When George Saunders' magnificent novel Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker Prize recently he said this in an interview with the New York Times Book Review: “For me, the book was about that terrible conundrum: We seem to be born to love, but everything we love comes to an end. What do we do with that?”
What do we do with that?
For some, that reality is the driving force toward creation. It is what propels us to write and draw and sing and paint, have babies, build things. The spectre of death hovers nearby and prods us to live with as much gusto as we can muster on any given day; to empty the contents of our soul into this world before we return to stardust.
We experience the deaths that come with raising animals and loving flowers and living through seasons. We somehow make it through the smaller deaths: the transitions, the loss of work or love or ability or dreams. There are the terrible deaths of the people we love and then the grand finale: our own exit from the stage of life.
Everything we love comes to an end.
I sat in a room yesterday that had been a tavern in the late 1700s. There were rings on the brick walls where ale-drinkers had once tethered their horses. There was a bed in the middle of the room, holding a man and his two cats. The man had been a scientist who had had a role in this country's placing of a man on the moon. Brain cancer had taken hold of his life now ... had he worked too hard, thought too much, been exposed to toxic metals? ... I found myself wondering; how is it that a brilliant mind's life comes to a close at the hands of brain cancer?
His wife, at the foot of his bed, kept touching the blanket that was covering the legs he could no longer use. She talked about the things she was worried about, the things that were keeping her awake at night.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" the man with the brain cancer and the useless legs asked his beautiful wife of fifty years.
I visited with a man who had just turned 99. He and his wife led me through their kitchen to the living room for a proper sit-down and in there he told me stories of his life, his working days, the farm, chopping wood, raising children, going to church, the people he had met.
All of it he had done without vision. A rare macular disease had left him blind when he was in college. It didn't stop him from getting to work, ten miles from his home, for 35 years. It didn't stop him from anything, actually.
Next year the blind man and his wife will celebrate 75 years of marriage.
"Where did you get married?" I asked them.
"In the garden, at my parents' house," the wife said. "It was beautiful, we were surrounded by flowers and the sun was just going down; it was late June."
"That's an unusual time of day to get married," I told her.
"We had no choice!" she said, "We had to wait until he was done milking the cows!"
We seem to be born to love, but everything we love comes to an end. What do we do with that?
What do we do with that? I don't really know, but if I had to hazard a guess I would say milk the cows, get married at sunset. Get yourself to work, no matter what. Invite strangers to sit with you in your living room and tell them the stories of your life. Dream the impossible and make it happen. Ask your beautiful wife, "Is there anything I can do to help? even when your brain hurts and your feet won't take you anywhere anymore.
Probably. I'm guessing that's what we do with that.