Grief, after all, is desire for the dead or for what’s been lost and can never come again. Grief is longing. This was stasis without fulfillment. This was the world stopped, meaning extinguished.
– Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking
More than a dozen years ago, Paul and I were in a serious train wreck with many cars derailed, tossed like so many pick-up sticks, roughly strewn along the general pathway of the tracks. The screams and moans around us were loud and persisted for hours. These eventually died out as more and more people came to rescue the survivors or to sit with those who would not survive while they expired. In the end, it seemed like there was only we two, pinned under the weight of Paul’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis.
This image of the train wreck is one my late-husband and I kept for a couple of years early in the progression of the disease. It came to mind a few more times over the course of years, but it was almost constantly with us at the beginning. When we regularly talked about the image, we noted the comfort of the ordered tracks, the chaos of the derailed cars, our mounting despair as the wreck scene became increasingly quiet. We assured each other we would not let go; we were in this wreck together.
It strikes me that we didn’t talk about being alone in this together. We didn’t say, “We want to be saved. When is someone coming?” It was as if we knew, or at least believed deep in our bones, no one was coming.
Some years later, after a particularly heinous hospital stay, Paul was discharged to a local rehabilitation unit for several weeks of recovery and physical therapy. On the first night there (Was it the second? Was it even a night?), I was headed out after a worrisome visit. I recall feeling like we were at the scene of the wreck again, when I bumped into Rose. She was there visiting her dear mother, Agnes.
Rose was a pal of Paul’s since their first foray into organizing arts events to support HIV prevention and treatment efforts. They always liked each other a lot. In meetings they communicated as much through their glances at one another as through their comments to the team members with whom they met. Between those meetings, their interactions in person or by phone were generally – there is no nice way to write this – naughty. They enjoyed their own tactics and antics.
When Paul died, I reached out to Rose first. She came immediately. Her presence assured emergency personnel on the scene that I we could be left alone with the body. In the following days, she was at my side or on the phone regularly.
This past Sunday, when Rose came to the house to edit the selection of work for an exhibition of Paul’s work, my feelings were not associated with the train wreck or even the disarray of photos, drawings, and more. I felt a sense of confidence that the exhibition would come together just as those earlier ones did for Rose and Paul to benefit others. I felt a sense that no one was there to save me, but that someone was there to work alongside me.
This week as I am writing with Martha, Rose, Gail, David, and Julio in mind, I am reminded of the importance of cooperation, that spirited work that leads us toward the common benefits in support of community.