Soft Angel (Harder Ghost)


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?


* No second stroke apparently as others speculated.


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)


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.

[continue reading…]

Luck of the Gods (Part I)


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?

[continue reading…]

If You See Sweet Kathy


Send her home to me

“Is this John? I’m Kathleen’s nurse at Taos Living Center. I need your permission to send your wife to the ER at Holy Cross. She doesn’t look good at all.”

Me, buying lampshades at fucking Walmart, yanking my mask off to speak clearly into the phone. Everyone has disappeared, the world gone black…

“I don’t understand. I’m supposed to bring her home from stroke rehab tomorrow!”

“Her vital signs are very bad. Pulse rate 25, oxygen 42. She’s declining.”

“Declining? What… Oh God. I’ll be there right away!”

“It may take 30 minutes for the ambulance to transfer her. I’m calling now.”

I was almost at the register. Hung up and paid. Out the door and in the car. Old men and fat ladies shuffled by. It was a sunny day. Thirty minutes? I’d better go home first, I thought. I’ll need long pants and a sweatshirt at the hospital. And a phone charger, and my laptop. Maybe a sandwich, change of underwear.

Halfway home, trying to breathe. Am I really going all the way back? The phone rang once again: “Mister Farr? This is [another nurse] at the Emergency Department at Holy Cross. Your wife is declining rapidly. The EMTs just pulled in. We’ll have her here in 30 seconds…”

“I’m on my way!”

What the hell was going on?

Backed into a driveway and turned around, let a pickup truck go by. A slow one, driven by an old guy with a VFW license plate. He crept so slowly over the speed bumps by the little church I almost rammed him. If I’d had a gun I might have used it. Arrived at Holy Cross, parked close, pulled on my mask, and strode in through the plague door. Two people stood up to take my temperature and ask me questions. Oh no, you don’t.

“My wife is dying in the emergency room!”

“I’ll take you…”

So many corridors. It’s just a little hospital. Are they all like this?

“In here. Can I get you anything?”

Just then they wheeled her in and pulled the blanket back. She was in a tight fetal position, eyes closed, mouth open, all her color gone. I was sure that she was dead. Oh God. She wasn’t though. I could see her breathing, and she moaned on every exhalation.

[Shallow breath, “nnnghh,” two seconds, another breath, “annnghh,” two seconds… ]

They took blood and urine samples, hooked her up to monitors, stuck needles in her wrists, taped an oximeter sensor on her finger. Someone else came in and took an X-ray of her lungs. That wasn’t easy. Nurses came and went, glancing at the dancing colored lines. Competent-looking doctors showed up. One asked, “And you are…?”

“John Farr. I’m her husband.”

He flipped through pages on a clipboard. “I’ve been conferring with Dr. [so-and-so], the one who saw her last time.”

He told me that the chest X-ray showed her lungs were massively infected, then turned to his colleague and went on in a softer voice. I made out “ejection fraction, 30%” because I already knew that and I swear they rolled their eyes.

“What happens now?”

“Well, we can send her back to Taos Living Center, and—”

“We’re never going there again!”

“Are you prepared to take her home?”

“No way, no…”

“Then we’ll work on getting her admitted and make her comfortable.”

Say what?

They spun around and left. A nurse showed up with coffee. They wheeled her to another room and closed the door. Shallow breath, “nnnghh,” two seconds, another breath, “annnghh,” two seconds. She had an oxygen mask on now, more color, and was stretched out on her back, but her eyes were barely open and I couldn’t tell if she could hear me. “Nnnnghh,” gasp, then two seconds. I counted every pause. She moved around a little and tried to pull the sensors off.

This went on for several hours. I was freezing in my shorts. A nurse brought me a blanket that I wrapped around my shoulders. Finally they had a room for us down endless corridors. A different nurse hooked up a Tylenol IV, the moaning stopped, and yet another doctor knocked and introduced himself.

The full import of “make her comfortable” hadn’t registered yet, but the latest doctor said it wasn’t bad lungs but a second stroke that cut her down. He recommended morphine. I consented after he agreed to only half a dose each time. I didn’t want her knocked out, see, if we could talk. It calmed her and the gaspy inhalations weren’t so harsh.

Someone from the kitchen brought me food. I wolfed it down. But something had changed from one room to the next. She wasn’t getting nutrients or fluids. No sensors stuck onto her chest, no oximeter wired into a console, no instruments. Just a single IV port, a catheter, a urine bag. Oh no.

God help us, they were only feeding me!

By Saturday night I was tired enough to wish the whole world dead. No exceptions, either. Nodding off every minute. I talked constantly to Kathy who never shifted her position, breathing in that way that people who are dying do. My sister Mary the nurse was driving up from Tucson with her dog. “Tell Kathy I’m coming!” she texted from Hatch at 3:14 a.m. I did.

Mary showed up in the morning, said goodbye to Kathy, went away, came back. We talked and talked. I hadn’t seen her since forever. All this time Kathy was just lying there, mouth open, breathing like a fish washed up on the sand. Hearing is supposedly the last thing to go. My sister thought it might do Kathy good to hear us laughing, like she’d know we’d be all right. That made me feel a little better, but of course we couldn’t tell.

By late Sunday night, I was so exhausted I thought my heart would quit. Kidneys, liver, something, blood flow from my ears. Maybe I’d lose consciousness and split my skull. Kathy was either sleeping or too far gone to notice. I pushed my recliner up against her bed and curled up in a ball. I was dead already. If she made it through till morning, we could say goodbye, otherwise I’d wake up and find her cold.

Someone else was in the room. David, the tall nurse, with a stethoscope. I saw sunlight on the windows. He checked her heart and watched the quiet little gasps. “She’s close,” he said, and left. I got up, pushed the chair away, and knelt down by her bed. The next 90 minutes were the most intimate and powerful we ever had.

She was conscious. Her mouth was open underneath the oxygen mask. I saw black patches on her tongue and lips from circulation shutting down. Her eyes were open, barely. Maybe she could see. She might have moaned, I don’t remember. What I do is that she tensed her back like she was trying to sit up. I put my arm around her back and lifted. (My hand knew every bone.) She had one elbow on the bed to give support and reached up with her other arm to pull my shoulder. Her head fell over on my chest and she relaxed. Her breathing got a little softer while I talked. We stayed that way a long time.

I had to lay her down again but slid my arm behind her neck to hold her head so we could see. I’d cried a lot but something changed. Her breathing had become more agitated. I remembered my sister telling me that sometimes dying people need to know their loved ones will be all right so they can go. The gown had slipped from her left shoulder. Her skin was warm and beautiful. All at once I wasn’t worried. The love poured from me like I was on fire. I told her I would be okay, that I would write a book about us, that our love was greater than our bodies and would never die. Her respiration slowed and all was softer. She shot an image right into my brain to tell me where she wanted to be buried. I got down nose to nose with her. We looked right in each other’s eyes and held it. I didn’t talk or cry.

The way it went from there was gentle as can be. The pauses in between her breaths grew longer until I knew to lay her down. I took off the oxygen mask, fluffed her hair some with my fingers, stood up, and pushed the button to call the nurse.

All this time we’d been left totally alone. I told her everything, far more than written here. I know she heard me and she hears me still.

“Would you like the window open?” I heard someone say. (The nurse, of course.)

“Uh, sure. That would be real nice.”

“People in Taos like to do that when someone passes. You know, to—”

“Yes, I understand.”

The levers for the window cranks had been removed to keep things closed because of covid. She went to fetch one and came back.

“We’re not supposed to, but…”

“I know she’d like that. Thank you.”

How it was and how it is. How it’s meant to be. Forty-four years together, people. The thing that I was born for, plain as day. This time, this place, this woman. Simpler than I ever dreamed it was. If only I had known!

Dear Friends: A few links…

• I’ve written and posted an obituary here.

• For photos of the last eight years of our life in New Mexico (posted chronologically, newest at the top), see my SmugMug gallery.

• You’ll find hundreds of posts about us at this website by using any search field (“Kathy,” “wife”, etc.) or choosing a Category or Tags to search. Use your imagination. Some of them are in the Top Posts category linked in the menu bar.

• Most recent articles from JHFARR.COM are cross-posted at my Substack newsletter, which you can subscribe to for free.

• Washington College President Powell’s letter to WC alumni is available here. I urge everyone to read it to learn the full breadth and depth of Kathy’s academic career.

• There’s an email link for me on the “About” page.

Thanks for your comments. I know she’s read them all. – JHF