Strange thing to say, I know. I wrote the play. I should know what the heck it means. I thought I did, at first. Now after nearly fifty performances I realize that I am only beginning to gain insight and understanding into the complex subjects that the show illuminates. It is about what love really means. And what life means. I am also, thanks to this book, now understanding that it is also about the quilt and fabric of the relationship with the person whom you love.
At the recommendation of a friend I read Julian Barnes’ expression of the red hot, unrelenting grief he experiences at the sudden loss of his wife of thirty years. It took only 37 days from diagnosis to the death of his wife.
There is a lot to appreciate about the book. The odds are if you are reading my blogs about The Actual Dance you are engaged to some degree with the loss, or anticipated loss, of a loved one. This book is worth the read. This blog is not however a book review. Rather, I want to share some insights I gained from reading the book relative to my own experience and to what is offered in The Actual Dance.
At the outset I want acknowledge how much I love Barnes’ observation that when “you put together two people who have not been put together before … and one of them is taken away. [W]hat is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.” (Levels of Life, p. 73) Another way of saying perhaps that 1 plus 1 equals two; but 1 minus 1 can equal minus 2, not 0.
Barnes never talks about what the 37 days from diagnosis to death were like. Instead, he jumps into and stays with a description of the inconsolability of the loss of the “person you love most in this world.” (The Actual Dance.)
What I understand better now having read the book is that there is a difference between the journey after the death of someone you love and the journey leading to the death. I do not know what to make of the fact that Barnes says nothing about those 37 days. To me, these are the most difficult days. When you read Levels of Life and get a sense of how deep and “hot” (my word) Barnes’ grief is as he describes it, then you will know that to say the days before the death are harder is really saying something.
The days and hours and minutes of being present for the one you love as the “breathing becomes slower and shallower. … (a)nd then becomes slower and softer. Then the music stops!” (The Actual Dance) It is the time of anticipation of the unknown and fear of not being able to handle the emotional moments together at the end. It is sometimes called “anticipatory grief”.
My own experience as expressed in The Actual Dance is similar to what Barnes describes for himself, in that he was there in the hospital every day. He talks about driving home wondering what “being alone” was going to mean. A phrase I use in the show. “I wonder what it is going to be like ‘being alone.’”
The detail in the book though is provided in Barnes’ eloquent and various descriptions of the intolerable emptiness and “missingness” that he experiences. This too is part of “The Dance.” It has been said that The Actual Dance does NOT end with death, it continues until somehow the world we live in seems to come back into an operational focus that allows life to go on in some routine fashion.
In the days and hours and minutes though leading up to that last breath, there is no routine to be found. Rather than moving away from the fire we are moving into the fire.
Barnes describes the place not as fire but just as bottom or depth -- a Level of Life so to speak.
What I have discovered in the writing and performance – and the ongoing revelation – of The Actual Dance is that the levels are also about love. A different book I once read, the title of which is long lost to me, described the beauty in grief can be appreciated as the opposite and equal level of love. It was suggested and I would agree that the depth of the grief is simply an indicator of the much or the height of the love. By that measure, Julian Barnes’ love for his wife was very, very high.