All in the Details

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They met through the Appalachian Mountain Club.

By some beautiful irony, I wouldn’t know some of the details as to how they met until the day of his memorial.  That he had offered to drive some of the Boston members up to that day’s hike.  That she would be one of his passengers.  I never knew that part.  I knew they were fellow members, but that other detail was brand new, given out like a souvenir to all the current pain and suffering.

But I knew the part about hiking.  Like how I knew the detail about how they both went to the exact same university — and both part-time, at night, but 11 years apart.  Her degree was in English.  His was business.  Little, precious, synchronicitous details.

And I like how I knew that she wanted to get married, and he wanted nothing to do with marriage anymore.  He had already done that twice, and with six kids to show for it.  He was in his 40s.  He was done with that avenue in life.  Can’t he just have his pretty live-in girlfriend, the one with the unsure eyes and the disarmingly genuine smile?

And how I knew that she gave him an ultimatum.  That she was going to leave him and move out if marriage was off the table.  And that he called her bluff and even helped her look for apartments.  But that, eventually, the fear of losing her trumped the fear of getting married again.  So, after years of dating, they got married at the church that they belonged to, just a mile down the road from where they lived.  He gambled once more, hoping third time’s a charm.  And they would be married right up until the day he died.

It’s a beautiful story, and sometimes I like to just let it stop there.  Anything can be pretty enough, given the correct angle.

You can make any marriage look like the most profound love story if you leave out the right details.

That’s the beauty of storytelling.  The key is in what you let the reader onto, and what you keep them in the dark on.  Gloss over some details, and everything feels right & in its place.  Add in other details, and you can make the reader’s toes curl in distress.  And, somewhere in between the two ends, lies the complicated, nuanced reality of it all.

She still wears her wedding ring.  She is open and frank about missing him, about feeling sad (her words. “feeling sad”. so simplistic it could make your heart break).

She talks about him, and she talks about the past.  But the once well-trodden past is unearthed and tilled in light of recent events.  Now, when she speaks of the past, key details are left out.  Other details are fabricated on the spot.

No one has the heart to correct her.

With the right details, any story can be a happy one.

Key details.  Key scenes.  Key sets of behaviors and interactions.  Like what really happened when she lost hearing in one ear.  Or why neighbors once lodged a formal complaint.  Or the way that he treated her during those last years, his behavior while he was dying.

Their marriage was filled with demons that never learned to play well with each other.  It was a shipwreck before it had ever left the dock.  It proved you could fulfill the “’til death do us part” and still be a complete failure.  They were proof that that sentimental story — the one about the couple married 65 years, saying, “Back in our day, if something was broken, you didn’t throw it away.  You fixed it,” — isn’t a coverall piece of advice.

That, sometimes, you have to admit when something is beyond repair.  That sometimes things are just broken and you are throwing good money after bad and it’s simply time to part ways with it.

That “being together” and “making it work” are two separate concepts, and sometimes they are, in fact, mutually exclusive.

That, looking at the right details, the couple celebrating their 65-year anniversary could be seen as a hallmark of healthy devotion or a cautionary tale against not knowing when to break it off.

But in the mess of every single detail, therein lies two well-meaning and deeply flawed souls, and the deeply tragic understanding that we only get one shot at this particular life, and we’re all just making it up as we go along.  And in between every detail is a false sense of time — particularly that we’re always learning what the details mean far too late, when it’s too far gone to do anything about it.

And so we do nothing and dance with the details until it does, actually, become too late.

And we cope with it all by organizing those details.  Selecting which ones fit the narrative and which ones don’t.  By telling ourselves certain details don’t need so much attention while rewriting others.

But — every once in a while — we are brave enough to stand akimbo and take in the complex noise of it all, welcoming the contradictions and confusions, understanding that the story of the human condition would never actually make for a good book.  There is no neat arc and plenty of loose ends.  And no one would know who to root for.  No one would know what to take away from it.

Focus on the right details, she is a devotee, a fool, a victim, a warrior.  Her eulogy at his service is filled with the details of how they met, and the mountains they’d climb.  Names of the biggest, most majestic ones in the area.  Listed accomplishments from 30+ years ago.  The crux of what she says focuses on those first few years.  The details are as specific as a book report.

And then, she turns a page in her writing and zips to the end — to the feelings of loss and mourning.  Fast forward 35 years, to the present day.  To the reality of loss, of standing at a pulpit, delivering a eulogy at her husband’s service.  Her voice starts to crack and she suddenly sounds like a young child who has finally figured out what death actually means.

There is something so heartbreaking in that detail: the way she stands there, her papers held close to her face, her words practiced out but her soul as raw and uncovered as ever.  It makes me want to shield her from the world, from the complicated nuances of the human condition and the unfettered reality of suffering.

Out of anything else, it will be the one detail I remember for the rest of my life.

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