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The love issue 2018: Moving on

The loss of a beloved spouse may be a life-altering moment, but it needn't be the end of the road

John Duberstein with Lucy Kalanithi in December 2017. Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images
John Duberstein with Lucy Kalanithi in December 2017. Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

It’s the stuff viral media stories and Hollywood movies are made of. But behind it stretches a sea of pain.

At the start of this year, The Washington Post wrote a story about the tragic, yet also redeeming, circumstances that brought together two people. Lucy Kalanithi and John Duberstein had lost their respective spouses within a year of each other; each, remarkably, had written a memoir of dying of a terminal disease.

Paul Kalanithi, an Indian-born American neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer, died days short of turning 38 in March 2015, while Nina Riggs, an American poet and writer, died of breast cancer at the age of 39 in February 2017. Paul left behind his wife, Lucy, daughter Cady, and an incredible reflection on his life and last days, When Breath Becomes Air; Nina wrote The Bright Hour, recording her struggle with saying goodbye to her husband, John, and their two sons, Freddy and Benny.

While she was sick, Nina wrote a column about it in the “Modern Love" section of The New York Times. Lucy read it and wrote her a fan mail, then later went on to give a glowing endorsement of her book. On her deathbed, Nina asked her husband to reach out to Lucy after she was gone, to seek her help to come to terms with his loss. John took her advice and wrote what Lucy calls an “obscenely vulnerable" email two days after Nina died. What should he do about the crippling grief he was consumed by? he asked. How could he get through the sleepless nights that awaited him? After several hundred emails and some months, they met, liked who they were as people and parents, and gradually got together. The entire process, Lucy said, felt both “ridiculous" and “natural".

Losing a spouse is a life-altering experience—anyone with a passing acquaintance with Joan Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking (2005) will know. The history of literature, across centuries and cultures, is replete with instances of people broken by such losses trying to make sense of what remains of their lives. Science, too, pays diligent attention to the trials of losing a partner. “The broken heart is well established in poetry and prose, but is there any scientific basis for such romantic imagery?" ask the opening lines of a paper published in the The BMJ in 1986. Thirty years later, journalist Christina Frangou revived this question in an article she wrote in The Globe And Mail after her husband, Spencer McLean, a doctor himself, succumbed to aggressive cancer of the kidneys after a harrowing 42 days. Frangou wrote that the widowed are two-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide than the general population in the first year of their widowhood. There is medical parlance for this: the widowhood effect.

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Just as no one is ever adequately prepared for the death of a loved one, in spite of all the signs heralding it, people are perhaps even less hopeful of finding their way out of the pall of melancholia that envelops their consciousness. Months go by, often years, before the appeal of a new romantic companion becomes a possibility, but first there’s despair and guilt and what-ifs to wade through.

After Leonard Woolf died in 1969, his partner and friend Trekkie Ritchie Parsons found a note among his papers that recorded his anguish after his wife, writer Virginia Woolf, drowned herself, following a severe nervous breakdown in 1941. “They say: ‘Come to tea and let us comfort you.’ But it’s no good. One must be crucified on one’s own private cross," he wrote. “I know that (Virginia) will not come across the garden from the lodge, & yet I look in that direction for her…. I know that it is the last page & yet I turn it over. There is no limit to one’s stupidity and selfishness."

If sadness addles the brain, it can also lead to redemption, as Leonard found in his oddly fulfilling relationship with Trekkie, who was already married to publisher Ian Parsons when the two met. Although Leonard wanted her to leave her husband and marry him, she refused to entertain the idea. “I want you to love me," she wrote to him, “but not as an epidemic disease." In the end, the three—Trekkie, her husband and Leonard—managed to work out an arrangement in which she spent a part of the week with her husband and the rest with her lover. It is believed to have worked smoothly for over 25 years. Sensible and compassionate, Trekkie hosted parties for each of her men, went on holidays with them separately, while working on her career as a painter. Their strange liaison defies convention and lends an edge to the conventions of love.

Also read: The love issue 2018: Changing the narrative

Yet, recovered love isn’t always the most soothing. In Love In The Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Márquez unites Florentino Ariza with his beloved Fermina Daza in the winter of their lives, at the ages of 76 and 72, respectively, after their youthful romance is interrupted for several decades—by Fermina’s marriage to another man and Florentino’s descent into a wayward spiral of easy dalliances. Even though the two come together in the end, their union is not without an unsavoury aftertaste. Florentino’s persistent stalking of her, spanning 50-odd years, is such that he revives his proposal of love on the very evening Fermina has lost her husband of many years, Juvenal Urbino. Florentino’s importunate haste results in more delay as Fermina, aghast, turns away from his advances for a considerable period. In the end, though, all is well with the world as Florentino and Fermina set sail on Magdalena river, reminiscing about the love they once lost and then revived through the grace of time.

But can the reader, or the elderly couple, entirely banish the ghost of Urbino from the last pages of Love In The Time Of Cholera? Does he not hover over Florentino’s and Fermina’s consciousness, in however spectral a form? As Lucy Kalanithi told her twin sister, Joanna Goddard, after she helped rearrange her home in the wake of her husband’s death, “Paul is the air…. He’s in the mix." Just as Nina Riggs must be present in John Duberstein’s life too.

Lucy and John have joked about writing a book together, called “When Breath Becomes The Bright Hour", as a tribute to their late spouses. Should they really do so, the world may feel like a kinder and more hopeful place for millions who are waiting for a sign that their stories do not always have to end with loss.

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