The Ambush of Absence (and its Comforts)


One of the delightful things about Kristin Cashore's devastating new book, Bitterblue, is the opportunity to see what has become of the hero and heroine of her previous novel, Graceling.  It's not much of a spoiler, I think, to say that they have succeeded in battling out exactly the relationship they wanted - a relationship that strikes a teetering, struggling balance between a fierce need for freedom (and privacy) and their passionate desire to lose themselves in their love.  It's a relationship founded on frequent and lengthy absences - not just lengthy but longing absences - and sometimes on desperate needs to leave. And they've succeeded in the face of sustained bafflement from many of their family and friends, who cannot conceive of a happy ending that doesn't entail a marriage, children, and above all, sustained togetherness.  Katsa, the ferociously self-sufficient warrior, and her sensitive beloved, Po, call into question the perniciously entrenched idea that love is constant co-presence.  These two can only breathe because of the space that absence allows them.  Love - indeed, self-respect - would be impossible if they were, as historical fiction likes to put it, living in each others' pockets.

It's typical of Cashore's subtle exploration of our social conventions of love that she managed to convince me wholeheartedly of the health of Katsa and Po's relationship, while at the same time showing the sad exclusion that those who love them sometimes feel in the face of their passion.  They are so self-sufficient, independently and as a dyad, that the other members of their close-knit adoptive family - the young queen Bitterblue, Katsa's childhood friends, the man who once wanted to marry her - feel excessive and excluded.  I longed for Katsa and Po's reunions in Bitterblue, but with their companions I rolled my eyes in affectionate exasperation at the playful exuberance of their passion and winced at the searing tumult of their disagreements.  There are times when they desperately need to get a room, and yet if they were more private and self-contained then Bitterblue (whose point of view we follow) would lose the pleasure of witnessing their joy, and so would we.  And yet, for all their amorous absorption, they are not bad friends: they are instinctively loyal, and vast in their love for their small circle.  When push comes to shove, as we saw even in Graceling, they will each place the best interest of a friend above that of their beloved. Each feels confident that the other can handle adversity independently; it's a love founded on respect and confidence, rather than a desire to protect.  Or, rather, it's a love that struggles to put aside the desire to protect as a sign of that more vital element of their relationship: respect.

Bitterblue takes her exasperation with Katsa and Po's tumultuous suffering - suffering she has no small part in creating, since it is often her need for help that sends them apart - to their friends Giddon and Bann.  Giddon - whom I think of as the stealth hero of this novel, or perhaps a hero-in-waiting - was once in love with Katsa himself, but is now much closer to Po.  Bann... has an altogether subtler relationship to the public and private faces of love.  Suffice it to say that I hope to get a much closer look at Bann and his romance in future books.

"Is it always like that? [...] I mean," said Bitterblue, "is it possible to have a -" She wasn't sure what to call it. "Is it possible to share someone's bed without tears, battles, and constant crises?"
"Yes," said Bann.
"Not if you're Katsa and Po," said Giddon at the same time.
"Oh, stop it," Bann protested.  "They go long stretches of time without tears, battles, or crises."
"But you know they love a good blowup," said Giddon.
"You make it sound as if they do it on purpose.  They always have good reason.  Their lives are not simple and they spend too much time apart."
"Because they choose to," Giddon said, rising from the table, going to bank up the dying fire.  "They don't need to spend so much time apart.  They do it because it suits them."
[...] [S]he saw clearly enough that Katsa and Po had something sustaining, deep, and fierce.  It was a thing that she envied sometimes. [...] "It's just that while I'm sure that I would like the making up, I don't think I have the heart for constant fighting," she said, "I think I might prefer something - more peaceful in execution."
Giddon cracked a grin.  "They do give the impression that no one else has nearly as much fun making up."
"But people do, you know," said Bann, perhaps a bit slyly. "I wouldn't worry about them, Lady Queen, and I wouldn't worry about what it means.  Every configuration of people is an entirely new universe unto itself." (374-5)


I've been thinking a lot about togetherness lately, since watching my grandparents' last moments together in the hospital room.  They were married sixty-nine years ago this August, and hadn't been apart for any significant period of time since the end of the second World War.  They'd spent virtually every moment of the day together since my grandfather retired at the age of 51.  He was 92 when he died last month.

He didn't suffer in that last week in the hospital, when some extraordinary things happened that I may feel strong enough to write about later.  At the end he wasn't in pain, he wasn't frightened, and he clung to my grandmother's arm with both hands while smiling and laughing at the things we said to him.  I miss him - with a terrible, deep hollowness - but I can't feel pain about the way he went.  I hurt instead for what my grandmother suffers now.  When he slipped into a coma she was frightened that he'd be alone.  She sat with him whenever she could, stroking his cool hand and speaking, in a low voice, a slow assortment of things she felt she should say and things she felt she must say (the distinction is crucial, but the overlap is great).  "Dear one," she would say to him, "we're here with you.  Three generations of your ladies.  Lucky man."  In the face of his looming absence, it was his loneliness she worried about - his solitude a cipher for her own.

On the night my grandfather died, after we had gotten the call from our family doctor at about three in the morning, and been to the hospital and back, I slept in my black clothes on the chaise longue in their living room so she wouldn't wake up by herself in the apartment.  "Wake me if you need anything - anything at all," I told my grandmother as I helped her into her bed, "Wake me if you need to talk.  You'll find me laid out on the chaise, your very own odalisque." "Madame Récamier," she corrected on an exhausted sigh, never one to be caught outside an allusion even at the worst of moments.  In the morning we made breakfast together, as we had done in the decades of summers I spent with them in London.  We talked, we shared jam, we both tried to laugh.

But this was the first breakfast we'd ever had together without Grant.

There's no one whose relationship I admire more.  (When I told this to my mother in my late teens, she passed the compliment along to my grandmother, who was strangely taken aback.  It had never occurred to her that their marriage was something to be admired.  In fact, she once told me, when they had only been married for a little over a half century, that she wasn't sure that she believed in the institution for people today.  Marriage ruins a lot of perfectly good relationships, she told me, straight-faced and serious.)  In three decades of knowing them, I saw them fight frequently (sometimes spectacularly, for people who didn't believe in raising their voices, and thus never did), I heard them tell each other innumerable jokes, and I watched as they rationally discussed every decision as equals.  It wasn't a flawless partnership - there's no such thing - but, looking in from the outside, like Katsa and Po's friends, I wouldn't wish for anything different for them.

Still, as I watched her suffer in the terrible novelty of solitude I thought, "Please, please, let me never be afraid of being alone."

"I keep wanting to talk to Grant about everything that is happening," my grandmother said over and over in those weeks.  "I don't know when I'll stop thinking that."

Perhaps never, I thought to myself.  Perhaps in time.

What can you do about that?  Loneliness is terrifying, and to be separated forever from a person you love is an ache past bearing.  There's no getting around grief.

But I also began to think of how separation is figured culturally as the antithesis of love, and solitude as the enemy of happiness. Their love didn't just stop with his sudden and wrenching absence, any more than the conversation in her mind did.  I often find myself reading novels, particularly novels that lay out the idea that love is fundamentally a species of togetherness, and thinking, "It must be agony to live alone, vulnerable and bored, and to be parted from the person you love indefinitely."  So keenly is the suffering of separation depicted that it often takes me quite a long time to realize that I am reading the novel while cozily ensconced in my library, at the heart of my otherwise empty house.  Sometimes I even take the next step and realize that it has been some months since I last saw D.


And yet: I'm happy.  Maybe happier than I've ever been before.  When D and I first embarked on this long-distance love, a decade ago, I hated it.  I was bored without him.  I needed constant reassurance, both of his love and about the validity of the decisions I was making on my own.  I couldn't understand why we were apart.  It was, I think I can safely say, fucking miserable. But as the years went by, I became more comfortable.  I learned a confidence - in both myself and him - that I doubt I would have come to without the distance.  The more often people told me that it must be SO HARD for us to be apart, and we must find a way to fix this problem immediately, the more I found a ferocious feminism, a proud individualism, in my happiness. There is nothing that we MUST do, I thought as I looked these people in the eye.  Stop using sympathy as a blind for control, I even grumbled on my less generous days.

Most of all, I learned the richness of the pleasures of solitude.  Alone, I am self-determining.  I notice more about the world around me.   I cultivate my own friendships, and he his.  I never have the chance to lose myself in him, or he in me.  And gradually the romance of self-obliteration faded for me.  Love wasn't about mutual absorption and constant co-presence.  A lot, I told friends, has to be sacrificed at the altar of togetherness. Instead I began to think of love as anticipation.

D arrives tomorrow from the long season in Hawaii.  I've talked to my grandmother every day this week - she's in the hospital, having fallen while arranging some condolence flowers (adding injury to the insult of grief).  She would ask me about my progress through Mt. Grademore, which has been slow as I sort through the mourning process and the unexpected travel.

"I have a hard deadline of Friday," I told her a few days ago, "I can't think of anything else until then."
"And when is D coming?" she asked.
"Oh, well, then that's your real deadline.  Work towards that. If you finish your marking on Friday, then you have two days to relax, and tidy, and groom yourself before D arrives."
"Groom myself?"

Grooming aside (or perhaps included), this was advice about hedonism rather than about slavish devotion.  My grandmother understands very well the pleasures of togetherness, and also its tedium.  She's always been, no less so now in the face of a permanent loss, a great believer in day-seizing, and an advocate of reveling in small pleasures wherever you can find them.

I can't argue with the pleasures of presence; I feel them as strongly as anyone else.  But there's something glorious about absence, something whose loss I would feel if D and I were always together.  There's the pride and pleasure of solitude and self-sufficiency, and there's also the thrill of the about-to-be and the remembered.  The subjunctive mode of the relationship, which gets lost a bit in the indicative realities of day-to-day companionship.  I love D; adore him, even.  Every time I made him laugh in the last week, I felt like my heart stopped. I'd take his companionship above anyone else's, without a second's pause.  But there's enjoyment in the longing, and there's strength in defying it.

Sometimes an end of absence - or its anticipation - is like being given a gift.  A gift of the thing you had most forgotten.  Of something which, if needed, wouldn't be half so desired

But there can be no end to absence without the absence itself.


A few days after my grandfather died, I went to a concert at the Kennedy Center with my grandmother. It was a series that she had bought because my grandfather enjoyed it so much.  I took his ticket and sat in his seat; I stood in for him in this one last pleasure, this final duty. Now, she said, she didn't know whether to renew for another season: "I can't decide whether it is a good idea to get just one ticket," she said to me, looking fretfully down at her hands on the programme.  The world now is a constant series of surprising solitudes: the one ticket to the symphony, the one English muffin in the toaster oven in the morning, the one name on all their letters from friends.  To be a widow is, in more senses than one, to be constantly ambushed by unity.

"I don't know, Nonna," I said to her, as she worried, "It depends on whether you'd enjoy the concerts.  But perhaps I'm not the right one to ask, because, you know, I do everything alone."

I stopped, wondering how this would be received.  After a moment, she gave me a soft, sad smile. 

Saturday 5 May 2012
Farfara, Nova Scotia