You can’t judge a love story by its cover
Is it the number of heartbeats that matters – or what we do between the first and last?
My father’s brother Herold had a fairly simple philosophy, one I heard often during my early years.
“The human heart only gets so many beats,” he’d say, nodding his head as if this were a universal truth some soothsayer had imparted to him in exchange for a free beer at the neighborhood bar he tended for many years, “so you better make the most of ‘em.”
While he never married, Shorty had a number of ‘lady friends,’ many of whom remained acquaintances after he entered the nursing home at the age of 82 with emphysema brought on by years of smoking. Once, when I asked him if he had any regrets, perhaps there was one particular woman with whom he might have settled down, his response was quick, emphatic and accompanied by a twinkle in his eye.
“There were a lot of ‘em,” he rasped, “and I loved ‘em all, one time or another.”
It wasn’t quite in line with my conception of love, which was at that time somewhat idealized. But as often happens, I eventually realized that there is no single definition for the complexities of amour.
My grandparents were married for 63 years, and until my grandfather entered the nursing home in his final illness, they had slept apart only three nights since their wedding. It was an ill-kept family secret that Grandpa had a bit of an eye for the ladies, but my grandmother, whose devotion to him was as close to unconditional as it could possibly get, was unruffled by his occasional flirtations. “He always comes home at night,” she responded firmly to any suggestion that her husband’s behavior was less than dignified, and that was, apparently, her standard.
Near the end of her own life, seven years after my grandfather’s death, she told me that it had been a “long wait,” and that she was eager to see him again.
My Uncle Clifford and his wife, Glenola, argued continually. If Aunt Glenola planned a picnic, Uncle Cliff would show up with a rain slicker and an umbrella; if Cliff said the burgers were done, Glenola would insist on grilling them five minutes longer, which meant we often dined on beef patties the consistency of a hockey puck. As a child, I wondered at the vitriol spewing from them both, particularly since my parents seldom argued. However, when Uncle Cliff died of a sudden heart attack, Aunt Glenola literally pined away, following him months later. Doctors made vague pronouncements regarding smoking and poor diet, but the old folks shook their heads sagely — they knew it was a broken heart, plain and simple.
On our last trip to San Francisco, we walked through The Haight. Seated on the sidewalk in a doorway was a ragged, unkempt man, one leg missing below the knee. He held a sign that said “Vietnam vet: Please help,” and next to him on the ground was a small cardboard shoebox.
Assuming that the box was for donations, I bent, fishing in my pocket for a dollar. In the box, pecking busily at birdseed, was a sparrow, one leg a withered stump. The man reached into the box, carefully pushing the birdseed back into a pile, while the sparrow waited patiently. The affection in the man’s gesture was unmistakable.
I have had several long and futile arguments with certain friends who accuse me of anthropomorphizing the creatures that share my life. They insist that animals are incapable of deep affection. The adoring gaze of my tabby, Sadie, and the way she reaches to pat my face with sheathed claws while she lies purring in the crook of my neck? They pass it off as a simple bid for attention. My elderly dog’s awareness that I am about to return home is dismissed as coincidence. Perhaps so, but that is not how it feels.
My friend Michael was one of those who made the most of his heartbeats. An artist with an abundance of joie de vivre, Michael was fierce about everything he loved, from his friends and family to his Siamese cat, Jackson.
Unfortunately, Michael had far fewer beats than he deserved. On the day he died after a brief but devastating illness, his parents came home to his apartment where they had been staying to find the recently healthy, beloved Jackson curled lifeless on Michael’s pillow.
You may call that coincidence if you like. I choose to call it love.