99. Intimacy, November, 2014
I wrote this essay last summer, a month or so before
Susan died, and put it aside, only to pick it up again now…
I have been thinking a lot about intimacy lately — perhaps because I am experiencing so much of it, and am hungry for more.
My Onion’s Dictionary of English Etymology tells me that our word “intimacy” comes from the Latin, “intimatus” meaning inmost — hence inward, essential, intrinsic.
When I was young I thought a lot about intimacy — mostly about breasts and crotches. The word “clueless” does not suffice.
Later, when Susan and I were first married, we were much more like kids playing hooky, (or house, or doctor), which is to say happily enjoying ourselves and one another, but hardly intimates.
What was missing?
One has to achieve personhood oneself before intimacy is possible. One has to have an “inner” before it can be shared. And (though Susan was surely ahead of me on that path) we were not yet there. I was still a graduate student; Susan a high school English and Communications teacher. It was a great and grand adventure, but mostly directed outward.
I don’t think we became truly intimate until after Rick was born. That intimacy was then rooted in my dawning comprehension of Susan’s prodigious competency. How did she unerringly know what to do? Where did these instincts come from? Playmate turned into admired colleague. And, then, of course, as time moved on, she was the rock: calm, unflappable in the midst of every domestic and professional emergency. Susan had an “inner” and it was solid steel.
But we were still young. Neither of us set out to live the lives that finally presented themselves to us. Susan was happy to be a school teacher; I to be a philosopher. But unexpected opportunities presented themselves along the way. We would sit up all night in bed talking them over, deciding whether or not to set sail on each new adventure.
An old colleague recently wrote to me, having learned of Susan’s illness. He did not know her well, but recalled what a great hostess she was. That was true from the beginning. When I was still a faculty member and Rick had just been born, Susan and I used to host an “Open House” each fall. Perhaps 75 people would gather in our (first) home by the Stillwater River in Orono. Even then Susan was as spectacular a host as I was an inept one.
And the dinner parties! Young professionals, just starting careers and families. Susan preferred to invite three couples. The eight of us would sit around our round oak table (that we had re-finished) in the dinning room. She would serve a fresh garden salad to start, accompanied by toasted home-made garlic bread sliced into 2x1x5 inch beams. The main course would be a delicacy such as made-from-scratch beef bourgeon, (Thank you, Julia Childs.), or perhaps beef stroganoff. (Those were the red-meat days!). For dessert Susan would bring a home-made, flaming Baked Alaska into the candle-lit room. The laughter, the friendship, the shared moments of our young lives: it was bliss.
Afterwards, when our friends finally left — well after midnight — Susan and I would be up late in the kitchen cleaning up, reliving the evening.
I say this because Susan comes by her “hostess” qualities naturally. They are intrinsic. She loves people; she listens well; she has a great sense of humor.
When you think of it: how does a small town girl from rural Ohio become such an accomplished “First Lady” of universities? I think “intrinsic” is wrong. She paid attention, she watched and she learned. She did not have to learn to be gregarious, or how to make people feel at ease, but to understand the complexities of university entertaining — to host thousands of people in a single year — that was surely (and well) learned. Once again my admiration and our intimacy grew.
As our lives unfolded, it turned out that Susan was wonderfully suited to the role of Dean’s wife, of Academic V.P.’s wife, of President’s wife — everyone could see that. What they could not see was her support and wisdom — first in moderating my enthusiasms, but most importantly in being my chief guide and consultant.
Part of our intimacy has been the fact that we ended up working as partners. (Susan once said she could imagine no worse life that that of a pastor’s wife — but, of course, the life we had was similar in many ways.) She made my “business” her own. Susan knew the universities we served almost as well as I. She was a great “reality check” as my capacity for self-delusion would occasionally threaten to overwhelm.
Perhaps part of true intimacy is knowing another person better than he knows himself. But it is more than just “knowing”; it is acting on that knowledge. A profound, existential trust — the placing of your life in another’s hands. You must have first assumed responsibility for your life — i.e. become an adult. But then, to pass that responsibility to another, to ask him or her to guide your decisions, that is intimacy. An intimacy in which you rely more on the other than on yourself, when you know that she sees better, farther, more clearly. And you do not doubt for an instant that (no matter how unwelcome the advice may be) she has your best interest at heart — and knows that best interest better than you do.
If being a whole person is a criterion for intimacy, the consequence of prolonged intimacy is becoming a changed person. Susan and I now often comment on how alike we have become, how I seem to have become more social and she less so. The inwardness of intimacy transforms, what was “intrinsic” to one now becomes intrinsic to the other. Onions speaks about intimacy involving “inmost thoughts”; it does not say that those thoughts are no longer the ones with which you started.
It was at this point that my nascent essay broke off. I return to it now thinking that there is a powerful intimacy in death; an intimacy that does not require words.
Perhaps this is why it hurts so much. Because she seeped into my bones, literally became my (clichéd) “better self”. In that sense Susan is still deeply, intimately with me. Because the “me” I am is now (happily) mostly her.