Hearts blood-red on snow-white lace, roses red, long-stemmed, armfuls: these are tropes of Valentine’s Day, exalted love’s day, idealized love’s day.Max and I kept it as a special …
Hearts blood-red on snow-white lace, roses red, long-stemmed, armfuls: these are tropes of Valentine’s Day, exalted love’s day, idealized love’s day.
Max and I kept it as a special day, to step out of our quiet, private life and celebrate our love. He took me to the Rainbow Room, atop Rockefeller Center, to share our first one together. We dined on white linen and danced to the legendary Woody Herman’s Orchestra. Buddy Rich danced beside us, no drumsticks in hand. Max and I held hands in our quiet way, no words needed, our commingled energies singing volumes.
On our last Valentine’s Day together, he asked me to drive him to the florist, and help him in to the greenhouse to pick out a dozen long-stemmed red roses for me, a first for him. And, though he could barely walk or stand for weakness, and barely chew or swallow food, he gamely helped plan our dinner out at a special, distant restaurant. It was one of our last evenings out. He gave me a small red velveteen heart-shaped box filled with Payard chocolates. I made for him a pastel drawing of our world within a heart, presented matted and framed. We did not admit he was dying, but feared it as we fought for his health. He died in April.
The advent of the next Valentine’s Day made the ache within me from Max’s absence seem all the more poignant. Through a thin snow cover into crystalline ground, our horse Shadow King began carving out clay with his lips and tongue in the Horse House yard. On February 14th, I found there a heart-shaped bowl, and Shadow King’s mouth and body smeared with clay like an artist’s hand-swiped smock. How did he know? How did Shadow King know it was Valentine’s Day, Heart’s day, that the heart was its symbol, and that my heart ached all the more at that time? But he did know. His eyes and his gift clearly spoke, swelling my heart open.
A year passed. Valentine’s Day again loomed over the dark hollow within me. On the morning of February 12th, I found two hearts carved into the frozen ground of the Horse House yard. This time, I made plaster casts of both, as the artist closely watched every step of the process, examining the results with sensing lips.
Every February while we remained at Sculpture Fields farm, Shadow King carved a heart into the frozen earth, a valentine to me, Max, our love and our celebratory day.
Deep love, once finally known, seems miraculous, cracking open the shell of selves. The love Max and I shared extended to our animals, in particular to my horse Katy and her son Shadow King, who seemed to be miracles of creation in themselves and in the depth of their intelligence and understanding. It was not that we loved them more than our other animals—the other horses, dogs, cats, chickens, ducks and geese; it was that they took part in our daily dialogue, fully present, with conversation and contribution. We four were as one.
The heart was an icon of our visual vocabulary. It framed our intimate world. I crafted it into various two and three-dimensional art forms, and hung many in view at the Horse House. One, in the time after Max’s passing, was a mobile of cut, shaped and twisted tin hearts. The morning after its presentation, I found a new braid woven into Shadow King’s mane by Katy’s prehensile lips, looking uncannily like an upside-down version of my twisted hearts. This followed the heart-shaped braid Shadow King had woven on Katy that February, as we neared Valentine’s Day. Katy and Shadow King’s heart-shaped creations were reminders of love’s miracles; they helped to keep Max present in our lives.
It is not that my life with Max was easy, all roses and sunshine. It was hard, the daily negotiating between two assertive, creative personalities, stupid prides, misunderstandings grounded in old fears, colliding visions of a dream, alcoholic anger, and his robust health dissolving in the addiction. But whenever pushed to the edge of one leaving the other, we stuck, rooted deep in knowing that our love and shared life surpassed pain and disappointments; it was greater than the daily noise and horrors of figuring out life. We looked to each other’s core, seeing through the outer layers to the inner self, with our inner eyes. The man I fell in love with was not the irresistible, high-energy, larger-than-life personality, nor the robust handsomeness, nor the irrepressible storied life: it was the pure lovingness within that glowed to light through his laugh and ways and kind wisdom, a gentle inner grace, a knowing heart. I fell in love with Max’s soul the first afternoon we sat down to talk, when, ignoring the co-op books we were tasked to decipher, he told me about the day he had recently spent, foregoing business to watch a tadpole turn into a frog in his tiny rooftop pond.
After that day, life apart was unthinkable, undoable. Death forced me to do the undoable—I could not take my life to join him, nor leave our animals. Aided by Katy and Shadow King, I forged another way, reopening my heart to always feel Max present, our joy, our love, his voice, wisdom and grace, even his deep raucous laughter. Our way was to daily carve our own hearts with our love for one another.