Valentine’s Day. It’s a day to celebrate the love that we have or the love that we want. But what of the love that we have lost? The more we love another, the more we expose ourselves to loss. It’s quite a paradox. Grief is the flip side of love, and love is not for the faint of heart.
Peter Fodera knows this more than most. He and his wife, Francesca, were together for fifty years. She died three years ago around this time.
Peter met Francesca when a friend introduced them in college, where they were both art history majors. “My first thought when I saw her was not, ‘I want to jump her bones.’ It was, ‘I’m going to marry this woman.” It wasn’t what either of them was looking for. They were so young, nineteen. “But,” Peter said, “we were gobsmacked.”
“She was way smarter than me,” he said. “Intelligence is such an aphrodisiac. That, and she came in an exceptional package. She was absolutely gorgeous.” Their families, realizing the two were desperate to be together, arranged their wedding when they were 21. Still, they decided to wait until they were 30 to have children. In their 20s, “the roaring 20s,” Peter called it, they traveled through Europe and “partied hearty”. Eventually, they had two children, a son, and a daughter. Peter and Fran got even closer when their daughter was diagnosed with a medical condition that required 30 surgeries and several resuscitations. They spent a good part of their lives hovering over their daughter’s bedside and sleeping in the room across from her in the hospital.
In his fifties, Peter discovered Five Rhythms dance classes. The first time he danced he was so overcome that he didn’t even notice his feet were bleeding. He convinced Fran to join him. For twenty years, until she died, they explored the practice and danced in workshops around the world. Peter became a Five Rhythms teacher. That’s how I met him.
When he teaches, Peter plays music from around the world and drops gems of wisdom while he DJs. “Stay in love,” he tells us. He makes an art installation for every dance class highlighting the theme of the week.
Last year, on Valentine’s Day, of course, the theme was love. It was a few weeks after the second anniversary of Fran’s death. Peter placed a heart-shaped pillow on top of the book, The Anatomy of the Heart. He wrapped red Christmas lights around both, which pulsed like a heartbeat.
There were about 50 of us dancing that day at St. Mark’s Church. Light streamed in from the stained glass windows in the balcony. Peter co-teaches with Ariel and the two take turns leading us through waves of music. To begin his set, Peter played the Gotan Project, and then he did something unusual. He stepped out onto the floor to join us in the dance.
He moved all over the place, whirling and flowing. Peter is tall with grey hair, and a beard, and a belly. On the dance floor, he is a sight to behold. He is even bigger, elevated. He knows all five rhythms well but flow is his sweet spot. I felt him brush past me several times, his presence felt like a gift.
As the song ended, he returned to Ariel. “Catch me,” he said to him, “I’m going down.” Ariel guided him to the floor. And at that moment, the music stopped.
And so did Peter’s heart.
I remember the sound of Ariel calling his name. “Peter! Peter!” There was no response. The church suddenly felt cavernous and cold. Someone ran outside to call an ambulance. Ariel, who was trained in the Israeli Army, began CPR. It was violent. Chest compressions require force and determination.
The ambulance took forever to come. A dozen paramedics worked on him, paddling his heart with strong electrical pulses four times. Still, no response. We hovered nearby unsure what to do with our hands and our bodies.
Ariel turned to us and said that we should probably leave. No one moved. The Minister from St. Mark’s Church, who had been watching from the balcony, came down and suggested that we stay. “I invite you to hold hands and pray,” she said. It was a relief to do something, to come together. We formed a semi-circle. We took turns calling out, “Come on, Peter!” and “You can do it. Don’t leave us.”
But, maybe he wanted to be with Francesca, I thought. He had told me the week before how much he yearned for her. “I am in grief every single day,” he had said. “You never get used to it, you kind of make do.” The heart wants what it wants. Maybe he didn’t want to come back to be with us.
The paramedics carried Peter out on a stretcher. We sat around in small circles talking, not talking, crying, holding one another. I was sure that we had witnessed Peter’s death.
But this was not the end. We got a call later that afternoon. Peter was in a medically induced coma. We wouldn’t know for days what his outcome would be. But he was alive.
SJJ: Peter, tell me what happened that morning, one year ago.
Peter Fodera: It was the second anniversary of losing Francesca. There was all of the body memory of that trauma, of being in hospice with her and watching her in pain and not wanting to go. She did not want to go. I was with her all the time. I would have done anything for her. I'd say to her, “what do you want for lunch?” and she would say, “egg salad in the shape of a swan” and I would make it happen.
She was in hospice at the end. The cancer had gone into her bones and her brain and I was remembering the last week of her life. One morning she was having waffles and I was sitting opposite her eating off of her plate and she put a knife and fork down and she said to me, ‘You are never gonna leave me alone, are you?’
It reminded me of a card that I sent her with these two skeletons on Valentine's Day, and it says death is just for quitters.
I said to her, “No, never.” And she just shook her head.
That was the last thing that she said to me. Shortly after that, she had a seizure and was not able to communicate. For days, I sat with her. I sang to her, I talked to her, played the music we used to make love to.
Losing her was devastating. I was on a path of destruction. I was--I was really wanting to join her.
I’m a very tactile person. I don't think there's a part of Francesca’s body that I didn't explore and understand. As we aged, as we changed, those landscapes changed too. We used to show up in bed and joke that it was the best part of our day, getting into bed at night together. I miss the fragrance of her, sleeping naked next to her and inhaling her. Now, at night, I position the pillows in bed so that I say goodnight to her.
SJJ: What happened when your heart stopped?
PF: It wasn’t a painful thing. I wasn’t afraid. It was like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where there was a different story and I was in control of what was happening.
I saw these orbs of energy. They didn't speak, but I knew from their eyes they were my father and brother. They took me to Francesca. I was so happy to see her.
And she said to me, “Peter, you're not finished, you have got to go back.”
I didn't want to argue with her. So, I was like, “Okay, I'll do it.”
I was totally surrendered. I think that is what allowed me to come back.
Three or four days later, when I was completely awake, my daughter was next to me and I asked her what happened. She said, “You died!” There was this disbelief and then I started to laugh. “No shit! Really?”
What do you make of what Francesca said to you?
Every morning, my meditation is “Help me to see what I'm supposed to be doing.” I've always said that I'm a slow learner. So, that's why it's taking me a little while to figure out what I need to be doing. But I know that it has something to do with love. All I can do is to keep on doing this stuff that I feel called to do.
We have the capacity to really love deeply and fully, and it scares the shit out of us. It's just so large, you know. It's not analytical, it's experiential. You can't get to it by reading about it or studying it, you have to throw yourself into the pool. And that means being really vulnerable. And for so many of us, vulnerability is perceived as weakness.
I could not have imagined a life without Francesca, but here I am. What I know now is that love never dies. But to know love, you first have to be present for it. And, without knowing love, I would not be able to be in the depth of my grief.
What lessons can you share with us from the other side?
We don't know what's next for us. Don't wait to do all the things you need to do. If you have to tell somebody you love them, don't wait. Life is not a spectator sport.
From the Institute of Pleasure Studies
With a double cardiac arrest, Peter had a 5% chance of survival. “There is a lot of untapped wisdom in death,” says his daughter Juliana, who also has faced death numerous times. 21, to be exact. On Sunday, RadioDiaries is featuring an interview with Peter and Juliana on their podcast. It’s a beautiful story about life and death and love through it all.
Not sure how to spend Valentine’s Day? Peter passes on this ritual:
Valentine's Day used to be our family day. We would all get dressed up, the kids and us and I mean over the top with a boa, and whatever else and then come for dinner and we would sit around and tell each other why we loved each other.
Love is a practice. Joe and I have been leading a couple’s workshop called Relationship Tripping for new and long-term partners. We are beginning our next round in a few weeks. It’s a 10-week commitment. If this speaks to you, sign up for a call with me to find out more.
CPR: Don’t wait to witness death before you learn CPR. Everyone should know it. You can find a class through the Red Cross here.
“Grief is love with no place to go,” says Bernadette Pleasant. “Grieving together may help us to recognize and reckon with previously unknown aspects of our grief.” Bernadette leads a community grief ritual with music and journaling and meditation. There is one next Sunday, Feb 21 at 4 PM EST.
You can join Peter and Ariel’s Five Rhythms dance class on Friday mornings, too. It’s virtual now. 9:30am EST / 6:30am PST . Classes are an hour and a half.
The David Lynch Foundation has helped identify a direct correlation between meditation and stress reduction Join me for morning meditation with Bob Roth who has been teaching people to meditate for 50 years.