After the Emptiness

dashboard

Picnic of the Dead

I probably never cried so much as all of August, my own birthday month. As if the world had gone and left me which it had. I couldn’t write. I did lose weight. The mountains and the sky were beautiful when I walked. I didn’t go out anywhere except a couple times to buy more groceries. I lived online and studied NFTs, drank apple cider vinegar in water, let the sleeping and the the rising have their way with me. Every now and then I felt all right. All was still, no obvious emergency. Like I was standing by the blackboard and the room was quiet and the chalk was in my hand.

Well before I found myself alone, what passed for Taos social life had atrophied as thoughts turned mostly inward. Getting ready, I suppose. The pandemic locked the door, but neither of us was lonely. After Kathy died and the immediate turmoil dissipated, the truth of where and what I was sank in. I’d simply never been like this. For most of my adult life, I also must have never known what “isolated” really meant. The tasks I faced seemed insurmountable (and still do). There was no one to share my deepest feelings with, and did I even want to? All there was to talk about was “it.” Hard enough with my own siblings, and the in-laws had their shields up like I raised when Teresa died.1 I felt like I was dissolving into nothing. I tried to narrate a video clip and couldn’t even talk. It sounded like I was drunk.

By Labor Day weekend I was scary. Grim and bitter at the world. Angry at my fate, pissed I hadn’t sold the NFTs, furious at anti-vaxxers, jealous of any happy people young enough to feel immortal. A writhing ball of pain-snakes. Over the hill without a roadmap. Deeply, truly lost. I felt so bad I worried I would die, as if the angels on the other side might just give up and reel me in. Long-married surviving spouses often check out early. The very kind person who told me that suggested I get a dog to keep me company because our hearts get used to sensing other heartbeats nearby. “A little one,” he said, “because they’re easier to care for.” Even my poor crazy mother had a damn chihuahua and a couple cats, and she lived longer than anyone expected. On a human level this made sense to me. I could see having a dog again but preferred a German shepherd, and I wasn’t ready anyway.

Then out of the blue, I remembered picnics. Oh. Most Memorial Days and Labor Days, that’s exactly what we used to do. Over a stretch of years in Maryland, we often motored up the Chester River in the old crabbing skiff a friend had given me2 and cooked hot dogs on a sandy beach. Here in Taos we’d find a picnic table in the canyon by the Rio Grande or go way up in the mountains to Agua Piedra if it wasn’t going to be too cold. The latter plan appealed to me as I lay awake in bed early Sunday afternoon. Too depressed to sleep, I’d stayed up late the night before but there was lots of time. I was so damn mad, I’d do the thing for Kathy if not for myself.

At least the route was gorgeous, I knew that. From here to the pass on U.S. Hill meant climbing almost 2,000 feet through forested steep canyons, then dropping down into another one to climb some more. There was a river, the Rio Pueblo,3 the size of what Montana people call a creek, but it was cold and clear and maybe that would help me. There wasn’t really a “picnic area,” more like an open mountain meadow with a couple widely-separated tables—if unoccupied, all very private. The spot I had in mind was also the last place I remember eating out-of-doors with Kathy. She loved it there and I was still a wreck and there was danger in the air. Switchbacks, bears, and broken guardrails. Maybe this was it.

Still angry but determined, I packed a lunch and hit the road. Thank God I’m a car guy and like driving. The 2007 Pontiac Vibe has brand new tires I bought for my upcoming trip to Iowa to bury Kathy’s ashes. One of the best cars we ever owned, the re-bodied Toyota Matrix is a joy to drive with the 5-speed manual, even in the mountains. I can keep the revs up in the torque and power ranges so you’d never know there’s only the Corolla engine. I run full synthetic oil and average 35 miles per gallon. The fat steering wheel is easy to grip, the seat is firm and all-day comfortable, the transmission’s smooth, it handles better than anything this plebeian has any right to do. Driving with new tires is like jogging with new running gear. I especially like the dashboard [above], a critical selling point for me because you’re looking at it all the time. Here’s a picture from a few years back. Her car, actually. (I had to change the registration to my name.)
c

Unless you’ve been there, you’d be surprised how much deep grieving pulls you down. For the first time in weeks I felt a little life because the driving smoothed me out and I’d finally busted loose to do a thing I wanted. It felt like I was on a mission, too.

To my great relief, the road was almost empty. (New Mexico, duh.) The air felt ten degrees cooler at 8,000 feet and probably was. It’s always greener in the mountains and that soothed me. There was no one else at Agua Piedra (“water with rocks in it”), not a soul. The rio was loud, a few cars came by every five minutes or so, the wind blew like it always does up high. “Our table” was still there, all nice and clean without a speck of trash. I felt a little shaky as I spread the tablecloth we always used but I was starving. That focuses the mind. I sat down facing the water and gratefully ate everything I’d brought. All alone, remember, just like weeks and months already back in town. The solitude in such a place was even deeper and a little spooky. Just me, the water, grasses waving in the breeze, the tall, tall pines and spruces, but I felt the tension building as I polished off my Voodoo Ranger and decided it was time.

As soon as I stood up to zip the cooler, there it came, a staggering jolt of pain and grief. This was her place too, but where the hell was Katie Jane? I wailed and blew my nose. A path beside the stream led off into the trees. We’d been there, right. I walked it with the memory of her striding out in front of me and cried the whole damn way. It can’t can’t be true, I thought the way one does, and yet it was. The emptiness was cosmic. She’s dead you fool and isn’t here! Of course I knew she wouldn’t be. That’s not the point.

I packed things up and put them in the car and stood there listening. For a moment I thought there was something of her spirit in the daisies blowing in the wind and picked a few, but I could hardly bear the sadness. It wasn’t just her, either. What if every blossom, every blade of grass, was waving for a different soul? By then the air was roaring like a billion angels blasting off. You can hear it in the video below:

The thing is, see, it’s not just that she’s gone but that we shared a life for over 40 years. I won’t live long enough to ever have it be like that again. The end of her is like the end of me. The me that was, at least. What happens now?

I miss her so damn much. It hurts and makes me want to join her right away, but that is not the plan she gifted me, and I am not supposed to suffer any more any more than what it takes to understand. You know what else? Sometimes I worry that she’ll get impatient and won’t be there when I die. Go ahead and laugh. You probably need to. That’s the thing that gets me, though, I swear to God. It would be just like her and it’s happened plenty times before!

Whew. I made it back.

Be well.

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John Hamilton Farr lives in Taos, New Mexico, U.S.A. As New York Times best-selling author James C. Moore tells it in a review of John’s first book, Buffalo Lights is the work of a man attuned to the world who sees it differently than you and I and writes about it with a language and a vision of life that is impossible to ignore.” John is the author of BUFFALO LIGHTS, TAOS SOUL, ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE, and THE HELEN CHRONICLES. He has been publishing online since 1996 (Zoo Zone, Farr Site, MacFaust, GRACK!, FarrFeed) and blogs regularly here at JHFARR.COM. His latest projects are both named GODDAMN BUFFALO: purchase NFTs at OpenSea and read new writing at Substack! See also → John’s Twitter profile, Amazon Author Page, video channel at YouTube, and website photos at SmugMug. To email John, please see CONTACT INFO on About page.  

  • Candace September 15, 2021, 4:14 AM

    John, this shook me to my core. I feel like I always say the same sentiments, there’s a reason. This is the kind if love that every one of us seeks, all of our lives. Deep, the good, the bad and the ugly. She was there for it, for you. In turn, you were ready to take it all on. Lampshade included. I want to take away your pain but, that is part of the deal. No one can touch it. It is yours. She is with you, you know it. Keep writing, the raw emotion you weave with mere words is magic. She believed in you, when you were ready to fold. Now, make her proud. She brought you here. Peace my friend, c

  • Gregory Coates September 15, 2021, 8:06 AM

    I haven’t written to you since either just before or not long after the move to NM. This has been wrenching, hard to read sometimes, but necessary. Thanks.

    • JHF September 15, 2021, 6:11 PM

      You’re welcome. I’ll continue to tell it like it is. Everyone should know it’s okay to have these feelings. That’s the main thing. It’s perfectly all right.

  • vicky September 15, 2021, 2:43 PM

    It was good advise to get a dog. they are great company and just want to be with you. you will talk to it a lot. It will love you. Makes a big difference.

    • JHF September 15, 2021, 6:27 PM

      Hi Vicky. I’m sure you’re right. I’ve had dogs before, of course. Probably for half my life! My last dog was a white German shepherd. We had a very long, loving relationship. She was the last one so far. I took her to the vet and came home with a leash. Oy… Lady the Wonder Dog was very much a part of Kathy’s life, too, for many years. It was wonderful.

  • Terry Fletcher LeBreton September 17, 2021, 10:45 AM

    J,

    It’s the Austin goddess again, didn’t hear back again from you and knew you have been suffering mightily. Been there done that. Glad you are writing your pain and bleeding all over the page. It will help you heal although you don’t think so now. Happy belated birthday which means nothing and everything, right? It sucked for me also this year but not nearly as much as it did for you. And yes, we will never have those years back we had with our soul mate but WTF we had em! Focus focus focus on the gratitude as much as you can.

    • JHF September 17, 2021, 7:50 PM

      Hi Terry,

      Thanks for the kind words. Yeah, it’s been kinda grim and busy around here. What’s little appreciated among those who haven’t “been there” is how much of a total shock it all is on every level. My main reaction is probably confusion. It starts with “where the hell is she?” and spreads to how am I going to live, and where, and what do I want to do with the rest of my life? As someone pointed out to me (see link above), in addition to the emotional, spiritual, psychological, and domestic issues, there’s an underlying neurological process that has to run its course.

      Stay tuned.

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