The Half-Life of Love

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The things I know:
how the living go on living
and how the dead go on
living with them
So that in a forest
even a dead tree casts a
shadow
and the leaves fall one by
one
and the branches break in
the wind
and the the bark peels off
slowly
and the trunk cracks
and the rain seeps in
through the cracks
and the trunk falls to the
ground
and the moss covers it
and in the spring the
rabbits find it
and build their nest inside
and have their young
and their young will live
safely
inside the dead tree
So that nothing is wasted in
nature
or in love.
— Laura Gilpin

The summer I was 9, my friend Lorett and I rescued a baby duckling and we nurtured him back to health along the Mississippi River. We were traveling the southern states in a group caravan, and every night we pulled into a new campground, set up our tents, constructed an elaborate set and put on a mildly veiled Christian musical called The Last Torch. Lorett and I didn’t want to put Sippi in a cage, so we made a small leash with a soft wide leather loop that hung gently around his neck. We took turns leading him, though it was hardly necessary, because everywhere we went, Sippi followed us willingly. We were two little girls with one little duck between us and for a few weeks, we thought of ourselves as nurturers and walked with tender pride along the river. We loved Sippi and we coddled him, and because he had imprinted to us, we believed he loved us in return.

I want to tell you as Sippi grew, we began to feel more and more ridiculous, leading him along campgrounds on a leash, that eventually, he began to pay more attention to the natural world around him than to us, and we realized we were holding him back from being a wild duck. I want to tell you we shooed him away along the river, watched him approach other ducks with trepidation, waited patiently until he was ready, cheering when he flapped his wings and flew toward the other ducks, that we watched him go, crying hot self-sacrificial tears.

Some goodbyes are like that.

But the truth is, Sippi died in a campground while he was still a duckling. We let him eat from the grass wherever we went and one day he got sick. Maybe it was pesticides or maybe it was a poisonous weed, but one afternoon, he didn’t want to follow us. He went limp that night and we held him and watched him convulse until he was stiff, eyeballs open, judging us.

Some goodbyes are like that.

After B hung himself, I went to a healer who wrapped me in a blanket and had me lie on a platform while she guided me in a meditation about trees and lakes, hugging and floating, sun and clouds and rain and shelter, about safe spaces. Then we drank tea in silence and practiced communicating kindness with the language of our bodies. I followed friends’ and acquaintances’ recommendations like breadcrumbs, letting myself be punctured by Chinese needles, getting my palms and auras read and identified, receiving energy exchanges and reiki and Thai massages, frequently followed by Ayurvedic teas. One healer gave me holy water from her refrigerator, and chanted as I sipped from it. She said I was in the midst of an archetype shift, that I needed to let go of sanctioned scripts.

Now I look straight at the sun, and let it burn into the hollow spaces where I used to be.

I wanted my goodbye to motherhood to be clean, the way I imagined saying goodbye to Sippi could have been clean, certain his freedom in the world was preferable to being attached to us.

Not all goodbyes are like that.

Some people say shedding parenting is like reverting to pre-adolescence, to an open space, free from the bonds of oppressive householding.

When I think of my preadolescence, I see a little girl dead on the Mississippi River, eyes wide and stiff. My innocence was over long before I met Sippi, but when I look back, I wish one of us had flown free.

Toni Morrison says that freeing oneself is one thing, and claiming ownership of that freed self is another.

I have no idea how to let go of the script I was handed. I just try to do the next right thing, hour by hour, day by day. B.K.S. Iyengar said, “Before we can find peace among nations, we have to find peace inside that small nation which is our own being.” 

I don’t know what's next. I have spent my entire adulthood in public service, professional work and motherhood. I haven’t done intimate partner love very well. I haven’t known how to curl inward, to develop an intimacy with myself, let alone another. I have never relaxed enough to be vulnerable, or let anyone in.

This spring, I planted a garden. I chose nourishing, colorful vegetables I hoped to harvest late this summer, planned to make a rich soup in the biggest pumpkin I grew, serve a lovely dinner in the backyard and celebrate a long-time dream I thought was on its way to fruition. Things are not working out the way I had hoped. But I still tend the garden. I do the next right thing. I work. I create space. I wait.

Some goodbyes are like that.

Michelle Dowd