This morning, Bodi and I walked out into yet another frigid day. It was minus 16 degrees. It took us a while to leave the house. I had to snuggle him awake. And set out his food. While he ate, I put on silk long-underwear, my fleece overalls, a fleece vest. Then the full-length down coat was buttoned all the way up; my fuzzy winter aviator hat, pulled on tight. The woolen scarf, wrapped tightly around my neck and lower face, came next. Then, the insulated winter boots, with the bright orange ice-grippers pulled over the bottoms. Then I put on Bodi’s warm winter doggie coat; and then his booties. He’s never so happy about this, but he submits anyway. Wearing them, he won’t have to stop every few steps and hold up a frozen paw, or try to chew ice balls from between his pads, or lick away the road salt that burns his skin. Once his booties were all velcrod on, I tucked his package of snacks in one of my pockets, his leash in the other, and pulled on my own down mittens. Then out we went, into the pink snow as first light colored up the sky. It was a lot of work just for a doggie walk. But this is what love does.
It struck me that even after a beloved dies, the work of love continues.
In scrolling through the Letters from the Love Room book, I spotted the word “work” mentioned 120 times. The work of love. The work of grief. The work of holding on, and of letting go. The work of going forward.
So many times, I wasn’t very good at the work of loving Aunt Min. I had a lot of hopes, some of them based on fact. I knew my aunt cared about me. I expected to be pretty good at loving her. I expected her to be pretty good at loving me. But it wasn’t always easy. I wish I could ask her now, across the fading love room threshold, how she thinks we did. I still have some regrets – I wish I’d trusted myself more, and maybe set some limits on how much I did. I wish I had been able to ask her how she felt about being so near her end-time. Knowing my aunt, I’m pretty sure she was working at love too. In the last year, there were ways she softened, gave up a bit of her fierce independence and let me make choices she might not have made on her own.
These tensions and struggles and accommodations were not the best parts of our love room together, but I think they were some of the most instructive, and strengthening. They were the ways I learned about what it takes to be human, to be open and vulnerable, to do the work of real relationship.
In his conversation with On Being radio host Krista Tippett, writer Alain du Botton described this work: “Love is a painful, poignant, touching attempt by two flawed individuals to try and meet each others’ needs in situations of gross uncertainty and ignorance about who they are and who the other person is.” And, he says, “we’re going to do out best.” This “acceptance of ourselves as flawed creatures,” is what love really is.
Psychologist Therese Rando talks about work, too, as a primary challenge of dealing with loss: “Grief is work. It requires the expenditure of both physical and emotional energy. It is no less strenuous a task than digging a ditch or any other physical labor…..Grief can deplete you to such an extent that the slightest tasks become monumental, and what previously was easily achievable now may seem insurmountable.”
In these years after Min’s death, the work of love has become intertwined with the work of grief. The work of relationship continues on. But it’s a luminous and rarefied work these days, not taking as much effort, tinged with the sweetness of memories that are constantly teaching me what love is, and preparing me for the work of continuing to love the world.
Back at home now after our walk, I sip tea and make some notes. Bodi has licked ice balls from his fuzzy legs and is sighing into sleep next to me. The sun has slipped through trees and is lighting up the walls; the sky is blue, the air a bit warmer – up to 3 degrees! Oh, there is so much to love.
I am constantly being taught, refined, ground down, transmuted into a version of myself that can bear, and share, more love. For this, I am ever grateful.