Scores of forest fires burned on the hillsides of Minho where we stayed this summer. It seemed during August that the whole of Portugal was ablaze. In the daytime columns of smoke rose to the heavens and streaked the sky; at night the flames were visible from miles away.
“That’s how it is here,” the locals told us. “In the spring it’s warm and wet and the forests grow; in the summer it’s hot and dry and they burn. Some years are worse than others. This year is especially bad; many bombeiros have died this year fighting the fires, protecting our towns and villages.”
The landscape around our rented yurt was rugged and beautiful; rock pools for wild swimming and mountain trails to walk. The night sky – when free of smoke – was inky black and full of stars. But one night trouble came knocking at our door. As we lay in bed my partner was suddenly taken ill. I called for help and neighbours came running; they sent for an ambulance.
On the fourth day in hospital, I looked into my partner’s eyes and knew with absolute certainty that I loved her. What had been impossible in the 12 years we had been together became inevitable. “Will you marry me?” I asked. “Yes,” she said without a moment’s hesitation. “Yes.”
In the next few days, as I sat beside her bedside, I emailed a few close friends about what had happened and one of them – not knowing about the fires in Portugal – wrote to me about “the awful beauty of love’s face, when mortality is near.” “This kind of love,” he said, “makes everything so uncertain, every moment a hurricane rushing through your house, every thought a forest fire at the edge of town.”
The truth is that I’d grown used to protecting my heart from the possibility of love. But when mortality drew near I stepped into the flames, wanting to be consumed. All my familiar hesitations and fears melted away; my lame excuses for living alone vanished in a puff of smoke.
And on the other side of that phoenix-fire, I have learned something that most people already seemed to know: although it isn’t easy, it is very simple to love someone. You just have to say “Yes” to them. But you have to mean it with every fibre of your body and every ounce of your being.