To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and then the time comes to let it go
to let it go.
–Mary Oliver, from “In Blackwater Woods”
It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m worn out. For the first part of this day dedicated to celebrating love, I wrote my heart out. I’m working on the new memoir, Bless the Birds, so when I say “wrote my heart out,” it’s not just a phrase. Writing about the journey my late husband and I walked with his brain cancer involves re-living it: delving into my journal and blog posts, reading his scattered notes, hunting through his sketchbooks, and reading over the charts he kept at the end to track his medications. It’s sweet and poignant and draining work, richly rewarding.
When my writing energy faded, I took up my other job: I put on one of Richard’s old denim work shirts and headed out to his shop to rip, sand, and prepare more boards for trim. First I split a pile of fragrant juniper kindling, cleaned the wood stove, and started a fire. Then I fired up the dust-collector and the big table saw, and went to work ripping boards. I worked until the daylight dimmed, stoked the stove so the shop would stay warm overnight, and headed back to the house.
I brushed the sawdust off, put on a coat, cap and gloves, and grabbed my shopping bag. The sun had set, but the sky was still bright, and the peaks edged with pink and gold afterglow. As I walked briskly to the post office, I thought about how many times Richard and I took this same route hand-in-hand, watching the snow on the peaks waxing and waning, the forests on the mountainsides greening up, the aspen leaves turning gold and orange like flames.
This is my second Valentine’s Day without him, and perhaps I should be over missing him by now. But I had the love of my life for almost 29 years, so 14 months isn’t long by comparison. As I walked, I thought about the perseverance of love, even through the wrenching parting of death. And I turned back for home and my final two errands.
I stopped at the big grocery store for avocados and grapefruit, and decided to look at the cut flowers too, and treat myself to what Richard would have bought me. Which is why I left the store with two bunches of flowers: long-stemmed yellow oriental lilies and a mixed bouquet with salal, hydrangeas, yellow chrysanthemum, alstroemeria, and a fat, cheerful Gerber daisy.
I walked across the street to Ploughboy, the local market where I buy most of my groceries (but not avocados or grapefruit, since it sells food produced within 100 miles), and bought milk, eggs, tortilla chips, apples, and a spicy oriental noodle dish from the deli, and then headed home, ready for couch time.
What does my mundane routine have to do with love? Love is what guides my days. Writing about how Richard and I worked to live well with his brain cancer, even with his death, is my way of loving this world. That journey with taught me the truth of Mary Oliver’s words: to live in this world, I had to learn how to love what was mortal, to hold him close, and when the time came to let him go, I let him go.
Ripping boards for trim and using Richard’s big pneumatic nailer to put them up is love too. I am finishing the house he built with such love and extraordinary creativity. I love this beautiful house and its yard of wildflowers, the sweet guest cottage and Richard’s historic shop, but it’s too much for me. I’m learning to let it go too. But first, I’m continuing Richard’s infusion of creative love as I work.
Both the writing and the carpentry are hard work. They’re also cleansing, restorative, and rejuvenating. They’re teaching me new ways of living in and loving this world. That’s the best work of all.