McNaught: Love in the Event of Death

Via Brian McNaught 

While cleaning out the desk drawer, Ray came upon a love letter from me that was supposed to be opened by him on the occasion of my death. It was written in 1981, when I was 33, and it has been read twice by him despite my good physical health.

I wrote it not because I wanted the last word, which is not unlike me, but rather because I wanted him to be able to read again and again how deeply I loved him, and that I hoped he would love again.  

We had been together five years, and I left love notes under his pillow each time I left town, or tucked them into his suitcase when he traveled on business. But, we had no sense of what it would be like to be 71, and spouses for 43 years. We were young, vibrant lovers.

Why was I even thinking about death at that age? Because I grew up in a decade of assassinations of prominent people, and, I was a very visible, and easily accessed gay man who had lived with death threats since I was 26. Harvey Milk had been murdered in 1978, and the following year, Jerry Falwell blustered, and raised the hate thermometer, with his newly formed Moral Majority. Ray was concerned every time I said “yes” to another speaking engagement on LGBT issues. Although I had no fear of death, I did want to comfort him should anything happen to me.

Today, I’ll still write a similar love letter to again be tucked away in the desk, but I’d rather Ray’s letter to me be about how to understand his management of our expenses, and about how to turn on the television. Ray has left me plenty of other reminders of his love for me.

No person should ever have to regret not communicating clearly and sufficiently how very much they love their spouse, children, parents, and friends. Nor should any person go to their death without knowing how others value them. Saying, “I love you,” is so easy. Not having heard it said is so hard.

When you talk or write about death, people often ask you if everything is OK. The word “morbid” is used. I understood that sentiment when I was in my thirties, and was questioned by another 30-year-old about a newspaper column on death, but, I’m old now, and thinking about my death, and what might happen to Ray, is not morbid. It’s emotionally healthy.

The inevitability of one’s death, and the death of all loved ones, is more feared than celebrated. If we truly believed in the soul, the kingdom within, Buddha nature, the manifestation of the universe, soul migration, etc., then the death of the flesh would be embraced as a necessary step toward fully experiencing our true nature. 

It can be excruciatingly painful to let go of a loved one, but that is because we don’t want our lives to change. We want tangible proof that the loved one is still there. That being said, I’d be an emotional mess if Ray, Lincoln, or the form of other cherished souls dies before I do. But, I’d have no regrets that they died without knowing my feelings, nor would I feel that my communication with them had ended.

Everyone reading this has been confronted with death, the most painful of all human experiences. And none of us believe that others truly understand the depth of our despair. Just because others have lost their beloved doesn’t lessen our pain an iota. As time passes, and the wound is less sensitive, it helps to share stories with someone we think understands. But, we are nevertheless surrounded by constant reminders of what once was. Photos, clothes, the king size bed, routines, family, and friends, and maybe a love letter in the desk, keep us aware of our life shattering loss.

The other day, Ray said he thought I was more emotionally dependent on him than he was on me. I was shocked. I felt the exact opposite, that he would have a harder time than I would with the death of the other. He might be right, though. I haven’t yet learned to be happy in my own company. But, from our earliest days 43 years ago, I imagined myself as his emotional Border Collie. His remark reminded me that even after all of our shared time and experiences, there’s a great deal about Ray that’s a mystery to me. I suppose the same is true for him with me. We have known patterns of behavior, but what is each deeply feeling? I don’t expect to fully understand Ray until both of our deaths free our souls to dance together through eternity. 

Many of us are in the final act of our lives. We can deny or embrace that reality. We can prepare ourselves, and our loved ones, for the event, by saying what needs to be said, getting our affairs in order, and our wishes known, or we can deny its inevitability, to our own regret, and to that of those we adore.