Here is a story my aunt tells me. A woman becomes involved with a man she works with, works for, to be specific. He is of course married. She is a bit indiscreet. She lingers at the office, in the hallways, in the parking lot. One evening, she follows him to an off-site work meeting. He pulls over on the side of the road. She pulls off behind him. “Go home,” he tells her. He says you cannot keep following me. If we are seen, I will lose my job, I will lose my family. Go home.
He moves away. He divorces. Remarries. There are grown children. Twenty-five years pass. She has not forgotten. She is traveling to the city where she lives. She tracks him down, writes to him. There is no response. She finds his daughter, writes to her. Again there is no response. Finally, the day before she is to travel, he calls her. Tells her yes he is still there in that city. Yes he is alone. Yes he would like to see her. Also, he is dying.
They meet for coffee. She says her feelings have not changed even though twenty-five years have passed. He has grown children, grandchildren. He is dying. We are all dying, she says. What I mean is I was told I had three years to live. I have lived five years since then.
In her view, everyone in his life has failed him - the first wife, the second, the children. She is needed. Her friends say he has not thought of you in twenty-five years. In twenty-five years, he has not tried to find you, they say. What are you doing now?
He is sick, he is dying, she says. I cannot abandon him. Abandon is the word she uses.
I have fallen behind in Proust Group, but I attend the meeting and write down the things that people say. They talk about the hawthorn, the long rapturous description of it. About Swann and his strange affection for Odette. A woman reads aloud:
At this time of life one has already been wounded more than once by the darts of love; it no longer evolves by itself, obeying its own incomprehensible and fatal laws, before our passive and astonished hearts. We come to its aid, we falsify it by memory and by suggestion. Recognising one of its symptoms, we remember and re-create the rest. Since we know its song, which is engraved on our hearts in its entirety, there is no need for a woman to repeat the opening strains - filled with the admiration which beauty inspires - for us to remember what follows. And if she begins in the middle - where hearts are joined and where it sings of our existing, henceforward, for one another only - we are well enough attuned to that music to be able to take it up and follow our partner without hesitation at the appropriate passage.
And later, as the discussion moves on, someone reads another passage, from earlier, still in Combray. This is in reference to Mlle Vinteuil:
Perhaps she would not have thought of evil as a state so rare, so abnormal, so exotic, one in which it was so refreshing to sojourn, had she been able to discern in herself, as in everyone else, that indifference to the sufferings one causes which, whatever other names one gives it, is the most terrible and lasting form of cruelty.
The woman in the story (I will call her L.) writes to this man (I will call him J.) every day. She sends him text messages, calls him on the phone. He tells her please I cannot talk to you every day. I have a schedule, he says. These are the days I call my children. These are the days I have my treatments.
She is undeterred. She speaks of them like they are together. She excuses herself from conversations with her friends to call him. She says: “I have to see how J.’s treatment went today.”
He invites her to Thanksgiving dinner. His children will be there, his ex-wife. (“She was terrible to him,” L. says.) Her friends tell her not to go, but she does. Her friends say go for a day or two then, don’t stay too long. She plans her trip for five days. She stays in a guest room in his house. He has his treatments on Tuesdays and Fridays, she says. I need to be there in case he needs me.
My mother is not in treatment for very long. It becomes clear very quickly that there is not much time. One evening after we know, but before she becomes too weak, we watch a movie on television about a woman who takes care of a dying man and falls in love with him. We see him grow weaker. There is a scene of him vomiting after treatment. We see him lose his hair and grow thin and pale.
After the movie ends, my mother is enraged. Why did you choose this? Don’t you know what this does to me? she asks, her voice loud but shaking.
Do you see what you have done to me? Do you see what you have done?
I think of L. in a faraway city, in the house of this man she loves or thinks she does. After twenty-five years of silence.
My aunt says: In twenty-five years, he never called her, never tried to find her. After his divorce, he didn’t reach out to her. After the first one or the second. I am standing at the sink, plucking parsley leaves from their stems. This cannot end well, she says. This cannot end well.
And I find myself nodding, but what I am thinking is: what really can be said to end well? In the movie I watch with my mother, the man dies. We see the woman walking through the places where they spent their final days together.
My mother dies. I gather her things in boxes and bags.
In the end, J. too will die. And L. will be with him or she will not. And he will love her or he will not. And she will know this love or she will not.
And the endings will be what they will be, and the stories we tell ourselves will only ever be the stories we are able to tell, and we will go on, taking up the music and following it.
And don’t we know this music well enough? Isn’t it engraved on our hearts? And won’t the songs be familiar enough to allow us to go on without hesitation, these strains ever repeating until they do not?