Valentine's Day '98
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From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
Love, love, love, love. Love.
What do we talk about when we talk about love? Well, since the 13th century, this is what we talk about, this very moment.
A coup de foudre. Coup de foudre, in French, means a bolt of lightning. Seeing someone and in an instant, you've fallen in love. Love which happens in a moment of a flash.
This is Richard Klein of Cornell University. In the 13th century, he says, Petrarch was walking by a fountain in the south of France. Turns a corner, sees Laura. Petrarch looks into her eyes and in an instant, his life is transformed. And he writes the first lyric love poems ever written.
He says before this moment, one lives in a state of distraction. And things come and go, experiences fragmentary and chaotic. And all of a sudden, at the moment in which you encounter the eye of the other, it turns you into something else. Suddenly you become-- your whole being becomes focused on that experience. And all you want to do, once you've had that experience, is to return over and over to that.
30 years later, in Florence, Dante goes through the same thing when he sees, at the top of a flight of stairs, Beatrice. He writes about it. And the idea of this moment, the bolt of lightning, gets repeated in literature and song and theater all through the Renaissance, up through the 19th century, and into the present day, today. People who have not experienced that bolt of lightning in years. People who have been married for decades go to the movies, watch TV, to see it reenacted over and over. This is what we talk about, when we talk about love.
In ancient Greek, the Greeks had two verbs for seeing. [SPEAKING GREEK] and [SPEAKING GREEK]. [SPEAKING GREEK] is a way of seeing what we ordinarily understand as observation. [SPEAKING GREEK] refers to the look that eyes can flash, like lightning, like dragon breath, that not only illuminates the eye, but sends out a kind of fire that penetrates the eye of the other.
And they had specifically a separate word for that.
That's right, for the moment when the eyes flash. And flash in a way which implies some kind of fateful encounter.
I was struck looking at those tapes of Monica Lewinsky embracing the president on those rope lines. The thing that's most compelling about those images is the way her eyes flash at him. One can't help but be struck by the light that's coming from those eyes.
OK, now here's the crazy thing. Everybody knows that that moment of initial rapture, that instant when your eyes meet and you're obsessed with the other person, thinking about them all the time. Everybody knows that that feeling doesn't usually last, that in some way it's just a dream. That over time, it changes into something different. Here's the thing. Even on the day that this romantic myth of love was born, that day in the 13th century when Petrarch saw Laura, even on that day, it was clear that it was just a myth, it was just a dream. Petrarch doesn't get the girl.
You know, the usual story is that the guy doesn't get the girl. But maybe you never get the girl. Maybe that's the condition of falling in love, that it always remains something sort of inaccessible. The moment that desire is fulfilled, desire dies.
Psychologists have estimated that you can only stay in love for 18 months. That's the limit. After that, it becomes something else. It becomes admiration, respect, affection, but--
The dream of it dissolves and becomes something else.
I wonder if you would be saying this and explaining this in these terms if you yourself were falling in love right now.
Well, as a matter of fact, I think I am.
Well then, you're going to get in trouble when this goes on the radio, aren't you?
Oh, I'm going to be in so much trouble, You have no idea.
So you're falling in love right now, and you're holding to the idea that this is an illusion-- a sort of an illusory experience?
Oh, but all I want is more illusion. More illusion.
So today, beloved listener, we come to you with a mission. Sing stories of love. In fact our whole idea of love. These things are usually about how it feels during those first moments of falling in love.
Today for Valentine's Day, as a public service, we make an attempt to understand another side of what love means. We bring you stories of couples that all take place decades after the moment their eyes meet.
Act One, Before and After. The beginning of love as viewed from a moment near its ending. Act Two, I Met Him at the Yogurt Store, But I Do Not Call Him Leader of the Pack. Flirtation during marriage, a fable that could save your relationship, no kidding. Act Three, Without. Donald Hall documents a relationship whose most intense, most romantic moments came not at the beginning, but at the end. Stay with us.
Act One. Before And After.
Act One, Before and After. As a kid growing up on the East Coast, in the 1970s, for me, the most romantic songs in the world-- and this is kind of a corny thing to admit now, years later with retrospect-- the most romantic songs in the world were Bruce Springsteen's. Songs about falling in love in run-down beach towns on the Jersey Shore, songs about hitting the road together to, you know, who knows where.
But once Bruce hit a certain age, he stopped writing songs about that moment when lightning flashes between people, when their eyes meet.
And he wrote a series of songs where basically every song takes place long after the couple fell out of love. And the narrator, the singer of these songs, is remembering that exhilarating moment of falling in love, and then describing the moment he's in now, the drudgery of his marriage now. And he's laying these two moments side by side, trying to make sense of how one of them has any connection in the world to the other. How one of them led to the other.
Well, this next story is something like that. It's by Richard Bausch.
It's exactly 20 minutes to midnight on this, the eve of my 70th birthday. And I've decided to address you, for a change, in writing, odd as that might seem. I'm perfectly aware of how you're going to take the fact that I'm doing this at all, so late at night with everybody due to arrive tomorrow in the house, still unready.
I haven't spent almost five decades with you without learning a few things about you that I can predict and describe with some accuracy. Though I admit that, as you put it, lately we've been more like strangers than husband and wife. Well, so if we are like strangers, perhaps there are some things I can tell you that you won't have already figured out about the way I feel.
Tonight, we had another one of those long, silent evenings after an argument. Remember? Over pepper.
We had been bickering all day, really, but at dinner, I put pepper on my potatoes, and you said that about how I shouldn't have pepper because it always upsets my stomach. I bothered to remark that I used to eat chili peppers for breakfast, and if I wanted to put plain old ordinary black pepper on my potatoes, as I had been doing for more than 60 years, that was my privilege.
Writing this now, it sounds far more testy than I meant it. But that isn't really the point. In any case, you chose to overlook my tone. You simply said, John, you were up all night the last time you had pepper with your dinner. I said, I was up all night because I ate green peppers. Not black pepper, but green pepper. A pepper is a pepper, isn't it? You said.
And then I started in on you. I got, as you call it, legal with you, pointing out that green peppers are not black pepper. And from there we moved on to an evening of mutual disregard for each other that ended with your decision to go to bed early.
The grandchildren will make you tired, and there's still the house to do. You had every reason to want to get some rest. And yet I felt that you were also making a point of getting yourself out of proximity with me, leaving me to my displeasure, with another ridiculous argument settling between us like a fog.
So after you went to bed, I got out the whiskey and started pouring drinks, and I had every intention of putting myself into a stupor. It was also my birthday after all and, forgive this, it's the way I felt at the time, you had nagged me into an argument and then gone off to bed. The day had ended as so many of our days end now and I felt, well, entitled. I had a few drinks, without any appreciable effect, though you might well see this letter as firm evidence to the contrary.
And then I decided to do something to shake you up. I would leave. I'd make a lot of noise going out the door. I'd take a walk around the neighborhood and make you wonder where I could be. Perhaps I'd go check into a motel for the night. The thought even crossed my mind that I might leave you all together. I admit that I entertained the thought, Marie.
I saw our life together now as the day to day round of petty quarreling and tension, that it's mostly been over the past couple of years or so. And I wanted out as sincerely as I ever wanted out of anything.
And I got up from my seat in front of the television, and walked back down the hall to the entrance of our room to look at you. I suppose I hoped you'd still be awake so I could tell you of this momentous decision I felt I'd reached. And maybe you were awake, one of our oldest areas of contention being the noise I make. The feather thin membrane of your sleep that I'm always disturbing with my restlessness in the nights. All right?
Assuming you were asleep and don't know that I stood in the doorway of our room, I will say that I stood there for perhaps five minutes looking at you in the half-dark, the shape of your body under the blanket. You really did look like one of the girls when they were little and I used to stand in the doorway of their rooms. Your illness last year made you so small again and, as I said, I thought I had decided to leave you, for your peace as well as mine.
I know you have gone to sleep crying, Marie. I know you've felt sorry about things and wished we could find some way to stop irritating each other so much.
Well of course, I didn't go anywhere. I came back to this room and drank more of the whiskey and watched television. It was like all the other nights. The shows came on and ended, and the whiskey began to wear off. There was a little rain shower. I had a moment of the shock of knowing I was 70.
After the rain ended, I did go outside for a few minutes. I stood on the sidewalk and looked at the house. The kids, with their kids, were on the road somewhere between their homes and here. I walked up to the end of the block and back, and a pleasant breeze blew and shook the drops out of the trees. My stomach was bothering me some and maybe it was the pepper I put on my potatoes. It could just as well have been the whiskey.
Anyway, as I came back to the house I began to have the eerie feeling that I had reached the last night of my life. There was this small discomfort in my stomach and no other physical pang or pain, and I am used to the small ills and side effects of my ways of eating and drinking. Yet I felt a sense of the end of things more strongly than I can describe.
When I stood in the entrance of our room and looked at you again, wondering if I would make it through to the morning, I suddenly found myself trying to think what I would say to you if indeed this were the last time I would ever be able to speak to you. And I began to know I would write you this letter.
At least words in a letter aren't blurred by tone of voice, by the old aggravating sound of me talking to you.
I began with this and with the idea that, after months of thinking about it, I would at last try to say something to you that wasn't colored by our disaffection. What I have to tell you must be explained in a rather roundabout way.
I've been thinking about my cousin Louise and her husband. When he died and she stayed with us last summer, something brought back to me what is really only the memory of a moment. Yet it reached me, that moment, across more than 50 years.
As you know, Louise is nine years older than I and more like an older sister than a cousin. I must have told you at one time or another that I spent some weeks with her back in 1933 when she was first married. The memory I'm talking about comes from that time, and what I have decided I have to tell you comes from that memory.
Father had been dead four years. We were all used to the fact that times were hard and that there was no man in the house, though I suppose I filled that role in some titular way.
In any case, when Mother became ill, there was the problem of us, her children. Though I was the oldest, I wasn't old enough to stay in the house alone or to nurse her either. My grandfather came up with a solution and everybody went along with it, that I would go to Louise's for a time and the two girls would go to stay with grandfather.
So we closed up the house, and I got on a train to Virginia. I was a few weeks shy of 14 years old. I remember that I was not able to believe that anything truly bad would come of Mother's pleurisy and was consequently glad of the opportunity it afforded me to travel the 100 miles south to Charlottesville, where cousin Louise had moved with her new husband only a month earlier after her wedding.
Because we traveled so much at the beginning, you never got to really know Charles when he was young. In 1933 he was a very tall, imposing fellow with bright red hair and a graceful way of moving that always made me think of athletics and contests of skill. He had worked at the Navy Yard in Washington and had been laid off in the first months of Roosevelt's New Deal. Louise was teaching in a day school in Charlottesville so they could make ends meet, and Charles was spending most of his time looking for work and fixing up the house.
I had only met Charles once or twice before the wedding, but already I admired him and wanted to emulate him. The prospect of spending time in his house, of perhaps going fishing with him in the small streams of central Virginia, was all I thought about on the way down. And I remember that we did go fishing one weekend, that I wound up spending a lot of time with Charles, helping to paint the house and to run water lines under it for indoor plumbing.
Oh, I had time with Louise too, listening to her read from the books she wanted me to be interested in, walking with her around Charlottesville in the evenings and looking at the city as it was then. Or sitting on her small porch and talking about the family, Mother's stubborn illness, the children Louise saw every day at school.
But what I want to tell you has to do with the very first day I was there. I know you think I use far too much energy thinking about and pining away for the past. And I therefore know that I am taking a risk by talking about this ancient history and by trying to make you see it. But this all has to do with you and me, my dear, and our late inability to find ourselves in the same room together without bitterness and pain.
That summer, 1933, was unusually warm in Virginia and the heat, along with my impatience to arrive, made the train almost unbearable. I think it was just past noon when it pulled into the station at Charlottesville, with me hanging out one of the windows looking for Louise or Charles. It was Charles who had come to meet me. He stood in a crisp looking seersucker suit, with a straw boater cocked at just the angle you'd expect a young, newly married man to wear a straw boater, even in the middle of economic disaster.
I waved at him and he waved back. And I might have jumped out the window if the train had slowed even a little more than it had, before it stopped in the shade of the platform. I made my way out, carrying a cloth bag my grandfather had given me for the trip. Mother had said through her room that I looked like a carpetbagger. And when I stepped down to shake hands with Charles, I noticed that what I thought was a new suit was tattered at the ends of the sleeves.
Well, he said, young John. I smiled at him. I was perceptive enough to see that his cheerfulness was not entirely effortless. He was a man out of work, after all, and so in spite of himself there was worry in his face, the slightest shadow in an otherwise glad and proud countenance.
We walk through the station to the street and on up the steep hill to the house, which was a small clapboard structure, a cottage really, with a porch, at the end of a short sidewalk lined with flowers. They were marigolds, I think. And here was Louise, coming out of the house, her arms already stretched wide to embrace me.
Lord, she said, I swear you've grown since the wedding, John. Charles took my bag and went inside. Let me look at you, young man, Louise said. I stood for inspection. And as she looked me over, I saw that her hair was pulled back, that a few strands of it had come loose, that it was brilliantly auburn in the sun.
I suppose I was little in love with her. She was grown and married now. She was a part of what seemed a great mystery to me even as I was about to enter it. And of course, you remember how that feels, Marie, when one is on the verge of things, nearly adult, nearly old enough to fall in love.
I looked at Louise's happy, flushed face and felt a deep ache as she ushered me into her house. I wanted so to be older.
Inside, Charles had poured lemonade for us and was sitting in the easy chair by the fireplace already sipping his. Louise wanted to show me the house and the backyard, which she had tilled and turned into a small vegetable garden. But she must have sensed how thirsty I was. And so she asked me to sit down and have a cool drink before she showed me the upstairs.
Now, of course, looking back on it, I remember that those rooms she was so anxious to show me were meager indeed. They were not much bigger than closets really, and the paint was faded and dull. The furniture she'd arranged so artfully was coming apart. The pictures she put on the walls were prints she'd cut out, magazine covers mostly. And the curtains over the windows were the same ones that hung in her childhood bedroom for 20 years.
Recognize these? She said with a deprecating smile. Of course the quality of her pride had nothing to do with the fineness, or lack of it, in these things, but in the fact that they belonged to her, and that she was a married lady in her own house.
On this day in July in 1933, she and Charles are waiting for the delivery of a fan they had scrounged enough money to buy from Sears through the catalog. There were things they would rather have been doing, especially in this heat, and especially with me there. Monticello wasn't far away. The university was within walking distance. And without too much expense, one could ride a taxi to one of the lakes nearby.
They had hoped that the fan would arrive before I did. But since it hadn't, and since neither Louise nor Charles was willing to leave the other alone while traipsing off with me that day, there wasn't anything to do but wait around for it. Louise had opened the windows and shut the shades, and we sat in her small living room and drank the lemonade, fanning ourselves with folded parts of Charles's morning newspaper. From time to time an anemic breath of air would move the shades slightly, but everything grew still again.
Louise sat on the arm of Charles's chair and I sat on the sofa. We talked about pleurisy and, I think, about the fact that Thomas Jefferson had invented the dumbwaiter, how the plumbing at Monticello was at least a century ahead of its time. Charles remarked that it was the spirit of invention that would make a man's career in these days. That's what I'm aiming for, to be inventive in a job, no matter what it winds up being.
When the lemonade ran out, Louise got up and went into the kitchen to make some more. Charles and I talked about taking a weekend to go fishing. He leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head, looking satisfied. In the kitchen Louise was chipping ice for our glasses and she began singing something low, for her own pleasure. A barely audible lilting. And Charles and I sat listening.
It occurred to me that I was very happy. I had the sense that soon I would be embarked on my own life as Charles was, and that an attractive woman like Louise would be there with me.
Charles yawned and said, god listen to that. Doesn't Louise have the loveliest voice?
And that's all I have from that day. I don't even know if the fan arrived later, and I have no clear memory of how we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening. I remember Louise singing a song, her husband leaning back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head, expressing his pleasure in his young wife's voice. I remember that I felt quite extraordinarily content just then. And that's all I remember.
But there are, of course, the things we both know. We know they moved to Colorado to be near Charles's parents. We know they never had any children. We know that Charles fell down a shaft at a construction site in the fall of 1957 and was hurt so badly that he never walked again. And I know that when she came to stay with us last summer, she told me she learned to hate him. And not for what she'd had to help him do all those years. No, it started earlier and was deeper than that. She hadn't minded the care of him, the washing and feeding, and all the numberless small tasks she had to perform each and every day, all day. She hadn't minded this. In fact, she thought there was something in her makeup that liked being needed so completely.
The trouble was simply that whatever she had once loved in him, she had stopped loving. And for many, many years before he died, she'd felt only suffocation when he was near enough to touch her. Only irritation and anxiety when he spoke.
She said all this and then looked at me, her cousin, who had been fortunate enough to have children and to be in love over time, and said, John, how have you and Marie managed it? And what I wanted to tell you has to do with this fact. That while you and I had had one of our whispering arguments only moments before, I feel quite certain of the simple truth of the matter, which is that whatever our complications, we have managed to be in love over time.
Louise, I said.
People start out with such high hopes, she said, as if I wasn't there. She looked at me. Don't they?
Yes, I said.
She seemed to consider this a moment and she said, I wonder how it happens.
I said, you ought to get some rest, or something equally pointless and admonitory.
As she moved away from me, I had an image of Charles standing on the station platform in Charlottesville that summer, the straw boater set at its cocky angle. It was an image I would see most of the rest of that night, and on many another night since.
I can almost hear your voice as you point out that once again I've managed to dwell too long on the memory of something that's passed and gone. The difference is that I'm not grieving over the past now. I am merely reporting a memory, so that you might understand what I'm about to say to you.
The fact is, we aren't the people we were even then, just a year ago. I know that. As I know things have been slowly eroding between us for a very long time. We are a little tired of each other. And there are annoyances and old scars that won't be obliterated with a letter, even a long one written in the middle of the night in desperate sincerity, under the influence, admittedly, of a considerable portion of bourbon whiskey. But nevertheless with the best intention and hope that you may know how, over the course of this night, I came to the end of needing an explanation for our difficulty.
We have reached this place. Everything we say seems rather aggravatingly mindless and automatic, like something one stranger might say to another in one of the thousand circumstances where strangers are thrown together for a time, and the silence begins to grow heavy on their minds and someone has to say something.
Darling, we go so long these days without having anything at all to do with each other. And the children are arriving tomorrow, and once more we'll be in the position of making all the gestures that give them back their parents as they think their parents are. And what I wanted to say to you, what came to me as I thought about Louise and Charles on that day so long ago, when they were young and so obviously glad of each other. And I looked at them and knew it and was happy. What came to me was that even the harsh things that happened to them, even the years of anger and silence, even the disappointment and the bitterness and the wanting not to be in the same room anymore. Even all that must have been worth it, for such loveliness.
At least I am here at 70 years old hoping so.
Tonight, I went back to our room again and stood gazing at you asleep, dreaming whatever you were dreaming. And I had a moment of thinking how we were always friends too.
Because what I wanted finally to say, was that I remember well our own sweet times, our own old loveliness. And I would like to think that even if at the very beginning of our lives together, I had somehow been shown that we would end up here, with this longing to be away from each other, this feeling of being trapped together, of being tied to each other in a way that makes us wish for other times, some other place, I would have known enough to accept it all freely for the chance at that love.
And if I could, I would do it all again, Marie. All of it. Even the sorrow. My sweet, my dear adversary, for everything that I remember.
Richard Bausch's story, "Letter to the Lady of the House," is in his book, Selected Stories from Richard Bausch. That's from the Modern Library. His newest book is called In The Night Season.
Coming up, not leaving your husband for the guy in the yogurt store, despite his nose job. That's in a minute from Public Radio International, when our program continuous.
Act Two. I Met Him In The Yogurt Store, But Now He's Not My Leader Of The Pack.
It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and reporters and performers to tackle that theme.
Today, for Valentine's Day, we wanted to bring you stories about love, but not the usual kind of love stories which try to capture that moment when your eyes meet and your heart sings, and you fall, fall, fall, fall, fall. No, no, no. We have a different mission. Today, as a public service, we are bringing you love stories about people who have been in the same relationship for years. Stories of love years after the lightning has already struck.
We have arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, I met him in the yogurt store, and now he is not my leader of the pack.
In this act we bring you a true fable of love, a true story. A tale of moral instruction with a lesson for everyone, that happened in the ninth year of marriage between Linda Howard and Richard Bloom, who live in Boca Raton, Florida.
After we were married I would say-- was Nicole born yet? Yeah, we had both kids, we had a boy and a girl. And we were-- took the kids out for frozen yogurt one night. And we're in Huntington, where we lived at the time. And we're sitting down, we're ordering, and there's this guy, very good-looking guy standing there, and all of a sudden--
He wasn't that good-looking.
All of a sudden, it dawned on me that this was David, this guy who I dated in high school and then years later, had another relationship with, which was kind of a hot and heavy relationship several years later, when we were already out of school for a number of years. And here he was. He had had his nose fixed, and his hair was all white, and to me he looked absolutely gorgeous. And I said, David? Now, his whole family's there. He says, Linda?
And it was like everything stopped in my mind at that moment. And it was kind of like we were trying to be very nonchalant with each other here. Oh, this is my husband and these are my kids, and dah dah dah. Meanwhile, the heart is going, ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom.
And I know it's an old boyfriend, I could just tell. And I go, hi, I'm the husband. Hi. And my kids, hi.
So he and I have this nice little chat while we're standing there, and I'm saying to myself in the car, I know that he is thinking exactly the same thing about me. I know it. There's not a doubt in my mind. And I can't believe that we've just left now and we're not going to each other again.
I ask him, what is he doing? And he tells me that he's a psychoanalyst in the city, and this is completely a shock to me. And I tell them that I'm a clinical psychologist.
And they have so much in common.
We have so much in common and blah blah blah. Well, anyway.
The next day I go into my office and there's this-- I press the button on my answering machine-- and there's this long message. And I'm thinking, who could have left me a message that long? And I play it back.
Somebody needed help.
And it's David and he said-- I can't do that-- when I got in the car, I couldn't stop thinking about you and all of this kind of stuff. And I was just astounded and I had this big smile on my face, and I'm thinking, well there's no way I'm going to call him back.
So I don't call him back and a few days later he calls. And he had been saying to me that it was so wonderful to see me and he'd love to get together, and he was kind of reminiscing and so forth. And I didn't call him back. And he called back and he left another message, saying that he was sorry that he had gotten so carried away, and I probably have my own life now and a whole thing, and it's probably difficult for me to call and he understands, and just wanted me to know how great it was to see me and--
Probably have your own life, with the husband, the two kids. I wonder what gave it away.
So anyway, at that point, when he said that, I waited a few days and it was just-- I just really wanted to talk to him.
So I called him and he said, why don't we meet for-- we had this fabulous, fabulous conversation-- and why don't we meet for coffee. And I got that old feeling. That old feeling of having that rush, you know. And somebody's going to think I'm fabulous all over again. So I started thinking about him and thinking about him. And he said, can we go for coffee? So I said I would think about it. So I said to Richard that night, oh I heard from David. And he said, oh yeah, what did he say? And I said, well, we just had a nice talk, and do you mind if we go for coffee? And he said, do I mind? Well, I wouldn't like it. But if that's what you'd like to do, go ahead.
So I thought about it. And now, in the meantime, he's leaving me messages now. And he's saying, I didn't think of you when I got up this morning, I just wanted you to know that I'm not thinking of you when having a coffee break, and these very seductive messages.
And I'm just getting obsessed with him, and I'm thinking oh my god I want to see him. Well, it got to a point where I wanted to see him so badly that I was upset. I could not look Richard in the eye. And he came home one Saturday afternoon and I was just terribly upset. I said, Rich, I have to talk to you. He said, what's the matter? And I told him the whole story.
And he was amazing. He put his arms around me-- I told him I'm obsessed with him-- he put his arms around me and he just held me. And he said to me, oh honey, I'm so sorry I can't do that for you anymore. And that was all he said. I couldn't believe it. I waited for some kind of a lecture, why didn't you tell me? Something, some sign of jealousy. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Just held me.
I was jealous, because-- but what's it going to do? I mean once you've got two kids and you've been with each other for quite a while, before and after marriage, you can't get the thunder and lightning back. It's now-- it's different.
Needless to say, I went downstairs to my office and I called David immediately, and I said, this is what just happened. I've been obsessed with you. I told my husband the whole story from beginning to end and this is what he did. He put his arms around me and held me, and I told him what he said. And I said, this is the most amazing man in the world. And David said, you're married to one helluva guy.
And I am. I am one helluva guy.
I said, yes he is. Don't ever call me again. And that was it.
Linda Howard and Richard Bloom have been married for 11 years. They spoke with Stephanie Howard.
[SINGING] Here's our story, it's sad but true.
[SINGING] About a boy that I once knew.
[SINGING] I don't know the rest of the song.
[SINGING] I almost took his love and ran around.
Act Three. Without.
Act Three, Without. Donald Hall says that when he first got together with his wife, Jane Kenyon, the earliest years were not so very intense. They didn't have that big lightning moment. It was the '70s, he says, by way of explanation. They saw each other while they also saw other people. And then they slowly decided that they had no interest in the other people. And then they got married. And then, three years into the marriage, they moved to a farm in New Hampshire that had been in Donald's family for generations.
And it was only then, Donald Hall says, that they entered their most intimate time together. They got closer every year of their marriage, he says, and the closest time of all between them came at the end of their marriage, when after 22 years together, Jane Kenyon got leukemia and he took care of her.
During this time, he started to document what was happening between them in his writing. And his newest book of poems, called Without, is all work he began during her illness and after her death in 1995. The poems include sad moments and funny moments, and a million little details of everyday life during a life-threatening crisis. In one poem, Jane stares at the mirror at her bald head and her face, swollen from the drugs that she's taking, and she declares, I am Telly Savalas.
In another, Donald asked, why were they not contented four months ago? Because Jane did not have leukemia? A year hence, would he question why he was not contented now? Therefore, he was contented.
He writes about the dog Gus reacting to their illness, about Jane trying to finish her own book of poems called Otherwise, and about small moments when they both realize once again, all over again, what's happening to them.
Alone together a moment on the 22nd anniversary of their wedding, he clasped her as she stood at the sink, pressing into her backside, rubbing his cheek against the stubble of her skull. He gave her a ring of pink tourmaline with nine small diamonds around it. She put it on her finger, and immediately named it Please Don't Die.
They kissed and Jane whispered, timor mortis conturbat me. That last bit, of course, is Latin and Jane was not a Latin scholar, but that's a refrain line of a wonderful medieval Scots' poem about dead poets, and it translates more or less, the fear of death shakes me.
Usually when we think about romance, the moment that we think about is the beginning of the romance as the most intense time. And in fact one of the things that happens in these poems is it's just the two of you going through a time that's just as intense.
Oh, more intense. More intense. Really, we had a very good marriage. We were very fortunate. We loved the same things. And then we began to be sick. I had cancer a couple of times and then Jane had leukemia, beginning at the age of 46 and dying at 47. Jane was 19 years younger than me. But when you think you're going to lose what you love, when you know it's probably going to happen, then the sweetness of the intensity and the pain of the intensity is greater than ever, I do think
I think it was beautiful. I often say that obviously the worst thing in my life is Jane dying. But one of the best things in my life was taking care of her.
There's a line in one of the poems actually, where you say, he felt shamed to understand that he would miss the months of sickness and taking care.
And I had that thought literally. It's all right to tell lies in books, but this was not a lie. I had that thought and wrote down something like that line the day before we found out that she was going to die.
I was optimistic. And I thought, with guilt, I'll be sorry when I can't take care of her anymore.
So explain this poem, "Last Days," to me.
Well "Last Days" is the poems that I wrote or began to write during the last days of her life.
One day in April we had her blood checked, which we did once a week, and it was just fine. And a week later, the leukemia had come back and there was nothing to do. She was going to die.
This is after also she went through very intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatment, a bone marrow transplant--
Everything. Yeah, 15 months of a lot of suffering. So this was what we came home with the doctor saying, it might be a month. But it actually took just 11 days. And here are poems out of those 11 days.
Home that afternoon, they threw her medicines into the trash. Jane vomited. He wailed, while she remained dry-eyed, silent, trying to let go. At night, he picked up the telephone to make calls that brought a child or a friend into the horror.
The next morning, they worked choosing among her poems for Otherwise, picked hymns for her funeral, and supplied each other words as they wrote and revised her obituary.
The day after, with more work to do on her book, he saw how weak she felt and said, maybe not now. Maybe later. Jane shook her head. Now, she said. We have to finish it now.
Later, as she slid exhausted into sleep, she said, wasn't that fun? To work together. Wasn't that fun?
He asked her, what clothes should we dress you in when we bury you?
I hadn't thought, she said.
I wondered about the white salwar kameez, he said, her favorite Indian silk they bought in Pondicherry a year and a half before, which she wore for best or prettiest afterward.
She smiled. Yes, excellent, she said. He didn't tell her that a year earlier, dreaming awake, he had seen her in the coffin in her white salwar kameez.
They talked about their adventures, driving through England when they first married, and excursions to China and India. Also they remembered ordinary days, pond summers, working on poems together, walking the dog, reading Chekhov aloud.
When he praised thousands of afternoon assignations that carried them into bliss and repose on this painted bed, Jane burst into tears and cried, no more [BLEEP]ing. No more [BLEEP]ing.
Incontinent three nights before she died, Jane needed lifting onto the commode. He wiped her and helped her back into bed. At 5:00 he fed the dog and returned to find her across the room, sitting in a straight chair. When she couldn't stand, how could she walk? He figured she would fall and called for an ambulance to the hospital. But when he told Jane, her mouth twisted down and tears started.
Do we have to? He canceled. Jane said, Perkins, be with me when I die.
Dying is simple, she said. What's worst is the separation. When she no longer spoke, they lay alone together, touching, and she fixed on him her beautiful enormous round, brown eyes, shining, unblinking, and passionate with love and dread.
One by one, they came, the oldest and dearest, to say goodbye to this friend of the heart. At first she said their names, wept and touched, then she smiled. Then turned one mouth corner up. On the last day, she stared silent goodbyes, with her hands curled and her eyes stuck open.
Leaving his place beside her, where her eyes stared, he told her, I'll put these letters in the box. She had not spoken for three hours. And now Jane said her last words, OK.
At 8:00 that night, her eyes open as they stayed until she died, brain-stem breathing started. He bent to kiss her pale cool lips again and felt them one last time gather and purse and peck to kiss him back.
In the last hours, she kept her forearms raised with pale fingers clenched at cheek level, like the goddess figurine over the bathroom sink. Sometimes her right fist flicked or spasmed toward her face.
For 12 hours until she died, he kept scratching Jane Kenyon's big bony nose. A sharp, almost sweet smell began to rise from her open mouth.
That's a line from her, by the way. She wrote a wonderful poem called Gettysburg. And she says a sharp, almost sweet smell began to rise from his open mouth. And nobody has noticed that yet. I'm ripping her off as she dies. She wouldn't mind. She'd be amused.
Do you feel like going through the process of revising and finishing this book, and publishing it, has kept you suspended in that period of mourning for her longer than perhaps you would've otherwise?
No, I don't think so. I think that it has been very helpful to me in my mourning. I don't think I would have straight away. But I had something to do about it.
I really understand that. I think that one of the most common things when somebody is mourning somebody else, is you're not exactly sure what to do with the feeling.
It's like, they're unreachable. And then you have all this feeling, and it's like, well, where do you even put it?
Where do you put it, yeah. I had a place to put it. I had a reason to wake up in the morning. And especially the first year, when it was very acute, and I screamed a lot and scared the dog. But I had a reason to get up in the morning.
Let me ask you about the set of poems, which happens after she dies. And you set about writing a set of letters to her. Did you actually write her letters every day after she died?
No. I began-- oh, I found out that Maggie Fisher was pregnant. Maggie was one of Jane's nurses. And the first thought you have is-- everybody does this-- something happens and you think, oh, I can't wait to tell Jane. Uh, I can't do that.
And I did what I think probably a lot of people have done. I began to write her letters. And the letter form just took me over. The fact that in the letter I could wander around, I could reminisce, I could look out the window and tell her about the weather. I could tell her about things that she was particularly interested in.
This was the first one, "Letter With No Address."
Your daffodils rose up and collapsed in their yellow bodies on the hillside garden above the bricks you laid out in sand, squatting with pants pegged and face masked like a beekeeper's against the black flies. Buttercups circle the planks of the old wellhead this May, while your silken gardener's body withers or moulds in the Proctor graveyard.
I drive and talk to you crying, then come back to this house to talk to your photographs. There's news to tell you. Maggie Fisher's pregnant. I carried myself like an egg at Abigail's birthday party a week after you died, as three-year-olds bounced uproarious on a mattress.
Joyce and I met for lunch at the mall and strolled weepily through Sears and B. Dalton. Today it's four weeks since you lay on our painted bed and I closed your eyes. Yesterday I cut irises to set in a pitcher on your grave. Today I brought a carafe to fill it with fresh water.
I remember bone pain, vomiting, and delirium. I remember pond afternoons. My routine is established. Coffee, The Globe, breakfast, writing you this letter at my desk. When I go to bed to sleep after baseball, Gus follows me into the bedroom as he used to follow us. Most of the time he flops down in the parlor, with his head on his paws.
Once a week I drive to Tilton to see Dick and Nan. Nan doesn't understand much, but she knows you're dead. I feel her fretting. The tone of Dick and me talking seems to console her. You know now whether the soul survives death or you don't. When you were dying, you said you didn't fear punishment. We never dared to speak of paradise.
At 5:00 AM when I walk outside, mist lies thick on the hay fields. By 8:00 the air is clear, cool, sunny with the pale yellow light of mid May. Kearsarge rises huge and distinct, each birch and balsam visible. To the west the waters of Eagle Pond waver and flash through popples just leafing out.
Always the weather, writing its book of the world, returns you to me. Ordinary days were best, when we worked over poems in our separate rooms. I remember watching you gaze out the January window into the garden of snow and ice, your face rapt as you imagined burgundy lilies.
Your presence in this house is almost as enormous and painful as your absence. Driving home from Tilton, I remember how you cherished that vista with its center the red door of a farmhouse against green fields.
Are you past pity? If you have consciousness now, if something I can call "you" has something like consciousness, I doubt you remember the last days. I lift your wasted body onto the commode, your arms looped around my neck, aiming your bony bottom so that it will not bruise on a rail. Faintly, you repeat, Momma, Momma.
You lay astonishing in the long box while Alice Ling prayed and sang "Amazing Grace" a capella. Three times today I drove to your grave. Sometimes coming back home to our circular driveway, I imagine you've returned before me, bags of groceries upright in the back of the Saab, its trunk lid delicately raised, as if proposing an encounter, dog fashion, with the Honda.
That's like one of my favorite points in all the poem.
Good, good. She would have howled, she would have howled. I mean, that's, you know, I'm really addressing her sort of, when I make a joke like that. She would have loved it.
Do you find that you're still writing her letters, writing her poems as letters even now?
I'm writing-- actually what happened after this, still I've continued to write a lot about Jane, but I'm no longer addressing "you." I'm talking about Jane and "her" and "she." She has receded. This is horrible and inevitable and necessary. I can't talk to her in the second person anymore.
Donald Hall. His book of poems about his wife Jane Kenyon is called Without.
Man. Our program produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Senior editor for this show Paul Tough. Contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Rachel Day. Special thanks today to New Hampshire Public Radio. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who told me this week it's OK if I have coffee with other program directors. He said it's OK if I can't get other program directors out of my mind.
He was amazing. He put his arms around me and he just held me. And he said to me, oh, honey, I'm so sorry I can't do that for you anymore.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life
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