All the Way

 All the Way

By Stephen O’Connor

When somebody loves you
It’s no good unless he loves you, all the way.
Happy to be near you
When you need someone to cheer you, all the way.

—Frank Sinatra, Lyrics by Sammy Cahn

Michael and Sarah are not their real names. But their story is real. They met in kindergarten in a small town not very far from Lowell. Her family moved and she began to go to a school on the other side of town, but Michael swears, “The lamp was lit.” They were reunited in 7th grade; both were in accelerated classes.

He can tell the story better than I: “She was friendly with a bright smile and kind eyes. And she read books on her own that were not part of the curriculum. She introduced me to the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Leon Uris, and Tolkien. We became great friends and had long conversations about many subjects, not always agreeing, but enjoying the repartee. She was on the bowling team in junior high, so I joined the bowling team, though I didn’t like it much. I did like her. She was on the debate team in high school, so I joined that, too, to see her more. I was actually pretty good at debating, sharpened by my conversations with Sarah. She was good, too. We started dating when we were sixteen, as juniors in high school. I’d say we were already soul mates by then. I gave her a Claddagh ring, and our feelings for each other were strong. She applied to a few colleges and chose UMASS Amherst. She told me that was where she was going, so it was the only place I applied.

By second semester freshman year, we were living together, more or less. We had a lot of the same friends, but also our own friends. We liked a lot of the same music, but also had our own preferences for certain genres. We enjoyed hanging out together, and I have no doubt that she kept me out of trouble and made me a better person.

I proposed to her on Christmas Eve 1976 and gave her my grandmother’s diamond ring. We were married in August 1977, forty-five years ago next month. We had a son, then a daughter, then another son. We lived in Alabama and Virginia, five years in each, and settled back in Massachusetts. Both our boys married their high school sweethearts. Our daughter married a man she had gone to school with from 6th grade through high school, though they only started dating after college. Each of our children had two children, giving us six grandchildren.”

I met Michael and Sarah at UMASS. The first time I saw Michael, he was reciting “The Rebel” by Patrick Pearse in a bar on St. Patrick’s Day. We were both second generation Irish and got to know each other further while taking some of the same classes in Irish history and literature. Michael and I got together again years after graduation to play on various “Over the Hill” soccer teams. We played together in Pepperell and moved together to the Groton team, where we played for many years, Fall and Spring. Michael was a strong player. He played clean but hard and was always great company at the cookouts after the game. Sarah came to the games often, and she was great company too. She had been on women’s teams, and even played with us once at a practice. All the guys on the team were fond of her. My wife Olga and I sometimes went out with Michael and Sarah to dinner or a concert. Olga liked both of them very much and always enjoyed herself in their company.

Sarah enjoyed herself too. She always seemed so carefree; you would never have known she was battling cancer. And she fought it to a standstill, often, over the years. During that time, she continued to laugh and love, and to teach second graders at a local school. But the victories always came at a cost to her body. And as he always had, Michael went where she went, but now it was to doctor’s appointments and hospital surgeries. Sarah was game for the fight. She had everything to live for. But this Spring after a protracted hospital stay, the doctors told her that that the judges’ cards were in. The long fight was over, and she had lost. She went home to die.

My wife and I went to visit Sarah on what turned out to be her last day. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I was in bits, utterly useless, but Olga held Sarah’s hand and talked to her with that intuitive connection to the mysteries of birth and life and death that women seem to have. The family was all there, but her gaze was usually focused on Michael, and I saw her mouth the words, ‘I love you.’ It seemed that for that struggling family, the time for tears had passed. At long last, they had accepted the ruling of fate, which tears never change. Michael was as steady as he had been on the field of play, and as reassuring and loving as he had always been with Sarah.

The next day, she was gone. At a loss for words, I sent Michael a recording of John O’Donohue reading his poem “Beannacht” or “Blessing.”

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,

an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

Michael texted me that he listened to it that night with his sons while they drank a whiskey. He has that old Celtic sense of something beyond what we see, call it the mystic or the spiritual, not strictly religious. “I know we’re going to be together again,” he wrote.

A few weeks after the funeral, I invited Michael to take a very long hike in the woods. Nature is the best medicine, and we were able to talk. He told me about the burial. He had purchased a small corner lot in the old cemetery of his town.

“I didn’t know Sarah wanted to be cremated until we were doing our wills together this past winter and talking through our respective wishes. It was after the cancer had come raging back, and she said with considerable emphasis, ‘I want to burn this f—- disease out of my body and out of the universe.’ I was kind of surprised. I completely understood her animus toward the cancer, but I always imagined us being buried side-by-side in our respective coffins. I asked her if it was what she really wanted. She was adamant and left no doubt. I tearfully asked if we could still be buried together. She said yes, with the same sincerity and commitment as when I asked her to marry me.”

He understood her decision, as I did when he told me.

But then he recounted the story that spoke to me deeply of the good fight we make with this unbeatable foe. Immediately after the burial, he called the sexton or groundskeeper at the cemetery and asked how deep the ashes were buried. “Just two feet down,” the man told him.

Michael said, “You know, I’d really like her to be below the frost line. I just don’t like the idea of her ashes being frozen and unfrozen and knocked around.”

The groundskeeper, Joe, was a good man. He said, “Yes, I can understand that, Mike. That makes perfect sense. I can arrange to move them down.”

Joe called back the next day and said, “They want me to get a ‘disinterment order’ to move the ashes.” However, he said he’d talk to someone and see what he could do. The following day he texted Michael that it was taken care of and sent photos of the urn of ashes placed at a deeper level.

As Michael and I made our way through the woods along an esker, a winding ridge formed by glaciers thousands of years ago, paths the Musketaquid Indians traveled along through forgotten centuries, he asked me, “Does that make sense to you?”

I said, “Honestly, Mike, I can’t say it makes sense to me, but if that’s how you feel, that’s all the sense you need.” What really struck me, though, and what I couldn’t find the words to express at the time, was that this effort, which our reason might call futile, said so much about who we are as humans who love; that this man was still trying to protect the woman he met in kindergarten and fell for in 7th grade. That for all our subtlety and ingenuity, we have no answer to death, but that we do what we can. And that this love is something we take to our own graves.

I got a text from Michael yesterday. It was Sarah’s birthday. His daughter and her two children went to her grave and left some stones they had collected and painted during the family’s Cape vacation, which Sarah had arranged before she died. Michael brought fresh flowers later and placed the stones around them. He says, “I am still very filled with love for Sarah, and reading a lot and trying to understand the meaning of life, the universe, and everything…it can’t be 42, right? (That’s a reference to The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).”

No, the answer probably is not 42, though I smiled to see that he had not lost his sense of humor. It seems there is no answer, or none that we’ll ever be able to understand. If you have a religion that comforts you, I think that’s a good thing. Maybe I’ll get it before I die. In the meantime, the best I can do is recall the words of Henry Thoreau. He was nearly shattered by the early death of his brother John. Finally, he asked himself, “What right have I to grieve who have not yet ceased to wonder?” Isn’t that what O’Donohue was saying in the poem I had sent my friend?

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

Life is ephemeral—weren’t we just young? Was it yesterday I saw Michael reciting “The Rebel” in a bar in Amherst? And life can be so difficult and sometimes nearly unendurable. But there’s also beauty and wonder, and the most wonderful thing is love, which a holy book rightly calls “as strong as death.”

9 Responses to All the Way

  1. Kevin says:

    A touching tribute to lifelong love and one of the most completely engaging couples that walked this earth. May she Rest In Peace until they meet again.

  2. Ellen Cavanaugh says:

    beautiful love story, brought me to tears..and yes, may she rest in peace, until they meet again.

  3. Paul Marion says:

    It’s a mystery, how such a feeling holds on to us without letting go. Thanks for this testimony about a couple of fine people and the brief nod to the timeless Henry of our neighborhood.

  4. Malcolm Sharps says:

    After my own piece of recent days, I’d like to think that I inspired O’ to write on the theme of undying love in this one; call that my conceit. One thing I could not inspire, however, is the author’s unique hand-tailoring of his materials: a few lines from a song, some background, the sketching of character, some significant incidents, a direct quotation, the never to be excluded verses from a favourite bard, a sprinkle of wit, a touch of philosophy but not enough to weigh it down, and there you have it. And, I’ll add, just the right length.
    Whether they are characters or real persons, O’ makes the reader happy to meet his people. Now we know Michael and Sarah. Once again, thank you, O’, I’m glad I came. 

  5. John Lavin says:

    Only Steve’s unique genius for this blend of empathy and detail cold produce such an ineffably beautiful paean to love, to death. Thank you, O’Connor. You are truly great.

  6. Mary Pavlik says:

    Lovely piece that really shows the depth of absolute love shared by these two. A wonderful legacy to their relationship. Thank you for writing and sharing.