Stupid Widower Tricks

old adobe

Goddammit all to hell

The fear came back. The kinds of things that woke me up at night before she had the goddamn stroke and suddenly I cared too much to worry. Even when she died, I didn’t cry. Not the last few hours. Not after I realized that might make it hard for her to let go, and then the love poured out of me like Niagara Falls. The last damn chance to show how much I loved her and a whole lot more. The power of it wiped my psyche clean. I need that back again because I’m crying now.

Not all the time. Monday when I decided I’d better see if the 1099-R was in her studio. It wasn’t, naturally, but so much else was. A picture of her as a little girl, the photos of her mom and dad. Performance programs, PR shots, resumés, syllabi, mementos, paintings, dying plants, her favorite rocking chair, the little notes she always left around. Her grand piano hasn’t been tuned in over three years because the very best tuner in all the world, the only one she trusted, up and moved to Spain. “Don’t you think you ought to have it tuned?” I’d ask, “I know it sounds okay now, but—”

“Wait until we find a home!” she’d interrupt. “After it’s been moved.”

I thought of that when I was looking through her desk and lost it all again. Oh baby, honey, baby doll, why did you have to go?

The physical details of her dying come back sometimes when I lie down or go to bed at night. Of course they do. I paid such close attention. The way she breathed or tried to. The blackish-purple blotches on her tongue and lips. The absolute impending certainty of what was happening, the nothing-I-could-do unfolding as I stood or sat there, holding, touching, talking to her constantly. The time I called the nurse at 4:00 a.m. because I couldn’t get a reading on my pocket oximeter. She looked at me like I was from another planet but humored me by wheeling in the big machine that told us 98% and afterwards I tried my own again and there was nothing. You see it spilled out on the floor or painted huge across the wall but don’t know how to feel. I know she’s dying but I stand there fooling with the stupid plastic thing as if it makes a difference…


Okay, you get it. Welcome to my world. And now a little shift but still on Planet Juan.


Before my honey died she looked me in the eye and shot a picture right into my brain. It was the local cemetery in Keota, Iowa (pop. 958) where her parents are buried. No one in the family lives there any more unless we count the aunt by marriage who erected headstones for her miscarriages and gave them names. She meant well of course and I don’t mind. My sister-in-law and her husband have a monument in place with dates of death left blank. Their brother in Georgia wants his ashes scattered in the Gulf of Mexico so he’s out. But scads of other relatives are already in the ground, including Kathy’s beloved “Gram” who came all the way from England. She had a hand pump in her kitchen for the well and once had grapes and chickens in the back yard. Her cherry dresser stands beside my bed. Our bed. My bed. Goddammit all to hell.

The telepathic prompting told me, yes, please put my ashes there. (Finally looked at them last night. Quite finely ground, about five pounds of powder in a heavy plastic bag.) The plan is I will use her parents’ plot to bury the urn and place a flat “companion stone” on top. Having neither of these on hand meant I had to do extensive research.

One place I found is called “Mainely Urns” and guess which state it’s in but they sell every kind of urn and granite gravestones from a website built in ‘96 I’d say. They’re not the only ones, either. Returns might be a bitch if anything was spelled wrong but there’s no reason I can’t do this. I’ve even been texting back and forth with a fellow named Slaubaugh who handles all things cemetery-related in Keota. He hasn’t gotten back to me yet about borrowing a post hole digger so maybe I pushed him too far. Mainely Urns does sell nice bronze urns that cost much less than I ever would’ve thought. There’s even one on sale right now for 80 bucks. Don’t know about the granite business yet.

By “companion stone” I mean one that has both our names on it. The drawback here is that it’s heavier but I’m still shopping. Two small stones side-by-side might do even if I’m never buried there. Having some kind of marker is the thing though. I’m proud to have walked this Earth with the love of my life and want at least a few to know. So here’s the deal: I have the gravestone (also called a “grass marker” since it lies flush with the turf) shipped there if it’s not too heavy, regardless of where I order it from, or maybe I could pick it up along the way. Early September after Labor Day. Perhaps my sweetheart’s siblings will be there. I dig a hole, bury the urn, and place the stone. Everybody cries and I drive off into the sunset. Maybe I return years later on secret pilgrimages. Not tell anyone, just me and her. Strange dude kneeling on the grass and weeping. Leaves a bouquet of yellow roses, walks back to his Maserati and disappears.


I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where I’m staying. Driving through Taos, it feels like Venus or bad luck. What is there to stay for? Soon everyone who knew who Kathy was will be dead just like me, and mostly people didn’t know. Now there’s a funny thought. We only pay attention to you while you’re in our faces, then we all go back into the stew. I guess the thing is do it now and let us know.

She lasted 22 years after she retired early. We didn’t plan it though, she simply quit and then we winged it. Everybody thought we must have gotten an inheritance but no, not anything. What if she had stayed on ten more years in the academic cancer factory? Shut up you shit you can’t ask questions like that. The point is that she stood for joy and insisted we follow our hearts. That was how we got here and it’s beautiful. There are no mistakes, not ever, and there’s no way I can make one now.

I’ve opened a brokerage account with Charles Schwab. Watch the old dead hippie blow the rent on mutual funds. A couple, anyway. Wake up a year from now and find I made a couple thou, I’ll keel right over then go buy another phone. Felt I couldn’t do that while we were “saving for a house” of course. That didn’t work in any case and now she’s gone, goddammit, but still here in my heart and maybe cheering.

When I was looking for the tax form in her studio, I came across some old silverware she had there. Pieces from a larger hoard here in the hutch, actually my great-grandmother’s silver plate from way back in the 1800s in West Virginia. I kid you not. We—“we”—have tons of things like that. No one in either family ever threw anything away, especially mine if it were worth a nickel. Somewhere I have my great-grandfather’s “clergyman’s pass” for the B & O railroad. Worth lots more than nickels then, but the point is that my grandmother kept it, see, because she was proud that he could ride the train for free…

Where was I? (These people. Me too, obviously.) Anyway, the silverware:

It’s heavy, solid, and I like it. Could easily be 150 years old. Why am I eating with soulless stainless steel utensils made in China? Let me say again, I like these. She made me find them. The drawer was even hard to open. They’re a symbol. Follow your fucking heart right now or die a worthless sack of scum.

Immediately I thought, hey.

Hey, Juan.

You need a funky old museum kind of house to keep and use this stuff. It makes you smile. Then you don’t have to sell or give it all away and pull a stupid trailer around to state parks like a sad old motherfucker with a little yappy dog and scare the little girls. My Kath-a-leen approves. (“Why didn’t you do this before I died?”) I know, it’s sad and crazy but there is this kind of sense. I had a thought I liked and didn’t kill it. My family, all mostly dead, would not approve and this does bring me joy.

A flicker of direction. A drunken firefly at 40 yards. I may barf it up tomorrow but tonight I sleep. Oh look, a half-dead lilac. Moving on.

Soft Angel (Harder Ghost)

Kathy

Visiting in Dubuque, 2008

Thinking of her infected lungs. There is nothing anyone can do. The exhausting dreams that take all night and wake me up but I have only been asleep for 90 minutes. The aching spasms in my legs. The box of ashes on the chair. “Aspiration pneumonia,” the death certificate said,* from stroke-affected swallowing that lets food or drink get sucked into the lungs. She was in a rehabilitation clinic. During a pre-release conference call with staff, they pounded into me that I would have to watch her swallowing, prepare soft food, thicken her drinks, and don’t forget the diapers just in case, at the same time she was dying of sepsis from a lung infection no one noticed. I’d already read up on things to watch for, too, but no visits allowed because of covid. Surrounded by nurses, occasional doctors, therapists, and staff, and she got sicker there than she had been before admittance.

With the blood clot in her artery she was probably already doomed. We had no idea, obviously. As mechanisms go for checking out the stroke was short and violent. Not fatal in itself but consequential. Again no damned idea, no one ever tells you straight what to expect. I guess I wouldn’t either. Why preclude the possibility of miracles?

The clinic days were ragged, brutal. Her cognition cracking. She was frightened and confused and wanted to escape. She couldn’t hold her iPhone straight for FaceTime calls and almost no one helped her. I couldn’t be with her, not even for a minute, for the full three weeks after her disabling stroke. The situational cruelty was staggering. I’d call her, finally get through, and hear her half-shout, half-cry, “JOHN! JOHN!” then lose the phone, and I would try to hold myself together until she heard me once again, and I could say good-bye, I’ll call you in the morning, anything it took.

We had our time together. So full of love there finally were no tears.


There’s so much business to take care of that the days go by. The bank, insurance companies, the MVD, finding time bombs in the drawers. Telling the minister who doesn’t read obituaries to take her off the email list because she’s dead and hasn’t been to church for five years anyway. Sometimes I fall apart. Other times there’s strength I don’t remember from before. I shave, I floss, I wear sharp clothes, allow myself to follow every impulse. Make all the noise I want at 3:00 a.m., stay up till dawn to write. Though she always insisted that was fine (“I’m a musician, I don’t mind!”), I only half-believed her. There never were any limits right from the beginning.

I never needed her permission, only mine.

What then do I do with this? I used to leave her notes on index cards, things I thought of after she had gone to bed, prop them up where she would find them when she made her morning tea. Sometimes she’d stick them on the fridge with magnets, other times they’d disappear. The other day I found one she had kept for years…

“Wherever you are, wherever we’re together, that’s my home.”

Oh man. We spent the last 10 years especially, trying hard to put down roots. Taos is a heavy place to do that. The physical environment is so harsh, the economics crazy. Nothing ever felt quite right except we loved the mountains and the local culture. (Hint, hint.) “Home” was still elusive. We hung onto this much too small and funky old adobe with a view and dreamed of something nicer for so long. She often said, “I don’t want to die here in this house!” but just as often said how grateful she was that we had it, how solid and safe it felt inside. The privacy. The quiet. The trees, for heaven’s sake. Our time was up, however, and we knew it.

Was it ever. Jesus.

I’ve realized something since.

She’s given us another chance. I don’t have to be a caregiver. She skipped right past her mother’s fate. There’s enough money to survive a while. This is where I am, I’ve no idea what to do. It’s not the what, though, but the essence of it. I can do whatever I want. I always could. She always told me to. Insisted, yelled, cajoled, implored, and even cried. I mean, I really can. I must. I owe it to her. I owe it to myself. Maybe I owe it to the air, the sun, the rocks. Maybe you.

Everything I did for more than half of my whole life was mostly with this woman. Even when I went off on my own, sailed my kayak down the Chester River, hiked almost to Wheeler Peak, or drove off in the wilderness where she’d be scared to go, I told her all about it. Talked her head off, raved and cursed and got high afterwards. Took a bath and fed the cat. Wrote a letter, showed her pictures. Went to bed and held her close.

Why is she gone and I’m still in this body? Can anybody do this?

DO THEY KNOW?

* No second stroke apparently as others speculated.

Arroyo

Taos Valley Overlook

Leave the path

Nothing over there but air. I’m still sleeping on the sheets I changed to on her final weekend when I thought that she’d be coming home. I used to come to bed and run my hand along her hip to let her sleeping self know it was me. Three weeks ago I put an extra blanket on the bed because I wake up cold and crazy. This morning I traced an arm along the outline of her body in my mind. The volume that she occupied, the warmth, her little sounds, the scent and touching reaching out into my brain. The way I’d read her moods, stay in bed a while to hold her or get up to start the day. Tucking in the bottom sheet on her side was impossible at first. I’m already on my knees to do that so the pillow’s right for punching, but I don’t. Food lasts twice as long now. I don’t have to keep the old New Yorkers. There’s all this fucking tea. I have so much to tell her, dammit.

This week was the worst. At least I walked, though. Every other day in fact. The muscles have already snugged up against my knees so they don’t rattle quite as much.

We used to come out to walk the Rift Valley Trail until she started feeling “shaky.” Now I know it was the aneurysm and the blood clot. Maybe she was having mini-strokes the whole time she suspected Parkinson’s, or something else. One of the last days we hiked there she strode out far ahead. No power on earth could slow her down and I lost sight of her. A minute later I came down a steep place where the trail crosses a small arroyo and found her sitting in the path. She wasn’t resting. “Where were you?” she wailed. Her knee was cut and bleeding. She’d badly skinned a shin, and there were gashes on her forearm where she’d tried to break a fall.

“God, what happened? I’m so sorry, look at you, you’re all banged up!”

“The trees closed in on me…”

The trees? They what?

Oh what a dark cold gust blew through my chest.

I’d fallen out there too on longer solitary hikes (not where she had), twice on another isolated stretch in both directions. Both times I felt for sure that something pushed me. I didn’t remember that this afternoon, too scared of what I thought the tree thing meant for her. It would have been a good thing, though, and quieted my heart.

On Monday and Wednesday I stayed on old familiar ground, climbed the hill I measured long ago to know where I should turn around. Maybe too familiar. The place where Kathy fell had always had a feeling to it, years before in fact. On Friday I felt strong when I walked past and then my gumption drained away. Farther on I reached the large arroyo at the bottom of the hill. Long ago I named it “Aster Gulch” for the purple flowers that bloom there if we have a rainy spring. I’d never walked farther up or down it than it took to hide away, but yesterday I wanted to explore. The will was there for that.

You never know where arroyos go unless you give in to the impulse. Eroded banks can give up treasures. Sometimes I find bones. The sand and clay dust in the bottoms hold clear footprints for a while. I followed boot prints, small ones like a woman’s, that quickly disappeared. There were critter dens and not a speck of trash, untrod rocks and silence if I didn’t click my pole against them. The sagebrush scratched my legs and drew a little blood. Somehow that appealed to me.

In places there are stunning boulders smoothed and rounded by primeval floods. Not this time, but I did see tall trees on a ridge line not too far away and decided to climb out. (Carefully, in case I had no cell phone signal.) When I hit the ridge the only thing I saw was miles of sagebrush and piñons, but I knew where I was headed from the mountains and took off, meandering around the vegetation. Five minutes later I was shocked but happy to stumble out onto the trail.

Amazing when that happens, and you’re almost home again.

Luck of the Gods (Part II)

Kathy

In San Cristobal on her birthday, February 25, 2001

The wind is gusting over 30 mph now at 7,000 feet in Taos County. Barely budding branches whip and sway in the cold, dry air. Forty-four years ago on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, it was warm enough for sandals and the lilacs bloomed. The past is so close I can smell it. I’d give an arm or leg to have her back again the way it was when we were young, the time my life began.


I’d met her, all right, but I didn’t know her name and wasn’t curious. Not yet. There was too much going on.

For a time I chased a college senior. There was something to it. She was loose, enthusiastic, and we did it everywhere, in her preacher father’s house in Baltimore, the dorm, and on the beach. But of course I smothered her. After that I dallied with a hard-edged soul from out of town whose main attraction was her fear. When I figured out her boyfriend was in jail, I ran like thunder. There were others, naturally. I thought I had to prove myself, made a twisted mess of most encounters, missed a couple might-have-beens. Not really, though, considering. More like learning to swim.

Around this time my Aunt Elsie, wife to Uncle Bob, had me over for lunch one day and asked how I was doing. Going hungry, to tell the truth, but that’s not what I said.

In the kitchen, open windows, smell of boxwoods, Bob and Elsie’s house as it had ever been. Mockingbirds and bumblebees outside. A screen door softly slammed next door.

I mentioned writing songs. She must have sensed a lack in me, an opportunity, and wondered if I knew the college teacher who used to play the organ at her church. Well no, not exactly. (Was this the one who woke me up at work? I wasn’t sure.)

“I think you’d like her. She’s with the Music Department. Used to be married, not seeing anyone now, I don’t think. Maybe you could take a course.”

That got my attention. I’d been trying to transcribe the melody of my latest dirge, thinking that was how you copyrighted something, sent sheet music and a check across the Bay to Washington. Validate myself and be a man. Buy food.

A few days later I was in her office. She was sitting at a tiny desk, hard at work on grading papers. I stood beside her, talking, and don’t recall she looked at me at all. Oh sure. She was wearing shorts and sandals, some kind of a top, with a scarf pulled tight across her head like she was incognito. I told her I’d had piano lessons as a boy, but had forgotten how to write the notes. She said that she was teaching Music Theory 101 right now. The only way for me to jump in late would be to “audit,” unofficially of course, and that was fine with her, if I was interested.

Bang, bang, bang. Do tell.

This was in no way a physical seduction, not to me, at least. That wasn’t what I felt. (But-but…) We were both a dozen years older than her oldest students, she looked like she was hiding out (she was), yet here was someone at my level sticking out her neck to help me. Finally, I was curious. There were rumbles in the void. I said I’d be there in the morning, thanked her, rushed over to the bookstore, bought a pad of music paper and some pencils, and hurried home to pull out clean clothes and psych myself for class the next day. It had been a while, you know.

I’d long since moved out from Granny’s house into a small apartment behind a real estate office across from the A&P just off downtown, relevant in so many ways. The college, my apartment, her apartment, the local bar, the grocery store, the park, the river, the Workbench, P.O., courthouse, everything, were all in easy walking distance. You couldn’t invent a better stage for playing out your destiny. A couple minutes in any direction put you in the country. Rolling fields and forest, sandy beaches on the Chester. It was just ridiculously fine. The lilacs, too, remember. Springtime.

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Luck of the Gods (Part I)

Kathy

Early February, 2001 in San Cristobal, NM (photo available here)

I was a piece of work. So much baggage. But all she felt when she laid eyes on me so many years ago was love. “From the very first, I knew,” she said, and repeated it every time she tried to lift me up. I used to get so depressed that she would cry. “You have so many gifts,” she’d say, “I love you, and I always knew…”


It was in the spring of ’76 or ’77. I’d left Austin a year or so before in my Saab 96 V-4 pulling a homemade camping trailer I’d bought from a redneck deer hunter and headed north to Chestertown, Maryland, because my grandmother’s house was available for a time while she was off in Maine. Lady the Wonder Dog was with me. The little trailer had room for me to sleep and everything I owned in the world, which wasn’t much. An oxyacetylene welding outfit minus the tanks, a few metal sculptures (a moth, a mosquito, and a bat), some books and clothes, a 12-string electric guitar, a Heathkit amp, a bike—certainly no computer gear. I didn’t even have a radio. The back of the thing opened up and made a little kitchen with a Coleman camp stove. I could pull off the road, make instant coffee and a sandwich, and survive. It wasn’t all that hard, except for being terrified.

I had two university degrees and about a thousand bucks. The idea was to find a place to live and be an artist. My Uncle Bob the doctor met me at Granny’s house and gave me a key. He checked up on me every now and then to make sure I didn’t steal anything, but I was cool with that because I thought he liked me. That first month I spent there was kind of like being dead. My clearest memory is of a sinus infection that spread to my ears so I couldn’t hear a thing. That night I thought there was someone shouting outside and walked around the place with a flashlight in the fog, a good a metaphor as any for the time. I didn’t know anyone in town (population, 2,500), got sick a lot, flung the Ching, and wrote sad songs about a woman I’d left behind. God must love at least a few young stupid men or else he’d let the fates eviscerate us. Perhaps the tiny spark of Jesus makes him sentimental. I even had some leather sandals.

Before I ran away from Texas, there were fantasies of Maine. I’d even corresponded with the owner of a farm in northern Aroostook County who was looking for a house sitter. He assured me it was gorgeous and that there were moose and eagles, but the snow was very deep and I would need to gut it out till spring. I sat with this a while until the ember died. It might have been the wolves.

Nonetheless my Aunt Mary lived there, much farther south down by Augusta, hosting her mother for late spring and early summer in a 200-year-old barely restored Cape Cod on 35 acres in the woods. With nothing happening in Chestertown, I thought this might be a clever base for selling metal insects at a string of coastal art shows and resolved to try. My parents were headed there as well, my father having just retired from the FAA. He and my mother had blown up their Oklahoma City lives and hit the road with a pickup truck and knock-off Airstream. All the old man cared about was drinking a glass of vodka at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., riding his bike for an hour, coming back for coffee, more vodka, unfiltered cigarettes, and bacon before fidgeting all day while my mother read Family Circle in the trailer.

I wasn’t up there very long. A purer hell than both my parents, my father’s sister and their mother, together with my uncle Tom by marriage—a retired merchant marine machinist from Brooklyn who thought I should be welding farm equipment—could hardly be imagined. It was drippy wet along the coast, all the art show ladies cared about were fishing boats and lobsters, and I freaked out but good. Granny’s house in Maryland was still available and I decamped. Besides, there was something about Chestertown that appealed to me. It was peaceful, there was water. We used to visit Granny in my childhood, Uncle Bob had been a doctor there forever, and I felt it was my birthright in a way. Who knew what I would find?

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