We are too little moved at parting, blunting our feelings with the expectation that tomorrow will be like today. We will never say goodbye forever, not like this, on a sidewalk without warning. Tomorrow we will meet again, or perhaps the day after. There will be time enough.
Reading of Lincoln’s first meeting with Speed and the quick emphatic friendship that sprang out of that encounter, is full of pleasure to me, but I flinch back when the writer reports theories that they had sex and were lovers. The fact that they shared a bed is given as suspicious. The tone of open tender affection in their correspondence is interpreted as carnal.
I have a different take.
Two things I want to note. Aside from the historical economically enforced intimacy of whole families sharing beds in Lincoln and Speed’s times, (as well as with so many people today, who cannot afford privacy,) we’re looking at the fact that one feels differently in worlds of the past and present, when we know our time is driven by death, and filled with loss. We should know we have no time for dissembling. In Lincoln’s time, ignoring that urgency was an unaffordable luxury.
I remember same sex couples strolling down a village street in Africa arms entwined, fingers interlaced. I think that, yes, there is more than a mere difference in customs displayed. But, sorry, all you curious prurient-minded Americans, it’s not only carnal desire that drives expressions of love. It’s a mistake to reduce this closeness, this passion of feeling for the comrade, the friend, the chum, to an allegation of venereal desire.
In America these days, we feel we can afford to indulge our wish to forget mortality. By comparison the losses a twenty-year old man in Lincoln’s time suffered, I suspect, to be very like in number to the human losses suffered by the young Africans walking, arms entwined. We are talking about brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts dying young, often suddenly. We are talking about lives wrenched by death, a death that triumphs usually without a hospital battle, that springs by surprise out of a fever, an infected cut, a lorry running off the road, or a heart murmur from measles.
Friendship is a bond full of risk, taken at the edge of loss. When the average life-span before the Civil War for a white male was late thirties to mid forties, childhood through young adult mortality ran appallingly high. You found your friends and cleaved to them, because you knew your time was short. The next meeting might not come.
What in these days in this country do we know of death? Who among you readers who live in America have touched your beloved carrion? We have hospitals and nurses, morgues, caskets and the crematoriums to keep our hands clean. Death when it happens, we luxuriously consider an unnatural insult, unless the lost companion happens to be very old indeed. Then, we say it’s natural. That’s a lovely conceit. We all know at some level, our sense of protection isn’t solid at all. We’ve seen the evidence—cancer, automobile accidents, suicide, murder—the young die also.
So perhaps a dear friend may be held all the closer when you know you live under shadow. The rage of protective love might be allowed expression without embarrassment, because of this knowledge. All of us are like soldiers in trenches, death ever hungry, lurking underfoot, within, coming in from the sky, or from a side road. Pay attention. If you will stop looking away from death, it may lead you to share another hug on the street corner, to look with honest love upon a friend’s face, to watch the parting stride— saving images deep in memory long before this meeting is the last.
As for Joshua Fry Speed? He saw his beloved friend buried, years before his time.