Catherine Newman is the author of the upcoming novel, “We All Want Impossible Things,” out Nov. 8, 2022, which is about a woman whose best friend is dying at a hospice — inspired by Newman’s own personal story — and which Kirkus, in a starred review, called “a warm and remarkably funny book about death and caregiving that will make readers laugh through their tears.” The following is an essay about Newman’s own experience with love and loss, and what she has learned while volunteering at a hospice center.
One early summer when my daughter was 14 or so, I said to her, about the frenzy of buzzing and tunneling in our yard, “The dirt bees are so heartbreaking! All this hoo-ha, and they only live for, like, a month.”
“A month is their whole complete life,” she said, with the unbearable wisdom of youth. “I mean, on another planet where everyone lives to be a million, maybe they’re looking at humans on earth and feeling the same way about our lives. But these are just our whole, complete lives.”
And that’s pretty much it, isn’t it? These are just our whole, complete lives.
Probably this is not news to you. Not exactly. “What is it you plan to do with your one whole, complete life?” Mary Oliver famously asked. OK, it was “your one wild and precious life,” but still. And if you’ve ever given yourself over to loving a pet, you have already grappled with the fact of finiteness. Assuming nothing even more catastrophic happens, your dog or cat will likely die during your lifetime. Grief is a sure thing. And you take this on willingly, like a crazy person, even if your poor heart covers its eyes with its hands while you scroll through the rescue listings.
But, ugh, it’s people, too. We don’t preempt grief by loving less. This ocean of feeling is vast and beautiful, even — or especially — with death on the horizon. All we can do is swim.
For the past three years, I’ve volunteered at our town’s hospice. I cook dinner there once a week and visit with the residents. I’ve wondered if what I’m doing there is reimagining past losses, rehearsing future ones. But I’ve begun to understand something that my daughter seems to have known innately — that everything is just this, now. This perfectly complete life — theirs and mine. Which seems to mean, at least for me, that I lean all the way in. I fall madly in love with everybody who lives and works there, over and over again. I want to get my knuckles gangster-tattooed. “Love more,” they will spell in one direction across both hands. “More love” if read in reverse. It’s love like an affliction. I cry a lot. On a scrap of paper, I have written “How alive your heart to feel such sorrow!” Where is it from? I Google it, get zero results. Did I write it in my sleep?
In the hospice, there are often donated wedding centerpieces, enormous bouquets dying in the dark in every dying body’s room while the freshly married people travel the world. I move from room to room, love spilling out of me like coins from a slot machine.
In the hospice, there are often donated wedding centerpieces, enormous bouquets dying in the dark in every dying body’s room while the freshly married people travel the world, newly in love. I move from room to room there, love spilling out of me like coins from a slot machine. I’m also kind of awkward. I worry that someone will die and their last words will have been answering my question about their malamute-a-day calendar.
My attractions aren’t always unromantic. Is that weird? I compliment a very old someone on his cashmere sweater, say, “Oh my god, me too!” when he says he only shops at thrift stores. He flirts with me, says, “I wish we’d met earlier!” “Same,” I say, and mean it. “Hi sweetheart,” one woman always says, and my eyes always fill with tears. (Sweetheart!) I check on someone else after the religious group has come by to sing hymns outside his window. “Did you like it?” I say, and he nods. “Liar,” I say. I point to his hearing aids, which are sitting in a candy dish on his tray table. “Did you make a moved face like you could hear them?” I ask. He laughs, pulls his face into a simulacrum of attentively concerned listening. I would date this person if I weren’t married. If he weren’t a hundred years old and dying. Next week I will see the battery-operated remembrance candle in the doorway of his empty room, and I will cry. And it will have been worth it. It is always worth it.
Not coincidentally — it’s where this love affair began — my best friend of 40-something years died in hospice. Her life cut short. Her life complete. Across the hallway from her, a baby died in his crib. One hundred years, 50 years, or two. The decades or weeks or hours we have left together. Life is so fragile and improbable. I don’t know what it’s like to have a dirt-bee’s heart. But for my human one, love hard is the takeaway that matters. Love recklessly. Love now.