* Originally published in ‘The Insider‘.
A couple of weeks ago, I accompanied my parents on what seemed a routine visit to see some old friends of theirs. David and Anna were an elderly British couple – Anna was probably in her 60s, her husband David probably in his 70s – and they were both delightful. For almost two hours we all laughed, joked and conversed with each other, and it was almost easy to ignore the silent 6th companion sitting with us all the way through: Anna’s cancer, which by now had spread through almost her entire body, leaving her in a wheelchair. I spent the evening mostly listening to these two as they chatted with my parents, recalling their many previous visits to Sri Lanka and vowing that this would not be their last. “We’ll be here next January with our kids” said David, firmly, winking at me.
Our ride home was long and it gave me the time to plug in my ipod, stare out the window and ruminate – one of my favourite pastimes. I switched on my phone and sent my best friend a quick text: “Sigh. I can’t wait to grow old with someone”. I then settled back in my seat, puzzled by my own words and feelings.
I’ve always been a little crazy for passion. From Enid Blyton to Margarett Mitchell, there’s been one kind of love story that has always attracted me more than others. As a child, I watched Beauty and the Beast – the story of a young woman who enters into an agreement with a monster she learns to love – with a sort of terrified enchantment. As I grew up, the stories became more life-like, more advanced and the conflicts became more complex, but it was always that heated, troubled passion that I looked for: that dark, dangerous love. Jane Eyre and her gruff, mysterious Rochester; Scarlett’s sometimes searing, sometimes freezing affection for Rhett; and, inexplicably, my favourite – Cathy’s devastating love for her dark, mad Heathcliff.
So for someone who has grown up dreaming of this kind of love, it was quite strange to suddenly feel the urge to skip the passion and conflict and madness and instead fast-forward to having a life that has long overlapped with the other’s; to simply be settled and totally at home by the other’s side.
My very first relationship was a long one and everything a relationship should really be: loving, completely trusting and full of mutual admiration, affection and friendship. Still young and restless though, I ended it after many years to get myself out there and explore. And explore I did. My relationships since have been everything relationships shouldn’t be – fiery and passionate but riddled with insecurity and chaos. As a result they have been, unsurprisingly, fleeting.
Still, looking back and even at the present, I can still see and understand that attraction, and I don’t seem to have learned enough from my lessons to be able to let go just yet.
Watching David and Anna together, though, I felt a strange kind of envy.
With them, that conflict that I appear to find so essential to the very process and growth of great love was absent. It may have existed before – I don’t know – but there was none of that now. Just a lifetime’s worth of care, affection and memories that had long ago melded comfortably together.
At one point my father asked Anna a question about her childhood and David answered for her with so much familiarity, it may as well have been an anecdote from his own past he was relating. There were instances when Anna did the same thing and that just amazed me. That level of knowledge of the other person, their wants, their needs, the intimate stories of their lives.
I’ve always thought of relationships as a process of learning someone else’s stories. You meet someone, you share your stories with them, you hear theirs and you learn about each other through those stories. Some are major events, some are just little things but each one serves to make your picture of the other person a little bit clearer.
Whenever a relationship of mine ends, I feel besieged by a sense of incredible tiredness at the prospect of meeting someone new, telling them my stories all over again and learning theirs from scratch. And always with the possibility that this relationship too may end and all those re-told stories would – at least in some part – have been in vain. This feeling eventually gives way to excitement when I’ve met someone new, but each time a relationship ends, it’s a thought that always goes through my mind.
None of that for David and Anna. I got the sense that they knew each other’s stories inside and out and had created even more together than they’d had before they’d met. That evening they described an incident from one of their previous visits to Sri Lanka several years ago. They told us the story together, interweaving strands of the narrative in such a way that I know the tale would have been incomplete if it had only been told by one of them.
It was that sense of absolute togetherness that I envied.
Going back to those stories that fed my imagination and very view of love, I can see now how they have affected my own relationships. The greatest love, according to those stories, was born out of impossible odds – it was love that was always being stressed and tested, but it was a love that burned all the brighter because it was in constant danger of being put out.
As worrying as this may sound for my future relationships (!), there’s one aspect that I find hopeful. However tortured, these were loves that prevailed; these were passions that could never be cooled, even by death.
I was stricken to find out from my parents today that Anna passed away a few days ago. My heart bleeds for David, alone after so many years.
Their story may not be the stuff of a famous novel, but I’m sure there’s a saying somewhere that tells us real life is better than any book. After just one meeting with them, I recognized the love of David and his Anna as great, great love. A love that lasted so many years. A love that fought an ugly illness. A love that I know will prevail beyond this huge loss.
A love that I hope with all my heart to experience one day, when I am ready for it.