Of Adventure and Loss, And All That Remains
My summer months included a European journey, inspiring for its bounty of intricately designed, painstakingly built structures that have stood strong against the odds for centuries. How is it that humankind conceived, much less constructed, massive buildings of iron, stone, and wood with old-fashioned methods? (Come to think of it, how do we ourselves stand through our own tumultuous “test of time”, punctuated with rare moments of beauty, rebirth, triumph?)
It wasn’t my favorite experience, but I am dwelling now on the Tower of London. Once the dream of William the Conqueror, it took shape over a mere twenty years. How on earth, and at what human cost?
Today this unspeakably beautiful complex still shelters the most precious jewels of the kingdom. Some parts also served as cover for the agonizing ends of the guilty and the innocent sent there to die. In the odd quiet moment in a particular chamber, you might still hear echoes of heavy breathing, forcing you to roll down your sleeves against sudden cold, commiserating sweat. The dead and/or their memories do touch us, and it takes time to orient oneself. Above is a photo of a Tower Chapel turret, where I imagine ghosts still stand beyond the cordons and think about whatever they did or didn't do.
In the weeks before my journey, my mother-in law Ruth died, just two years after the loss of her beloved husband Manny. While I was in London, a friend of many decades’ duration, Mark, died, leaving behind my best friend, Jan. Each life was worthy of the beautiful, celebratory memorials they received. Both had been married beyond forty years, in Ruth’s case many more.
It occurs to me that a durable marriage is probably less like the flowery sentiment of romantic prose and selective memory, and more like the Tower of London (which really comprises more than a single Tower). A place of profound beauty and a paradoxical sadness, many tourists seem to encounter it as simply a heck of a visit. For me, reflecting now, it's a decent metaphor for relationships that stand the test of time.
People connect with one another through time and space just like these on scene at the Tower of London. And some of us pray a lot.
Perhaps not all long-standing marriages are tortuous at times, but some moments – or even seasons – for some surely feel beyond bearable. How many great builders of anything have fallen by the wayside? Yet when borne and lived through, perhaps raised up again, the result is the “together forever” we all admire and wish for ourselves. Ruth and Manny, Jan and Mark, created something enduring and beautiful through times of real hardship. What each couple gave us is in its way is as monumental as any magnificence we travel to experience.
Yesterday, during Ruth’s memorial at sea, a story was told by her daughter of a time when money for the family of five was particularly tight. Ruth had apologized to her children for the meager mealtime choices: hamburger helper, tuna casserole, noodles with everything.
My husband, Marc, puzzled over this admission. “But I really liked those dinners. I thought they were great.” I mused to myself: “As kids, we don’t realize we are suffering. As adults, we suffer over not having been enough, of not giving more or better.” I suffer that way as I get older. I wish I could just stop, but it’s hard.
Thank heaven for relationships such as those I’ve described here. Founded upon love and hopefulness, their histories aren’t lost, residing within the bones of families, friendships, tribes. Even if we can’t touch the beloved anymore, there are ways of beholding and remembering, of carrying the story forward. What still stands is what matters.