A few years back I was invited to help create an audio book here in Bologna. The project was intended to teach Italian children to speak the English language. It was a great deal of fun and I was honored to have been asked to be a part of it. Lucio, the project director, was a very good man and ended up being very kind to me. The experience was rewarding in quite a few other ways as well...not least of which was the young couple that Diana and I met. My message this month deals with them...
Now when you first read what I am going to tell you today, you are going to think it is a rather sad, perhaps even morbid story. But I have great faith in all of you. I believe you will see past the obvious and take hold of the lesson to be learned.
Matteo was one half of the couple I mentioned…a young Italian man living here in Bologna. He was in his mid-thirties, immensely talented...a journalist and an independent film maker. He was strong, handsome, virile and filled with life, optimism, humor and the greatest sense self-confidence I’d ever seen...all the while remaining humble, kind and gentle. He had a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish and get out of this life and was well on his way to having it.
Our meeting was quite by chance however. I actually met him through one of the other project readers, a young American woman from California by the name of Daniela. She was also living here in Bologna…married to Matteo. She had likewise been asked to lend her distinctly American accent to the children’s audio book. And just as I had brought Diana along to the studio for moral support, she had brought Matteo along for her reading sessions as well.
Let me tell you about Daniela. She was young and innocent and quite beautiful...reminding me so very much of Liv Tyler’s powerful character portrayal of Lucy Harmon in the Bernardo Bertolucci English language film, Stealing Beauty, shot in beautiful Tuscany. If you have not seen this fabulous movie, you simply must find it.
Now...back to my story...
Dear Daniela had fallen madly in love with this vibrant young Italian man named Matteo and one did not need to spend more than five minutes in the company of this wonderful couple to sense the depth and breadth of their love and commitment to one another. I remember thinking to myself how much the two of them reminded me of Diana and me in that regard.
I do not want to nor would I ever betray any confidences and wanting to respect their privacy I choose not to go into any personal detail about either of them, save what I’ve already revealed. But I do need you to know of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and difficulties this incredible young couple, coming from opposite sides of the world, overcame to be together...battling government bureaucracies, enduring forced separations, living in different time zones, subjecting themselves to excruciatingly tiring inter-continental flights...just to mention a few.
The fact that they would or could even meet in the first place, let alone fall in love, get married and make it work, defied all odds and stands in testimony to the incredible zeal for life they each had as individuals and to their combined faith in a love created out of nothingness. It burned brightly and radiantly for all of us to see and appreciate. But sadly, their joy was destined to be short-lived.
The reading project eventually finished. The audio book was published and I am proud to know that lending my voice, time and intention is today helping young Italian children learn a second (and most important) language. We all kept in touch for a while afterwards, but as most spontaneous relationships do, the one Diana and I formed with Matteo and Daniela seemed to dissolve. But I will say this…although they were out of sight for me, neither of them was ever far from mind.
One day several months later, I received a rather distressing message from Daniela. She needed to tell me that Matteo was in the latter stages of bone cancer and that it had metastasized throughout his brain. The prognosis was bleak. Barring a miracle of some kind, my friend had little chance of celebrating his 37th Christmas.
I was left feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach. Nauseous. Helpless. I wanted to do something for them...anything at all to help. But Daniela said Matteo was hunkered down and dealing with this in a very private and personal way. Respecting her wishes, I stood back. I am sad to say no miracle was forthcoming. The world lost another brilliant soul to this most insidious disease.
Losing Matteo makes no sense to me or to the countless people who loved him and called him friend. It surpasses what I would call a tragedy or shame. It almost seems criminal! He had such amazing energy and talent. He was one of those people you just knew was headed for greatness.
What one wants to ask themselves at times like these, when first hearing such horrible and tragic news, is what kind of a loving, all-powerful and merciful God would not spare such a kind, loving and gentle soul? What kind of a Creator would make one of his owns creations suffer through such an indescribably painful and sad death? Yes...that should be one’s first reaction. I freely admit, it was mine.
His death has caused many of us who loved and respected him to become angry and skeptical. Angry with this arrogant God who so callously chose not to spare him; and, skeptical of the efficacy of praying to such a cold, cruel and uncaring deity! Only God himself knows the final tally of how many hours and tons of well-intended but futile prayers were offered up...begging for just one simple miracle. But as I said...they fell on God’s deaf ears. No miracles were forthcoming for dear Matteo.
It was as if this God simply turned his back on him and went on with more pressing unseen matters...whatever they might be. This alone gives us reason and license to bring our doubt out for the world to see.
But it hasn’t done such a thing to Daniela. Yes, she is deeply saddened. Yes, her loss is incalculable. Yes, she will never be the same again. But if there was one thing she learned from Matteo in the years they’d spent together, it was the art of seizing and living in the moment. He seemed quite adept and proficient at this and no doubt due to their closeness and intimacy, it rubbed off on her.
She understands that God did not pick her young husband to have this cancer. For whatever reason, his cells just kept growing past the point where they were designed to stop. They grew into monsters that would end up taking his life.
She understands that no amount of praying was going to change Matteo's fate or rid his body of what was killing him...God simply does not work that way. Only Matteo himself was capable of that and for reasons we will never know, he was not able.
She understands no one is being punished here. This is simply what happens in life. Birth and death are not the beginning and the end. They are simply markers in our journey...continuations of our eternal conscious awareness.
Since his passing, Daniela has been expectedly silent to a large degree. But she has shown up from time to time on social media…posting a few comments on her Facebook page...words that makes me believe she gets it...that she knows what an extreme blessing and privilege it was for her to have met, fallen in love with, married and spent so many of her days and nights with such a beautiful and gentle man.
She will survive this and with time, she will be all the stronger and wiser for it.
And that is what I want to talk about with all of you today. I want to talk about it because so many of you who read my missives each day, may have had to face your first (or another) Christmas without someone you loved very much. Today’s message is for you...inspired by my friends Daniela and Matteo!
In the beginning, grief is like a fog...a thick, dense and never-ending barrier between us and the world as we once knew it. At some point we are told it will lift, as fog tends to do. But after the days and then weeks and months that go by...spent under its heavy cloak, we begin to wonder if it is ever going to leave or if it is becoming a part of our everyday life.
We just want to feel normal again, whatever normal may mean to us. Yet we find the simplicity of a normal existence elusive if not unfathomable. We may have concluded it is impossible!
But then one day we look around and realize we can see a little further out in front of us than we could before...things are more colorful and they’re becoming clearer. Our days start getting a little easier...our nights a little more restful.
The tears are fewer and further between and things like laughter, joy and gratitude are slowly once again becoming a part of our emotional repertoire. The smallest sliver of light cuts into the darkness and we realize that this must be what healing from grief looks and feels like.
But grief is a funny thing you know! We desperately want it to go away, except for sometimes when we desperately want it to stay. It is common to feel extremely conflicted about feeling better and, although it may not seem rational, it is also common to gravitate towards the pain. When it feels like the alternative to feeling pain is losing connection to the person we've lost, what other choice do we have?
I suspect that the answer to that question is personal and specific to only you, but here is what I would suggest after having been through all this myself...
Remember, our loved one’s memory does not live in the pain of our grief. Read that again...your loved one’s memory does not live in the pain of your grief.
Then where does it live? As clichè as this may sound, their memory lives on within us. It lives in the stories that we tell other people about them. It lives in the memories we share together with friends and family. It lives in the things we do…the things that they taught us and imparted in us.
It lives in the things we say in their honor and their memory. It lives in every silly little thing we do to stay connected to them.
Embrace the idea that as your pain diminishes, you may actually find more ways to stay connected and to keep their memory alive.
Our connections will end up replacing our grief and soon its visits will become less frequent and not as harsh. We can and will and do make normal a part of our daily life again. We can go on living and dreaming, even with a broken heart. We must never allow the things we lose in this life to take away our ability to enjoy the things that remain!