The calendar entry for Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011, reads simply, “Love One Another.” My wife, Terry, handed me the entry, a leaf torn from a pad, that morning. A drawing beneath the caption depicts a late middle-aged couple embracing as they walk down the beach, eyes sparkling, mouths agape, sharing a hearty laugh. The sun is setting behind them, throwing glitter across the water. Since Terry gave it to me nearly two years ago, that calendar page has remained on my desk in our bedroom, placed so that I see it every time I pass by.
I’m not exactly sure why I saved that particular entry, of the many given to me over the years by Terry, a lover of pithy sayings. Perhaps it was the powerful simplicity of the message. Or perhaps it was the promise it represented: golden years shared with a loving companion. This idea was becoming more poignant as middle age set in and Conrad, our only child, entered high school. Seeing the drawing sometimes made the bittersweet foretaste of empty-nesthood more palatable.
Or perhaps I saved it because coincidentally, on that particular day, we were headed to Hawaii, Terry’s home state, still filled with family and childhood friends. Walking along the beach was one of our favorite things to do, both as a couple and as a family. Waking early in the fog of jet lag, Terry, Conrad and I would buy takeout breakfast at Zippy’s and crouch at the water’s edge to eat as the sun rose over Kailua Bay near Terry’s childhood home. Walking along the beach, feeling the cool, wet sand under our feet as the sun warmed our faces, we were happy and grateful and content.
These days, a small, silver religious medal lies atop that calendar entry on my desk. Terry was wearing it last fall on the day she took her own life, the victim of a devastating depression that gripped her out of nowhere and pulled her into a darkness from which she felt there was no escape.
Her illness was a menopausal version of a terrifying episode of postpartum depression she suffered after Conrad was born. Terry once said the only thing that saved her during that first episode was the maternal instinct — knowing that her baby needed her in order to survive. In a sense, Conrad’s infant vulnerability kept his mother alive through that ordeal. This time, Terry became submerged in a deep melancholia that doctors later said may have been brought on or aggravated by the hormonal changes of menopause. Although she was receiving treatment and was about to see a specialist in women’s mental health issues, Terry became convinced that Conrad and I would be better off without her — without a mother and wife stricken by an unbearable, invisible weight pressing down on her heart. This state of mind, unfathomable to healthy people, is a common symptom of major depression, as William Styron’s wrenching first-person account, “Darkness Visible,” makes clear. Cancer of the spirit, as insidious as any of the varieties that attack the flesh, stole a woman who embodied the radiance and beauty of her island home.
Walking past that calendar entry now, staggered by a wave of grief, I feel as if the couple’s laughter is mocking me. Those joyous cartoon characters strolling arm in arm along the beach appear to be a cruel caricature of my lost future.
In better moments, the whimsy of the drawing reminds me of the wonderful serendipity of our own romance: a scruffy college sophomore from rural Wisconsin meeting an enchanting 21-year-old woman from Hawaii in front of a train station in Tokyo. The aging cartoon couple calls to mind the nearly 30 years of life Terry and I shared after that first encounter, years full of travel (25 countries together, by my count), professional striving (mostly my own) and the day-to-day challenges of child rearing and household life, punctuated by an occasional triumph, like Terry’s completion of her Ph.D dissertation in art history after years as a full-time mother. Our marriage had the typical imperfections of any deep relationship forged over time through a continuous process of negotiation and compromise. We knew disappointments and doldrums. But across the decades, we built something truly worthy of celebrating with an embrace and shared laughter in the sunset.
I plan to keep that calendar entry right where it is on the desk in my bedroom, for as long as it lasts. As my son and I adapt to the new configuration of our family, and as I try to envision a future through the ashes of my plans for the “golden years,” that scrap of paper reminds me of something else, uplifting and joyous — the most beautiful of scripture passages, recited at countless weddings throughout the ages, including our own: Love endures all things. Love never ends.
Curtis J. Milhaupt is a professor at Columbia Law School.
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