Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Love's other side

Last March, I wrote a post about one of my favourite authors, Madeleine L'Engle, an author known for her children's books and Young Adult novels, who also wrote novels, essays, autobiographical pieces and poetry. (Never cared for her poetry much; loved most of the rest.)

One of her adult novels is called The Other Side of the Sun, a reference to "love's terrible other side", when you pass through the burning agony of love (and we're talking suffering here, the original meaning of "passion") and try to emerge alive and unwarped, though transformed and traumatized.

This is true of even the healthiest and most functional of relationships, because love, whether of a friend, parent, lover or child, always incurs loss, whether through death or estrangement.

Being the mother of a special-needs child, I seem to be moving through the heart of the sun time and again. However, this past summer, loss and the terrible sacrifices love requires were a central theme. Recently, one of my mother's favourite cousins died after a brief struggle with cancer, leaving her siblings and especially her bewildered husband, who counted on her for everything, bereft and adrift.

A week before that, my mother's only sister died at the end of a long, slow, agonizing decline into dementia. I've written about my aunt before, as she struggled to come to grips with her daughter's sexual orientation. (Coincidentally, that was my very first NaBloPoMo post.) As it turned out, she had a better grasp of the situation than I did.

It was easy to underestimate my aunt. Liberals tend to underestimate and categorize conservatives, just as much as conservatives label liberals. My aunt was conservative, no doubt about that. In my family search trawling through historical records, her name shows up as a fairly substantial financial supporter of the G.O.P. Back when Kennedy and Nixon were duking it out for the American presidency, my parents happened to be visiting my aunt and uncle in San Francisco. When my father returned to their apartment one day, sporting a Nixon button, my mother was appalled, especially as my father was a visitor to the United States. So she showed up with a Kennedy button. My aunt refused to let her in.

I wonder what she would have made of all this Tea Party shenanigans. Okay, I don't. This was a life-long Anglican (Episcopalian) who left the church when she thought it had become too liberal, then left the Baptist church for the same reason. She even told my mother that when she was in heaven she wouldn't be able to comfort her burning sister with a drop of water. She said this in an almost jocular fashion, but she meant it. When her daughter emerged from the closet, she was appalled and bewildered.

Yet my aunt was also a woman of humour and warmth. She had great fun gently teasing a very young and very indignant girl at the clinic where she was a nurse, by telling her that she too was African-American. She was, too: born in Kenya, becoming an American citizen not long after she married. Her hospitality was impeccable; a week's stay with her in California would spoil me for months.

She spent many years searching for educational resources for her hyper-active, learning-disabled son, long before such terms became commonplace. When her son became self-sufficient, her husband promptly came down with Parkinson's and she nursed him faithfully and competently to the end. We thought she might finally enjoy a less-burdened life, but a few short years after her husband's death, she was diagnosed with dementia.

And who harrowed hell for her? The daughter with whom she had struggled for years.

Madeleine L'Engle wrote: "It is when I am most monstrous that I am most in need of love." I don't remember which book this was (it is probably from A Circle of Quiet), but it was important enough to me that I wrote it down in one of my journals years ago. My aunt did become something of a monster as the dementia took over, all patience, happiness, and faith seem to flee, leaving her frightened, lost, and oh, so angry. Who could blame her? Yet her daughter persevered, took the verbal abuse, fought for better care, strained her other family relationships.

And some time during my aunt's final weeks, my cousin explained to a nurse that she was adopted. (Both my American cousins are.)
"Are you?" said my aunt, looking up in surprise. "I had forgotten. You....are my own."

And just for that moment, they emerged from love's terrible other side.

1 comment:

Nimble said...

What a moment for her daughter. It may be the most important story of our lives: who is family? Who takes care of whom? Who stays?