6.28.2016

'Til Death Do Us Part

I read a lot of books about marriage while writing Very Married: Field Notes on Love & Fidelity. Many of these books were authored by marriage experts of various stripes; others were novels like The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. It's not hard to read book, or watch films, about marriage. Marriage is everywhere.

The books that deeply moved me all had something in common. They were all memoirs by writers who had been widowed. This is the unspoken ramification of wedding vows, after all. The best case scenario for any given marriage is that one spouse will die, and the other will grieve. Obviously we hope that this doesn't happen for a very long time. But this is what we mean when we utter the words 'til death do us part.

These are the books about marital love and loss that influenced me the most.

1. A Two-Part Invention: the Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L'Engle
L'Engle was, obviously, an excellent writer - one of the greats. But she was also an excellent wife, married to an excellent husband. Her tender telling of their love story is simply exquisite.
“The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without it.”

2. A Severe Mercy: A Story of Faith, Tragedy, and Triumph by Sheldon Vanauken
Frankly, I'm a bit ambivalent about this one, but I have wrestled with it ever since I first read it many years ago. Despite my quibbles with the way Vanauken interprets the death of his beloved wife, it still makes me weep.
“How strange that we cannot love time. It spoils our loveliest moments. Nothing quite comes up to expectations because of it. We alone: animals, so far as we can see, are unaware of time, untroubled. Time is their natural environment. Why do we sense that it is not ours?”


3. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
This is one of the most exquisitely beautiful, heartrending books I've ever read. It's about death and grief, yet filled with life. I grew to love Ficre Ghebreyesus, Alexander's late husband. Very nearly perfect.
“The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”