I found out via facebook that a high school friend lost her husband. Because we are only facebook acquaintances, I can only say I think he was a cop killed in the line of duty. However, my lack of contact with her does not prevent this news from shocking me to the very core.
I talk a lot about Shakespeare in my line of work, and one thing I notice is that he has a lot to say about death and accepting it. Both of the quotes above are spoken by characters grappling with the inevitability of death, speaking on its certainty. Death and taxes, right? But both Hamlet and Brutus say that what we cannot know is the time, the moment that seals our fates and ends our stories. What strikes me about these quotations today is that we do not know our fates. The most powerful weapon Death has is the element of surprise, and even knowing this, it still perplexes me. Reading this news, I coild only ask: how? How can this be?
I haven’t ever met my classmate’s husband, but I remember her telling me about her wedding at our ten year high school reunion. This was five years ago now, but I can still remember the conversation with startling clarity–the reception was at a catering hall on Northern Boulevard, a more industrial looking strip of north Queens. Not her first choice, she said, but she needed somewhere wheelchair accessible for her aging grandmother. I can still see her face, how happy she was. She smiled the bride’s shy smile, bashful of really radiating her beatific happiness because it was just too perfect. All of it.
Then we were facebook friends. She tagged her husband in posts. The night of our 15th high school reunion, a scant couple of weeks ago, she posted a picture of the two of them at the Devils’ playoff game, grinning in jerseys. Such pictures are eerie in retrospect because of the blissful ignorance of the subjects. The dramatic irony is far more painful than amusing. They smile into the camera, happy, imagining that this will be the most exciting event for the next couple of weeks perhaps, hoping the Devils will win, and glad they got tickets to be there. They could be thinking of family obligations in the future or not be thinking of the future at all, at least not beyond the next beer and power play. Certainly no one is thinking that the remaining photos of one of them can be counted, that this may be one of the last.
That is meant to be the stuff of novels, not life. In a tv show or movie the wife gets the news in a scene staged in a hospital waiting room or on her doorstep. Her reaction is a revelation of character, whether she breaks into sobs or meets the sergeant’s eye and nods, stoically. (In the words of Portia: I have made strong proof of my constancy). In life, the policeman husband goes to work and gripes like everyone. He earns a semi-decent age but an excellent pension, retires younger than most and grows restive rattling around the house. He might perhaps annoy his wife in the manner of an old school sitcom. But he is not supposed to vanish. That is not the plot.
When people get married, they stand at the altar and promise each other “till death do us part.” But most brides and grooms stand there with a youthful confidence in immortality. Death is an imaginary concept, or something powerless to the bride and groom, who recite that phrase and see their partner as an old man or woman. I know I will cast into the future when I have my turn and imagine my fiance as the old curmudgeon I know he will be. To be robbed of that seems like a cheap second act twist. These Fates are hacks going for thrills.
I drafted this sitting in the high school we both attended, this girl and I. I call her a girl because we were kids together–how can she be a woman? To imagine her as a widow is something beyond the scope of my comprehension. I was proctoring a regents exam. She and I must have sat together once, bent over our tests in concentration like the students I was observing, our only thought of a future the moment of freedom when we finished the test. We revolved in concentric social circles, got caught in the same useless high school drama. The future was a bright, shining thing, a toy to be played with and no more serious than play. We each dreamed of our futures and husbands and children. Certainly when we were swooning over the same Galician boy we saw marriage as the last chapter. They got married and lived happily ever after.
But we are so fragile under all our pretensions of invincibility. We disappear so quickly. Three days ago he probably posted to his facebook wall. His toothbrush probably sits in the bathroom still, his dirty clothes in the hamper, all of this evidence of a life that was meant to continue. How can it be that it has not? The scene was set. That means the actor comes back onstage.
Marriage, it turns out, is not the last chapter. It is not the ultimate answer, a place where characters live in eternal bliss. It is, simply, the end of part one. In part two, the characters still have conflicts and arcs, they still face dragons. And puzzling though it may be, they can die nevertheless, and Death is a cheat because he leaves us with every question unanswered.