What shall we do about the people beyond reach? I’m talking about those we’ve lost through broken friendship and fractured romance; death and the end of therapy.
September is now autumn. Never a fan of descending leaves, I’m not a fall guy in any sense, nature’s signal of the close of things.
Soon comes the small tragedy of every baseball season’s autumn-end, a loss to mimic all the others. No less than a Yale English Professor, Bart Giamatti, captured this untimely time of year:
Baseball breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are twilight, when you need it most, it stops.
Our species loses much of value: parents, friends, and youthful bloom; the cartilage in our knees, favorite pens, and jewelry. Therapists who helped us and with whom we had an erotic transference so much like love it might have been an early-stage, “too good to be true” version of the thing itself.
Thoughts return to the peopled world more than mislaid writing tools and bracelets. Here are the ones we meet and speak with and those who live in memory. Let’s talk about the latter, persistent missing partners in imaginary conversations.
Their posthumous life is in us because it is not outside of us. Were the beloved nearby we could touch and share. We could watch, know. An internet search offers little. Some are living, but estranged or unavailable; occupied elsewhere. Others no longer of this world. Why are they often so difficult to get over?
Therapeutic wisdom — a knowledge I relied upon — points to insufficient or postponed grieving of normal losses. Counselors also deal with a specialized version of this problem when erotic transference refuses to disappear. They help the client to recognize their affection and idealization of the counselor as a kind of mistaken identity. He is not their father and, by working out the feelings about the dead parent, the therapist becomes the smaller man he is, not a stand-in on a parental pedestal. The spell breaks, a solution that works except when it doesn’t.
Mourning is essential for everyone, but for many an imprint of the departed remains. We are creatures whose flesh craves the tattoo artist’s needle, a polished steel stylus inscribing a name on the heart.
Take grieving for what it is: an emotional expression of bereavement intended to reconnect us with the world. Not a resumption of life with all wholeness restored. The ache dissipates, but not every wound vanishes.
Recognize this. On the killing fields of today’s wartime, dying soldiers cry for the same person their distant predecessors did before the walls of Troy: mother.
Were mourning 100% successful in erasing the hurt, some of our memories would also disappear. In effective lamentation they diminish, blur, or fade; unless you are so gifted or cursed to relive the bygone like a video rerun.
Bloggers and their readers write about the long-abiding soft-spot for the therapist or an inability to find a love comparable to the idealized counselor. And how many carry a hope of reunion with the absent romantic other (at least in heaven); another chance or a final meeting with a mother or brother or misplaced-lover to say what was unsaid, receive what was never heard, or listen to what was heard before — once more: a “last moment” last moment memory designed to be lasting — beating the door to its bang.
Who would turn down another day with a beloved parent, long deceased? What would happen? I can tell you my imagination of such an opportunity with my dad.
I’d break down hearing his reanimated voice. Seeing him “alive,” the same. Embracing him and on and on. The two of us said everything we needed to say in his lifetime. We shared in words the love we shared in life. There would be no extra closure of something already accomplished, as might occur with sentiments unspoken by you or to you in a past relationship.
But what then, beyond the intensity and wonderful/horrible delight as the seconds ticked away? My grief might reopen. Months after Milt Stein died 18-years-ago, the kids asked my wife, “When will dad be himself again?” Not the single time I also asked the question of myself.
If you were mourning someone still living? Another meeting risks delay or disruption of the needed recovery. Perhaps a desire for renewal, restart. More to remember and sustain one party might bring exquisite pain to the other.
Back to enamored clients again. Consider the stirring inside you — still entranced by the transference — if you talked to the doc every six months post-treatment. Is the offer of such an opportunity a kindness or an obstacle to your 100% focus on your current life partner? Or the quest for one?
Would shared phone reunions be a balm? No answers here, only questions. Many other potential problems exist in post-treatment friendship. Each of you is different and no two of us come through the process or away from it in a unison of emotion.
Perchance you, in the sorrow of ended association or love, will yet be surprised to find someone as important to you, as well-fit to your temperament and interests — to your unique experience of life — as the departed one. Perhaps you won’t, but do you need to put your effort into a new soul despite his inevitable shortfalls — to give yourself whatever chance you have for intimacy? And, if he is not found, then your energy must go somewhere external, be it grandchildren, work, creating a better world, painting, friendship, healing the sick, or educating the young; all beyond the boundaries of your own skin.
Part of what we are dealing with is not (or not only) the casualty of passionate competition or obligation, our unique imperfections or human kindness, but the nature of life. Our time is short. We stretch to grasp and hold tight selected loves. Nothing lasts, as Bart Giamatti knew.
I did not make these rules. Neither did he.
Yet even in fall-fueled dystopic moments, I’m drawn to life’s poetry. The rhythm and rhyme bind me to those I love: those who brought me laughter, beauty, and generosity; past or present. So let Giamatti’s poetic sensibility speak once more of the bittersweet game of ball he did not wish to get over:
It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.
Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.
Bart Giamatti was not only a university professor, but spent his last few months as the Commissioner of Baseball.
The first image is A Water Drop by José Manuel Suárez from Spain. The following three are by Roger McLassus: Impact of a Water Drop on a Water Surface, Impact of a Drop of Water, and A Water Drop Detaching from a Water Tap. All were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.