What Is It About Romance? …and Tragedy

I wrote my recent review of Neil Simon’s memoir “Rewrites” when I still had about twenty pages left to read.  It turns out the last twenty pages are about Simon’s first wife’s battle with cancer and how he reacts to it.  It puts the book on a whole different level.  Those twenty pages, though not much about writing, which is why I originally was drawn to the book, are worth the price of the book, because they are about stark, raw humanity.  They are touching, and beautifully written.

Simon’s wife Joan had her thigh hit during a tennis match and it didn’t heal.  Weeks later she went in to have it looked at and she was diagnosed with advanced, incurable cancer.  It’s clear through the whole book how much Simon loved her, so that when the doctor tells him that his wife has only a year to a year and a half to live, the reader understands how devastated he is.  Simon did something that I wouldn’t have done, on the recommendation of his doctor, and that is make light of the diagnosis and not tell his wife how seriously she was ill.  I believe people need to know such things – and they have a right to know.  But apart from that, he set about making the last year of her life as memorable as possible.  He bought her a house in the countryside next to a lake where they spent a lot of time.  What comes across is the agony of being so deeply in love and knowing it’s going to end soon.  Wondering how to tell the children.  Wondering how to survive without her.  I’m very sensitive to these things.  Tears frequently filled my eyes as I read.

And I contemplated, as I read, what makes love so important, so worthwhile, when it brings on so much pain.  Such a vital, integral, honest experience.

It reminded me of Richard Attenborough’s movie “Shadowlands” with Anthony Hopkins and Deborah Winger, based on the true love story of C. S. Lewis with an American woman who he first finds annoying and then realizes he cannot live without.  She is diagnosed with incurable bone cancer, and they marry in the hospital with her on the bed, unable to rise.  She gets temporarily better, so that they enjoy a few short months together, but in the end Lewis is left to mourn along with the woman’s son.

Why do so many of us look so hard for romance?  It hurts so damn much.  It’s a sort of pleasure/pain thing.  You know the deeper you get into it the harder it is to extricate yourself, but you take the dive anyway.  We all enjoy a good love story, as long as it’s not a load of cotton candy bullshit, and sometimes it seems we fall for those too.  I was reminded of my favorite John Steinbeck novel, “Sweet Thursday”.  It’s the story of the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold who meets the lonely aging recluse and they hit it off, but it is told with such verve and depth of character that it punches me in the heart every time.

I’ve fallen in love several times, and most of the women I sincerely fell in love with I still love, even though the relationship in some cases only lasted a few days or a few weeks.  Take, for example, the women I describe in my memoir “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search“, Carlie and Catherine.  I still deeply love them both and would love to hear from them and know how they’re doing.

I ramble, I suppose.  But all that to say that I’m a sucker for a love story, even one touched with tragedy.  Because love is at the core of the human experience.  Sometimes we have it, and we are enmeshed in the relationships it creates.  Other times we are alone and we long for it.  Either way it’s there, so close, so intimate, so approachable with the heart and spirit that we can feel what someone like Neil Simon goes through as he writes about it.  There is something about love in its purest form that is the same for everyone.  That’s what creates empathy, ethics, all that is best in humanity.  Words like those I read today bring such feelings into conscious remembrance.

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