Monday, October 17, 2005

Reminder of a failed love

Once—it must have been in June of 1968— I woke up in a bright and lovely world, in a tent with a sleeping woman beside me, in the Manzano Mountains in New Mexico. A cathedral-shaft of light defined by glowing dust motes floating in the tarpaulin-canvas tentsmell that tents no longer have today, fell from an opening in the door onto the woman's face, a face that seemed so beautiful at the time that that the image comes back to me now, clear in my mind's eye, 37 years later.

It seems odd when I think about it now, that many people would have considered her face to be plain. Such people did not know her. For people who knew her, it was a face of astonishing composure, integrity, compassion, decency, serenity, clarity, and strength. And with her high cheekbones and full lips she had a strange and compelling physical attractiveness. Her face was luminous. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Many years later, in April of 2001, two months before she died, and the last time I ever saw her, I momentarily could see the same face behind a mask of age and illness.

I ran across a picture of her today, while looking through another box of photos. A faded print. One of the few I have. Sadly, the only photos I have with both of us together are out of focus.

Sara Clark was the only other woman, besides Kay, I have ever been in love with. Oddly, she and Kay died within a year of each other, both of cancer.

The stellars jays up in the pines were rasping the air, shredding the peace and quiet, eventually waking her up. We looked out the tent door down onto the high plains to the east. We were camped at the edge of the ponderosas, and a line of oaks and blindingly backlit yellowgreen cottonwoods marked the creek a hundred yards away. At the time I wrote a self-indulgent young man's poem about this, which I will spare you, containing a conceit about Danae and a quote in Latin from Propertius. The poem was totally ridiculous. But the vision of her beauty that inspired the poem still comes to me at unexpected times, with a vividness that catches at my breath.

We bathed in the creek. We emerged cold and happy. We packed up our gear and moved on.

Our love affair lasted five years and was, as they say, tempestuous. But the memory that came to me this morning was from a time before any tempests set it. That summer with Sara was when I first discovered the beauty of the mountain west, as well as the happiness of a committed love.

I won’t tell you what went wrong, because this is a blog post, not a book--except to say that we were both young and foolish, and that I was by far the more foolish.

She was perhaps the kindest person I’ve ever known. She once wrote me a letter, during a more troubled time in our relationship, astonishing, when I read it now, for a young woman under 30, containing her reason for forgiving me my part in our break-up, as well as a credo I know she actually believed and lived by.
I have found one way to feel compassion without fail: convince yourself of what you know is true, that each person you encounter is terminally ill, is dying. If one can do this, really believe it, compassion flows. My friend—or this stranger— will not last the hour/night/week/month/year. Who can refuse the last request of a dying man? Who can wish that he spend his last hours in any state but that which he calls happiness? He is dying. It works. Try it. I burst into tears when I held in my heart the knowledge of your terminal illness….One is very gentle with a dying person…I look at the cat & I know the cat is dying. I look at Pretzel [the dog] & know that she will soon be dead. I too am dying.

And now she is dead.

She left behind a daughter and a husband, whom I never knew, and a multitude of friends, some of whom I do still know. Like Kay, she died way too young.

Sara Clark as a young hippie

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