Saturday, November 22, 2003


Short stories are my weakness. But it’s the artful, non-fiction essay that can really leave me in a contemplative puddle. Several weeks ago, I read one such essay called "The Love of My Life." The title is deliberately misleading, because it's not a story about the author Cheryl Strayed’s romantic love. The “Love” of the title refers to her mother, whom she lost to cancer. I was especially taken by the essay because, yes, it is brave and utterly lacking in cliché. But I also was moved by it because so much of it takes place in Minneapolis. (And Strayed wrote the story while finishing her MFA at Syracuse.)

Strayed describes how her mother's death left her wretchedly heartbroken, so much so that she rages at the conventional wisdom that she must mourn, heal, and get over it. Those who see a logic to the “stages of grief” have never truly known any, she says. Many people’s deaths leave us feeling sad, certainly, but only a rare few leave us trapped in the death-in-life feeling that, in Strayed's blunt assessment, means “I cannot continue to live."

Excerpt from "The Love of My Life":
"We love and care for oodles of people, but only a few of them, if they died, would make us believe we could not continue to live. Imagine if there was a boat upon which you could put only four people, and everyone else known to and beloved by you would then cease to exist. Who would you put on the boat? It would be painful, but how quickly you would decide: You and you and you and you, get in. The rest of you, goodbye.

"For years, I was haunted by the idea of this imaginary boat of life, by the desire to exchange my mother's fate for one of the many living people I knew. I would be sitting across the table from a dear friend. I loved her, him, each one of these people. Some I said I loved like family. But I would look at them and think, Why couldn't it have been you who died instead? You, goodbye."

I tried out the idea of the lifeboat on my husband, who responded characteristically to such a cruel game: “I refuse the question,” he said. And who could blame him? But I have a suspicion that Strayed might be on to something. It would be painful, how quickly we would decide: “You and you and you and you…”

Leave death and shattering loss aside for a moment and turn to a lesser tragedy: when far-away friends are in trouble or troubled of mind. In talking on the phone with my friend Kate this morning, my clumsy navigation of the conversational waters may have plunged her into a fog of hopelessness. So I leaned into the wind and tried desperately to drag her back. A lifebuoy: a sudden silliness, and a question about Thanksgiving pies. Kate half-heartedly offered up some tips on pecans and maple syrup, but the conversation continued to sink. Still, I think she may have recognized the effort. “Joyce wants you to know that we saw a contest for a 'cruise for twelve,'” she said, right before hanging up. “If you win the contest, you get to bring twelve friends along on the boat. And you are definitely in our twelve.”

A moment later, Kate admitted that neither she nor Joyce had ever gotten around to submitting the contest entry. Still, it was nice to be included on this roomier version of the lifeboat. And, bonus—as this boat sails, no one left on the dock need evaporate. We'll hit the water trailing steel drum rhythms and the blissed-out certainty that we are together and fully present to each other now. The end is coming. But have a drink, a dance because we're not over yet.


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