- In her book
The Year of Magical Thinking,
- Joan Didion writes with searing insight on the impact that the sudden death of a beloved spouse can have on the life of the one left behind: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends”. My version of that would be “You go to your Thursday night dance class together, which you’ve been attending with great gusto and enjoyment in preparation for the wedding of your second daughter. At Friday lunchtime life as you know it ends”. Thankfully Gerry died at home. It was a few days before Christmas in 2013, and the wedding was due to take place on New Year’s Eve.
Didion also writes insightfully on the way in which somewhere deep down you know that the grim reaper is about to pay a visit, and how, with hindsight, omens will become apparent that at the time they occurred had filled you with an unnameable dread for reasons that as yet you couldn’t understand. Although a fit and energetic man who went to the gym at least three nights a week, Gerry was on tablets for high blood pressure from which he had suffered since his early forties. He also had a chronic chest condition that affected him during the winter months.
The first real sign that something was wrong occurred in the summer of 2013, just after we got back from our holiday in Spain. Of middle eastern and Mediterranean ancestry, Gerry loved the sun, and suffered in our cold, damp Irish winters. A couple of good stints in the sun usually carried him through till late winter, when bronchitis would strike. But that year was different; we were only home a few days when he began to cough. It was a strange cough and antibiotics didn’t clear it up, but he refused to go to the doctor. Like many men, Gerry hated going to the doctor and neglected his health.
Around that time, a mouse appeared in our sitting room. I didn’t want the gruesomeness of a mousetrap, so we called in a professional who laid down poison in strategic places throughout the house in case there was a pathway in, and told us to close the doors into the sitting room. He reckoned it would take no more than a couple of days for the mouse to eat the poison and expire. Over the next two days, I observed the mouse through the glass doors between the sitting room and the conservatory. On day one, he appeared to have a great time, climbing up on the high unit and sitting there scratching himself, then darting back and forth across the fireplace which seemed to be a favorite route. It was as though he saw the sitting room as his own personal kingdom.
On day two I couldn’t see him when I looked through the glass doors. Towards evening time I gingerly pushed open the normal door, taking as much care as I could to prevent any escape. I located him straightaway, sitting at the base of the glass doors at the other end of the room. As I peered around the door he turned and looked towards me. I will never forget that wan look; it was a look from a dying creature to a healthy one, all his little mouse ebullience gone. That look was a plea for empathy that said “I’ve had it”. Strangely I felt an unexpected bond with this tiny fellow mammal, sad for him that his time was up. I closed the door, and left him to his now inevitable fate. When Gerry came home from work that night, I told him that the mouse was probably dead, and we opened the door to check. There he was, just inside the door, a horrific sight: black, stiff and flat. Gerry told me not to look, that he’d take care of it.
We took back possession of our home, relieved that at least there was no infestation. With the mouse drama over, I was able to focus on preparing my lectures on Creed and Trinity for semester two’s systematic theology course. I wanted to get started as soon as possible on that, as I knew the upcoming wedding would make significant demands on my time. The doctrine of the Trinity is as challenging to explain as it is beautiful to contemplate, albeit that the average Christian has little inkling of its relevance to Christian living. A happy coincidence related to the wedding enabled me to simultaneously understand and enjoy my teaching of the doctrine in a most unexpected way.
The classical way to describe the triunity of God is the formula “God is one substance, three persons”. This prosaic statement however doesn’t adequately convey the meaning of the doctrine even in the very limited way we can understand it. The first thing I always say to my students is that where love is concerned, the perfect one has to be three. The Judaeo-Christian God is described as the God of Love, and love is by definition fertile and out flowing; love must have an object. So the Father is eternally aware of and loves his Image/Word the Son; the Son loves him back and the love between the two of them is the Spirit of their relationship. God is one in an eternal, dynamic movement of love between the three persons. In Greek theology, this dynamism is often described as ‘perichoresis’. The divine persons are said to exist perichoretically, mutually permeating one another. The middle syllable hints at the meaning of perichoresis, since the English word ‘choreography’ is derived from it. A beautiful dance embodies the unity-in-plurality and harmony that is the essence of the divine life. Perichoresis means literally ‘to dance around’: (The atheistic philosopher Nietzsche said “I can only believe in a dancing God”). Without going too deeply into the theology of it, there are various analogies used by the great theologians of the past that can help us understand something of the trinitarian mystery and its relevance to our lives.
Augustine spoke of the Lover, the Beloved and the Love between the two which is the Spirit of their love (think of the Spice girls singing “two become one” and add in the beautiful bond that is established when there is true love present, which becomes the spirit of the relationship) . Another classic human analogy is the family, which is made up of three elements: husband and wife who through their love and physical unity beget children, the third element. Yet they are one family with one spirit, and the greater the love and harmony, the deeper the unity. Once we grasp this basic idea of unity in plurality and harmony, we can identify many Trinitarian images in the world around us. Take for example a great concert; the three elements are the performer(s), the audience and the mutual interaction between the two, which is the spirit that binds them together. The sense of unity and harmony at a great gig can be amazingly uplifting, which is why we love them. So our dancing classes were for me a new experience of unity in harmony, and we both found them intensely enjoyable. Looking back, I can see that they were a distraction for both of us from the obvious and continuing deterioration in Gerry’s health. Not for long, unfortunately. The evening before the final class, Gerry arrived home from work looking pale and exhausted. Sitting at the table drinking a cup of tea, he turned and looked at me with an expression in his eyes that was somehow familiar and filled me with apprehension. I asked him what was wrong, but he just said ‘nothing’. It was only later that I realized it was the same look the doomed mouse had given me.
That Friday Gerry came home for lunch as he had a work appointment in the area and I was on holiday. At our dance class the night before, I had noticed that his skin had a greenish tinge and once again pleaded with him to go to the doctor, to no avail. As usual he sat in the conservatory checking through his work emails while I prepared lunch. Getting milk from the fridge with my back to him, I heard a strange muffled sound. When I turned to check, Gerry had slumped back in the chair and dropped his phone. In a state of panic I ran in to find him with his eyes glazed and open, but unresponsive. In that one split second Gerry, a youthful fifty something, was gone. The paramedics who came in response to my 999 call tried everything but he couldn’t be revived; the cause of death turned out to be an aortic aneurism, which is fatal unless caught in advance.
What happened afterwards is a blur: wake, funeral, Christmas. We decided to go ahead with the wedding, as Gerry had been so involved in organizing it we felt he would still be part of it. My two daughters and I were still in deep shock, and the associated numbness helped us to get through the day. Somehow I managed to walk Emma up the aisle in place of her dad, struggling to hold back tears. On that seemingly endless walk towards the altar, I noticed that many in the congregation were crying. It wasn’t until the first dance after the wedding was over though that the full horror of everything we’d been through hit me in a tsunami of grief. Standing there alone, no husband to dance with, our dance classes now seemed like a sick joke. I felt like God and the whole cosmos were laughing at me. Overwhelmed by emotion, I went to my room. Mercifully sleep came quickly and blotted out the pain. It was only to be a temporary reprieve, however.
For the next several months I was unable to function. There was no question of going back to work. In the throes of a kind of grief I could never before have imagined, I found sleep elusive and bed a place of horror, not rest. Some lines from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem describe perfectly the mood that enveloped me during my disturbed nights. “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. What hours, O what black hours we have spent this night! What sights you, heart saw, ways you went!”.
During the long days I was haunted by now unbearable memories of all the happy times we’d shared. We had loved to travel, and the house was full of previously beloved souvenirs and paintings of favourite destinations that I could no longer bear the sight of. I couldn’t contemplate going near any of our favourite places or listening to any of our favourite songs. Most acutely painfully were the theme of The Godfather and Rock Around the Clock, the songs to which we had learned to waltz and jive properly. In the end, unable to bear the memories, I fled the house and rented an apartment in Dublin’s docklands, where I got to know the city in a whole new way. This turned out to be very helpful, not least because I was out of suburbia, a singleton among singletons in the main. I was no longer meeting people who knew me and (well-meaning as they were) would ask how I was and hence constantly stir up traumatic memories and feelings of grief. The shops were designed for single career people, so there wasn’t the constant reminder that I was now just shopping for one. Then there was the general buzz of city life that lifted my spirits each time I went outside. I found that I was able to function again and went back to work. A little over a year after my bereavement, I delivered my lectures on the Trinity as professionally as I could.
Another year passed, and I was able to move back home. It’s true that time is a healer; although you never fully get over the death of a beloved spouse, with the passage of time you find you can live with it and even begin to enjoy life in a different way. I found the memories evoked for me by living in the house again were now enjoyable and even sustaining. I discovered that all those years together had left me with a legacy of love that I knew would carry me through whatever life had in store for me. I could even travel again and seek out our favourite haunts which now offered comfort rather than pain. Listening to music we had enjoyed together over the years became pleasurable; most of all I could listen to The Godfather theme and Rock Around the Clock and smile at the memories. With the passage of sufficient time and the benefit of hindsight I had come to the realization that the dance classes we had so enjoyed during our final months together were for ourselves not the wedding, God’s final gift to us. We had, literally, gone out dancing, enjoying a level of closeness and fun that was a fitting finale to what had been a long and happy marriage. My faith was renewed and I found myself able to appreciate the doctrine of perichoresis and its associated images of dynamism, harmony and love in a far deeper and more meaningful way than was possible before. As theologian Jorge Schultz puts it in his description of the triune God “The center and matrix of the universe is not a machine or a monastery – it is a dance, a ballet, a perichoresis”.