Fifty-one years. That’s how long they were married before the wife died late last year. In the months since, he’s struggled, attempting to understand his place in this world. His adult children have wrapped their arms around him and included him in every aspect of their lives so he’s rarely at a loss for something to do … but he’s lonely. Female friends have invited him out – dinner, dancing, movies and he’s gone a time or two, but then the realization overpowers him … even in the company of others, he suffers from loneliness.
For this man (whom I met today), his struggle with loneliness is complicated because his wife was housebound and eventually bedridden for several years with him as her sole caretaker. The routine he’d adopted created a familiar pattern and meaning for his world. However, as he’s navigated the last ten months, the loss of pattern thrusts him into meaninglessness. Whatever efforts he’d made to care for his wife during her illness, he did so for her benefit. Today, like a rudderless boat, his striving seems without clear direction. When he was telling us about his present pain, tears came to his eyes and the rest of us sharing lunch with him were deeply moved by his obvious suffering.
Sometimes the world simply doesn’t make sense. We can live with someone for fifty years or more and their habits and actions can be endearing (at certain times) as well as exasperating (at other times) but their absence – especially the suffocating separation of death – is so jarring, it causes a wrenching amputation unlike anything else we’re ever likely to experience!
One of the tattered books in my library is a paperback edition of Sheldon Vanauken’s award-winning bestseller, A Severe Mercy. I made brief mention of the book in my post on November 13th. This picture (to the left) is my copy, torn spine, stained and yellowed pages. Inside, there are markings, personal notes and key observations underlined in red. (Reading a book for me is usually a shared experience, a conversation between the author and myself. My interaction with the book is my response.)
This treasured book unfolds the love story of the author and a woman named “Davy.” (If you’d like additional biography for Vanauken, the Wikipedia entry provides numerous details I will urge you to read there.) Reading the book itself is actually the preferable choice.
A Severe Mercy invites you into the lives and world of two young people (both born in 1914 and now deceased) who experienced a love so passionate, they agreed to live an inseparable life (not two distinct though complementary lives) and wall themselves off from any and all experiences they could not share together. (Hence, they agreed not to have children because Vanauken couldn’t experience childbirth as Davy could.) They called this united front, this no-secrets, inviolable bond of oneness The Shining Barrier.
Aside: Throughout the ages, couples have always believed the love they shared was so deep, so passionate … the phrase that comes to mind is “no one has ever loved like this before.” Call me a cynic (realist) but this kind of naiveté often makes me chuckle.
Still, I didn’t laugh when I read this book. I think many couples believe their love stands uniquely above all others … and tothem, it does. But just to them.
In my first reading of Vanauken’s book, I excused that aspect of their story. Written from his perspective, there’s no question he loved Davy deeply. Presumably, she felt the same. The intensity of their feelings for one another is evident throughout and the reader understands keenly how knit together their lives were. Vanauken poignantly communicates both his love for Davy, the betrayal he felt when The Shining Barrier was first breached, and the grief they were forced to acknowledge (as Davy’s health deteriorated).
The book contains a number of sonnets written by Vanauken. But a rondeau he wrote shows the serious commitment these lovers had to The Shining Barrier that represented their love. Because the pair enjoyed sailing, they agreed to end their lives together. This poem reflects that aim.
IF THIS BE ALL
If this be all to glorify The end of love and to deny The parting that alone we fear − When wasted days for one draw near, Surrender them without a sigh −
We’ll sail, then, seawards, you and I, And sink our ship and so we’ll die Still, still together, oh my dear! If this be all.
In light we loved in days gone by; As darkness shudders down the sky We’ll plight again, and death − austere Dark minister − shall wed us here, Together under night to lie, If this be all.
As often happens though, things changed. The Shining Barrier lost its radiance.
Beyond Vanauken’s fine narrative, their correspondence with C. S. Lewis makes the narrative all the more compelling. Lewis delivers clarity and compassion as the young couple wrestles with issues of life and death, joy for what they’ve shared, wrath and sorrow for a life and love abruptly cut short. Lewis is both teacher and confidant, a minister of empathy and grace. He is the gentle master who reminds that the cloak of temporality we grow so tired of in this world provokes our inconsolable longing for eternity, the world for which we were created.
Read the book. Then read it again. I hope my post hasn’t provided details that would discourage you from actually reading the book itself. It is a great read.