My wife who died three months ago was driving a new small silver car. I may have been there with her first and gotten out, but she was by herself at this point. I was following behind, riding in an older white Econoline van driven by a woman I’d had eyes on long ago around the time I met my honey. In the dream she was tall and wore a cowboy hat, straining the association, but let’s say it was the lady I remembered—friends with both of us in real life to this day, in fact. (Dreams can be like that, spirits wearing skins of people in our heads.) The three of us were on the road, more or less together, heading to the same place. I can’t say why Kathy was in the other car alone, but I did start worrying she’d forgotten we were back there. A rising tide of anxiety arose and I spoke up.
“When it’s convenient and there’s a place to stop, why don’t you pull up behind Kathy so I can ride with her?”
I guess that meant we’d both stop, obviously. How and why I didn’t know. The silver car and the big white van took the next turn together, curving off the main road. And then as often happens in the dream world, everything was different.
Wherever we were, Kathy had gotten there first. I didn’t see her or the car but I was certain. We’d just pulled into a crowded gravel parking lot on top of a mountain, adjacent to a sterile, shabby little town. Wooden buildings, rusty metal roofs, a few brick structures. No trees, nothing beautiful. My driver lady had parked so close to the sloping edge of a cliff that I was worried. I got out first and looked around. It was scary just to stand there, and I feared I’d tumble into space. I reached up to the window and touched her arm, thanking her for helping out. She never said a word and disappeared.
There were people milling all around. The Ford was really much too close to the edge. A couple of losers I didn’t trust got in the van to move it. They parked it in a nearby alley but somehow left it on its side, leaning against the brick wall of a building. I made them go back to set it on its wheels the way it should be, but it fell over upside down and immediately caught on fire! The whole thing burned up in an instant, leaving only a smoking shell. I worried that our friend would be upset when she returned and wondered if she had insurance. After that I wandered back to the cliffside at the edge of the gravel parking lot to clear my head.
All this time I hadn’t noticed what was down below, and it was stunning.
I saw a vast rolling green and brown expanse very much like New Mexico, with spaces in between the trees, a wondrous park-like plain with thousands of people walking around all over, so tiny from the great height I was on they looked like ants. But where they were was so alluring. They may have hiked from where I was to get there. I also realized Kathy was down there, too, and that my driver had gone off to find her.
And then the most wonderful thing occurred.
I looked down at something like a visitor center or entrance far below, where the crowd was thickest. Suddenly I sensed our friend and Kathy had found each other, and then I saw them! So far away, so small, but we were waving, and I heard Kathy call out:
I can’t tell you how that felt. It was her, all right. Anyone would need all day to climb back up, though. Could they really do it?
And then I woke up…
I can still see the beautiful landscape far below with all the people. Her voice is ringing in my ears, but I don’t know what to do.
“Is that what I think it is?” I asked our artist neighbor 20 years ago. There were about a dozen flower pots arranged beside the window, each with several plants like this. (They’re not usually so photogenic. I edited out the little scrappy bits.)
“Yep,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“Mind if I take a few pictures?”
The seedbed of my counterculture in a time warp. What a hoot. I’d never seen peyote “in the wild.” In Austin in the old days, you could buy it by the pound in gunny sacks from certain folks and that was legal. No one in their right minds ate the goddamn things, you processed it for mescaline. Not that I knew how. An art major friend of mine had a friend who did and in my circle it was plentiful.
We were lucky to get to Taos in ‘99 before they Aspenized it. You could still find a decent place to rent if you had three jobs. I had a session with a rain forest shaman who spoke no English and blew smoke into my hair, then freaked out when he found an evil spell my mother left. There were artists making do with shops and studios in old adobe buildings, wide-eyed hippie couples with their kids and gardens. It was like new things could happen while the history still breathed. Not so much now. If it weren’t for mountains and the Great Wide Open I’d have fled some time ago. My wife was ready long before I was, but we both came to love the richness and compassion of the local culture. (Moving to where Anglos were a minority was so fucking brilliant.) Now that Kathy’s dead and gone—which I still can’t believe—I have no idea what comes next. The memories confuse me. My heart breaks every day. I could leave or stay, but Lord this land is thrilling. The ancients have their tentacles in everything, of course, so watch out.
Change is in the air for me and maybe thee, but hasn’t hit yet. (Listen…)
Looking SE from Taos Plateau west of the Rio Grande
Meanwhile back in Ranchos 20 years ago, the actual owner of the property next door with three hand-built structures and no toilets, partner of the man who grew peyote by the window, was a lady who had once been Krishnamurti’s girlfriend and lived with him in India for a time. She also owned several acres in a gorgeous canyon near a quiet little hot spring. In the years that I’ve been living here, the two of them built several plywood “houses” there beside a huge-ass pond created from a dammed-up acequia in a setting no one would believe. The gentleman—an excellent artist, by the way—had other interests, too. He once uncovered an ancient native burial site while digging for a water line or something and found a shaman’s skull he realized was his own from another lifetime… and with that, he put it back! I loved the guy for this and also for the fact he’d grown up in L.A. with a film editor father who was friends with “Moe” from the Three Stooges. In other stages of his life he’d lived next door to Allen Ginsburg and Gary Snyder on a commune in the mountains, been a fisherman in Alaska, and smuggled hashish from Asia Minor to Amsterdam by car, which might account for the assault rifle hanging from the rafters I saw when we were there for dinner once.
We all used to be good friends. The background for the falling out is here, written in a state of stress I no longer recognize. Drowned out by the thunder of my recent loss, perhaps. So much of what I used to dread is gone or turned transparent. It’s like I’m more prepared to die myself, but who knows how I’ll act if doing something counts.
I honestly didn’t know what happened to these folks (at first). Not sure I really needed to. The two of them moved out to their idyllic refuge in the canyon and may have rented out the property next door. It was all so hard to tell. Different people came and went. I suspected evil doings as was my wont, and the artist gent still showed up to get their mail. I met him at the mailbox once and probed a bit. It turned out they’d kept their old addresses because everything they’d built up in the canyon was off the books to get around the tax man and the building codes. The new residence didn’t officially exist, in other words. I wondered how he handled things like internet and oxygen delivery. That was the other new thing, the little tube inside the nose. I felt sorry for him since he used to be so active. He still smoked dope, though just a little bit—I knew this from a visit—and I wondered later if he’d ever had a joint blow up on him.
A year or two went by. The people situation next door settled down, and I realized I hadn’t seen him or the lady at the mailbox for a long time. More months passed and then came COVID. That had to have been freaky for someone with a lung disorder in the first place. I wondered if the two of them had moved to Mexico or died and took to reading the obituaries in the paper, even researched backwards to when I thought I’d last encountered him, but nothing, not a trace. I could have asked, of course, but this is Taos. Best to let things be because you might learn way too much. Peyote on the porch, a rifle in the kitchen, hundred dollar bills from out of nowhere. We were quarantining anyway, so that worked out. Stay alive and deal with life and wait.
Likely unfathomable but pleasant ancient video hint interlude below. Enjoy!
So now we’re in the present. Breathe deeply of the cool, clean air.
One of the fellows I often see next door is at least part Native with a braided pigtail hanging down his back. I’ve met him before and know his name but little else except he’s old friends with the owners (?), and I always thought he was a sculptor for some reason. Getting on but not as old as I am. He either has a studio behind the fence or does odd jobs there. For the longest time, we’ve only exchanged waves and nods. I’d call him serious, calm, and self-contained. He keeps his truck all clean and shiny, especially the alloy wheels, and leaves the push-out windows open like I do.
A couple days ago I saw him as I headed out to walk. He was stripped to the waist with a bandanna around his head, whaling away with a post hole digger near the driveway. It was one of those times you find yourself so close you have to stop, and we stood across the ten foot distance like you do to signal that you’re on a mission but you’ll talk. (Also, COVID.) The first thing he said after I hollered “Hey, how are you?” was:
“Good, and how is your wife?”
I paused. Something in me knew that this would happen the next time we spoke and I’d rehearsed it in my mind. Not that the words themselves were difficult, but could I say them out loud to someone who didn’t know yet?
“Aww, no! I’m so sorry, man…”
“On April 5th. She had a stroke a month before.“
And all the rest came tumbling out. I told him about the second time they took her to the ED, where the doctors told me she was done for but she lasted 35 more hours, how the hospital gave us a private room and let us be together while she died, how intimate and powerful it was. He listened carefully, nodded, and then spoke a little of his own life. He told me how he’d been there when his father died, and how another relative had Alzheimer’s and he helped with that. We talked about the mystery of death, meditation, and the holy nature of the mundane. “I’m actually having fun here standing outside in the sun, digging this hole!” I knew exactly what he meant. Not bad for two old guys with long hair standing in the road. And then he said, gesturing to the south in the direction of a certain canyon:
“I went up to [so-and-so’s] to help ‘em out. Got [the lady!] ready, wrapped her in a sheet, and took her up to Lama.* Dug a hole and laid her in it…”
Our long-lost neighbors! No word about my artist friend, though. Maybe he’s already joined the angels or gone straight to hell.** I could have asked again, of course, but I just nodded, stunned, pretending I was in the know. The two of them were members of the temple. Of course you’d put her in the ground at Lama and never need to tell.
Wrapped up in a sheet and buried in the dirt.
Kathy would go bonkers learning this and have me pour tequila shots! How I wish she could have heard him. Then again, I bet she knows.
30+ years ago at Big Bend (Texas)
* The Lama Foundation in the mountains north of Taos. (Lama, NM of course.) ** Not stopping at the mailbox, anyway.
I woke up this morning feeling different and lay there for a long time as cool air seeped in through the open window. The sun was low enough for me to see it shining on the wall with squinting eyes. So quiet on the hillside. No barking dogs, no vehicles, no one shouting in the distance. There was stillness on the inside too. No dread. I savored this and hoped I’d lost more weight. The recent lightness was still new and drew in life.
I have a routine now where I collect the dishes in the kitchen sink throughout the day and wash them last thing late at night. Sometimes I brew a thermos of fresh coffee at the same time to have it ready for the morning. There’s an old mirror over the sink with a wooden frame I painted red and yellow years ago in Maryland. If I look up then, I see myself and realize there’s no one sleeping in the bedroom and it’s over, grab a kleenex with soapy hands at 2:00 a.m. but it’s already wet, and then I have to find a towel. No one wants to hear it but it’s true. Never mind the difficulties we’d have had to face if she’d lived on. When this happens, see, you lose the whole damn thing.
The suffering is massive when it comes. I feel so bad but sometimes good, as if the fix were in before the two of us existed. Maybe I’m not abandoned and just need to pay attention.
Before the sun came up I lingered in a semi-dream state with the details of her dying. So intimate and powerful. No one else would have the love or guts. I can do it, find the words, and go there. I thought of everything I could but didn’t have it all. The sequencing. When exactly did the nurses come and clean the body? I remember how I laid her down, removed the mask, and closed her eyes. The left one wouldn’t stay shut—can’t tell my sweetheart what to do. When my father died, his face collapsed and didn’t look like him at all. But Kathy was herself and beautiful. The gentlemen from Rivera’s had her in the woven body bag enclosure and waited outside while my sister and I said goodbye. I stood there by the gurney and rearranged her hair a little with my fingers. So pretty, even then. There were no tears at all.
There’s so much left to do. I know I’ll need to let go of almost all her things and mine as well. How on earth do people do this when they have no children? I feel this overwhelming urge to cut back, clean, and organize. If I dropped dead, my siblings would expire from grief and then be dead again from all the mess. It’s simply beyond comprehension. I want to get away and leave this place, this house, this Taos, maybe for a while or permanently. Everything is clear as mud. The shock has been enormous. The house is a dusty shit show museum of our past lives, love, and aspirations. No one can tell me what to do and I wouldn’t listen anyway. The only way to move on is organically. Listen to my heart and do a little every day, but number one is do no harm. No guilt, no beating up. She told me on the mesa to be proud. I am proud. And favorably poised apart from losing her, if I can say a crazy thing like that. Even there, I’m making progress.
The gravestone inscription and design are finalized. I’ll keep that private until the monument maker in St. Paul delivers and the funeral home fellow in Keota has the thing installed. I’m happy with the job I did, but Jesus—the finality of picturing her name and death date carved in stone is like dropping the 3’ x 1’ x 4” granite slab on my still beating ripped-out heart. Everything I’ve had to do has either killed me or exalted us in ways that only come with love.
I remember when my father died, however.
My mother whimpered, “Johnny, you’ll have to write the obituary. And I want a memorial service for your father.” But they didn’t go to church or anything! How, who, where, and why? I did it, though, wrote the goddamn thing and had it published, found a minister who’d never met my family, rented some kind of chapel at a nearby Boy Scout camp (?), figured out the only people who might come would be the members of his bike club (they did), since my parents had no friends in Tucson Estates after the old man put the moves on the lady across the street, freaking out her and her husband so much they sold their home and moved away. I could go on, I really could.
This was after or around the time my brother the speed freak’s evil friends burned his trailer down because he ratted on their meth lab operation in the shed out back after he got caught for tweaking. That’s all a blur, thank God. I have to mention that he later needed to escape and drove his car into the desert on the rims because the tires blew and bivouacked in a cardboard box until my sister rescued him. He’s gone now, dead from cancer screaming in a V.A. hospice, “I have money, lots of money!” About three grand, as I recall, which one way or the other ended up with me, the Eighth House wonder.*
I’m good at this, in other words, at least when I don’t have to care.
The thing is, I’ve been scared that I’ll forget. That if I feel okay or even halfway good and act like everything is normal, what I had with her will fade away. The very notion cuts me worse than anything. People tell me that won’t happen. People tell you lots of things and I don’t care. But I’ve had intimations of a process.
Ever since Kathy died, I thought that maybe I was going too. You hear of things like that. In my case I wondered if the minor swelling in my feet meant I might have heart disease. I know, I know. It’s possible, of course. I even bought a cheapo stethoscope on Amazon and tried comparing what I heard with med school training samples on the internet. (Don’t ever do this!) In the end I scheduled my first physical in years and worried hard about it for a month. Our doctor happens to be the attending physician for the rehab unit where she caught pneumonia when she didn’t swallow right and that’s what killed her. The night before the appointment, I freaked out and texted my sister (a retired nurse in Tucson) that I had to cancel because they let her die and I just couldn’t face him. Well, no. Projection City. The truth was I was wrecked because I hadn’t saved her. Thank God I realized that before she yelled at me to stop with the excuses and have the fucking physical. I went.
The first thing he did when he came into the examination room was sit right down in front of me, eye to eye, and quietly say, “I’m so sorry about Kathy. That’s a long time to be together.”
“Thank you,” I said, and nearly came apart right there behind my mask. I could hardly speak at all but somehow got it out that I understood how bad she was, that the 30% heart function from the blood clot that had caused the stroke was like a time bomb and she never really had a chance. I told him how grateful I was that the hospital had let us be together while she died and left us all alone, how special it was, and how I knew that I was born to be there for her at the end. I spoke a long time and he never rushed me. Competent, compassionate, and kind.
The physical proceeded.
I had the blood work.
My heart is fine. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with me except for being worn around the joints with tired veins and overweight. Bottom line is I have full approval for as much conditioning and exercise as I can stand. “Just not like you’re 30.”
And then there’s this:
Yesterday I walked past her picture and yelled, “COLLABORATION!” Not sure what I meant except it felt right. (She used to say that when we looked at listings, by the way.) Maybe I was thinking of the pain as art fuel, the way it hurts because I love her so damn much and I’m afraid of losing the connection. But what is there to really fear? This morning I got out of bed muttering about who knows what and heard myself say as I stepped onto the scale,
“And then we’ll get a house…”
Hell, I ought to add her name to this.
You know I was surprised.
Kathy (foreground) a year or two before I met her.
[NOTE: Originally published 6-19-2021 at Substack]
I hardly cried at all on Monday, even made the bed without a hitch. Didn’t know whether to be ashamed or let myself feel good. Just now I picked up her driver’s license and stared at that beautiful smile. The things you don’t know coming down the pike, oh my. So lucky we were, so favored. Half a minute’s thought like that, I put the license down to write before I auger in. It still does not compute.
We both have L.L. Bean fleece bathrobes. (Had, goddammit, all the verbs are broken.) I felt productive and decided to wash them which they needed. Mine’s the older, ratty one stained with oatmeal spills and soot. The washing went all right, they dried real fast, but then I had to think of where to put hers. No sense to hang it where I found it since she’s dead. Didn’t want to start the sorting process, either, can’t face that. For now it’s folded on a pile beside the cedar chest that dates from just before she died. Otherwise the house is pretty much the same as when I planned to bring her home. I have these islands of change I navigate among and people tell me this is normal.
(Whenever I use words like “dead” and “died” I feel like I just killed her. I try them out to risk it, see if it’s still true.)
The afternoon was all about the gravestone. I’ve been back and forth on that. You may recall that in her final hours when she couldn’t talk, she looked at me and shot an image deep into my brain. (I’d swear to this in any court.) It was the cemetery in Keota, Iowa where her parents and a host of relatives are buried. Kathy and I had never made a hard decision as to where or whether to bury our ashes. I wouldn’t have picked Iowa myself, of course, and she never really said. All her family members have moved away.
If she’d ever told me she wanted her ashes scattered from a mountaintop, I’d be right there in a second, but she didn’t. There was once some talk of going back to Maryland where we met. Plenty of room in the cemetery because my Uncle Bob bought a block of plots back in the Pleistocene when they were cheap. My grandmother and grandfather are buried there, as are my aunt and uncle and my father. I took care of that myself, placed his Veterans Administration marker in the grass and dug a nice hole with a post hole digger I borrowed from a funeral home director who knew my family. Bought the urn from a potter friend, filled it up, epoxied the lid. I drank tequila, poured some on the grave, and cried. Oh it was something else, all private underneath thick evergreens beside a great big upright stone that yells out “FARR” if you can read it through the bird shit. Something to consider if you want to buy a plot.
Another thing I guess is who the hell would ever visit. My immediate family members are all dead or fled from Maryland (or never even lived there1), which leaves my 90-something Uncle Buddy on the western shore and assorted cousins I haven’t seen for over 50 years. I don’t even know where Buddy lives. But these aren’t her relatives, you see, any more than the dearly departed in Keota have to do with me, though I know more of them than I do my own. I did promise Helen (Buddy’s sister) years before she died that I would bury her beside John Sr. and buy a gravestone for her, too. Unhappily for all concerned, her final decades were wracked with black belt dysfunction of such magnitude that what’s left of her ashes have been sitting in a storage unit here since April, 2012. There’s more to this but we’d be here all day. Back to business, then.
First, what anyone with heart would call my sweetheart’s last request. Eastern Iowa. The hillside. Polished gravestones baking in the sun…
Being cheap like Uncle Bob—a family trait I’ve tried to counter—I trekked the internet for tombstones. You can actually order these online now after designing the inscription on a website. They tend to be less expensive than what you’d find in your hometown and the makers email you a photo before shipping so you don’t get one for Sam in Idaho. Naturally you have to install it on your own or find someone to do this. It also turns out that every “normal” cemetery has rules and expectations, unlike the rural camposantos in New Mexico where your grieving relatives carve, cast, or hammer up whatever thing they want. From where I sit these personal creations, often just a wooden cross with painted names, are far more precious than the tired, expensive, granite monuments the Anglo world expects. But they’d never go for that in Iowa. If Kathy and I had ever bought that ranch we dreamed about, I’d have her in the ground already in a pretty spot and that would be just fine. I’d damn sure build a monument, too. Next life, motherfucker. Get it straight.
In Chestertown I simply carved a shallow cavity and placed the old man’s marker in the grass, then dug a hole to bury the urn. The old Eastern Shore gent at the funeral home told me at the time to “use a peanut butter jar” if that was all I had. They were looser there than most. The way I did this left my father’s gravestone vulnerable to mower damage. The last time I went by before we moved, I winced at all the dings.
In Iowa however, the threat of frost heaves on the prairie means I have to set the marker in a concrete foundation that goes down three whole feet. This also recesses the stone so it never takes a hit from whirling blades. Coordinating delivery of a 36 by 12 by 4-inch slab of granite weighing nearly 200 pounds with someone I haven’t found yet to dig the hole and pour the concrete from 1,000 miles away was a little much, so I surrendered. Enter a helpful soul named Lyle from the local burying concern who makes it happen for just $1,706.65, stone and tax included. I can bury the urn myself or pay another $275 and let them do it. Fine. It’s likely to be hot and humid when I get there and there might be in-laws. I don’t want to change my clothes or get down on my knees until everybody’s gone.
The next step is to pick a date and text Lyle the inscription so he can send me a computer mock-up. Oh, that. Words forever carved in stone. For four whole days I’ve sat here paralyzed…
Meeting Kathy was a miracle. Marrying the love of my life is the greatest thing I’ve ever done. Living with her every day was what I cared about the most. If that’s all anyone remembers, it’ll be enough. Being with her when she died is the reason I was born.
I know this. It is complete. It’s also not my time to go.
Holding up pretty well here. There’s some swelling in my legs but Dr. White will set me straight on that. I don’t smoke anything because I like to breathe and hardly ever have a drink. I walk at least two miles every other day. My knees have tightened up and don’t bother me so much. I’m doing exercises with a pair of 15-pound dumbbells to bulk up the old man arms. My blood oxygen’s come up a bit. The biggest change is in the kitchen. No cookies, glop, or processed food of any kind. I visited the local organic supermarket and couldn’t find a thing to eat at first. Then I saw the little packages of organic strawberries, boysenberries, blueberries, raspberries, and dates. Tasty little plums. Buy the things that speak to me and never mind the price. It’s working better than I thought it would the first week. Hardly any meat at all and just a tiny loaf of artisanal bread I have to slice myself. No liquid dairy. I’ve already lost five pounds.
In a halfway pleasant state brought on by these improvements, I thought about the inscription for the so-called “companion style” stone again. It’ll have both our names and vital dates (my death date to be engraved later), but I needed something more. A phrase, a sentence, something to-the-point and special. It came to me this time. I won’t reveal it now in case I change it, but it choked me up and that was how I knew.
I couldn’t wait to run it past her and rose a little from my chair. “Hey, babe,” you know, like that. So eager to share, I almost yelled it out! For half a second, I completely blanked on Kathy being gone and then it kicked me in the stomach. Oh my fucking god.
The worst one yet, no contest.
This morning I took off in my truck to score more groceries. Except for shaving, I was ready to face the world. Windows down, the air was cool, yappy dogs a-barkin’ on the bumpy gravel road. Little did I know my new Ralph Stanley CD of songs by Grayson & Whitter would do me in. I hadn’t played the whole thing yet, but “Handsome Molly” had me bawling at the stop sign:
Well I wish I was in London
or some other seaport town
I’d step my foot in a steamboat
and sail the ocean round
Sailing round the ocean
sailing round the sea
I’d think of handsome Molly
wherever she may be
You have to have it but it’s gone. You give up everything to hold the paradox in your heart. Now there’s something new that wasn’t here before. Hit the road and take the ashes out of here. Bury them with her parents like she wanted in the dark brown dirt.
I have manly comrades waiting in the wings to put me in there too2 beside the stone with both our names. It’s right and proper and I want the world to know that we were here on Earth together and that this was how I spent my life. Come visit 30 years from now and find out when I died. Bring yellow roses for my sweetheart. Smell the new-mown grass and feel the soft warm air. Drive to Iowa City afterwards, have a burger and a beer. Listen to the music, watch the pretty girls and boys.
Somehow I’m not dead. There has to be a reason and you’re it. I love you so much, darlin’. Help me with the life and freedom that you gave me. I do know how to find you. Sailing round the ocean, sailing round the sea, I’ll think of my sweet Kathy, wherever she may be…
Northwest across the gorges from Rift Valley Trail
The energy here is impossible to grasp. Tectonic plates oh so slowly sliding past each other on a bed of magma miles beneath your feet. How can one be sure of anything that’s merely human?
I’m still incredulous. She can’t be gone and yet where is she? I go to bed, turn out the light, and see it all play out again. The breathing and the little moans especially, the long goodbye. Three days ago I woke up shattered but the sky and clouds were so damn beautiful I took a hike where I’d be utterly alone. At a certain point along the trail I called out for a sign and thought I heard her voice. Focus on the love, focus on the love, over and over again. Think what you will about my mental state but that’s exactly what she’d say and did repeatedly when times were rough. Afterwards I saw the details in a way I couldn’t face before because I feared my guilt.
She had a stroke, of course, maybe two in quick succession that damaged separate areas of her brain. In the throes of that, she couldn’t talk or use a phone and likely would have died right there in bed if not for me. The blockages occurred when pieces of a blood clot in her heart that no one knew about broke off and traveled up her neck while she lay sleeping. The clot itself had developed over time following an aneurysm—a bulging of the arterial wall—that slowed her blood flow like the bend in a river where a sand bar grows. This happened months or even years ago. An undetected heart attack may be involved. I can’t rule out stress related to living with me, either—and that was from falling in love!
The official cause of death was blood poisoning (sepsis) from untreated aspiration pneumonia they never noticed in the rehab unit. Stroke victims often have trouble swallowing and accidentally inhale food or drink. It may have started there or from the very first spoonful I fed her in the hospital—we were careful but had no supervision. Even if she’d made it home, it could have happened yesterday, tomorrow, or next week. Blood thinners wouldn’t have guaranteed there’d be no other strokes. Her 30% ejection fraction* meant danger of arrhythmia and cardiac arrest. If she hadn’t had the stroke and all of this was was still unknown, she might have died the next time we went walking…
We fell in love so hard and flew like eagles. The only thing I’m scared of is that I’ll forget what it was like and all the things she told me. There wasn’t a day I didn’t say how much I loved her. We’d hold hands half-asleep at night. I still cry almost every time I make the bed.
It’s so quiet in this neighborhood. That’s good because I sleep and eat at any hour. I don’t know what I’m doing, but the I Ching said to wait. This suits me. The grieving shows up when it wants.
I still have some insurance money and there’s savings so I feel a little rich and I’ve been buying things. I ordered moosehide moccasins from Minnesota. They don’t have any lining, just bare leather that warms and molds itself around my feet. Almost like being touched. I bought a digital scale from Amazon that reads in tenths of a pound, so much better than the old one she wouldn’t let me throw away. My brother inspired me to set up a brokerage account with Charles Schwab. I dumped three grand into their best mutual fund and made a hundred bucks the last two weeks. Amazon again for underwear and two new pairs of hiking shorts. I pretty much stopped watching MSNBC and don’t spread scary bullshit anymore on Twitter. Ten bucks worth of flowers every time I shop for groceries because they make me think of her. I feed the birds. The weather’s beautiful, thank God.
If you’re in love and die together, maybe then you win the prize. I was ready. That bent-over geezer tapping his cane with a crazy old lady on his other arm was me. I wanted to grow old with you. I never wanted you to die.
There’s another way to win, though.
I’m so well-rehearsed at punishing myself it’s hard to see. The stream of criticism is unending. Guess who saw that and pushed so hard for me to quit and never gave up hope and always said she “knew” the first time she laid eyes on me.
I wrote an essay almost 20 years ago that puts it perfectly. She’d just left on a trip back East to Maryland to house-sit over Easter for some friends. At the time we wondered if we’d done the right thing after all by moving to New Mexico and I was worried she’d be pulled away by visiting the scene of the crime. Here’s the ending as I reassembled myself anticipating her return:
He knew what it was. He’d felt it as he’d done their income taxes, scanned her appointment calendar for business trips and read between the lines of all the dutiful and spritely entries. This was the datebook of his own voodoo goddess, as ferocious, wide-awake, and loving as any on the planet, whether in hiking boots or her own bare feet he loved so much. She was ready for the moon, and he was still waiting for permission. She had always been ready.
It was Easter again, and he was alone. He went to the freezer, pulled out the turkey franks, and set them on a shelf in the refrigerator to thaw. A feast fit for a king, he thought: king of the hipster bandidos, voodoo warrior of the West, or just plain John.
Roll away the stone, brothers and sisters, roll away the stone.
I could have written that a week ago except it isn’t Easter and she’s dead. (How the ever-loving hell?) The last body that I saw her in, at least, the bits in a box on a chair by the window. The woman I knew is never coming back and that destroys me. What I sense or imagine she really is is something else and still in love with “just plain John.”
Whenever I check out she’ll be there. There isn’t any doubt at all.
A plan of sorts is forming, nothing practical of course.
First I have to finish the job. Buy an urn to put the ashes in, order a grave marker of some kind, arrange for shipment and installation, finalize the date, reserve myself a motel room in darkest Iowa, drive up to Keota and make it happen on the weepy warm green prairie where the white folks live.
Her parents and other relatives are buried on the quiet hillside. Her grandmother who came from England as a young wife, for example, the one whose farrier husband got kicked in the head by a horse and died. (My brother-in-law still has the pipe he bit through when it happened.) I met her several times. She had a lovely British accent and the softest voice. Her oldest son (my late father-in-law) used to drive them to Montana every summer in a Model A coupe to visit another son in Anaconda. A third son became a banker in Keota after World War II. He had to straddle an open bomb bay door in a B-24 and kick a stuck bomb loose over the English Channel. All good souls, a perfect resting place. My name will be there too if not my ashes. When the time comes you can shoot them to the moon for all I care [he thought], but as I write this, why not put me with my sweetheart? It’s just that anyone who can will probably be dead or loathe to deal with Kathy’s crazy husband’s fucking dust. Best to stay detached.
The plan though if I dare call it that is more a final letting go. All I can tell you is the love of my life believed in me and I’m still here. Let’s not go throwing that away. “Just plain John” will do exactly as she told me on the mesa and I know we’ll be all right.