In December of 2016, I backpacked throughout Italy on my own for a few weeks.
Having been to Italy before, I wanted to revisit a few places that I had loved and explore new ones. Hiking the five villages of Cinque Terre had always been on my bucket list and when “A” decided to join me, unexpectedly for five days, I decided that that was what we would do.
One evening, when I managed to fifth-wheel my way into a dinner with two American couples at the only restaurant open in Positano on that particular off-season evening, they informed me that Cinque Terre was quite dull this time of year. Wanting to make the most of A’s experience in Italy, I decided to shorten our time in Cinque Terre and add Venice to the itinerary—even though I didn’t particularly long to revisit that city myself.
I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime sight for him to see and then we would head to Cinque Terre for this hike that I had been looking forward to for what seemed like forever. After 24 hours in Venice, A was taken by the city in a way that I hadn’t quite expected, and when the time came to leave, as we carried our suitcases across tiny bridges toward the train station, he looked at me and said, “Let’s stay an extra day.”
This was decidedly not the plan and my first instinct was to resist his request, but for some reason, in a way that was in complete opposition to my usual rigidity, I decided to live in the present moment and accept life as it was instead of how I wished for it to be.
So we stayed in Venice, and as I fully surrendered the plans and expectations I had placed on my time in Italy with A and replaced them with the ease of living in the present moment, I realized we were having a glorious time. I never got to hike all five villages in Cinque Terre, although I did drag him for one small hike between Vernazza and Monterosso.
One month later, A was diagnosed with inoperable and terminal pancreatic cancer. During the eight months between his diagnosis and his passing, he would often say: “No matter what happens, we will always have Venice.”
Surrender to the “is-ness” of life
I have spent most of my life either avoiding pain or numbing it. We all do it and it is all too common to be interesting.
We try to avoid pain by staying in situations that no longer serve us, too afraid of the uncertainty that lies beyond change. We try to avoid pain with expectations and control placed on people and outcomes. We numb in the usual ways: addiction, food, sex, and constant—almost uninterrupted—distractions.
I think of my life as having a “before” and an “after.” Before A’s cancer diagnosis, through unrealistic expectations and attempts at control, I often robbed myself of the peace and joy that flow easily when you surrender to the magic and “is-ness” of the present moment. Expectations unmet and altered plans would often send me into anxiety and dissatisfaction.
During A’s illness, I gained a keen awareness that there was nothing that was completely within my control and that the present moment was literally all that I had. The pain was omnipresent and multifaceted: his suffering, my anticipatory grief, the pain of losing “us,” and the fear of death. It couldn’t be avoided and it couldn’t be numbed. So we surrendered and began accepting life as it was rather than as we wished for it to be.
We felt emotionally what we all know intellectually—that everything is transient in this life. Everything is temporary and ever-changing. We both saved ourselves much needless suffering by accepting the “is-ness” of life and being present to whatever the moment presented to us.
And I found out that the best lessons were learned when I released control and surrendered to the wisdom and magic of the present moment.
Let pain in
One year ago, A died. It was truly an honour to walk with him through his transition from life to death. I don’t know that there exists a more meaningful act that we can perform for one another as humans.
As I watched the funeral coach drive away with my lover’s body, I feared that the strength I felt while we faced the illness together would dissipate as I faced this grief alone. Once again, I had a choice: to fear, avoid, and numb or to feel the full extent of this loss.
I’m not going to lie—I numbed at first. The trip I took to California shortly after required lots of wine and Ativan-induced sleep.
Eventually though, I opened the door to my pain and invited it in. I would stare right at it, scrutinizing its many faces and manifestations in my life. As time passed and I settled deeper into my life in the “after,” I learned to tame its wild and erratic nature and rendered it somewhat domesticated—or at least manageable.
By expanding my heart to make room for my pain, I gained control over it. It no longer runs me. I have broken many vows in my life, but this one is truly sacred. I will never again let pain and fear run my life; I am in control and I consciously and enthusiastically choose to live the life that is still available to me.
And all of this is not despite my grief, but because of it.
Love as energy
Today, as I write these words, my grief still exists. It makes me feel like something vital is missing from my life and carries with it the melancholic and profound knowing that it is the one thing I can never have.
The Portuguese language has a perfect expression that captures exactly the way that I am feeling and they call it saudade. They describe it as a constant feeling of absence and a profound nostalgic longing for something or someone that you know will never return. It isn’t like the searing pain of early grief, when all one can do is hold on for dear life in the hopes of surviving the storm. Rather, it is a tranquil but enduring sadness for what is lost and a profound joy for anything—whether that be a memory, an emotion, or a place—that momentarily fills the void of absence with something akin to what it felt like to be in their presence.
It is like endlessly reaching for something that can no longer be touched.
I may not be able to touch it but I do feel it.
I used to believe that love was an emotion, but I have come to recognize love as an energy. A is no longer part of my every day and, therefore, I do not receive his love in the way that I used to. I have however, over the last year, felt a tremendous amount of love flowing to me from different sources. I choose to believe that the love that left my life on this day last August has been sent back to me by the universe in numerous magical ways from many surprising sources.
I have not felt a lack of love since we parted but rather an abundance of it. Perhaps, I am more open to the love that is all around me, more receptive by having been broken open, heart and soul.
Whatever it is and wherever it comes from, the everlasting love that remains is both imperative to my very existence and a gentle ache. Saudade is the best word that I have to express what is in my heart. Sadness for what is lost. Joy and gratitude for the love that was. A duality that will forever live within me.
It is enough for me to have had it—this great love that has altered me so profoundly.
A life of meaning
Death has a way of teaching us what it means to be truly alive. And so I find that I’ve done more living since A’s diagnosis than ever before in my life. I live a more wholehearted life with a new depth in emotion and a whole lot more gratitude.
Understanding the transient nature of everything in this life, of every relationship and of every circumstance, has released me from most of my fears. I no longer fear change for I now have an acute awareness that that is the nature of life itself. I no longer fear death as I witnessed it take over the man I love—gradually but fiercely—and I survived.
I now love my people better and with more urgency. Best of all, I am grateful—for everything. For the peace of the mundane and the excitement and promise of new beginnings and pages turned. My life has more meaning and a meaningful life is fulfilling, even in moments of pain, anxiety, and unhappiness.
I strongly believe that the purpose of life isn’t to knock us down. It isn’t to make us suffer. The purpose of life is to wake us up. Hopefully, we don’t need a world-shattering event for that to happen. We don’t need to wait for trauma or loss or disappointment to feel truly alive.
Death, divorce, failure, and rejection are all valuable parts of the human experience that carry lessons of growth and wisdom. And they will happen to each of us. Equipped with this knowledge, we can open ourselves up right now to live an extraordinary life where we feel the depth and diversity of human emotions and experiences. A life of meaning and richness that we can be proud of when our number gets called. That is what I wish for all of us.
And to you my dear love, you were right—we will always have Venice.
And we will always have this love.