One birthday some years ago, Rob handed me a slim wrapped package to open. He and I celebrated birthdays one day next to the other and so it was not unusual to find one or the other of us opening a gift in mid November. That morning I unwrapped a copy of Seamus Heaney's District and Circle--and with no classes to teach that day, I watched my husband and child leave for work and school and then sat down with a cup of tea to read that 76 page masterpiece.
And masterpiece it was. In the poem, "The Aerodrome," Heaney says that love is both location and stance and is shaped by the bearings taken. Heaney closes the poem by writing:
“If self is a location, so is love:
Bearings taken, markings, cardinal points,
Options, obstinacies, dug heels, and distance,
Here and there and now and then, a stance."
It's ironic how lines of poetry return almost dusty when we most have need. This is a year where I have learned a primal definition of need. In a year of wild and dashed hopes, Heaney's insistence that love is both location and stance rings truer than any other time I can recall. I have always had a fondness for those lines even though I found them to be a bit baffling. But tonight their meaning is clear.
When I think about love, my first instinct is to think of it as a verb. Love locates. It lifts and roots us to the here, the now, filling us as it empties--a slight nod to Escher's Waterfall. Love as verb resituates the impossible. But Heaney is so much more the clever artist and he wants us to think of love as noun.
If self is a location, he tell us, so is love. There's a conditional logic there to be envied and the use of a colon lays it out for us. Our stance with regard to love--the stance we take is predicated by the bearings we have taken, the geographies we have composed, as well as the options and obstinacies we have named and lived and out of all of this now and then emerges a stance we take and it is that stance that locates love.
The last year, the geographies of self and other, husband and wife, father and son, widow and son, presence and absence, love and loss have been nothing less than an opening-onto and a distancing-from. The death of my husband has left me worn, introspective, and terribly mindful.
A year ago this Wednesday night I held Rob's hand as we sat side-by-side in the hospital's imaging center while waiting for Rob to be taken for a CT scan. We chatted quietly now and then so aware of others in the room--a room where no one's chatter sounded weightless. Mostly, we were quiet. It was early evening and even though we knew that there was a chance something might be wrong with Rob, neither of us ever entertained the idea it could be life threatening, let alone, cancer. We were taking off at the beginning of the next week for our annual Maine holiday--a trip we never got to make. That night, the scan was done quickly and then we were off to dinner--just the two of us. We spent a good portion of the evening talking at a table for two and then listening to music. Devon was off at a friend's house spending the night. Neither Rob, nor I knew that this would be the last night we would ever spend together outside our home just the two of us.
Early the next morning, we learned Rob had cancer and 6 days later I would sit on the hard plastic chair in the surgery waiting room for 7 hours as Rob underwent a VAT procedure. Devon would vacillate between sitting in the waiting room and sitting in the hospital cafe. I refused to move as I was told this is where the surgeon would come to speak to me. The surgeon had told us the surgery would be about an hour. It was not. Rob would spend that night and most of the next day in intensive care and I would spend the night after that with him in his hospital room as he was so disoriented and scared.
Nothing would be the same ever again. Nothing. And I think this is what Heaney had in mind when he wrote about love as a location and stance. Heaney's notions of love are not concerned with the particulars of the story I tell here, but rather with the ways we respond--the stances we assume. Throughout the next six months, our stances were united, kind, loving, responsive, present.
Within the first 72-hours of the initial diagnosis, I quietly watched multiple lectures about lung cancer treatment late at night and by the time Rob was wheeled into surgery that following week I had examined the most recent statistics I could find about cure rates and lung cancer.
I was scared to death, realizing my husband might be dead by late winter.
At that time we did not know what stage cancer Rob had but we naively thought it must be stage 1 as he seemed so asymptomatic, so healthy. We would learn that it was stage 4 nearly by mid September. By then I would know that his chances to live were very slight. I kept this to myself, never saying those words to either him or Devon and I would nod in agreement when Rob thought his chances were rather good. As the weeks wore on I began to believe that if anyone could beat this awful disease, it would be Rob. He was so hopeful, so willing to do what must be done. He was so courageous. But error after error occurred and with each doctor mistake, my husband's chances for life waned.
I didn't know it during those terrifying months when each week brought with it some new life-threatening calamity to confront, but now I realize that there's a bit of grace that accompanies such a ferocious stance. I did whatever he needed to save him until I learned that saving him was no longer possible. Then I learned to privilege his comfort. Even when we were just minutes from learning the prognosis was now terminal and that Rob would likely die within a matter of weeks, his immediate concern was for me and Devon. I still find that amazing. And isn't that what love as location and stance is mostly about?
Love isn't about being blind, but it is about the way we chose to be present, even at highly stressful moments in life. Love is largely about the stance we adopt. My stance, like Rob's and Devon's remained constant: whatever Rob needed we all did. Sometimes it really was that simple. By March the medical bills had grown beyond 6 figures and I had stopped working nearly two month prior so that I could care for Rob. The Hospice social worker told me she would try to get Rob into some facility and others supported that action. It is impossible to convey with these words how insular life becomes when days and nights are spent caring for the man you most love who is dying. Now and then I could find the occasional hour of sleep, but days went by without any rest. That night I sat next to Rob as I did each night and the house quieted and I looked at him and knew I needed to set aside the financial worries. I believe now that it was love that powered me as I had mostly stopped eating alongside Rob and sleep was rather rare for even when I did try to sleep I spent the time mostly awake.
Love is a stance--the attitude we accept/take/create/commit to. But here's the thing I most want to let you know. It isn't the common definition of stance that most interests me tonight. It's the secondary one. Stance also means "a ledge or foothold on which a belay can be secured." That's the power of love.
No one in my life has ever loved me as my husband chose to do each day and it was by his side that I learned through experience the deepness and stability of love. Love did not come with conditions. What we have borne these last twelve months has given shape to the love that finds me tonight--a love that brings both tears and comfort. And I am in need of each.