The Deed is Done Pt. 2

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“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 goddamn fool I was, my love…

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


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.

Urn Walk

burial urn in snow

Before it snows again

The trip is on, the one I thought I’d make last fall, all the way to Keota, Iowa and the hillside cemetery where Crooked Creek runs through the woods. But the marker is finally in place beside her parents’ stone and I can place the urn myself. I’ve hired a grave digger name of Dennis Bean. “Make the check out to Bean and Bean,” my contact emailed. Turns out he’s in business with his cousin. That figures. Everyone I’ve dealt with up there has been open, kind, and helpful. It’s such a relief, so, well, human… I’ve been filled with epic purpose for the task. Still am, but now I see it marks the end of my old life. I still can’t think of her without remembering she isn’t coming back, so this scares me.

Kathy and I visited Keota many times over 44 years. Her father grew up there and played football in a leather helmet. His mother came from England with the sweetest accent. Not far from there is an Amish place called the Stringtown Store where women in bonnets sell bulk foods and treats. If you ask directions in Kalona, they’ll tell you to “turn right at the cheese silo” and don’t act dumb. We often stopped there on our way out of town to buy a few more kitchen knives and snacks or maybe a cherry pie if we were heading north to see her sister in Dubuque. Kathy’s uncle Tom, now deceased, ran the local bank for years but spent World War II as a bombardier in a B-24. He once had to kick a stuck bomb loose over the English Channel while straddling the open bomb bay doors. I can see that in a 20-year-old. If you survived you’d always have that with you. Can you feel the wind blast as the engines roar, hear the muffled shouts, see the glint of sunlight on the whitecaps far below?

It even looks a little like a bomb, too.

Wasn’t hard to find at all.

That’s Kathy in Wall Lake at the other end of the state in western Iowa—Andy Williams’ birthplace, by the way—at the house where she lived when her father ran the weekly Wall Lake Blade as editor, publisher, and sole employee. You probably ought to read this post from May 16, 2013:

This is the little house in Wall Lake, Iowa where my wife the classical pianist lived until she was three years old. We visited it on the way to Dubuque. Next door on the right is the house where an older woman lived whom she used to visit as a child. According to her, she’d just knock and walk right in. The woman owned a baby grand piano, which fascinated the little girl. One day she walked in, went over to the piano, and started playing the same note over and over. The woman was lying in bed and asked her please to stop because she wasn’t feeling well. The child was disappointed because she’d been imitating the ringing of a church bell and felt so proud: bong, bong, bong, etc. This was also the first time she’d ever touched a piano…

We stood on the sidewalk together looking at the house. As she told me the story, she shook and cried.

Cremation tag identifies the ashes.

The route I’ll take is the same we drove together dozens of times over the years. Eventually I got to know all the towns in Iowa she ever lived: Wall Lake, Harlan, Ottumwa, Des Moines, and Mount Vernon (Cornell College), north of Iowa City. Keota is just southwest of there. After spending the night in Nebraska, I’ll drive east to Washington in Keokuk County where I have a reservation at a former mom-and-pop motel like I swore I”d never fall for any more. (This in preference to the “Belva Deer Inn.”) The next morning I’ll wake up in a strange town, find some yellow roses, and drive 14 miles across the prairie to Keota. For all I know the hole’s already dug. “He will fill in the grave whenever you like and then will leave,” they said. Just me then, with the green grass and the breeze, kneeling at the grave stone I designed myself with both our names.

Isn’t it crazy, though, how I think I have this all worked out? Oh no.

Anything can happen, anywhere. That’s why I really want a miracle. A holy flash. Something that makes sense to me because I can’t believe a smile like that just goes away. She had the key to all the love that fills the universe and poured it out on me. When they brought her to the ED that last time, the doctor said she’d go “within the hour.” Even so, she lasted another whole day and a half with me standing or sitting by the bed the whole time touching, talking, listening to her breathing. When I ask myself why it took so long, I realize she simply didn’t want to leave me.

2007 Vibe we bought new for her.

I used to tell her how much I loved her spirit. Told her that again today, in fact. Maybe something new will happen now that spirit’s all there is. We both deserve it. There’s still so much to do by way of cleaning up the wreckage that I can’t accomplish in my sorry state. I’m so afraid that I’ll forget the way it was, but I need this not to hurt so much. That’s why I’ve been taking the urn for “walks.” The movement is important to remind me that it isn’t rooted here. The urn is going away, John and Kathy’s final road trip. We had so many everywhere and shared a thousand thrills. Yes, it’s riding in the passenger seat. I may be weird but she would like that. I’ll have it in a box, though, strapped in with her red beret on top and a little wooden skeleton from Mexico, and I’ll be dressed to kill. Every door slam will be conscious.

Were you right about me, Katie Jane?

What will I do with the time that’s left?

Who will step out of the car when I get “home”?

Kathy Loved Canada Geese

I guess they know.

Ten days ago I decided for the hundredth time to go on living and went for a drive. At least I knew where I wanted to go and had a mission. Dropping a thousand feet down off the mesa to the bottom of the canyon of the Rio Grande at Pilar is worth it anyway. When we had a dentist in Embudo, just a few miles from where I shot that video, we’d take the 20-minute thrill ride just to get a cleaning. I never could believe how lucky we were.

Dixon, NM. Also just a few miles from Pilar.

My destination this time was the Taos Junction Bridge across the Rio Grande. To get there you drive to Pilar, take the only road there is—it goes along the river—and wind your way to the end of the pavement. On the other side of the rio the road turns into rocks and dust, climbing steeply up the canyon wall with hardly any barriers to keep poor fools from driving off the cliff. Before the bridge, there’s a road that takes you to a campground and a trailhead. You can also take Picuris Trail straight from the bridge to the rim of the canyon 700 feet up and feel like you’re a hero. Those 1.4 miles are what I had in mind, to see if I could do it after not exercising for a week because of snow and mud. Right away I hit a stretch of solid ice and had to inch back down to hike along the road instead. This was just for exercise, however. The mission was to scatter some of Kathy’s ashes in the Rio Grande.

On the way, I ambled off-trail as I like to do and followed a small arroyo up the side of the canyon. I was sheltered from the breeze, the sun was shining, there was no one else around—it’s always like that here—and all was magical. That’s what New Mexico means for me, being out in Nature to have your near-religious experience or bleed out from a compound fracture. Actually, those could be the same. At any rate, a few yards past where I took the picture underneath I accidentally found another trail and followed it down to the road to get my bearings.

To my amazement and joy, a sign at the road said the trail I’d just descended would take me back to Picuris Trail, likely at a point above the trees and icy patches! One more U-turn and I tried again. Walking past where I’d emerged and hiked up earlier, I soon found myself in a strange and wondrous small oak forest part-way up the east side of the canyon. Nowhere in over 20 years of living in New Mexico had I ever encountered such a thing. It shocked and stirred me, frankly. What kind of oaks they were I couldn’t tell you, but there were oak leaves on the rocky ground and I was swept away to other places, other lives. The scrub oak “forests” that spring up in burned-over areas higher in the mountains produce tangled masses of deciduous brush you’d never think were oaks but for the leaves. These were more substantial, tall, with trunks as wide as half a foot or more. Gnarly weird but definitely trees.

I spent over an hour walking slowly over perhaps a quarter mile of trail, if that, photographing everything. It was just that thrilling to be in a different ecological niche from sagebrush high desert. Then I saw the rocks: almost every boulder had a hole in it. One, two, three, or many. Some of them were large enough for a person to curl up inside and go to sleep if you were drugged. Then I realized I was looking at frozen one-time boiling magma. When the Earth opened up some billion years ago in these parts, it would have been horrendous. So much molten rock, bubbling with trapped gases, popping, exploding, entombing the landscape over vast distances until a fragile almost hairless ape went walking with his phone. I call this picture “BirdDog” and I’m sure you understand.

So mysterious and strange, these lava sculptures
But I hadn’t forgotten the mission. Almost, due to self-protective rules that may apply, and there wasn’t that much daylight left. The river was the thing though. The Rio Grande, where we drove up and down so often to observe the grandeur and the wildlife. Bighorn sheep, coyotes, eagles, herons, migrating waterfowl of many kinds. (There must be people in Taos who don’t know or care that you can drive down to the river and see half a dozen species any time they’re on the move. I’m not one of them.) There always seemed to be some Canada geese as well. More than one time in the canyon, we’d seen bald eagles in pursuit of geese although I never saw a takedown. Back in Maryland we lived out in the country, where huge flocks went feeding in the corn fields in the fall and stayed there through the winter, pecking in the frost. They were something of a totem animal for us, the way their comings and goings marked the change of seasons and their honking filled the air at dusk or early in the morning. Life in Kent County revolved around the geese and guiding was a local occupation, but for us the birds were messengers of the gods and not a thing to shoot.

The Rio Grande from several years ago in early fall.

It’s been so terrible for me, so anguishing and sad, realizing that she’s gone. It makes no sense that I could be this old and find myself alone except that this is how it works. Someone usually goes first unless you both perish from an “act of God” or in a stupid accident. The catastrophe I’d have left behind would be the cruelest fate, though maybe that’s unfair. Our siblings could have gathered, found where all the necessary things were hidden, taken care of her—or would they have even tried? Sometimes you just can’t. My sister and a friend here offered me assistance and I wouldn’t have it! All I know is, it’s been ten whole months and I’m almost just as lost as ever.

Today was difficult. I thought about how proud I was for all those years to be with her, how beautiful and talented she was, how sophisticated, passionate, in love with life. All the qualities and experiences she brought with her and how bereft I am not having her around. How does something like that just disappear?!? Marrying Kathy was the greatest thing I ever did. I used to tell her all the time. I told her that today, in fact, before I sat down here to write, and heard inside my head: and I was proud to be with you… Some of us don’t comprehend so well at first. Watch the video again, it’s there.

NOTE: This post at Substack with full-width images. Also new at OpenSea:

For Kathy

JHF at Ute Mountain

Opening the heart

“Oh Lord,” I yelped as I came around the bend. The road was nearly blocked by half-buried rocks the size of watermelons. I hit the brakes, pulled the Dakota into low, and did the best I could climbing over big black chunks of lava from the Pleistocene. The constant pitching left and right had already caused the shoulder strap to saw into my neck and I’d unhooked it. The 20-year-old truck had honker six-ply tires but I still went slow enough to stop if I heard scraping and we made it through unscathed. By “we” I mean the Dodge and me. My honey was represented by a gorgeous scarf I’d hung behind my seat, her red beret, a wooden Day of the Dead skeleton ornament, and a Japanese tea can with a portion of her ashes. When I’d finally driven as far up the mountain as I dared, I turned the truck around to face the sun, lowered the window, and killed the engine. I grabbed the can, stepped out, and tossed some powder in the breeze. “I love you, Kathy,” I said, looking to the sky with open arms, and turned to dust in four directions. Several times I did this, breaking into sobs (which I did not expect), then climbed back in and ate my lunch washed down with hot sweet coffee. There might have been a little Kathy on my tuna sandwich.

This was the terminus of my backroads quest, partway up the lower slopes of the extinct volcano where the junipers and piñons start, 8,300 feet above sea level. I could see the tall straight trunks of ponderosa pines in a near-vertical canyon high above me. It was 45°F and sunny. Crazy cirrus feathers splashed across the blue. Coming up I’d seen a flock of several dozen bluebirds, moving just ahead along the road where hardly anybody ever goes. This was only my second time but I had never come this far. No wonder on the one hand, how could we not now, on the other. After I finished my lunch, I got out again and walked a little way to take some pictures. I could see the twisting canyon of the Rio Grande far below. As far as I could make out, there was not a sign of human habitation but the rocky road, and I was overcome with joy. “Can you see this, honey?” I asked, knowing full well that she could, and cried again. The oscillation of emotion was exhausting and a validation, like the bridging of two worlds. I stood there in suspension till the wind began to blow and made me cold. There’s just something about mountains, you can tell that they’re alive. Kathy would have understood and had a hand in this. There was not the slightest doubt.

I’d come up with the idea to drive out to Ute Mountain as a way to celebrate the Solstice, since I wasn’t doing Christmas this year. It doesn’t feel at all like Christmas anyway with Kathy gone. For all our time together, in truth it was really just us each December. When our parents were alive and far away, we always traveled, usually by road trip. The journey was the main event, the days in Iowa or Arizona interludes along the way. During our years in Maryland, Kathy had Christmas concerts to rehearse and play and there were parties with our friends. Then everyone we knew would disappear, cocooning with their families. We’d shoot out of town at high speed heading west and have insane adventures, dodging semis in the blizzards on the way to find a motel room in Indiana. No internet or cell phones, no way to check the weather at your destination or look up lodging on a website. We grabbed a local paper when we stopped for gas and checked the printed weather maps and prayed. I kept a scrap of paper in my wallet with phone numbers from the year before so I could call ahead if there were vacant pay phones at the rest stops, otherwise we winged it. Pulling into Des Moines to stay with Kathy’s folks was always a relief with certain protocols and reassuring sameness. Like re-entering 1956, perhaps, with overheated houses in the snow and happy female chatter in the kitchen. Pecan “tassies,” lemon curd, extra money for the paper boy, endless football on TV or radio in the little den that used to be her room while I gamed our getaway between the storms.

Basically though, she and I were all the family we really needed, especially after we moved to Taos and the lights went out in Iowa. (Arizona lay under boycott.) Five or six years ago I left a note for her one evening where she’d find it in the morning when she made her tea. This was after yet another depressing real estate experience where we’d visited a house for sale, come back to the old adobe, looked each other in the eye, and both said “no.” Written boldly on an index card and initialed with a flourish, it read:

Wherever you are
Wherever you and I are together
That is my home

The note disappeared before I got up. I knew she’d seen it, but I soon moved on and never thought of it again. A week after I closed her eyes at Holy Cross, I found it in her dresser in a drawer she opened every day…

A week or so before I “decided” to drive out here, I’d been through a terrible time, unable to write for more than a month, making progress with my art but feeling old and left behind. I was worried about my health as well with heart rates well below alleged normal. I consulted with my doctor, who didn’t seem concerned and said my heart was slow but otherwise okay. (“The highest reading I have on file for you is 60!”) He ordered up some blood work1 and sent me on my way. But for me the main thing was the grieving. Who knew I’d feel so bad some eight months later? The loneliness and loss of intimacy had staggered me. I felt like I was sliding down into a hole I’d never climb back out of and just die. It happens. After seeing Dr. White, however, it occurred to me that I should also talk to Kathy. Hang on.

It wouldn’t be the first time. The voice is very quiet and sounds like her. While I hear it in my head, spatially I’d say it comes from near my heart inside my chest. There’s better “reception” out of doors sometimes. Maybe it’s the sky, or sun, or birds. Who knows. I started off by telling her I loved her, missed her so damn much, and just how fucking lost I was. None of this was easy, but before I’d even finished, I heard clearly:

Be proud of yourself. Share the beauty and the joy.

Those are not my words. As a strategy for coping, I never would have thought to tell someone to “share the beauty and the joy.” I mentioned this on Twitter and a psychotherapist in Santa Fe (@shrinkthinks) shot back, “You’d better listen!” I made a little joke about how simple it was. “It is brilliant advice!” she said. Since then “share the beauty and the joy” has been a mantra for me and a demon killer. The point is not to ANSWER anything but TRUST… The heart again! You see?

The power of the place I was.

The bridging of two worlds by letting go.

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