A trip in the name of love. Booked on Valentine’s Day with the core purpose of visiting the family of the man I loved. Planted halfway through the trip, a wedding, a public statement of committing to love for life. It will be all joys and smiles and happiness. It will be warm and generous and abundant. It will be energetic, optimistic, buoyant. It will be perfect. The young will laugh and drink and dance, while the old folk – as the song goes – will “wish them well”. Jokes, innuendo, memories, plans, anecdotes, stories from childhood: the undercoat, the topcoat and the glaze will render it the prefect day. But every hug and kiss, every shake of the hand and slap on the back should come with prayer for stamina, acceptance, the bearing of disappointment, the days when it all flags, the days that aren’t pink and white, the days when love gets battered and bent out of shape, like the peonies I saw yesterday evening after the day’s heavy rain, their beauty not gone, but different in their dropped petals and stooped stems.
The wedding was everything I thought it would be, but what I didn’t expect were my tears, me leaking like a tap in a kitchen of a house I once had in Belfast (it had a slow drip that I got used to, its steady tapping on the stainless steel sink fused with the cooing of the pigeons on the back bedroom windowsill and became the music of that little house – I didn’t get around to fixing it for years). Like that dripping tap, I thought I was in control of my tears, but no, there they were at the wedding: drip, drip, drip.
When I was young, I couldn’t understand people who cried at happy events – what was going on with them was beyond me. Now I know emotions aren’t always open to analysis; they can surge out of the heart without warning, and although there will be a source, you mightn’t always find it, want to, or need to. I think my tears come from time-travelling. One moment I am right there at the centre of what’s happening, and a split second later I have zipped back to the past to be flooded with memories of other times, to be overwhelmed by the painful truth – as Wordsworth put it – that: “Those days and all their aching joys are now no more.”
Weddings, as you get older, become days when you walk around with a book balanced on your head, straight carriage, trying not to have it topple. You glance a little to the past, feeling sad that those times can’t be recreated, then you aim to keep your balance and firmly look forward with commitment to creating new memories. The book topples when we cannot participate in the creation of new memories and the old ones become too sharp and vivid. Tears are when the book wobbles, and there’s no harm in that.
I watch them stand before the wedding officiant, glowing with expectation, their even, steady voices taking vows, and I try to hold onto this moment which is piercingly beautiful and poignant and affecting. The musical key is switching back and forth in my mind like Leonard Cohen’s “the minor fall, the major lift”.
The next day I’m walking by the Ottawa river through confetti, a fine fluff blown from the Cottonwood trees – something I am not familiar with – tiny whisps of fluff that catch the light, shimmer as they fall, then rest in drifts of softness at the edge of the dirt path, a piping of ermine. It’s an evanescent moment that disappears when the wind drops, a little capsule of beauty to be had at that place at that time as I happened to be passing through. Fleeting. When I was younger, I used to gallop towards the next moment before I had lived the present one; now, walking a river trail pushes me forwards and backwards in time. My head is full of previous visits, the changes since then, and what the years to come will bring. I manage (just) to stay in the now by watching a black squirrel with a golden tail run up a tree trunk, a red-winged black bird flash colour on the undergrowth, a chipmunk scurry over the stump of a wind-felled tree.
A couple of months ago I read the John Williams classic Stoner. To me, the book is a love story: the love Stoner has for Katherine, the love he has for his work, and love as a form of unstinting dedication in the face of devastation. It’s a novel that tell us that even when one thinks love has died, some day it will rise from the dead and unexpectedly show its face. Like the cottonwood shedding flickers of white at the riverside on the morning after a wedding, old familiar feeling will come flooding back and remind you that it has been there all along, hovering.
“Now in his middle age he began to know that [love] was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence of the heart.” Stoner, John Williams