Fear of embarrassment isn’t the only reason for armoring up, hiding, ignoring or denying love. I just noticed today how much I arrange my life to avoid the pain of loss. It started early on, as habits often do. When I had my first high-school boyfriend, I was just certain he was going to come to his senses and dump me. Which he eventually did. At the time, I took it as a warning to be more careful with my heart next time. As if.
The other evening, my husband and I were out enjoying our forested backyard. He remarked (as he has before) on the grandeur of the tulip poplar that stands right in the center. There are also two huge beeches off to the side and a couple of oaks further back. But this poplar, this giant column of craggy bark, is a presence. I almost asked him whether he has told the tree how much he loves it. But he just had, by telling me. Right after that, I pictured it toppling over in a huge windstorm, perhaps crushing our house.
That such an absurd and blasphemous thought would encroach on an otherwise serene moment is par for the course with me and love. Walking through the yard this morning, I heard Paul Simon singing “Graceland”:
Losing love is like a window in your heart.
Everybody sees you’re blown apart.
Everybody sees the wind blow.
When my husband and I started racing small dinghies, I had a debilitating fear of heavy wind, because I had never experienced capsizing before. Finally, one blustery day in early December, we went over in spectacular fashion, caught by a gust just as we were rounding the windward mark. He’s an experienced Laser sailor, so he nimbly leapt over the high side of the hull and stood on the exposed centerboard, using his weight to lever the boat back upright. Meanwhile, I stayed crouched where I was, and when the boat righted, it scooped me back into position. We trimmed the sails, hiked out and went on our merry way.
I never felt so alive.
I had been afraid of the unknown and learned that while capsizing can be dangerous, if you give yourself over, keep your head, and focus, you can transcend ordinary reality. Safety is overrated. Go ALL IN!
We had the same two cats in my family from when I was six till I went away to college. The older one died during my first year at school, so I wasn’t even there for it. Till then, the only losses I’d suffered were occasional blows to my ego, articles of clothing or toys. As losses piled up, though—first serious boyfriend, first marriage, grandfathers’ deaths, then grandmothers, a beloved dog—I stopped fearing loss so much.
Okay, no I didn’t. I thought I was getting the hang of it, but what did I know? There was more to come. Life (and loss) can get downright creative at times.
A whole new set of losses followed with years of infertility, miscarriage, surgery and our first adoption falling through after having the baby in our home for just a week. We learned that it is possible to fall instantly and bottomlessly in love with a baby who has other people’s DNA. It happens as soon as you get him home and bathe him in your accumulated hopes and dreams. When you say, This is the one, you’ve waiting so long, you’ve gone through so much, who can fault you for believing it?
When my parents died within eight months of each other, I discovered a shameful truth. I had been holding back the most tender parts of myself throughout my long marriage, as a protection against loss. Seeing how my mother and my siblings and other relatives dealt with the loss of my father taught me that—DOH!—loss and pain are unavoidable. My mother lost her husband of fifty-seven years. While she herself was battling cancer. It can’t get much worse than that.
Maybe the poplar tree that graces our back yard will come down one day. It will be enacting its own story, and there will be nothing we can do to prevent it. That tree is part of a cycle of life, death, decay, and rebirth that applies to me as well. Trees know nothing of fear of loss. They simply stand there, doing their job of making new leaves every spring, gathering sunlight and water with them, taking in carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen, and dropping seeds to nurture new life.
When I think of how much I’ve allowed fear of loss to color and even, at times, rule my life, it makes me sad and regretful. Then I shake myself and say, but you can go out into the backyard and pay homage to the tulip poplar. You can give your full attention to your husband when he’s speaking. Or to your work. Or yourself. Or this moment. Why not go ALL IN? There’s no better way to feel fully alive.