love and fear are not heteroexclusive (my word. just made it up.)

now playing: dolly varden, “too good to believe”

from former first daughter and ex-don henley squeeze patti reagan davis:

Feb. 23 – I once met a woman who was in her 70s but who had the weight of centuries pushing down on her shoulders. Her husband of more than 30 years had died long before I met her, yet she was still going through the backwash of grief. On the day of his death she was in the room that had become his last country—a hospital bed, a table of pill bottles, an oxygen tank. The end was coming. But she turned away at the fateful instant and missed his last breath. The doctor saw him die; so did the nurse. But his wife, the woman who knew him best, happened to look out the window at that one moment—the last she could ever have shared with him in this life.

By the time I was introduced to her, she was just coming out of a long bout of agoraphobia (fear of leaving home.) The phobia rushed in and devoured her about a year after her husband died. She told me clearly that the heavy stone in her heart—the granite of pain, of guilt, had invited in the phobia.

Love and loss are twin souls; we don’t have to live too many years to learn that, but the longer we live the more often we are reminded. We watch our parents age and often sit by helplessly as one gets ill, and the other tends to them, nurses them, feels the collision of love and loss in every moment. On March 4th, my parents will have been married 52 years. But only my mother will be aware of it. Alzheimer’s has erased all those decades from my father’s memory.

If we never love deeply, we will never experience loss carving us up inside. Then again, if we never love deeply, we won’t live fully, completely, joyfully pushing out the boundaries of our hearts. Many of us juggle these two truths.

If you only look at how many dating Web sites there are, how many matchmakers and how many magazine pieces promising to improve our relationship skills, you would think we are, collectively, eager for love. You would assume that we hold it as a high priority, a necessity.

Yet if you look further—say, at the divorce —you might start to wonder how committed we are to the worthiness of love. Why, as time goes on, do we seem to make more mistakes in our choices of partners? In our parents’ day, divorce was hardly as common as it is now. Did we act too hastily when we said “I do,” or bail out too readily when things got rough? As a divorced person, I can answer only for myself. My ex-husband is a wonderful man, and we have remained friends, but we were ill-suited as husband and wife, and I think we both secretly knew we were a mismatch when we got married.

The irony of our times is that the one group of people—gays— who passionately want to get married are slamming into a wall built of political concerns, legislative wrangling, right-wing religiosity (an oxymoron if I ever heard one), and oddly enraged TV pundits who seem to think the world will come to an end if two people of the same sex join in holy matrimony.

In the early 1970s, I was living with my boyfriend and our out-of wedlock arrangement was regarded as rather scandalous by both of our families. When I went to a wedding ceremony of a lesbian friend of mine, I was struck by the obvious irony. Here were two women who could not be legally wed, but who were happily celebrating their commitment to each other. They seemed to have a better understanding of the importance of ceremony, ritual, public declaration than people like me who tossed off the institution of marriage as unnecessary.

Whenever I hear about the furor over gay marriage, and whenever I step back and look at how tentative and wary we are about love (I’m including myself in that one) I wonder the same thing: What is it about love that frightens us so much? In the personal arena, the easy answer is, I suppose, loss. We wonder if we can survive the deep bruises to our hearts if our partner gets ill, or dies, or leaves. Solitude might be safer. Yet we see people surviving loss so we know it’s possible; the heart is a sturdy little muscle.

The harder question is: What is frightening about a same-sex couple standing forth in front of the world and making their commitment to one another public? Is the happiness of others really so threatening? Maybe the bravery is what’s threatening. I don’t know if I could stand up to society’s wrath in the name of love. I hope I could, but as a straight woman, I’ll never be tested on that one.

A woman I know sat at the bedside of a man dying from AIDS. He told her he didn’t think he’d accomplished much in his young life, and now he was dying.

She said, “Did you love?”

And he replied, “Oh, yes. I have loved deeply with all my heart.”

“Then you accomplished everything,” she said.


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