Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
The Lusty Month of May
When I was in my late teens, I went to see the film Camelot which was based on a stage musical. The movie premiered in 1967. The title of this post is a song from that film, composed by Lerner and Loewe. The story was emotionally stirring and made its way into our cultural lore as emblematic of life during the Kennedy administration.
Of course we know that the romance and the tragedy skimmed the surface of politics, life and love. But I sobbed my way through it anyway, leaving intellect aside to just feel all the feels. I remember.
And what did May really mean to me? As a youngster it meant a surprise May basket, stuffed with candy, and a dance around the maypole at school, entwining pastel crepe paper streamers as we skipped under each other to avoid tangling.
I have a May birthday. So did my childhood friend Fern who was born 10 days before me. But even though we were bonded in time, she was a Taurus and I was a Gemini which somehow meant we could account for our very glaring differences.
And May was also Mother’s Day month which back in my youth, meant waking before dawn and assembling a breakfast for my mom with my siblings. A breakfast which we usually picked at until there was virtually nothing left for her. She just wanted to sleep anyway.
When I got older, May 1st became the celebration of labor and a new bond that I felt out on the left wing with my political friends. I learned the words to the Internationale, although I’m not sure I recall all of them.
And then suddenly, I was in real love and after a four year testing period, Michael and I chose May 1st as our wedding date. The lusty month of May indeed. As we got ready to actually do it, we looked wonderingly over the balcony of our hotel in Chicago and watched the May Day parade roll down Wacker Drive, thinking how odd it was that we weren’t down there marching.
Fern died 30 years ago and although I think of her regularly each year, her birthday is always a difficult time for me.
When Michael died last year on May 28th, four days after my birthday, I realized that the joy I always associated with the lusty month had now gone sour. Instead of celebrations, these dates which marked such significant events will at best be bittersweet. For now, as I face down my first wedding anniversary without Michael, soon to be followed by my first mother’s day without him and my mom long gone, I realize that those moments are just the beginning. Next will be Fern’s birthday, followed by my first birthday without Michael and then, the biggest one, the first anniversary of his death.
It feels like a lot to me. I know that maybe some day, the pain from all of these landmarks will lessen. I’ve had anticipatory grief, trying to prepare for May which is now finally upon me. I am flooded with memories of our wedding scrambled in with the final weeks of Michael’s life last year. There are too many stories to weave into a blog post.
I woke today and felt internally wobbly. I managed a few chores and went swimming, happy that my usual crew wasn’t at the pool because I wasn’t sure I could keep myself together. Then I went home and gardened for awhile, listening to music, crying and imposing a state of silence on myself. For this year, I need to go through these first few days and nights alone. And I settled on what I needed to say, to let free the memories seared into my mind and the thoughts I’ve been journaling as I’ve navigated this year.
First, there are our wedding vows that we wrote so earnestly all those decades ago.
Me: I stumbled about in the labyrinth
Pained and troubled by a bleak confusion.
Imagine my joy when a light in a far corner was you.
Me: Michael, with you I will reach for an ever-growing integrity in living.
Michael: Renee with you I will strive for an equal sharing of love, responsibility and trust.
Me: With you I will share my thoughts and emotions in honesty.
Michael: Together we will work for individual growth and development that we may each find meaning in our lives.
Me: Together we will struggle to make beauty, dignity and mutual respect integral parts of our relationship.
Michael: Together we will search for a fulfillment of our ideals.
Michael: Through the darkness of my mind, I search for what I see is true.
I stood alone without belief-the only trust I know is you.
Not exactly standard fare, but reflective of who we were and how we tried to live.
And then there was this note I wrote to Michael in July, 1997 which I found when going through his papers after he died. Already 25 years into our relationship. It still moves me and was oddly prescient of how I still feel today.
In my head, I see your profile
Because I’m next to you, as usual.
Thinking of what we’ve done.
With more to come.
It sneaks up on you.
Year after year.
The great love of your life.
Your best friend.
The blurry lines between you and me and me and you.
I made the right choices. I did the best for me.
Right now, our children are coming home from a trip, haven’t seen them in six days or so.
Haven’t seen you in four hours.
I miss you more.
Will you be coming to sit on my bed in the middle of the night if you should die before me?
The way my mother says my father comes to hers?
I have no memory of writing that but here it is, in black and white before me.
Every year, Michael gave me roses on our anniversary. The tradition started with one for each year but after awhile, that got too expensive. He always wrote a little note on one of the cards that are lying around when you go to pick up flowers. I have all of them. In 2014, he had just finished 18 rounds of chemo before our anniversary. The card below came that year. And he certainly kept his word as he did impossible things to stay alive.
This is what I wrote a few days ago, assessing where I am today, approaching this intense month.
Anniversary Love – For Michael
You are every note and every lyric.
You are every story and every poem.
You are light and midnight blue.
You are every petal and every stalk.
You are the field, the mountain, the glade, the ocean.
You are serenity and rage, peace and tumult.
You are constant and transient.
You are daunting strength and trembling weakness.
You are my comfort and my desolation.
You are satiety and starvation.
You are the beginning, the middle and the end.
You are the past, the present and the future.
How could both your presence and your absence blot out everything?
Have I left anything out?
The lusty month of May. I hope I have the strength for it.