Charleen
Charleen and I on the Big Island, Hawaii, 2000


You can’t even come close to knowing all she is until you get to know her in real life. Most people’s impact lessens as you get to know more of them; hers only increases. It makes me chuckle to think that if my father had lived long enough to meet her, he would’ve given me that look of his and then he would’ve asked me how in hell I’d managed to find someone like her. It’s been fifteen years and I still don’t know...

You meet someone and you feel you’d like to be with them in some way—as a professional associate, an artistic collaborator, a friend, a lover. When you’re finally with them, it usually turns out to be either more or less than what you expected. With Charleen, it was always more. With Alma, it was always exactly what I expected. I suppose it depends on how much of the person is revealed or hinted at in their public persona...

She was quite simply the most exquisite thing I’ve ever encountered in all of life. She was not merely a woman of many exquisite qualities, she was an exquisite woman. Sometimes our relationship reaches out from the past to haunt me because I have been unable to find such a magic again. And yet I would not trade even one of our almost eight years together—my very own belle époque—for an entire lifetime of happiness with someone else if that happiness were one iota less than what I had with her. In losing that one iota, you see, I would lose everything…
I would lose the magic. The magic exists in those small spaces. It fills them in and, for me, it made her a whole person rather than just a set of qualities.


I loved her because of what she was, not because of what she could become and not because of what I wanted her to be.

In all of life, she’s the only thing I’ve found that I fully loved in the most personal of ways—a way that was all about her and me, a way that was created in me for her alone. In contrast, the love I feel for my parents and the love I feel for my children are built-in feelings. There was nothing for me to find—I was born and there were my parents, I fathered children and then there they were.

My feeling for God is different, too. God has chosen not to reveal Himself to me in any kind of direct, unambiguous way. Some people see God in everything; when they see a tree, they see the handiwork of God. When I see a tree, I simply see the handiwork of nature; God is there in the background somewhere, but it’s an obscure connection that says nothing more about God than does that pesky mosquito that just bit me on the arm. And the feeling you have for God is more complicated; it includes things like worship and reverence and awe, which aren’t a part of what I think of as love.


She is the only woman I’ve told, in my own words, that I would love her forever. People think you have to know the other person inside and out in order to be able to say those words honestly and accurately. They’re wrong about that; it’s yourself you need to know inside and out.

But sadly,
forever is an oversimplification when it comes to love. Would I still have loved her if she were to have been horribly disfigured in a car accident? Yes, but in a different way. Spiritually it would have been the same, but if her face were destroyed or if she could no longer put her arms around me, that would change the nature of my love. And what if she put on five pounds? Twenty pounds? A hundred pounds? It would have depended on my tolerance for change...on how much she could have changed before she no longer tripped my mind’s archetype of love.

If a man were to tell me that he loves his wife now the same as he did ten years ago even though she’s put on a hundred pounds, I’d be inclined to say he’s talking about a different kind of love, one that’s not as complete, as full. And I would ask him if he would’ve fallen in love with her back then if she’d weighed then what she weighs now.

Over time, people either grow together or they grow apart. Their values change and so, too, does their archetype of love. So maybe it
is the same love but now it’s caused by a different set of her attributes.

And is it different with simple aging? It can very well be that you’re still sexually excited by your wife of fifty years even though she’s lost some muscle tone and now has gray hair, wrinkles, and age spots. For me, this is different because aging is a natural and inescapable part of life, and if you can’t be content with someone’s changing over time within the parameters of normal aging, you shouldn’t even begin to think of loving someone forever.


In her heart I saw many things. Strength and weakness...the special qualities that were hers alone...the bric-a-brac of her past. And so many little things that were beautiful simply because I found them…who knows if they ever could have been found by anyone else?


It was through her that I learned to be romantic. Not that she taught me, but that she simply brought out something that was already inside me.

The first time I kissed her, it was exotic and yet somehow familiar. Like having heard of cinnamon and the faraway places from which it came, but only now tasting it for the first time. The world’s possibilities suddenly seemed endless...

When I had my arms around her, it was as if I held the entire world and everything in it. I felt there was nothing more to be had in all of life.

Her touch was pure magic to me. The first time she touched me, I could almost hear a voice saying
This is what it can be like. My fondest hope for everyone is that they come to know such a feeling and that they, unlike me, are able to hold onto it. It is the best of all feelings.

And how beautiful it was that we both came to know that feeling for the first time through each other. That is something that can exist only in one’s first love.

One of the hallmarks of the love I had for her was that I was able to get closer to her than to anyone else I’ve ever known. When I touched her, it felt as if it didn’t stop at the skin, that it just kept going. When I held her or lay next to her, it was like we overlapped, and such great warmth and comfort there was in that overlap. That shared space was where we truly came together. The love didn’t enable or cause the closeness, and the closeness didn’t enable or cause the love. The love and the closeness were the same thing, and they had nothing to do with understanding her—understanding is an entirely different concept.

One day I had a thought that led to a dream that night, of floating like a leaf down through the cosmos.
I was of indeterminate shape, porous so as to pass through what might otherwise have been an obstacle, and lightweight so as to be buoyed on the gentle breeze that wafting out of space and time. I drifted slowly yet with purpose and direction, following the path of destiny. All this so that I might finally alight against her chest as she lay sleeping on the grass in the park. The journey was beautiful, as was the destination. And when I compare the reality of my journey with her to this elemental impression of it, I find them not so different.


I sometimes think of the world as a jigsaw puzzle. Not much of it has been put together yet...it’s mostly just a jumble of pieces. Who knows which goes where? But there is one spot where two pieces were joined, and they fit together perfectly…
she and I.

Other than little moments here and there when my focus was limited, my time with her was the only time in my life when what I had was enough. I wanted for nothing then; the things I didn’t have didn’t really matter because I had her.

For me, she’s the gold standard. It’s not that other women have to be like her—the love I had for her will always be for her alone—but that I have to love them to the extent that I loved her. She got absolutely everything there was to be gotten from me and, for a while at least, she got from me everything she needed. The limit of our love was in me, you see, in that I didn’t have enough of the right stuff to keep her in love with me. Later I wondered if it was more that she loved being loved the way I loved her than it was that she loved being loved
by me.


She was the only woman in all of life who drove me crazy. Not in the way of some simple thrill, but all the way crazy, through and through, end to end, inside and out. Some people talk about being in love as being with someone who was able to
possess them. But with her, it was that she was able to engage everything in me. There’s a reason for the sunshine sky...There’s a reason for the warm sweet nights, there’s a reason for the candle lights (from the song Let Your Love Flow by the Bellamy Brothers). For me, she made life worthwhile...and then some. And then a whole lot...

I had innumerable fantasies about her—before we were together, while we were together, and after we were no longer together. For me, they were simply different ways of understanding her, of being with her. They were things I wanted to do
with her, not things I wanted to do in themselves, apart from her. Many were of a sexual nature and many were eventually fulfilled. Each one exposed a different side of her, as if I had been holding a cut diamond in my hand, turning it around, examining it, appreciating it through its different facets. Like Monet’s fascination with wheatstacks and water lilies, capturing the impression they made at different times of year and in different light. It’s wonderful to want to get to know someone that way…to want to be with them in all seasons.


She always seemed so magisterial, so businesslike…the business even of love, of romance. I’d like to have known what made her that way. But even so, she’s the only woman I couldn’t tweak even in my imagination. I tried a few times to imagine her with a bit softer personality, and my image of her as she really was would always snap back into place. Even in my imagination, I wasn’t really interested in changing anything about her...


When I look at a photograph of her, sometimes I cry out of sadness over what I’ve lost, other times it’s simply out of the sheer force, the intensity, of the memory of all that she was and of all that our love was. But I
always end up smiling because nothing can stop the warmth of my memories of her.

For me, it’s a love that will not die. It’s merely become quiescent for the rest of my life because she no longer loves me. I wonder what, if anything, will happen beyond life, and how that might be different if I manage to fully love someone else in this life.

A lot of people think they’ll get their heaven after they die, but I’ve already had mine. It really was that good. The only thing that could have been better would be for her to have had angel wings she could have wrapped around me when she held me....and for us to have been together forever. I would have loved her forever. No, more than that...
forever and a day. And for me, that is the greatest, most personal truth in all of life.

During the years we were together, I thought about her so much I sometimes wondered if she’d die if I ever let go of those thoughts.

So far I’ve managed to find only three things I’ve loved more than life itself...my two children and Charleen. Your love of your children is unique. It doesn’t depend on anything about them; it’s already there inside you. You go to the hospital to have a baby, then eventually they clean up your baby and bring it to you and you love it. You don’t even know it’s actually your baby; you just love it. It doesn’t matter whether your baby is beautiful or not, and later in life it doesn’t matter whether your child is intelligent or personable or good; you love it regardless. But the love I felt for Charleen was different.
It was all about her.


Unfortunately, her love for me ended before my love for her ended. I felt as if I’d been living in heaven for eight years and then had died and been sent down to earth. And what a drab place it was without her. No color, no depth, no texture, and most of all, no real connection to me. Just a place to exist and, finally, to die again...


Ever since then, I’ve tried to avoid being sad and weak and stupid all at once. There hasn’t been a single day I haven’t felt sad for at least some amount of time. If I’d had a full day with Julie in France, that would’ve been the first.

It used to be that I felt weak about once every couple months, but now it’s more like once a week. It’s still rare that I’m stupid, but that, too, is increasing in frequency. And recently I’ve found a new problem—boredom. As long as I’m not bored, I generally can distract myself from the coldness; it was like that during my year of traveling.
A heart attack would be so much simpler...


It is perhaps the greatest paradox in all of life that it is wonderful to have encountered something that was too much to lose. For me, that something was Charleen. If I had to describe her in six words, they would be
She was too much to lose.

It’s like she was air for me, like she was necessary for life itself. And perhaps, for a part of me, she was. I would like for her to be fortunate enough in life to know exactly what I mean by that.

No person can be all things to anyone, not even to themselves. But she was a part of all things to me because she was such a part of me.


It makes me wonder if the clock is ticking on all loves, and if the people who seem to have eternal love simply die before their clocks run out. It is an unsettling thought and one I’m not inclined to believe, but given my past with her, it has to be considered.

And yet there is another feeling I greatly prefer. It is that each of our loves enlarges our hearts, so that each successive love must by definition be greater than the one that came before. Thinking about my past, I have to say that this has been true for me. Perhaps it takes the right person at the right time to enlarge one’s heart. Perhaps that is the true reason for any two people to meet and to fall in love. And perhaps what happens with them together after that is of secondary importance. And whether or not those future loves ever come our way is a different matter, but if they do…

Once I thought about how nice it would be if there was an afterlife where we got not what we deserved according to some religion, but simply what we wanted. I would want some nice scenery, as if I were traveling forever, from one wonderful place to the next...and to be with her for all of that time.


I think of our first year together, from March 11 until the first time we made love, as the golden age of my life. We had so much simple warmth and love then. Our cuddling was so gentle and sweet, perhaps because we had yet to make love. Every touch, every caress, every kiss was so perfect. They didn’t need to lead to anything else, they just happened between us, again and again. I greatly enjoy making love to someone I love, but I simply cannot imagine a more perfect existence than one filled with many years like that one golden year. And I cannot imagine a better way to spend eternity than to be frozen through all of time in that first embrace with her...not moving, just being with her. I knew from the very start what it would be to me...

At the moment I die, if have any forewarning whatsoever, I’ll be thinking of—no, absolutely
savoring—that March 11 and the golden year that was to come. And there is no doubt that I will die with a smile on my face, that I will be smiling back at her through all the years. That is the ultimate compression of time and memory...

No one ever really wants to die, but many people reach a point where they no longer wish to live. The end result is the same, but the vanishing point between the two is very different.

One of the things I did on my year of travel was to reread and then burn all but two of her love letters to me. There were 126 of them. I particularly remember the time in Rome, where I burned some of them one afternoon on the rooftop balcony of my room near St. Peter’s, and the time in Maui, where I burned some of them on the beach at night. Every time I burned one of those letters, I imagined that the feelings she’d expressed in that letter, and my memories of those feelings and of that time in life, were somehow wafted back to her over all those miles and all those years. It’s like those stories you hear about bottles with notes in them being carried across the sea to some distant place...

I kept only two of her letters, one to read and to burn wherever I eventually settled down, and one for my death. I read and burned one of those letters a couple years ago when I got back from Europe. I read and burned the other a couple days ago. But then I found another letter among some papers I was going through; I’m not going to burn that one, ever. It seems somehow right for one of her letters to exist beyond my time. One of things she said in that letter was, “You have the promise of my love to keep you warm, John...now...always.” It was hard to read those words, knowing she was wrong about the
always part, but it made me feel warm all over to remember how right she was about the now part. I also liked the part where she said, “You fascinated me all along with your references to just holding me...hugging me...we do fit well in an embrace...your manner is so smooth, so fluid...you are either well-practiced or a true natural (I think some of both!)” I was in fact very well-practiced, but it had never been like it was with her, so it was really the case that with her I was for the first time a natural. God, what a woman...

But my favorite part of that card was where she said I made her feel like a goddess. When I first read it years ago, it made me feel good, but that special sentiment was somehow washed out in all the love we felt for each other then. Now, years later, I cherish that part because I know again that, at least for a while, I made her feel exactly the way I felt about her, exactly the way she deserved to feel. She was indeed a goddess...

The first night after finding that card, I put it in bed next to me. I have a queen bed so there’s plenty of room, but when I woke up in the morning I found that I was lying on my side and gently cradling the card to my chest. I didn’t remember any dreams I may have had during the night, but I felt unusually well-rested and peaceful. And so the card remains in bed with me every night...

It dawned on me a while ago that I’ve had as much time after her as I’d had with her. But the difference in the quality of those periods of time is enormous. You can measure both of them in terms of their duration and say they’re equal in that respect, but in terms of the quality of life they provided me, they have no common unit of measurement...just zero through infinity of whatever you want to call it. God, how I loved that woman. I’ve seen a lot in life, but there was absolutely nothing else like her in any of it. Every time I look at an old photo of her, I always end up saying, either to myself or out loud,
Oh little darling, how I loved you so...


It doesn’t really matter how much someone feels they love you, does it? What matters is whether you love them, and that depends in part on whether their love is the right kind of love for you. As an extreme example, a man can hit a woman and then tell her he loves her, that it’s just that he’s had a bad day or it’s just that she’s so beautiful she drives him crazy with jealousy. Perhaps he does love her in some way, but it’s a way that’s not right for most women and shouldn’t be right for any woman. You can’t love someone with just a part of yourself, and if you do things that are hurtful to the other person, then you’re not really loving them with all of yourself. But in most cases, it’s just a simple mismatch between smaller things. My love for Charleen eventually turned out, because of some of those smaller things, not to be the right kind of love for her, and that was the biggest loss of my life.

She will assuredly never find a man who loves her more than I did, but I hope she finds one with whom their love for one another will last forever. I would give anything for her to be fully happy forever because that would make me partly—and it would be a big part— happy forever.
The next best thing to being there...