friend. Now my Dad doesn’t hear from them anymore because his friend stopped being able to remember who he is, or who most of her friends are. Her wife, ten or fifteen years younger, has been subsumed into her spouse’s illness, aging prematurely by virtue of proximity. My dad once told me the story of how his friend and her wife got together, back when they were both young and gorgeous. I would play the scene in my head like a movie: The two of them at a party after an opening night of the play they’d met working on, drinking champagne and slow-dancing until everyone else had left, until the party was just the two of them. The story goes that they woke up together the next morning and never spent a night apart again. I imagine the younger of them caring for the wife who forgets her name or who she is, now, shut up in their spacious and unkempt apartment until it becomes a whole bounded world, a ship trapped in an endless storm. I wonder if she thinks of that story, or if she makes sure not to think of it. In some way, that story carries with it the ghost of its matching bookend, in which one person is willingly devoured by the other’s age and illness, offering up their life to grief. That first moment, the slow-dancing and champagne, contains this much-later moment within it like a photo negative. “The rest of my life” is a dark thing to promise someone, far more sinister and threatening in its truth than how we often think of it when we say it, a fifty or sixty year continuation of today, of right now.
My parents are each other’s second marriages, and – perhaps consequently – are still madly and obnoxiously in love with each other. I have always been aware that while they like me a great deal, there is no question that they like each other more. The grand narrative is their love affair and I am a secondary character in it. This is good and right and beautiful, and also makes me sick with worry on a regular basis. The fear is not just that my parents will die – which is as incomprehensible an event to me as it is to anyone who has not yet lived through it -- but rather that one of them will die first. This second thing is several orders of magnitude more distressing than the first thing. In love, we lean into each other, and as we build something together, the other person, their presence and their strangeness, their contribution and their familiarity, the solid, material fact of them, becomes part of the structure we build. Over time we become so enmeshed that one is not whole without the other. With those contributions removed, the structure collapses. My parents are both fiercely competent, fiercely independent people with separate careers and separate friends, who often travel internationally separate from each other, but they are each utterly dependent on the other by the very fact of their relationship, the depth and longevity of it. When I imagine either one continuing on past the other, they are cold and pale, hardly present, resentful and easily annoyed, like a closed fist to the world. In the Metamorphoses, there is a myth in which Baucis and Philemon, an old married couple, are the only people hospitable to Zeus and Hermes when the gods come to a town in disguise. As reward (along with destroying the town), the gods offer the couple any wish they want granted. They ask to die at the exact same time. On their death they become two entwined trees. The older I get, the more this story haunts a central room in my brain. I used to wonder why they didn’t ask for youth or beauty or riches. Now I don’t question the choice at all. When I think of my parents, I always end up at this story, the pleading humanity of it. Surely, it must happen this way for them, I think. Surely that’s the only way it could happen. Then I remember that this is as likely as them transforming into trees, and I close the door on the thoughts entirely.
Our culture has celebrities in place of myths, and we have grief twitter instead of byzantine lore about the journey to the underworld and the proper ways of burial. When celebrities die and we mourn them in a massively public way, this is a safe way to practice mourning for our parents and our partners and our friends, to try to force ourselves to make the unthinkable familiar. The generational quality of this grief comes from the fact that, as the celebrities with whom we grew up die, it signals that we are at the age where people are dying, and we look ahead to the inevitable disasters, the wave that grows larger on the horizon. If our public grief is a performance, it’s a performance in the way that a disaster drill is a performance. Our grief at losing an icon who meant a great deal to us is a real grief but a bearable one. But that bearable grief is a test-drive for future unbearable ones. We practice together in the hope that we can be prepared, so that the idea of loss does not seem so alien. Complaints about the inappropriate nature of grief on social media -- that it’s a circle-jerk, a joiner’s club, an obligated performance -- are as defining a part of these mournings as the remembrances themselves. But to call this grief a performance is to miss the point – it’s not a performance, it’s a rehearsal. It seems right to me that grief be public, and messy, and inconvenient, that it make everyone in its path uncomfortable. Small amounts of discomfort, after all, increase our tolerance for large amounts of pain. Mourning celebrities who mattered to us is a way to remind ourselves that no one is spared, not even those who seemed immortal, larger than a human being with petty little organs doing their pedestrian little jobs inside their skin. Speaking things aloud removes their terror, dulls the power of their unfamiliarity. We speak this over and over to try to come to terms with something that cannot possibly be made familiar.
When I was eighteen I was waiting to leave for college, having sex for the first time, and living out of my car. It was a free and lonely and confusing time. I was probably very annoying to be around. I felt bright and abrasive, like too much electricity going through an outlet not rated for this voltage. That summer I started listening to David Bowie. As I remember it, I had Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on repeat for a solid month straight, if not longer. Sometimes all I remember from that summer is a single moment at four or five in the morning, driving back from my not-actually-my-boyfriend’s apartment, my body ringing with bright brand-new confusion. I’d put on Ziggy Stardust and as I drove over the bridge, the sun had just barely started to rise, and the water and the sky were exactly the same shade of blue, containing my tiny car within it, a perfect, coherent globe like a long-held harmony. As I crossed the bridge, Bowie sang Oh no love, you’re not alone / You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair / You’ve got your head all tangled up, but if I could only / Make you care / Oh no love, you’re not alone/ No matter what or who you’ve been / No matter when or where you’ve seen. And I believed he was talking particularly and only to me, just the two of us in the car and the whole world a rushing, single, silent blue around us.
I have learned in the last day that I am one of a very, very, very large crowd of people who felt that Bowie at some point saved them, whispered to them and made them possible. His death was as staged as any of his other personas, right along with the album he made for its occasion. As though he knew that we needed the impossibility of his loss as a guide, a rehearsal for the yet more impossible losses still to come.