In the midst of moving, Steve and I broke away from the fray to attend a destination wedding on the Eastern Shore. The ceremony and reception were scheduled for Sunday, part of a weekend-long event spanning Saturday through Monday, as the bride and groom and their families are Jewish. Steve’s former graduate student, Pamela, had gotten engaged to her boyfriend Alex the May before last on commencement day, and Steve, as her primary advisor, had attended a graduation dinner with her family that evening. Steve and I had gotten engaged ourselves only a week or so before the young couple did, so as Pamela wrapped up some additional research that summer, she and Steve traded talk of wedding plans, and he often shared their conversations with me.
After those early moments of comparing notes, we were really looking forward to celebrating the start of Pamela and Alex’s lives as married folk, especially so close to our own nuptials. We booked a room at a charming B&B, packed up suit, tie, and fancy dress, and headed toward the Chesapeake Bay. We drove partway Saturday evening, and around 9 pm or so we stopped for a bathroom break and a Frosty at Wendy’s. While I waited on line in the restroom, I pulled out my phone and called up Facebook. The first post in my feed was from a woman in my high school class, and it read simply “Sad news: my brother David passed away.”
It took me a moment to register the import of the news, and when I did, I bent forward, the breath physically knocked out of me, trying not to hyperventilate. Her brother was David, one of my dearest high school friends. We’d been in drama club together, and he’d played my husband in L’il Abner when I was in tenth grade. After I left the next year to study abroad in Germany, he wrote me long newsy letters from home. David had already graduated when I returned for my senior year, but he escorted me to my senior Homecoming dance, and he came back and built the sets for our spring production of The Miracle Worker. Another night, we met up with friends, played fifties music, and cut a rug in their living room until the wee hours. David and I never dated, but his was a consistent, solid friendship that spanned most of my high school days and several years beyond.
His death was a shock—he was so young, and hadn’t, to my knowledge, been ill. Our contact in recent years had been limited to Facebook, and I knew there’d been some tough times: a move across the country, the dissolution of a marriage, custody battles. In the past year, though, things seemed good: he was dating a woman he adored, spending time with his daughter, regularly expressing gratitude for all the beauty in his world. What had happened? I’d imagined the weekend as a celebration of beginnings, and suddenly there was this terrible, unexpected, too-soon ending. I returned to Steve shaken and unnerved.
We arrived in Cape Charles the next day a little after lunch, found some deli sandwiches, and set about getting ready for the wedding. The ceremony was held outside in a grassy area overlooking the bay. It was hot and humid, but beautiful, the occasional light sea breeze fluttering the white fabric draping the Chuppah. The sun slowly began to drop as the wedding party made their entrances. I choked up when the string quartet played Pachelbel’s Canon, the music I plan to walk in to. The bride and groom looked so happy, so young, as each walked down the aisle arm in arm with their respective sets of parents.
The traditional Jewish ceremony was lovely. I got a little tickled when I realized the rabbi was using hand signals to help Pamela and Alex keep track of the number of circles they’d walked around one another: the bride and groom circle one another seven times before they reach the Chuppah, a ritual believed to represent the intertwining of their lives together. As the rabbi blessed the couple, I was deeply moved by the exhortation that they always remain “startled” by the depth of their love for one another.
I cried only once, after the groom’s grandparents followed the newlyweds’ first dance with a dance celebrating their 62nd wedding anniversary, occurring that same date. When grandpa dipped grandma to conclude the dance (more tilt than dip, but the intention was clear), the gesture clutched at my heart. I’d have to live to 107 (Steve to 119) to dance with my beloved on our 62nd wedding anniversary. But seeing the fresh faces and careful steps of the newlyweds followed by the familiar ease and enduring romance of the long-married couple painted a poignant kind of “before and after” of lasting love. It was a strange sort of time warp, the newlyweds both themselves and a memory of their grandparents, the grandparents themselves and a projection of Pamela and Alex’s future. I, too, wanted to be all of them, all at once.
Watching the dancers, it occurred to me that even without the tragic and unwelcome news of David’s death the night before, it wouldn’t have been possible for the weekend to be only about beginnings, because beginnings are also always endings, just as endings are always also beginnings. As T. S. Eliot writes, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” Sometimes a beginning/ending is the result of a loss, a subtraction—a death, a divorce; sometimes, an addition—a move to a new home, marriage to a partner. Whichever element is foremost, beginnings/endings encompass both gratitude and grief. Even the hardest hits bring gifts we could not, in the depths, anticipate; even the greatest gains, strange mourning.
Dramatic dip or gentle tilt, the dancers must rise back up together to complete the step, and the recovery usually involves a half-spin, a circling back. Eliot again: “…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Perhaps the best we can ask for is to stay out on the dance floor, as Grandpa Simon did that night, until the band stops playing. As long as there’s music, there’s always time for one more dance.