I sat at the table, hungrily devouring warm shepherd’s pie and a hunk of salty Cabot Vermont cheese; but my spirit was in Rome…wandering amid the statues and ruins, dancing in a train of grotesque and yet-familiar revelers to the throbbing of techno-music, silently gliding beneath ancient stone bridges…gazing into the cloudy eyes of a saint, and listening in to the intelligentsia of contemporary Rome as they eviscerate one another…for sport.
For two days in a row, I had wandered downtown to the Roxy to wrap myself in the foreign film, The Great Beauty. It is the story of a celebrity, who burst onto the literary scene as a young man to great acclaim, who, at 65, must constantly try to explain why he never wrote a second work of equal note. It is a movie of awesome images and juxtapositions; it illuminates the best and worst of human nature, the most inspirational and degrading artistic expressions of human creation, the blush of first love in the roseate glow of the setting Mediterranean sun and the cynicism of age and experience in the unforgiving wash of morning light.
Once established in my seat, wreathed with the scent of vanilla and cinnamon from my steaming tea and nibbling my cookie, I was ready to be catapulted from the blustery cold February afternoon into the golden haze of beauty so formidable that it could stop one’s heart…from beating…or loving..or creating. Each day, tears would well in the same scenes, and slip quietly, unabashedly down my cheeks…though I couldn’t really tell you specifically why. I’m sure part of it was my visceral response to the aching beauty of the soundtrack and the breathtaking cinematography; but as I wandered back to Hope Lodge in the gathering dusk to the warm welcoming glow of the dining room and the hearty comfort of the shepherd’s pie, I searched for the deeper answer. They weren’t tears of sorrow, nor tears of joy…what were their meaning?
I tried to write about it…but couldn’t find the words. I closed my laptop and shrouded it in its black travel case.
In these past few weeks of treatment, I too have fielded questions from my loved ones as to why I haven’t written lately. And as I sit here, metaphorically scratching my head in an attempt to satisfy my disappointed friends and equally stumped self, I just now realize why. It is the same reason that my Italian friend from the movie did not write…
The great beauty.
What is it? I think I can describe it as the terrible beauty found in the revelation of the truth of your life as you experience it. It is both inspiring and awful all at the same time…and when you catch sight of its bare-faced visage, in all its paradoxical nature, beaming like a shaft of light cutting through the motes of dust that dance in the still of a Sunday afternoon, it can literally stop your heart…
In these past few weeks, I’ve said goodbye to many people who have journeyed with me. I have watched them sicken or strengthen, depending on their treatment…and as their time came to leave our nest, they have bravely gone their way. Some, like Mike the botanist, whose pirate’s name “Scurvy Dog Watch” will be forever etched into my memory, got sicker and sicker and then one day slipped away without a word. I will never know if he made it back to the coast, and his beloved ocean, or saved any of the flowers he was tending, or if he ever had a day when he could finally find the warmth that so eluded him…or Rebecca, a young wife and daughter with a brain tumor, who slid a note under my door wishing me well. She thanked me for being a good neighbor. I wish I had thanked her for bravely smiling through her many trials. But, it was too late…she was gone. Her room now occupied by another patient, another voyager.
Fred and Irma, in their 80’s were my dining companions. We would save seats for each other…a practice that got me sent to the corner in kindergarten. We labored over the puzzle table…where she would sometimes write out her thank you notes in a beautiful script that is mostly forgotten now. I knit a scarf for Irma, her favorite color — red like the flame of Methodism — and she wrapped it proudly around her neck and hugged me as if I were her daughter. They left the next morning, Irma resolutely steering their truck back through the snow to Milton, VT for the winter, Maine in the warmer months, and their own dining room table. I don’t even have Irma and Fred’s address…
Debbie’s son is only 39 — a father of six boys — who is battling his cancers on a couple of fronts. Debbie is so devoted to him, and he to his boys whom he missed terribly. He loves the Red Sox, and baseball cards, and simply lights up when his wife comes to visit. Debbie has known so much loss; both her parents died in a tragic accident, her brother and best friend passed away — she has survived divorce — and now she patiently and lovingly tends to her son who has grown so thin in response to the strong chemicals pumped into his frame. She makes him eggs, and sweet tea, and plays another hand of cards…I admire her strength, her amazing spirit, her resilience. Enclosed in the card she hands me is an angel….and they load up the car and head for Barre. She will fly back to Texas in a few days, Aaron will pick up the pieces of his life as best he can…and soldier on. It will be a long and difficult fight.
There’s Jon and David — fast friends at different ends of the political spectrum — who would discuss anything but politics…wood working, their favorite fishing and hunting spots, Burlington in the 50’s and 60’s…the pastures that have given way to busy strip malls and highways, the waterfront when it was still industrial, driving up and down Church Street looking for young UVM co-eds, playing hockey and drinking beers in the snowbanks of the outdoor rinks….David waits each morning for his grand-daughter’s call as she walks to the end of her driveway to wait for the bus. One morning, I overhear him as he says, “Do you think your father would let you come to our house this week-end? We could do something fun — something you’d like.” He is a magical grandfather that pulls coins from behind her ears, and dares her to do silly things like have whipped cream fights, and spray her mother with the hose. His daughter is constantly exasperated with him, but his grand-daughter will remember these adventures long after he is gone.
Jon leaves first…David will remain for another week or two. I wonder if they will stay in touch — or if they will forget each other in the daily routine of normalcy.
Saturday morning. My bags are loaded into the car, my room is clean and I make the bed with fresh linens. I ring the bell of hope, signaling the end of my treatment. Angela gives me a little velvet pouch which contains a silver angel. When opened, she reveals three tiny hearts. Angela hugs me and sends me on my way. I write my letter to the new occupant of my room — I write about the love and support I have found here in a home full of strangers, and my hope for them to find the same. I wish them health and happiness…and remind them to drink in the amazing view of the mountains from the bedroom window.
So much beauty, so much pain, so much laughter in the face of so much sorrow and loss. The terrible beauty. These weeks have been like lemon ice on a sweltering hot day — the sour, the sweet, the cold, the heat. That first bite takes your breath away. An awesome terrible breathtaking beauty. All of us journeying toward our destination; bravely smiling, sometimes coming together to break bread, sometimes cowering in our rooms, crying for mothers long passed, sometimes turning and finding her there making eggs and steeping tea or proudly wearing a red scarf we have knitted that magically keeps us connected, somehow, someway, into the unseen unknowable future that waits outside the gift of the moment, our haven of safety and security…
Today, I let go of trying to process it all — it is impossible to take it all in. It is the raw and rare glimpse of truth that causes the tears that fall for no reason, and all the reasons, all at once. It is the great and beautiful truth of the moment and knowing what it means to be fully alive.
“It is all settled between the chattering and the noise,
the silence and sentiment,
emotion and fear,
the haggard inconstant splashes of beauty ,
and then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity.”
The Great Beauty.