Editor’s Note: As we experience another Valentine’s Day, we are offered an opportunity to reflect on love in our life. This week’s guest contributor, Bill Swann, is a friend and fellow pilgrim on last year’s Camino walk. Bill poignantly shares what love means to him as he approaches this Valentine’s Day without his beloved wife Margaret. In both a poem and a reflective essay, Bill tenderly describes the joy of intimate love and his journey after losing his wife to cancer in 2021.
A Poem for Margaret 2023
Mourn not your loved one lost to death,
for what dies is not love’s essence.
Oh, yes, there is clearly an end that Death delivers—
The breathless ending to a once vibrant beating heart,
The erasure of that caring charm, gracious smile, warm, alluring sweetness of those lips
And light radiated in those blue eyes,
the open arms eager to hold, calm, reassure.
Yes. Mourn these, for sure.
Along with the absent laughter, the need for help not there anymore,
The long walks by the lake and lengthy talks and plans for the next adventure.
Don’t forget the wonderful preparing and setting the table for company and cleaning up afterwards together.
And dancing in the living room before falling into bed.
The list of things to mourn goes on forever in my broken heart and mind preoccupied with a past that is gone.
Yes, mourn what is not here anymore, bring on the tears
Of sadness, this awful loneliness facing the absence of the one who was so often at my side,
Holding my hand giving meaning, joy, direction, peace,
the assurance of a challenge, acceptance, hope.
These are what Death’s dreaded visit so coldly focused and swiftly wipes off the scene forevermore.
But all of these and so much more—now final–were, nonetheless, always passing even as we walked, and talked, and touched, and kissed, and, and….and….
They’ve all vaporized into a misty past forever distant and now not here, not there…
So, what endures in the frigid wake of Death’s dark beckoning, “It’s time to go”?
It is the endless energy-driven real presence of Love’s essence.
Mourn not Love’s essence for it is endless, ever-expanding, and forever present. It is here hiding silently but palpably.
It gives to all its most precious gift in the intangible vestiges of changes and transformations that have come to us through each other’s passage through time.
Whoever has touched us, made a difference, filled us with a reason for mourning, has left us with a power for good –that is the ever-present essence of Love.
It undergirds this ever-expanding universe and binds all in endless connection to Its Benign Intelligence and Paradoxically Gracious Consciousness.
We all carry it and pass it on– this essence of Love–
when it’s our time to go.
The most common themes for this upcoming Hallmark holiday include florid hearts, candies, and flowers accompanied by depictions of little cherubs from on high aiming their bows and arrows at an unsuspecting girl or boy with the unmistakable evidence of the lover’s amorous intents. Clearly, this is an invitation to celebrate the unique mystery of the love shared with someone held dear and close to one’s heart.
For me, this year’s February ritual has awakened thoughts and feelings that head in an entirely different direction. Instead, Valentine’s Day is a poignant reminder of a love who is not here to receive my deepest affections and offerings.
Valentine’s Day evokes memories of my thirty-plus years of friendship and marriage. It brings images of the annual caring earnest written notes and spoken sentiments over decades of Valentine’s Days. Wonderful rituals rekindled the love fires and devotion we shared as one another’s “anam cara” or soul friend.
In 2023 my Margaret will not be among the recipients of Cupid’s sweet arrow of love. She was taken away 18 months ago by the deadly aim of cancer’s two-year aggressive assault.
My intention is not to throw a wet blanket on the festivities and delights of a celebration devoted to love’s mysterious allure. Love needs all the reverence and recognition we can muster these days. My reflection intends something different. My hope is to share with you how love after the passing of a loved one, albeit painful, can also be transformative and a source of light and even greater love.
In February of 2021, Margaret’s condition took a turn for the worst with the cancer’s aggressive return after extensive resection colon surgery in early December 2020. This news was beginning to sink in. The follow-up meetings with her surgeons and cancer team were leading us to see that her condition was terminal.
It was during this time that I read a message through an e-mail chain from my motley crew of high school classmates who were forging an ever-growing bond among us via email. It was an alert from our classmates who’d walked the Camino two years earlier and with an invitation to respond if we were interested in joining the group for a second journey.
At that point, I was at the earliest stage of working my way to acceptance of a reality I didn’t want to face. In my meditation one day in that period, I realized that if I was going to be a widower, I would need to find strength and support to manage my way forward. My recollection of the fraternal bonds of my classmates led me to respond to that invitation with a tentative “yes” to the Camino as an act of faith that a pilgrimage experience might be just the right way for me to embrace mentally, physically, and spiritually a reality that was awaiting me.
On July 27, 2021, Margaret’s struggle with cancer ended. It was a peaceful, gracious transition. And with her passing came the deluge of the pain, sadness, bewilderment, worry and fears of the unknown, unimaginable path forward without her at my side.
I would have to say that her last years were both awful and wonderful—the paradoxical essence of our human journey on this earth. The struggle with this terrible disease was complicated exponentially by COVID and the related obstacles that intensified Margaret’s struggles. What was paradoxically wonderful was the fact that this same obstacle allowed me to be much more present to her in my role as her husband and caregiver.
In mid-September of 2022, I followed up on my tentative “yes” and joined Tom Adams and 6 other high school classmates on a five-day walk on the Camino Ingles from A Coruna to Santiago de Compostela. It was all that I had hoped for and more. My intention was to walk the Camino in gratitude for the beautiful marriage Margaret and I had shared for 32 years, in repentance for anything I had done that may have hurt her, and to commit myself to the acceptance of whatever the future might ask of me to make this world a better place.
The connection with my fellow pilgrims throughout that journey was truly one of my choicest blessings—a healing and grace-filled experience of finding unexpected ways of bringing past and present into dynamic and positively transformative energy and action that I pray to be able to carry deep into the future that lies ahead. The respect, acceptance, care, and conviviality experienced with my fellow wanderers are a lasting reminder of the possibilities for good that lie within easy reach if we just pay attention and respond with honesty, selflessness, and compassion.
The process of mourning, grief, and loss has been an especially difficult but rewarding journey for me. It has taught me some important lessons about living in the moment. I believe I am gaining some insight and experience in acceptance, gratitude, and compassion because of facing the pain and living the joy of life which is essentially a gift and a reason for hope. I was so blessed to have found my ‘anam cara” in Margaret whose love and caring presence have been transformational influences on me. The memories of her example of selfless love continue to challenge and inspire me to stretch and change. Her absence for the past year and a half also teaches me to stay grounded in the present and, in the words of a very wise woman who taught me in an art class a few years ago, to “make every inch of your canvas beautiful!” I’ve taken this as a mantra for my life. The big challenge remains to respond actively to the invitation to balance my head and my heart as I move into the next phase of my life.
Oh, William, this is lovely! Margaret was loved yes, but more importantly she was cherished. `I can see that between the lines. Thank you for sharing what truly is/was a true devotion to one another.
Thanks Carolyn for sharing and drawing attention to Bill’s deep love. Best to you and Bill,
Tom PS Bill knows Bill the author from high school.
Thank you for sharing Bill. A wonderful poem that captures the eternal nature of love even as the body crumbles away.
Thanks Tim, you led the way in introducing poetry to our Critical Conversations. Bill’s beautiful poem touches the heart and offers us all an invitation to practice love. Peace, Tom
Bill: I was deeply touched by by your poem and post poem comments. It reminded me to stay in the present and wallow in the love that never fades. Thanks for sharing your beautiful words and thoughts.
Thanks Pat for reminding us to cherish the love around us as Bill so powerfully expressed. Love has no end. Tom
Bill, thank you for your beautiful poem and story. This past Valentine’s Day was my 10th Valentine’s Day without the physical presence of my beloved Roosevelt. We were blessed to spend 58 Valentines days together. Thank you for reminding me of the good memories. This Valentines Day was the first time I have been able to go to a restaurant by myself, eat by myself, be happy for the families and couples around me and think about the wonderful times Roosevelt and I shared. One of my very best friend’s husband passed away 4 weeks ago. They had been married thirty plus years. She called the other day to say that she now knew that I knew how much pain she is in. I will pass your beautiful words and thoughts on to her so that she will know that others share her pain and sorrow. Hopefully your essay will help her to remember some of the good times her and her husband had and that her grief will be lessened if just for that moment. Thank you.
Thanks Evangelyn for affirming the staying power of grief and the larger presnece of love. Your expereince is inspiring and comofrting for me and I suspect many. Much peace, Tom
A beautiful poem-both a tribute to Margaret and to love itself.
Thnaks Susan, Tom
Beautiful and touching. Its good to know there’s a light beyond..
Thanks Gene, indeed, it is a grace to have faith in some light and power beyond what we can see and know. Tom
Tom, thank you for this touching poem. I’m going to share it with several of my friends who became widows during the past year or two and who are suffering with such grief. Hopefully it will bring some peace to them.
Thanks Sharon, I appreciate your offering Bill’s poem to nurture those living with loss.
Be well, Tom
Sharon, thanks for sharing with me! The poem was exquisitely written but his narrative, to me, touched the essence of the gut wrenching journey you navigate and at times leaves you weak in the legs, and the hope in the Lord and the power of the love you shared does not diminish and propels you onward!
Thanks Silvia, I am glad Sharon passed it along to you. Blessings on your journey through your loss. Peace, Tom
Very moving and beautiful poem honors Margaret. My first wife Diane died of colon cancer when she was 40 which was 30 years. She had a valiant and courageous fight against cancer and left a wonderful legacy. I am happily remarried to a wonderful woman, Anne, but often think of Diane and the marvelous person she was.
Thanks for sharing Tom
Thanks Bob, I didn’t know that part of your story. Thanks for sharing. We are all more alike than different and our desire to love unites us. Peace, Tom