September in the Gap

Llano Quemado

Monday evening. 70s, dry, no wind. Backlit gnats, piñon jays that want me gone.

It’s certainly been a while but I am back and gathering up the threads. Some I’ve tied together, others I’ve let blow away. Still living in the old adobe on the hillside dealing with Her Things—it does go slowly—and then the storage units. Lost at sea though better being in the moment. Sometimes I feel the warm sun on my back and want to sing, I swear, as if the space between me and another life is down to microns.

In some ways what I have to do now is prepare for death. It’ll happen that I let go and move on. But imagine life without a thousand chores, all clean and ready for the trip. Like my sister Teresa was when she was dying of her liver cancer, looking forward to the next adventure. She even told her husband she hoped he’d find another woman who appreciated how meticulous he was. Answering William’s “Would you like some coffee?” with a yes meant waiting while he selected, washed, and dried the cups, cleaned the counter, counted out the beans and ground them, got the water going, and decided a side snack would be nice (and thank you), all the while following the conversation, laughing like he did all bright-eyed hard and loud that made me feel my jokes were helping save the world. By the time he asked me if I wanted cream I sometimes went with black, though. (There may have been a cow outside, who knew?) He did meet someone fairly soon. I don’t know the details but I trust him and I never wondered, really. Played it out myself I did, the Black Hole of Forgotten where surviving brothers-in-law go. Natural compression of the aftermath, I think. Clears the way for love again.

What I have now is a massive opportunity if I can only do it. This little dish, that picture frame. The mirror in the shape of a cat. The piles of family history that isn’t mine and former in-laws never want to see again. So it’ll be me who throws away her father’s baby clothes sewn up by happy aunts because you couldn’t go to Walmart, photos of his father shoeing horses on a rich man’s farm until one kicked him in the head. Pictures of England and Montana. Her great-grandfather’s broken concertina. You think it’s easy until you do it. I have a standard which is basically how long it takes for me to cry.

Her basket of gloves last weekend, for example. I knew every pair. She had smallish hands but then was tiny all around and energetic to the max. How she mastered the piano was a wonder to me, fingers flying up and down, joy bouncing off the walls. Such an astonishing skill. I started going through them, making a pile of throwaways and another of donations. Then I picked up her favorite red leather gloves, the ones she always chose despite the holes, and thought about her hands and fingers once again. Graceful, tapered, elegant in that special way. And then I lost it.


I see you there asleep right now as if alive. 8-14-2009

This is all to be expected. Sometimes it’s like I’m in a river and the only thing I have control of is my breathing. Whether my head’s out of the water or I struggle, splash around, and drown. A week ago was almost a year and a half since I stayed up for 34 hours to watch her go. I took a walk because I needed to and sometimes think I hear her then. As I walked I thought about how twisted but essential all my time alone had been, how hard it was to act right coming out of isolation, hurt that all I’d ever wanted was to let our lives play out together and she’s gone. And then it hit me that they had…

I thought about her once again and felt a little happy. Altered and protected, too. Like I was wearing soft, expensive clothes that made me look good if I stood up straight. And then I realized I was still in love with Kathy. All that worrying and overthinking just for nothing. Live my life and wake up happy, that was it, and all she ever wanted. My “girl next door” is buried on the prairie thanks to me (try tearing yourself away from that!) but there’s a more expansive presence now. I felt I’d passed a test. As if the river left the canyon and the rapids and I wasn’t sinking and the angels on the banks could tell where I had been and see where I would go.

Right Now

vase in window

“Geranium1”

Here I am again and welcome to you all. Another long absence passes in this second summer of my new life alone. So much has happened since I last posted. So much will again. My little path through the world may mean nothing to you now but watch out. Saving the hummingbird I stood on a chair to catch with my bare hands in San Cristobal 20 years ago could have been exactly what the Universe wanted for killing the asteroid we never heard of. Sometimes a word or an image explodes in our hearts and raises the world. If I’d never met Kathy I’d have died long ago, but I was with her when she needed me. The pieces fit, the race is run. As someone who’s been there wrote me, “I suspect Kathy would likely say, ‘What are you waiting for John? Go ahead, surprise yourself.’ You handled the impossible part. Good luck and safe travels.”


“Old Taos,” absolutely

Uncle Dale the Dead Landlord found this place to buy, carved a hole in the wall for a doorway, and got on with his life. There are broken Japanese porcelain statues in the window of his abandoned studio apartment on the other side of the wall. I’m hardly different. When I tweeted the above image I wrote:

“Fechin’s ‘Manuelita’ lusting on the wall, God lights yellow roses for my dead wife. Alive, in love with what, I do not know. Good Morning.”

Today I came back from a walk broken by the beauty and feeling bad for not being able to share. (Not like this, but breathing the same air.) The desire reminded me of when I last could and it felt like half of everything was wasted. As I approached the house, I sensed her yell for me to get rid of her things… I must have winced a little since I haven’t done it yet, and then I asked if she would help. YES! So moving is possible, then. Where do you want to go next, I asked before the line went dead. Damn ghost, I thought, then realized “where” was my say now.

Who’d move away from this, though? (see “Young Jack” below)

No security. The old rental agreement means nothing in real life. The giant elm could fall and take the north wall with it (seriously). The memories, my God. Spiders and dust, ancient spirits, old traps. Remembering the times she said “We’ve done Taos…” After more than 20 years, you’re looking at him, friends. Driving back from Santa Fe the other day was so extraordinary I could eat those words tomorrow, too. I don’t know anything, I realize. Dilemmas loom like mountains in my inner landscape. I could give them names and elevations. Save on typing, give this theme a number:

“Sure there’s something in the wall, but look, volcanoes!”


“Young Jack”

All my life I’ve been making art of one kind or another—writing, drawing, painting, photography, music, sculpture, printmaking, bronze casting, digital graphics—in between various “real” jobs and pretending to be normal so the urges went away. Sometimes I sold pieces, but the art was always for my pleasure and fulfillment. I’d have made something no matter what. Wherever I lived was my gallery. Our homes always featured my creations on the walls and in the yard. I never went full-time to art school though I did take occasional classes for training. Bronze casting at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, for example. That was one of the best. So exciting to learn, I ravaged the place. Had to drive 90 minutes from our rural hideaway on the Eastern Shore, over the Bay Bridge, and into the heart of the big city one night per week, coming home late on near-empty freeways and back over the bridge to foxes and mist in my headlights. Crickets and tree frogs in my ears after getting out of the car, my head full of stories to tell Katie Jane…


“MoonCrop”

And now I’m thinking of starting all over again with NFTs. (Never fear, the writing will continue.) My first OpenSea collection of photographs dedicated to our 22 years in New Mexico has gone through three incarnations but never sold a thing and I’m about to take it down1. As someone I respect corroborated recently:

“Your photos can work but I think you’re going to have to consider why you’re putting them out there and then course correct or not. I think grieving is very, very important and I’ve definitely done my share of therapy art, so who knows?”

Bear in mind this wasn’t news. In other words, a tribute born of grief is not ideal for selling art to strangers. It made me happy to hit the link and see the photos but I’d begun to realize I didn’t really want to sell them, and lo the universe obeyed.

Trust and Other Wonders

First warm evening of the year

First warm evening of the year, 5-27-2022

Hello, good people. It’s been so long since I was here. I’m sorry. Please forgive me and read on. A little recap first and then we’ll rumble. Thanks for hanging in there.

THIS PAST YEAR has been terrible. The absolute fury of my Iowa trip with its deep emotion, fear, and lunacy still drains me. I even doubted what I’d done by burying Kathy’s ashes in a grave that’s hard to visit1, all this based on wishes I intuited from her on the day she died. But now she’s in the ground together with her parents, grandmother, uncle, cousins, and the rest. The circle is complete. She loved her family fiercely in a way I never felt with mine, and that’s why I’ll end up there too.

There was just too much dysfunction with the Farrs. I always thought my mother’s family east of Baltimore was more lively and outgoing, more relatable for sure, but Granny had the old man by the balls. Whenever we did show up back East, we’d go to Chestertown and slight the folks in Middle River only 90 minutes distant. My mother never had the nerve to press for more attention to her siblings and suffered from the separation. I remember when each one died (my Uncle Buddy is the only one alive) but don’t recall her breaking down in front of us. I do know there was pressure to conform and she probably felt guilty for having moved away with Dad. It’s so damn hard when everyone is dead and no one’s left to tell the stories! We all go back into the God soup as if nothing matters.


Start of the Taos Fiesta parade, July 2015. So normal I could shoot myself.

It matters with my Kathy, though. One downside of our moving to New Mexico was that she fell out of touch with friends in Maryland as time went by, people she’d known for almost 30 years before. The same was true for me. We made friends in Taos, but for the most part—not all—these relationships lack the easy intimacy of shared experience. Harder to ask for a ride to the airport, say, and no connection to their kids or families. There weren’t deep enough roots here for the memorial celebration she deserved and that was crushing. In the middle of the pandemic, too. She was such an extraordinary spirit, a being made of love, scholar and musician to the core. I don’t want people to forget. For her sake as well as mine I needed both our names together on that marker in Keota so that everyone could see. “MARRIED JAN. 16, 1981 – NO TWO EVER LOVED EACH OTHER MORE,” it reads (my words), carved into the granite, standing out amidst a sea of pious platitudes to make a statement for all time. The stone will outlast anyone who knew us and make strangers wonder who the hell we were and how we lived. I’m glad I followed through.

Ye gods, though. Ye poor gods… The magnitude of everyday human events that hit you singly like a gift-wrapped anvil. It’s all right though. Nothing really dies. Even now I know we’re part of something bigger than the bones and stars and always were.


Descending from Cimarron Canyon to Eagle Nest Lake with a fire in the distance

At least I’m getting out a bit. I took that photo on the way home from a drive to the Valle Vidal in northern Taos County on the day before the forest service closed Kit Carson National Forest due to the encroaching fires. No entry is permitted now. I was the only person on the 60-plus mile drive across that special place, all alone on a gravel road that climbed to nearly 10,000 feet. I did take pictures, but they’re not as good as what you see above. My heart just wasn’t in it and the mountains were so dry. I actually had a better time on the way back, coming through the state park in the canyon. The dense and vibrant greenery along Cimarron Creek was something that I hadn’t seen in years and made me wonder how much longer I would stay here. Losing Kathy left a monstrous hole I don’t know if the desert and my own endeavors can ever fill. I want more life in my surroundings now, water, plants, and people while I’m still alive. I grow flowers in the window like a solitary pensioner. Oh right, except that isn’t who I am at all! Online friends tell me to get a dog and they’re not out of bounds. I’m free to relocate but don’t know where. I’d like to generate more income and explore.

For all the hype and grandeur, Taos often seems a cold and lonely place. Without a mate or family to anchor me (especially kids), it’s hard to lose the feeling that I’m screwed or wasting time. So many come here as mature adults like we did, leaving past lives behind, dangerous in my opinion if you can’t afford to get away. The town survives on tourist money, hype, and selling real estate to retirees who want to ski or think it’s good for artists. Some of them build studios and dabble, but when everyone you meet is from another place, there is no common soul. You’re hungry all the time. It’s fine if you have roots here, la familia and such. People bitch the way they always do but most get by even though there’s no sustainable economy to speak of and the infrastructure is a joke. Anglos even brag about it: “That’s just Taos! Heh-heh.” In the old days it was likely fine to simply be here in the mountains, far from mostly white America. You could build a house of mud and hunt. It rained and you could plant things. You were part of some great secret and belonged. The Pueblo’s been here for a thousand years. They know. Sometimes I do, too.


Looking good two weeks ago. Quit your griping, smirky robe-boy.

None of this is evil, only human nature in a world of change. With enough resources, friends, shared history, and decent health, one can have a fine rewarding life here in the Terrible High Desert™. You have to like the cold and not mind wind and drought. Health-wise, you might drive for hours to an endodontist or a checkup for what’s growing on your ear. This is not a place for growing old. Well-intended newbs will have to move back home to get their diapers changed. Nature spirits, Latino culture, and the Pueblo did become a second family of sorts for us and I’d miss that if I left. It’s so goddamn lonely now, though. Pathologically so. I’m like a ship that’s been torpedoed and the crew is gone. There’s no one I can talk to5 who would make much sense—the only one who knows the truth is me—although I do feel love and caring from a source or two (and thank you). That aside, without Twitter I’d be dead already.

I’ve recited the silly Taos rant a thousand times and I am sick of it but this is different. The main thing is we came here and she died. (COME ON!) Do you know what that is like? Every landmark blows a hole right through my heart. I drive home from the grocery store down the same old dusty road, over the forever bumps, past the neighbor with the horse tied up to the fucking gas meter in his stupid yard and want to scream at first but never mind. It’s over. I’m ready to forget the past and start again. Here, there, another planet, doesn’t matter. Never mind the house and all our stuff, dear God. I deserve to have a whole new life and thrive and that’s what Kathy would have wanted. Wants, I should say. She pops up in my head, you know. Yes, I’ve mentioned this before. I have these transcendental moments, just a teeny-tiny thing, no louder than a thought, except it isn’t me… Like yesterday when I was walking to the water towers just across the road.

[Actual dialog rapid-fire, mostly silent, paraphrased and reconstructed here for clarity, but all the words were there.]

John. JOHN. Listen to me.

I recognize the tone (!) and stop right in my tracks to pay attention, leaning on my walking stick. “Hi, honey. I love you!”

Listen to me. DO WHAT YOU LIKE. Trust your heart, be proud. I love you, too.

“I miss you so much…” [crying]

DO WHAT YOU LIKE. WHATEVER YOU WANT. SURPRISE YOURSELF.

Exactly what I need to hear of course, wherever this is coming from. I take it on its face because I’ve prayed for help and here it is. “You’d better be waiting on that bench! I don’t want to die now. I want to show us both that I can make it. What if it takes another 20 years? The numbers won’t mean anything to you, but what if I forget?”


Grundy County Courthouse, Iowa. Lunch stop on another road trip, May, 2014.

Still standing by the water towers. Scary vision of an old man bent and broken all alone. Fading now. Cross-talk in my head. Me, her, other babble. Wind hissing in the piñons, dogs barking in the ‘hood. A nicer fellow down the road has his sheep out grazing by the acequia. I hear the bells, the bleats, the yipping of the shepherd dogs.

I would never say, “Surprise yourself,” for one.

No one’s ever told me that before. It’s new.

The Deed is Done Pt. 2

author portrait

5-4-2022

“Please be happy. I’m all right. You’re all right. Everybody is all right…”spoke the almost silent whisper in my head, though louder than before. It was her because I never talk like that.

I’d been feeling guilty, naturally. As if there were something wrong with feeling more like the man she always saw in me but didn’t get to have. It was tearing me apart. The next night I went in to brush my teeth and fell again. That’s when it happens, in the mirror. This time it was fear of having sinned and blown it, basically. The old programming. Every kind of failure you could think of, especially not staying young. Then and there I tell you, with the toothbrush in my hand and staggering, I heard, “Everything is all right and unfolding as it should. You must relax. Everything is fine.” However one may feel about communicating with the dead, it worked. I did feel better, and the words came back each time the old ways tried to kill me.

The change is real. Yesterday I carried two large bags of worn slippers, a dead robe, gloves with holes, and most of her battered favorite shoes up to the trash can. I also threw away some things of mine including old but perfect shirts that made me feel like hell because I hated them but was too cheap to toss. How self-destructive would I have to be to wear them, anyway? Kathy’s fine possessions are a different category, yet most of everything will go. I’d like to be ready to jump. The time will come, you know. We both deserve it.

I’m learning. The first thing is, I’m not alone, or maybe no one is. The second is, I wouldn’t call it healing in the sense of restoration, say, because my old life is just gone, ka-boom, and this is something else. As if we died together but I stayed. I keep coming back to: this is just the sort of thing she’d do for me, and I had better pay attention.

When I first met Kathy but she hadn’t moved in and we hadn’t even taken all our clothes off yet, she showed up at my door one afternoon and handed me a brand-new chainsaw… She knew that I was poor, that my small apartment had a wood stove, and my radical iconoclastic landlord—a mutual friend—had told me I could come out to his farm and cut firewood for the fall. There were several downed cherry trees, ancient huge ones (wondrous seasoned hardwood), that he wanted to clean up. I must have told her I would use my hand saw.

“Wha— My God, you didn’t have to do this, but I love it! Thank you!”

It was yellow, shiny, and a good brand. This was more than just a gift. Everything about it was momentous. Something in me knew my life was changing. I remember being scared but willing.

“Mickey helped me pick it out…”

She’d introduced me to him at the bar the night before. (All this takes place inside three blocks of an small colonial town on the Eastern Shore. Her place, my place. Walk across a little park to reach the bar. Soft spring air. The waterfront. Insanely blessed.)

“Mickey? Wow. Okay…”

“Do you really like it? Will it work for you?”

“Oh yes! I’m just amazed!” Etc, etc.

[Old man, young man. What is happening?]

The Iowa trip was so damn primal. I don’t know how to tell you. Every mile was territory we’d covered together many times. Take that brick building in the photo down the street from her parents’ old house in Des Moines. The one she shared with a brother and a sister while she went to Hubbell Elementary, junior high, and Roosevelt High School when her father drove her every week to Drake and waited in the car while she had her lesson with a real piano teacher. It used to be a grocery store called Johnny’s. “Run down to Johnny’s and get us some milk, will you?”

I can just imagine. It’s still eerie, though.

Every time I ever drove myself or both of us to 39th Street after navigating off the freeway, I knew to “turn left at Johnny’s.” The store was long gone by the time I showed up, but her family called it “Johnny’s” anyway. My name too, of course. It’s the strangest kind of grounding. So evocative hearing it from them, but I was wary. My Air Force family changed houses over 40 times before I went to college. I attended public school in five states and two countries, hardly ever had a friend for more than six months, and never lived close to any relatives until my forties. By then the usual connections had grown cold. I felt guilty but excused somehow and blamed my parents, only vaguely sensing what I’d missed. My memories of home were largely John or Helen driving off with screeching tires while we worried we’d be orphans.

Kathy on the other hand, after living in Wall Lake, Harlan, and Ottumwa spent most of her pre-college years in a single neighborhood in Des Moines. Hilly, green, and civilized, with downtown just a short bus ride away. She went to the same schools every year, got to know the sidewalks, parks, stores, churches, libraries, and changing seasons of the same place, filled with neighbors, friends, and families she knew. Most of Kathy’s relatives lived half a day away. Her parents never raised their voices at each other or spanked the kids.

In over 20 years of visiting her parents in Des Moines, I learned the street names, where to go for groceries, get an ice cream cone, or buy a tire. Mundane but exotic. There were all these stories about people I had never seen. When we’d pull up in the driveway, her dad would come out to help unload and ask about the trip, the weather, and the car. I didn’t understand at first because I’d never been treated like a son. (To this day I have Jack Mills’ photo on a dresser but not one of my own namesake.) While this was going on, Kathy would go in to visit with her mother and immediately plug back into news and gossip, who had called, and what was on for dinner. The joy she showed each time was humbling. I was like a savage taken in by missionaries, grateful for the food and kindness and a bit suspicious. This can’t be real. There isn’t any blood and no one’s cursing. No stabbing cigarettes into the ashtray followed by a slamming door. It was real, though. No tension in the air unless I brought it with me.

I didn’t just marry her, in other words. I hope you get my meaning.

There it is, the house with the chimney, 39th Street in Des Moines. We’d show up twice most years, in June and over Christmas. The neighborhood’s a little different now. Kathy’s parents sold out and moved to assisted living in ‘99 or so. An older lady they all knew lived in the yellow house on the left until she died of Alzheimer’s. The yellow house on the right was owned by a couple I never once laid eyes on in all the 20 years we visited. A Hindu family lives in the white house with the silver car now, a Latino family where I was standing for the shot. Not back then, of course. Sometimes Kathy would fly out early so she could have a longer visit until I arrived. That’s what she did in ‘78 when I drove out for the first time to meet her folks. Oh man.

We need a little background here…

Kathy divorced her first husband a couple years before I met her back in Chestertown. She had a very fine apartment with hardly any furniture because of the divorce, the whole first floor of an old brick house on Queen Street. Moving into my much smaller, funky place behind the real estate office was a fearsome act of love. King’s Grant Real Estate, it was called. (Our address would be “Rear King’s Grant.”) The owner and all-around remarkable individual was the fellow with the cherry trees. He used to brag to me that by the time he was 30 years old, he’d made a million dollars and filled three passports. This was absolutely true. He and his wife were friends of Kathy’s and had given her a great deal on another place he rented when her marriage broke up. Easy to move when all you have is a grand piano and some clothes. My apartment was actually a former eye doctor’s office, and the long examination room was still there. To make it work for us, he had his handyman knock down the interior walls to open up the floor plan and build a second closet, so we each would have one. We never paid a cent, my rent was still the same. Old times on the Shore, when life was easy, cheap, and rich.

The point of my telling you all this is that Kathy waited until the work was done before she notified her parents. I remember clearly when she made the phone call to Des Moines, sitting on my thrift store sofa with the front door open. She told her mother that she’d met someone (me, of course), she loved me, and was moving in. Her mother must have asked if we’d gotten married, because I heard Kathy say, “No, not married,” and then her mother cried… So did Kathy, Iowa daughter that she was. (She told me later that she’d never made her mother cry.) The lady took it hard but gently. I know she wished us well and said they’d like to meet me, obviously. Kathy flew out to Des Moines shortly afterwards. I followed a week later in my ‘67 Saab.

My oh my.

I remember it was very hot and humid. I wore as little as possible for the trip (T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops), but when I got close to to 39th Street, I stopped at a gas station to change clothes in the men’s room. Her parent’s first glimpse of me was in crisp new jeans, a white shirt with a bolo tie, and cowboy boots. (My dress outfit.) They let us have the second bedroom without a fuss, although their universe would never be the same, nor mine and Kathy’s either. It was the sort of house with wooden floors, thin walls, and squeaking hinges on the doors. You’d hear voices, footsteps, everything. That very afternoon, however, while her mother set the table for dinner 20 feet away, Kathy closed the bedroom door and did the bravest thing. She was always one for celebrating new beginnings. What a lucky fool I was.

By now you’ve figured out I stopped there on my way out to Keota, It wasn’t smooth and simple. I was humming into Omaha on I-80, thinking to leave the interstate and try the back roads into Iowa, but I was torn up thinking of the last time we’d been there together, reading signs and trying to blow my nose at 70 mph, oops the wrong spur, added 20 miles. I even recognized the road from having made the same mistake before once on our way up from Taos and knew I’d have to veer south after crossing the Missouri. If only every landmark didn’t remind me she was dead.

Once into Iowa again, I stopped for gas and food in the wildly misnamed town of Atlantic. No doubt there’s a story. We’d been there before as well, the same damn station, only now it was a giant truck stop with a McDonald’s franchise on the inside. I was in the darkest mood and starving, so I violated my pre-planned COVID protocols and entered. By this time I’d given up on being the only one in three states to wear a mask but kept one in my pocket for the restroom, which I visited right then. As soon as I came out, I wished I hadn’t stopped.

Everyone I saw looked sick and crazy. Do you project much son. The PA system blasted constant trucker shower reservations. There were racks of nasty MAGA merchandise by the registers. I bought the first Big Mac I’d had in decades, stunned at what it cost, and carried it outside to eat inside the car and plan the rest of the route. At that point I was fine with dying then and there, but the industrial cow meat mess I held was warm and I had cookies for dessert. I checked the map—yes, I still use an atlas—and then it hit me: of course I’d stay on I-80 and exit in Des Moines. The whole nine yards, boys, all the way. I had to. You probably can’t imagine how I felt. I’d never experienced that kind of pain, an utter blackness just for me, a test to see if I could make it to the house on 39th Street that I’d first rolled up to 45 years before, when she and I were so full of life that she made love to me with her parents right there in the other room, and now I had her ashes in the fucking urn beside me in a parking lot on the goddamned prairie where I’d never go again.

I sobbed off and on all the way to Des Moines, 80 miles at least. Let it out, man, let it out. Every 10 miles was a highway sign that gave the distance like another bullet in my chest. But I kept going, found the exit, turned left at Johnny’s, drove on up the hill, and parked. There it was, all right, just gray now instead of Husker red.

The street was empty, quiet. Kathy and I had walked up and down it countless times, mostly to get out of the house, you know, or exercise, or so that she could share some secret of her growing up days. But this time it was only me as I went up the hill with a small container of the ashes in my pocket. I scattered maybe a tablespoon of powder on the pedestrian bridge across the freeway as a trial run, then walked by her old house like I had every right to do and flipped a portion in the yard… That went off so well—no shouts—I made the circuit one more time and did it all again. I know she saw me, knew that I was there, and it was good. “I am your man, I will not let you down.”

(My note to her from long ago she’d stuck up on the fridge…)

The Deed Is Done Pt. 1

author

At the Keota Cemetery the evening before the burial. Oh that face.

“Hi, I’m the digger,” the big guy said as I arrived at the cemetery in Keota, Iowa a little before noon on April 5, 2022, one year to the day since Kathy died. He looked the part. (I wasn’t dressed like in the image above. That would be the day before, when I pulled in around 7:00 p.m. straight off the road from Kearney, Nebraska. My Iowa motel reservation was the next town over, but I wanted to see the grave site first.)

The rectangular hole was already dug but fresh, three feet deep and plenty wide. A wheelbarrow full of excavated prairie soil was parked nearby. The ground was squishy-wet, with water oozing from the grass with every step. I peered into the hole: to my initial dismay, the bottom was filled with a good two inches of muddy water. “It’s pretty wet around here this time of year,” he said. No kidding. I’d originally planned to put a clear plastic bag around the urn, then place it in the nice white drawstring sack that it had come with. Most people don’t wrap burial urns in anything or use a “vault” to keep it protected for a time. Who’s ever going to dig it up? I simply wanted to make the process more genteel, but I’d been counting on dry dirt and wanted to reverse the order: white cloth sack on first, and then the plastic bag taped shut as best I could. Adjusting my expectations, I told the digger (Dennis Bean) what I was up to, adding that “It really doesn’t matter, but…”

“It doesn’t matter,” he agreed, and went off to sit inside his truck until I waved him back. The privacy was welcome. I could see him looking at his phone.

The day was cold and gray, the wind was blowing hard. I got my wrapping done and thought about the things inside: a heavy plastic bag with all the ashes—more like talcum powder dust with tiny chips of bone—a New Mexico-designed watch I’d given Kathy on her birthday when we first arrived in Taos, several of her favorite necklaces, a picture of a hummingbird that she identified with, and a note I wrote the night before. A note. Just think of that. The very idea wrecks me all over again. My darlin’ Kathy, sweetheart for all time.

Over the months I’d been buying yellow roses at the supermarket and saving the dried blossoms in a gallon bag. I always bought her yellow roses because I liked the “Yellow Rose of Texas” and the lyrics. I was born in Texas, too. Although the song addresses a mulatto girl or maybe even because it does, the flowers were a custom with us. Fortunately I had the bag of blossoms with me and crushed enough of them into the hole to cover the surface of the muddy water, so that my last sight of the now more crudely wrapped urn would be it resting in a sea of faded yellow petals. I never even thought to take a picture. Is anyone surprised?

Then I waved to Dennis. He went right for the wheelbarrow and lifted the handles. I was barely able to grab a handful of wet dirt to toss in for myself and watched the urn get covered up. It fell a little sideways, but you know, it doesn’t matter. The symbolism is the thing, the ritual of physical release. It was also painful, and the digger seemed to speed up as he stomped the dirt down with his heavy boots, replaced the sod, and rolled his wheelbarrow away. Suddenly the stone was more important. Something that would last a while, a statement that Kathy really did exist and her life mattered, that we were married 40 years and loved each other madly. That was what I wanted and I got it. I know she likes it, too.

I paid Dennis (who slipped right away) and stayed a while despite the weather, falling apart in grand style, yelling at the wind and calling out her name. This would never have happened anywhere in public and I’m grateful Kathy’s family and Keota granted me the privacy. Much like when she died, the two of us completely alone, the most intimate experience of my life. No outbursts then, no crying. I was in some kind of Presence. It would have been like screaming at an angel.

The next morning after checking out of the Belva Deer Inn [sic] in Sigourney, a decent place I’ll probably see again, I stopped at the cemetery in Keota one more time. The sun was out but everywhere I stepped was even wetter than before because of rain the previous afternoon. I howled and cried some more and couldn’t leave, rubbing my fingers over her name again and again. I’d stand up to go and have to kneel back down. Finally I walked back to the car, got in, but still felt stuck. She’s there, she’s in the ground, I saw the stone, how do I just go away? You know the little road that circumnavigates the grounds in small town cemeteries? I started the car, drove all the way around from where I’d parked, then drove around again… The second time I stopped and shouted out the window up the hill how much I loved her, that all I ever wanted was to be with her, the only perfect partner for me in the whole damn world, and that I’d be coming back. The high school is very close. I wonder if anybody heard.

I was fucking magnificent. Believe me.

I’ve said before that marrying Kathy was the greatest thing I ever did. She taught me about love, Big Love. I grew up in a dysfunctional environment. It took me years to realize I was weird and she was not. She brought me further down the road to trusting fate and loving myself. Losing her is like having God pull out my plug and walk away. But this is real life for a reason. Nothing ever stops, how could it? We’re designed to take this kind of loss. Some still don’t and die of broken hearts, a thing that really happens. I came close. The next year will be critical.

In Part Two I’ll fill in more blanks and tell some funny stories. Here for example is what you see immediately before entering the Keota Cemetery. Back soon.

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