Something shifted for me during my trip to France; something profound and healing. As my caring friend John said, "It's like the dove has returned with an olive branch."
It took me a moment to remember the full Noah story since I was focused on the more popular symbol of peace and end of war: After a long time in the dark hull of the ark, being tossed around on waves, Noah sent out a dove that returned with a bough from an olive tree. He and his family knew that land had been found, that they were within bird's flight of a new life.
I spent my last day in France in Paris, an afternoon and evening with good friends from San Francisco, Dublin, and Bordeaux. It was nothing extraordinary: we gathered first in the apartment for drinks and chatter around a wood fire in the marble fireplace (no other source of heat in the chilly flat!) then went out for dinner in a nearby cozy Moroccan restaurant we had spotted that day.
While eating my yummy tagine of lamb and dried fruit, while bantering back and forth about silly things and our life stories a door opened. I just got a glimpse of life on the other side but it definitely opened. I didn't see where I might be living, with whom or how. But I saw a feeling, an atmosphere. It basically said "You've had a full life. The world is huge and full of possibilities. You can be whomever you want to be. " And scribbled in between those lines was a bigger message: "There is hope for you."
This is curious to me since I feel as if I have never been without hope. I have known ever since Tad's diagnosis that without him I will be okay. I will have a full life, a career one day, friends. Maybe I'll even find someone who will want to have a child with me, the child Tad and I couldn't have but wanted so dearly. But abstract phenomena like hope -- along with other messy stuff like love, awareness and anxiety -- seem to come and go in multiple layers, "like peeling an onion" as a friend says.
I see now that I probably could not have opened the door that last night in Paris if I had not had the first nearly three weeks in the southern town of Bordeaux where I mostly continued the same pace I had had in Santa Cruz.
I stayed predominantly anchored to my friend Madina's stone house in a residential neighborhood breaking my home-boundedness with short jaunts to the market, to the school to pick up Ella her daughter, to the hardware store. For some reason I found incredible comfort in fixing little things around my dear friend's house - a form of caregiving I suppose.
Breakfasts with fresh bread, salty butter and homemade jam, long hot baths with eucalyptus oil, bicycle rides around the bumpy cobbled streets, short trips to the station to pick up friends, tea with Madina's parents in the big house in St Emilion: this was the busy schedule of my stay in the Southwest.
When I look back I see that as the days went by my tears became less and less abundant.
During the flight over I cried probably a dozen times (I've learned to do it now in a way that looks almost as if I've just gone into a short meditation by placing my hand on my forehead just so). I so wanted Tad to be on this trip with me. I wanted it to be as beautiful as my last trip to France, the one where I introduced him to my circles there, where I showed him my old house, where we played dodge ball in the pool with my godson and his brothers.
Each time I saw someone new I wept again; something about being held in their arms, about Tad not being there in our arms, something about the physical presence suddenly making concrete the invisible love that binds us.
Around day four or five Madina and I went down to the river on a full moon and said good-bye yet again to Tad as we tossed some of his ashes into the churning muddy Garonne River right in front of his favorite fountain. Like the night he fell in love with that fountain, there were people sitting around talking, drinking, singing, enjoying the last evenings before the arrival of the cold winter temperatures. Like that night with Tad Madina and I got back on our bikes and rode home through the old quarter past the illuminated Gothic churches and the medieval city gates - only this time in silence and with tears in our eyes.
One morning I sat on the sofa in the living room, crying softly, yearning for Tad to be there when little Ella came downstairs. That whole week for reasons no doctor could explain this lively six year old had been having stomach cramps, some strong enough to send her home from school. She looked up at me and said "Gregory pourquoi tu pleures?" I told her I was crying because I missed Tad. She asked me this with the same tone of voice used two years earlier when she would wake Tad and me each morning by climbing into bed with us and barrage us with "why" questions.
The most memorable morning we awoke with her riding Tad's torso like a pony and him half asleep mumbling to me: "Greg - what's she saying?" As her perky energy slowly pulled me out of my slumber I looked up at her smiling face and focused on the words coming out of her mouth: "She wants to know why you have such a fat stomach?" ("Tad! Tad! Pourquoi t'as un si gros ventre?"). Needless to say Tad awakened immediately, fighting back with tickles to regain his dignity.
That evening while her mother bathed Ella she shared that she had seen me crying on the sofa. It seems my tears helped her to burst wide open with her own sorrow and tell her mother how much she misses having daddy and her in the same house together. How even though it's been two years she doesn't want to live like this; she wants things to go back to the way they were; back to life before separation.
From the mouths of babes....
Looking back I see another moment that helped push back the sorrow quite unexpectedly was a phrase from Matthieu my host in Paris whom I have known since he was fourteen years old. Now a 43 year old gerontologist he has been around quite a few folks living their last days on earth. His simple idea ran counter to everything I had thought about death: "Sometimes it's just not a good idea for family members to be there when a person dies."
This seemed anathema to my old fighting spirit born from the untimely deaths of so many friends in the 1980's: being with someone dying was ALWAYS better than not. In my volunteer gig at the hospice it seems we all more or less secretly hope we will be present when one of our beloved residents stops breathing. ( The likelihood of being there that one second when everything changes is statistically quite low. There are after all 86,400 seconds in just one given day). Plus I had begun sitting with dying people as a form of service the very day Tad got diagnosed with leukemia. Surely that was some kind of sign? Or was that just a coincidence?
I asked Matthieu what he meant. He explained that even though we all imagine death to be beautiful and serene most people's aren't very pretty. They're messy and painful, especially so for those who love the person. "It's like birth," he said. "We have this idea it's always a great thing but it can actually be really messy and bloody and traumatic."
I am aware now how much those words helped. The last six months of Tad's life were a constant struggle. The last ten minutes watching him fight to breathe were excruciating for me - even though both of our two friends present described it as peaceful moment.
I see today that I have not just been carrying immense sorrow at having lost the person I feel closest to. I am also the bearer of a certain level of post-traumatic stress disorder, what used to be called "shell shock" when soldiers came home from war in a stunned, apathetic state. The flashbacks, the numbness, the tears were all part of the complex package I carried.
Funny...I used the past tense. I think this is indeed the part that lifted. I am aware of it because it's no longer there.
While at Matthieu's the temperature plummeted quite suddenly and I was in the market for a wool cap to cover my ears. I stepped into a local Monoprix only to discover they were selling a knock-off version of a jacket I had lost a good ten years previously. Since buying my first for a reasonable price I discovered the style had become quite trendy and the price had gone up astronomically. Hence after losing it I gave up on ever having one again. In fact when it disappeared my boyfriend at the time seemed to have been the last person wearing it. Although he apologized generously I still held a petty grudge.
I came home from the store without a wool cap but instead with a new quilted jacket, much like the one I had worn so many years ago. When I arrived at the flat I called out to Matthieu to come see my new purchase. I was actually having a playful, retail-therapy moment, my first since Tad's death. Matthieu walked into the living room and immediately said, "Looks great. Oh that reminds me I still have that old blue quilted jacket of yours. It's a bit worn out but I'll bring it back the next time we go to the house in the country."
Not only did it delight me to discover that all these years I had been wrong about the jacket's whereabouts, but it was comforting to know that it had always been in Matthieu's possession. The coat dated back a good twenty years - fourteen more than my time with Tad. Its near re-appearance was a gentle reminder of the continuity of things, the coherence of my world even when it's scattered across two continents and two decades.
Today I am back in Tad's house in Santa Cruz. It feels more and more like my house. I am laying down my arms, resting from the weary battle. I am not pulled into deep sorrow when I see our yard, our bed, our cat, our photos. Instead I find myself smiling more, singing aloud even. And in the smiles I feel Tad's love.
That night in the bathtub when Ella wept and finally blurted out her deep yearning to see her parents back together, her mother had the wisdom to lovingly tell her she and Ella's dad would not get back together. I imagine Madina knew such words would not be easy for little Ella's ears yet in the long run this was the healthy response, one steeped in reality.
I see how --driven by my old childhood desire to protect the ones I love from pain at all cost-- I fought very hard by Tad's side to help him survive leukemia. I also see how I somehow fantasized I could keep him from suffering if I just fought hard enough. By handily transforming my own neurotic ball-and-chain into a sword and shield I mistakenly believed I could relieve him of any pain. And if he did suffer then it was my fault for not working hard enough.
I also failed to notice that my "weapons" do not entirely protect me from harm either.
I hope one day my beloved -whoever that may be- will hold me in his arms while I breathe my last breath the way I proudly did with the beautiful and valiant Tad Crandall. And already I pray that the inevitable pain he will suffer from this last act of love does not last too long.