A bowl of sliced strawberries taught me everything I needed to know about love.
Last week, I published a post about what to do when you fall out of desire with your partner. It's a complex, yet common challenge in modern love. But recently, my grandparents - who have a way of weaving through life's most valuable lessons with an effortless grace - educated me once again on the art of staying in love, and since one of my best traits is that I can't keep my mouth shut, you get to hear about it.
I pick up hobbies. Too many at once. My latest hobby is fermentation. So I've been making my own beer, my own bread and I've got my eye on cheese. I'm pretty sure my interest in hobbies I don't need comes from my grandmother's lust for life. She's always involved in something, even at the age of 87. I've never known her not to have her eyes, her hands and her passions deep into something meaningful.
Every day, for example, Grandma wakes up, wrestles my grandfather from a jealous sleep and drives both of them to their local gym where they defy their own age with a vengeful fervor. When they return, she waddles outside to her flourishing garden, and gently mumbles to the herbs and tomatoes that grow each day with her encouragement, the secret ingredient of their abundance.
Next, she makes her way to a giant chicken coop monstrosity she had built in their backyard. It houses far fewer chickens than it could, giving them the impression that the world is much larger than it actually is. She steps into the chicken monstrosity and ticks each of them off with her fingers, one at a time, name by name. She checks their feeders, freshens their water, replaces their heads of lettuce, buys them new toys, feeds them the first-fruits of the garden that should be reserved for human mouths and shares their company for a time before she returns at sunset to tuck them in.
But last week, when I called to check in, I was surprised to hear my grandmother's predictably steady voice cracked with grief as she explained how a group of crafty raccoons Oceans Elevened their way into the chicken mansion and left only one of my grandmother's feathered children.
It was heartbreaking.
Whenever I call her, I expect to hear her vibrant and optimistic voice that serves as a grounding touchstone in my life. So her vulnerable voice caught me off guard. When she told me, through tears, what had happened, it was the first time in my life I felt murderous toward a group of raccoons.
I spent a few moments listening to my Grandma, feeling powerless to do anything and hating myself for it when, suddenly, an abrupt giggle broke through my grandmother's tears as she described watching my grandfather, who has a very hard time getting around, cut a bowl of strawberries into little slivers and gently pierce each wedge with a single toothpick before placing it in front of her.
Because what else can you do?
The chickens were gone. Those of us who become attached to animals know what it's like to lose them. It's heartbreaking. Like losing a member of your own family. And although the grief softens more quickly, it's sharp and deep for a time. And I caught my grandmother right at the start of it. So there was literally no way for me to help her.
But she didn't need my help, because fortunately, my grandfather has mastered her heart after more than 60 years of loving her.
I use that language not to reflect possession. No one possesses Betty Vance. I describe it that way to reflect how each of our hearts is like a story. Every story is unique, but they also follow a steady rhythm. If you read a story long enough, you get a good idea for how a story's characters will react to an event. In this case, though I know my grandmother better than most, I'm not my grandfather.
My powerlessness in that moment reflected that I didn't have a clue what to do. I wanted to murder the raccoons. I wanted to turn back the clock. I wanted to reach through the phone and somehow make the pain go away. But my grandfather knows better. He knows that his wife doesn't want this grief to go away because it reflects the depth of her love for life and it's creatures. She's also too independent to have someone solve her problems for her, so I'm pretty sure the only thing that could have reached her was to see this man offer a bowl of berries to dance across her tastebuds and remind her that life is still sweet.
Simple gestures are sometimes the only thing that can cut through the blanket of life's unexpected pains. And my grandfather was not intimidated by the futility of making the problem go away. Instead of trying to change her circumstances, he relied on his steady love for her to step in and introduce pleasure into the pain.
And this is the secret of loving someone forever.
If you want to feel passion. If you want to feel alive. If you want a vibrant with a person or persons, then master their heart by doing two things:
1. Pay Attention
Listen to how your partner describes needing help when they're in pain. Our first tendency is to fix the cause of pain, but most of the time, that's impossible. When we can't solve the problem, we either reach for solutions that don't make sense - like rushing too quickly to replace the chickens my grandmother lost. That wouldn't have worked.
Our second tendency could be to take a nastier approach to deal with our own powerlessness by trying to convince our partners that what's causing them pain is not actually a problem. Can you imagine what would have happened if my grandfather tried to tell Grandma that she shouldn't be so hurt over animals?
Loving someone across a lifetime, and being loved by them, depends how much well we listen to what they need rather than trying to hack a problem that has no immediate solution.
2. Take Initiative
Don't wait to take action to be there for your partner in moments of distress. Even if you don't know what to do, or your partner doesn't know what she or he needs, don't make the mistake of waiting to take action because you have no answer to the problem. Take a risk. It may be that you fail. It may be that thing you do wasn't what your partner wanted or needed.
Maybe my grandmother didn't want strawberries that day. That's possible.
But I can almost guarantee you that more mistakes are made in love when a partner takes no action because she or he doesn't know what to do. In moments of distress, inaction communicates apathy - whether you feel apathetic or whether you don't. Take a risk, and when you notice your partner in pain. Reach out somehow. Even asking how you can help when you don't know communicates love. And if she or he doesn't know what they need, then just respond by telling her that you're just going to sit with her, and be.
This kind of love is persistent. And the more adept we become at soothing each other when life threatens to crumble around us, the small and sweet pleasures of love cut through our grief like a bowl of bright red strawberries, cultivating passion for a moment.
And moment by moment, you pass through the years together, in love.