A wide-open French window frames the figure. It is an early spring morning. The light is still gentle. It bounces off the terracotta roofs, kisses the gray waterspouts, floods the room, and bathes the figure in its golden light. The figure glows against the open window. A dark silhouette against the brightness of the morning. The inviting curve of the back. The gentle slope of the shoulders. And the head craned slightly to the left. Light catches in the neatly cropped hair and creates a halo of gold.
How many moments of silent contemplation, sleeping slumber, and joyous celebrations like this I have captured on film. How many times I have caught that head tipped slightly to the left in a café, at home, or wandering around. How many times I have pondered how to position that beautiful back topped by those shoulders so that their gentleness and slope were most alluring and inspiring. How many times I have debated just how to show off that gorgeous head full of hair, whether it is a neat crop or a flow of unruly curls.
How much I loved to play with that hair. How I enjoyed the smell of lemon on those curls, catching the droplets of water, and tasting the sourness of it when I kissed that beautiful neck. How warm and safe that back was. How reassuring it was to lean against it at night, how restful it was to feel that back against me when we watched the sun set, or the moon rise, or the fire burn.
This picture is a reminder of beauty and the presents that life gave to me. Yet the picture freezes my soul, clutches my stomach, and paralyzes my limbs. Now, absolutely nothing in the world could bridge that distance, fulfill that longing, allow that beauty to continue. I only have to wait for the day when I too shall sail into the land that disappears in the mist. Would I walk the bridge of fire to get there? Or maybe there will be a boat waiting for me at some presently unseen shore. Or maybe I will just find myself there without noticing the road. The entrance, the invitation will certainly come one day. But at this moment, now, there are only photographs, only a memory of someone who is no longer here. There is no invitation, there is no door.
It is not only that I feel left behind, as if my date forgot to take me just as I was getting ready to leave. It is not only that I feel abandoned in the ocean with no directions to the shore and enormous waves crashing at me. It is something else. I feel… I feel as if…
In so many hypothetical scenarios, when asked, we say that we would sacrifice ourselves so that our partner would live. Now I see that there is no glory in that answer. It is an expression of our deepest desire to not be left behind. It is an easy way out. Who would voluntarily give up their limbs? Who would volunteer to live reduced to a fraction of what they once were? Of course one would chose to go first, for a life without the half-circle is like living wrapped in a thick cotton pad. All your senses are muffled. Nothing has a taste of life. And the best thing you have is a snapshot of what you once were.
There was this older couple who lived together for over 60 years. They still wrote each other letters and notes every day, even though they had not spent more than a handful of nights away from each other. I once asked one of them why did they kept on writing to each other. “So that he knows how much I love him.” I felt utterly foolish for asking.
How I cried at the funeral for one of them. The sheer thought of her waking up and finding no letter under her pillow crushed me. I shivered at the thought of her asking where the salt had gone and not receiving an answer. I could not hold myself together for the silence that must have been ringing in her ears when the voice of her love was no longer heard.
However, she was extremely composed, calm, and detached. Our condolences were only met with vacant words that showed only slight recognition of our presence. On the seventh morning, she did not wake up. I was sad to learn that, but at the same time incredibly relieved. I imagined them reunited on the other side of the bridge. I imagined them re-joined as a part of the universe. There would be no more days without letters, no more lunches without your tea being made for you, no more misplaced salt.
Yet not all of us are that lucky. Some have to have to continue when the other’s road has come to an abrupt end. My friend, who is 97, lost his partner some 30 years ago. There was not a day when she was not a part of a conversation. He spoke of her as if she had just finished her lunch and gone for a walk, as if she would be back any moment soon. For these last 30 years there had been no other in his life. “How could I?” he said when I asked. “But many others re-marry,” I remember replying. My answer was a long stare. I lowered my prodding eyes and nodded. Now my friend is frail and no longer leaves his apartment. He keeps talking about his wife, now with more joy than before. He says that soon he will be joining her and his eyes sparkle with happiness. I never detect fear in them, only a hopeless joy of anticipation.
I feel warmth wrapping around me. I feel someone rocking me back and forth. My gaze focuses on an old carpet I used to play on as a child. My sister and I used the pattern on the carpet as a road map, or sometimes as a sea atlas. We pushed the toy cars to follow the pattern like a road or blew into paper sails of boats we had made, imagining them rushing to a distant port.
My sister holds me tight in her arms. She rocks me gently like a baby back and forth. I rest against her body. Eventually she prizes the album from my palms, away from my lap and closes it. She caresses my face and her fingers are wet. She kisses my eyes, my temples. She cradles me as if I were her child resting on her chest. At some point, she no longer rocks me, just holds me tight in her arms. She asks me if I want to have some already cold tea. I nod my head. She slowly releases her hold. We sit a little bit longer on the floor side by side. I watch her trace the carpet’s pattern with her finger. She taps a place where the pattern becomes concentrated. She gets up and extends me her hand. I catch it and get off the floor too. We walk into the yard.
The house is already dark. All the neighbors are quiet. Not even dogs bark. It is just me and my sister. The night is hot, the breeze is pleasant. We sit on the porch and my sister holds my hand. The light from the porch lamp casts harsh shadows. I feel tired. We sip on the cold green tea. My sister gets up and turns the light off. In a short while it is no longer dark. The night is lit up with myriad stars. I trace the Milky Way and look for the Big Bear. I find it and breathe out a sigh of relief. Every night. It never fails to be there.