Verner column: Endings are seldom neat or happy

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 7, 2009

Was it a happy ending? From outward appearances, one would say so. They had been married 54 years. Both had enjoyed successful careers in the arts, he as a conductor, she as a dancer and choreographer. They raised two loving children who remained close to their parents throughout their lives.
They died together, holding hands, their son and daughter at their bedside. He was 85, she 74.
To this point, it’s a comforting scene, evoking images of full and happy lives come full circle. The way many of us would script it if we could write our own endings.
But then comes the footnote: The couple, British composer Edward Downes and his wife, Joan, committed suicide at a clinic in Zurich. She was in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. He was almost deaf, nearly blind and increasingly debilitated, relying on his weakening wife for support. So, while they died a peaceful death, holding hands, their final toast to love and life came through a lethal nightcap of barbiturates.
Suicide inevitably raises a host of thorny moral and ethical questions. Toss in the notion of “assisted” suicide, sanctioned by the state and aided by third parties, and it creates a veritable briar patch of controversy. The Downes’ deaths a few weeks ago reignited this debate, and it’s a profoundly important one. But for today, let’s set aside the end-of-life issues and instead contemplate the end-of-love question.
Was it a happy ending?
Judged by the standards of fairy tale romances, the answer would have to be no. When Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty find their princes, they don’t live until the last flight to Zurich; they live happily ever after. That’s what most of us want to experience: A happily ever after in which babies are never colicky, tempers never fray, teens never rebel, toilets never overflow and economies never founder. A happily ever after in which the indignities of old age miraculously remain at bay until, sometime in our late 90s, still in possession of mental clarity and decent digestive tracts, we and our beloveds spontaneously expire in the throes of a passionate moment ó preferably on a deserted beach in Bali rather than an austere clinic in Switzerland.
In reality, some minuscule portion of the population actually achieves something close to that ó except for the passionate moment part. Occasionally, we read of elderly couples who, after decades of marriage, die within hours or at least days of one another. And in such cases, we see it as sweet serendipity, if not the overt intervention of God who suddenly decides: “Mr. and Mrs. Poindexter, I need to see both of you. Right now.”
Those are the exceptions. In reality, the deaths that part us rarely coincide so poetically or sweetly. In considering Edward and Joan Downes and the decision they made, we need to look at the alternative ending, the far more common one, in which the pancreatic cancer runs its final, terrible course, and Edward Downes lives on for years, perhaps, trapped in the darkness and silence of his loneliness. We like to tell ourselves there’s something heroic in mere survival, that life is always worth living, even as our capacity to experience it dwindles to the morphine-clouded fadeout. But that may be a fairy tale, too.
Death isn’t the only dividing line. Even over the course of long marriages or partnerships, couples are often at different places in their lives, emotionally as well as physically. It isn’t simply that one develops achy joints while the other is still bounding about the tennis court, or that one takes up the study of Greek or Hebrew while the other slips into the fog of dementia. Unlike the fairy tale endings, the reality of enduring love is that we’re often “caught in the teeth of the machinery of the wrong moments of our lives,” as Marge Piercy writes in the poem “Bridging.” Even at the best of times, our better halves are often headed south while we’re dead set on north. They’re floating downstream, while we’re madly thrashing against the current. But somehow, we manage to bridge the distances, to find grace in the middle of our passages.
That, for me, was one of the engaging themes in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the Brad Pitt movie adopted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Benjamin Button is born old and grows young; he falls in love with a normal mortal who was born young and grows old. Those diverging arcs don’t make for a happy ending in the conventional sense, but they do accommodate an extraordinary middle.
By all accounts Edward and Joan Downes had an exceptional middle, one that spanned half a century and better. While he could have gone on living, he told his children he didn’t want to continue without her. They understood.
Was it a happy ending? Is the edge of the bridge a true measure of the crossing?
I’ll leave you with something Joan Downes wrote to her children and close friends after she had been diagnosed.
“It has been a happy and interesting life and I have no regrets. I have no idea how long I will last but I send love to you all and your extensive families.
“Enjoy it while it lasts.”- – –
Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.