Love and Tragedy, by Frances Varian

Should you ever find yourself in the unenviable position of trying to woo a poet
I strongly suggest you skip the part where you whisper sweet nothings into her
ear. She will call your bullshit – she will know nothing when she hears it…..

After witnessing the absolute horrors of the first world war Hemingway could not
bring himself to color his stories with adjectives. What the hell does “horror”
mean when you’ve seen thousands upon thousands of young lives wasted in obscene
ways – what weight can the word “atrocity” hold for a child who has watched his
mother blow up?

So he wrote stories that ask you and I to engage -he intentionally left
wonderful, huge, ambiguous gaps so that language might have a chance to recover
– so that you and I might imbue those gaps with our own meaning. I still can’t
tell if he was trying to find his way back or throwing himself head first into a
future he could not possibly imagine. It’s possible he didn’t even know. And
yes, douche, I know. I wouldn’t want to have sex with the dude – but sometimes
douchebags make great art. (Here’s a little secret – many artists are
douchebags. Don’t tell them I said so.)

So I want to look at two words today….two over-used, nearly meaningless,
clearly important words. Words I think about multiple times a day.

Love and Tragedy

This past Saturday, March 27th (in 2010) a 25 year-old Canadian woman named Eva Markvoort
died. Eva had a fatal genetic disease called Cystic Fibrosis – I grew up with a
friend who also had CF. It is a supremely painful disease and most people who
are born with it do not live to see their 30th birthday (and up until recently
reaching one’s 20th birthday was nearly miraculous.) My childhood friend died
several years ago at the age of 33. When you have CF your body drowns your
lungs. Slowly. While other kids are going on field trips and playing soccer the
child with CF sits on the sidelines….like all serious disease it isolates you
from the rest of the world.

It is difficult to be a sick child, the sense of being that obviously different
can have a profound impact on a developing persona. It would be easy to abandon
all goals and future hope unless you are a person like Eva. Tomorrow, the 31st,
would have been her 26th birthday. In a little under 26 years Eva managed to
earn a bachelor’s degree, participate in the making of – while simultaneously
being the subject of – a documentary about living with Cystic Fibrosis. She fell
in love, she danced, she traveled when she could, she survived a double lung
transplant – unfortunately her body rejected them and she died waiting for a new
donation. She raised awareness and money for research. She talked to anyone who
would listen about the importance of organ donation. Even when she was strapped
to tubes that she hated, by her admission, she did not stop. She never stopped.
If you go read her blog what you will find are pictures of a beautiful young
woman surrounded by family and friends and love. You will read about what brought her joy and
what she hated (tubes. plastic tubing. not being able to move freely through the
world.) You will read gratitude and you will see an unwavering gleam in her eyes
that can only be replicated by people who have had a conversation with their own
death, and consequently figured out that our time here is much too short to be
afraid of living.

She was beautiful, absolutely beautiful on the outside and most importantly she
was lit up from within. I did not know her. My friend Heather, another
beautiful, breathtaking warrior of a woman led me her way.

When Gabby was dying so many of you who never met her told me how much she
changed your lives, how blessed you felt to receive her message – to really hear
what she was saying on her way to where she is now.

Gabby had that gleam in her eyes.

Since those two women have died I have heard and read the word “tragedy” being
bantered around…. “Oh, what a tragedy.” “I’m sorry, I cannot invite this kind
of tragedy into my life right now.” Tragedy, tragedy, tragedy.

And I know what people mean. Because no matter what I or anyone else tells you
it is likely that you will not be able to have a conversation with your own
death until you get a little closer to it – and what a shame that is, because
none of us knows when it’s coming.

Is it heartbreaking to lose a person or animal we love to death? Absolutely. Do
we walk around mumbling and smoking pot in the morning like lost little grief
drones for weeks and months after? Probably. We grieve. It is ok. It is what
must be done.

But let us not mistake our grief for something altogether different.

Gabrielle Bouliane and Eva Markvoort lived harder, faster, brighter, better in
their short lives than those of us with the great privilege of much more time
ever will.

A tragedy is what happens when you are given life and you waste it. Hating your
thighs and staying in loveless marriages and diminishing yourself in exchange
for the false comfort numbness brings – that is tragic.

That was not Gabby. That was not Eva. No.

They are triumphs.

In one hundred years, if we have not blown ourselves into a million, billion
pieces the chance that anyone will remember our names or know we existed is
slim. That is the reason the slam god couldn’t invite the “tragedy” of Gabby’s
cancer into his life – he was too busy working, promoting himself. At first, and
for many months thereafter, I was furious with him. Now….now I feel sorry for
him, when I think about him I almost always think: “What a tragedy.” 100 years
from now it is unlikely that people will know his name, or Gabby’s name or Eva’s
name or my name…..but right now…in these moments….before both of those
gorgeous creatures left this planet their worlds were flooded with life.
Visitors, cards, poems, songs, stupid ass videos, horrible hilarious jokes,
tears and laughter and repeat that a bunch, and good food when it could be kept
down……and here comes that word….Love.

Those two women were so alive thousands and thousands of people willingly signed
up to be with them while they were dying.

There is nothing warm or welcoming about hospitals. Hospitals are not made for
patients, they are made to maximize the efficiency of the medical professionals
who work inside of them. Being ill doesn’t give you some instant Zen-like sense
of serenity and understanding. People come to stick things into you or pull
things out of you and never even tell you their name. The beds suck. The food
sucks. The medicine and the baths never come on time.

You don’t lose your desire to be out with people your own age. Doing the things
other people take for granted – just, walking through a park, going to the
movies, reading poems at your favorite dive bar. You long for normalcy – you
feel grateful when people complain of their headaches or colds because most
people start to and then look at you in horror and say: “Oh, I can’t complain to
you!” As though we collectively feel like ours is the only suffering that
exists. As though we are already dead. We actually miss your bitching. (Don’t
take it too fucking far or you will get an “are you serious” eyebrow
raised…..but yeah….we want to hear about your headache and your biology
professor and your three year-old’s temper tantrums. We need it honestly.)

Gabby was scared. And angry. And she was in tremendous amounts of pain.

I didn’t know Eva – but it’s a safe bet to assume those things may have been
true for her as well, especially the last part.

You see, they made a choice. They both made a choice. They could have easily
become bitter and angry and resentful about the hands they were dealt. Instead
they decided to use the time they had to talk to us about love. Not the
Hollywood/Hallmark bullshit, but actual love. The kind of love that can pull
one’s spirit up out of a hospital/hospice bed and use whatever remaining energy
it has to project it’s essence onto the canvas of the world.

As Gabby sat, early in the morning, writing to her friends and family about the
importance of continuing to live after she died she had to face her own grief
and fear around her death. Of course she did. She loved us enough to sit there
and do it anyway.

As you can very well see if you read Eva’s blog her entire hospital room was
covered in cards and letters and pictures and gifts from people all over the
world…she called it the wall of love. Imagine the kind of world we could have
if everyone committed to only building walls of love.

To know for certain that your life is ending – and to use your remaining time to
remind people of how magical and hard and breathtaking and impermanent this all
is – to remind us to pay fucking attention. Pay attention. These are
extraordinary acts of courage.

The word love is overused. It is overused by a lot.

Love as a machete cutting a path to move forward.
Love as a bullet to penetrate hearts.
Love as a match, struck to illuminate and burn.
Love that looks you in the eyes from the place we are all most afraid of being –
the doorway to whatever comes next – love that assures you that while people and

animals and plants all die – this thing, this thing that is flowing through you
and me this very second – this thing outlasts us all. And it is us and we are it
and therefore it is never silly or wrong to invest ourselves in pursuit of it –
it is the only way, really. It is the only thing to do.

To avoid that kind of love – and many do because it can be painful to be cut and
shot and burned-but to avoid that kind of love for fear of the pain it may cause 
is a gigantic fucking tragedy.

Dear Gabby and Eva,      

First the daffodils came, and then a small patch of vibrant purple little
flowers like a strange toupee for the grass. And just this morning two tulips-
one red 🙂 and one white with the softest yellow shading on the inside. It is
the South, even our flowers are dandies. The trees are getting their leaves back
and everything around here is a thousand different shades of green all at once.
And the air, the air smells like hope and birth and genesis. And when the wind
sweeps up behind me and orders me to hush my scattered, needless thoughts I
always think of you now.

Thank you endlessly – everything beautiful I see I try hard to see it with as
many different sets of eyes as possible – that is because of your love and the
overwhelming triumph of your spirits.

My heart resides tonight with all of the people who were closest to you both –
my prayers are that they may find peace while they grieve and know that you are
part of every gorgeous thing the world offers up in exchange for our mortality.

Fran Varian is a writer, performing artist, healthcare and Lyme disease activist, in Durham, North Carolina. Every time this essay is read, she asks people to consider organ donation in memory of her friends. She may be reached at

Fran is also fundraising to support her medical treatment for advanced Lyme disease – which will not save her life but could give her a few more functional years: As a thank-you-gift she will send some of her poetry, or other artistic offerings from her friends.