For the last week or so I've been thinking about "Phantom Limb Pain" and realizing how much this whole damned process of getting used to Penny's being gone, is like an amputee getting used to the loss of a limb. I've used the somewhat dramatic-sounding analogy before: When she died, it was like having half of me cut off abruptly.
Thirty years of friendship, twenty-five years of marriage, all the work that went into becoming more the person she needed and wanted me to be, replacing 'self' with 'us' and 'I want' with 'we need'... we hadn't planned on either of us being alone. It wasn't important because it would never happen. We would sing the Beatles' song to each other, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four," and we'd be sixty-four and nobody would believe it.
Which is getting off the point. Phantom limbs, phantom sensations, phantom pain. The nervous system runs on a paired opposition, excitatory vs inhibitory. One part of the nervous system - the sensory dendrites in limbs, organs, skin - detect some stimulus, like touch, pressure, heat, cold, pain, whatever, and the nerve sends it back to the brain. For limbs, the nerves go back to the spine, into the base of the brain. At various points along the way, in order to keep the signals from being overwhelming, and to reset things so that new events can be sensed, the inhibitory nerves trigger, a chemical reaction that's triggered by the excitatory sensory nerve going off. The inhibitory nerves only fire when the excitatory nerves fire, and the sensations are interpreted by balancing the two, and the inhibitory side often runs at a higher level than the excitatory, ESPECIALLY when there's a lot of pain or other stimulus for a while before the amputation. So, when the excitatory nerve is gone, the connected inhibitory nerve is also gone, or stops firing... and then the brain, which expects a certail level of inhibition, doesn't get the excite part of the stimulus, and the inhibition side is gone - balances out and decides, there isn't much inhibit here, so there must be a huge lot of excite, and it decides there's pain. Or whatever.
Thinking on the analogy, I've been realizing that the happiness we felt together was in part that we both experienced a lot of pain growing up, and that together, we relieved the pain for each other. Not only did she love me in positive ways - she also relieved the long-standing pain, and dulled what was new.
I know that while we're parted, we are not forever apart, for the same reasons that I attest, by faith and by that belief that comes from my subjective experience that there is God, who will not remove free will by manifesting His truth in an incontrovertible fashion for as long as He has mercy on us. I also know, from what he taught when he was incarnate among us, that we were married while on earth, for life, and that in the next world, we're not given in that relationship. (Matthew chapter 22, when the Sadducees were trying to trip him up on what they considered the 'laughable' doctrine of the resurrection, asking about the woman who had been married, widowed, and remarried, whose wife she was; Jesus replied that in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage. Sorry, Mormons, you're in the same position as the Sadduccees.)
Anyway. Phantom limb. Phantom wife. I sometimes 'feel' her presence, and often talk to her, and am very frequently (especially in the winter, our favorite time of year, and reminiscent of the time she died) hit by an immense pain, or more like the response to an immense pain, with all the physical impact, but un-localized, except possibly for a sensation like a 'heart plug' being pulled, everything draining out. It lasts five minutes to a half hour, and then it's gone, and I have to think again, "it's worth it to have had her, and I don't want it to stop - would that mean I've stopped caring about her? - but while it's happening, it's horrible.
Maybe I need to learn to rebalance the awareness, like rebalancing nerves, so that when it happens, I know that it's because of love, and that her body died, but the real her, no longer imprisoned by time, is alive with God, and then I might see this as joy. It's pretty much what I was told, in that first dream I had after she died, where we were called together into God's presence (I couldn't really perceive him directly, but she could) and she was told she had the option to go or to stay, and that she was needed for a very important work only she could do. I knew then that it was right for her to go, and that I'd be very lonely but that it was something she'd been wanting, for decades, to do something real and important. I think this was a true dream, precisely because of the 'important work' aspect.
There's the idea of eternal rest, but for either of us, lazy slobs that we were together, and frustrated by the dragging, horrible effort of work in the entropy-chained world of time, we found great promise in Tolkien and Lewis, in 'Leaf by Niggle' and in the last Narnia book, and in L'Engle's books, that the cloud-cuckoo heaven of harps and constant divine ego-boosterism isn't really a very good model. If it can be written into ridicule because it's too boring, too bland or insipid... how do you explain to someone who's not in love, what it's like to be with someone you do love, someone who transforms whatever you do together. When you do something you love, even though it's something other people find dull, it transforms the work. I think that the heaven of eternal rest is nothing like eternal idleness. I think it's more likely, for most people, to be full of the joy of doing for others, full of the intense satisfaction that comes with creative work, absent the frustration of fatigue, pain, and failure. It's like planting a garden and not feeling knees and back hurting. It's like knitting with beautiful yarn and never dropping a stitch, all the lines coming out the right size, all the colors coming out in the right places, no finger or wrist cramps, no eyestrain, no neck pain. It's like doing a counted cross-stitch and again, no hand pain, no eyestrain. It's like writing a song, and the music is perfect, the lyrics are tight, and elegant, and poetic, and the performance is always beautiful and compelling.
I can't really be sad that she's there. I just feel incomplete without her here. I feel pain where she isn't, because she brought so much joy and pleasure, and it's missing, so there's a sharpness when there is joy and a stab where there isn't. And this, the advent season, the beginning of the church year, the time when we celebrate and rejoice, is also the more empty because she's not precisely here to share it.