The Quiet Conjurer

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“The missing pieces are everywhere” –John Hiatt

Signs from above need not bring you to your knees.

Nor do the bright copper departed always tap at your shoulder, or tickle your heel.

Messages and messengers  that appear in forms our five senses perceive–a touch, a bird’s rustle, a radio song–seem to have tapered off, replaced by no less vivid flashes no one but I can see, and which are more clearly demarcated as memories rather than Sixth Sense-style visits.

Has my husband Jim become like Rainer Maria Rilke’s departed “quiet conjurer,” who “beneath the mildness of the eyelid mix[es]” his “bright traces into every seen thing”?

This part of grief seems to travel in more or less one direction, from the externally visible to the internal. I can point someone else’s attention to a moth or a butterfly, which they can see.  I can only superficially describe what resides within me: the tangle of trip wires prepared to carry me back in time during every waking moment.

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Both my conscious and subconscious have battled against widening the space between me and the husband I loved so much. But, just as in the last months of his life he eased me and our children into the lives which would go on after he died, I am beginning to think he planned to softly retreat after his death.

At first my heart tricked my senses into the mind’s equivalent of muscle memory.

Even after I sold Jim’s truck, the beagles seemed to alert to his expected return from work, but then they would settle and press their noses to the window at nightfall, instead of wildly wagging and making their way to greet him at the door.  I thought I heard his truck on the dirt driveway, and found myself holding my breath and waiting for him to switch off headlights that I knew would never again illuminate the old brick floored barn in which he had parked while he waited for some song’s last refrain.

It was as if I could still hear the thunk as he switched out into running shoes and his sturdy leather work shoes dropped onto the wide pine floor boards, hosts to persistently buoyant antique nails on which socks snagged; the refrigerator door’s thud, the cupboard door’s lighter clack, and the rattle of ice against glass as he swirled his right pinky clockwise to chill his drink.

Imperceptibly, so much has faded.

Not everything has; mercifully, I no longer descend stairs into the room in which he died and no longer unavailingly try to sleep in the room where he had suffered.

But his presence has become more gentle, his “footprints like a butterfly’s.” No more thuds from size 13 shoes dropped onto the floor.  Now I see him more as a carefree wanderer, exploring glorious places without me.  He doesn’t need to constantly look out for me anymore.

The hints always were there.

For years his sturdy, animated ghost–whose left hand still bore the same gold wedding band that hung from a chain on my neck–sat to my right everywhere I went.  He was at the table on our wedding anniversaries.  He settled into the passenger seat–the seat I always occupied when he was here with us–as I tearfully drove back and forth to work, to move children into college dorms, and to give away belongings we no longer needed.

Somehow Jim came into softer focus as I saw him by day, though his image and presence was never any less assured in my dreams.

Then, on our wedding anniversary this summer, a nightmare inserted itself into the dream fog of memory.

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We were back at the university where we met, outside between the library and chapel on a sunny spring day.  The stone paths were crowded students filtered from class to class.  Jim was his healthy student self, in a brown jacket my waking self had not remembered remembering.  As I walked toward him he turned away from me, glanced back at me over his left shoulder, and solemnly said goodbye.  No explanation.  A clean and devastating break.  I understood in that dream instant that he was leaving forever without another word.

There would be no marriage, no children, no life together.  All gone, gone away.

When I awoke I was shaken and shaking.  It took many measures to sort out our beginnings and endings, to filter from my dream its false memory that Jim chose to say goodbye.  In the empty quiet of suddenly interrupted sleep I began to feel he was saying goodbye in a different way–not a break up but a kind of handing off, knowing I would protest and resist had he given me the chance: “You don’t need me here with you all the time any more.”  

He never used the word “goodbye” when he last spoke to each of us.  He left, but he didn’t choose to.

Of course, there was a marriage and a life together; there are children; there still is some measure of life for me.

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I realized that now he only occasionally occupies the passenger seat and I am no longer afraid of highway driving.  I steadily drive the distances always reserved to him.  I recently drove all the way around a country he never saw. Only once, as I squinted against sun and crested a cliff with a view of vast mountains and even more vast skies, was I outwardly overcome with the agony of missing him–or rather, of his missing this experience.

“He doesn’t want me driving while I’m crying.” Still present tense.

“I don’t either,” my daughter sensibly said.

“Dad would have loved this trip,” I wept once we had stopped.

“And he’d be glad we’re doing this,” my daughter rightly assured me.

I’ve moved far away from you
And I want to see you here beside me, dear
But things aren’t clear

It’s not all forward progress as I navigate life without the partner who was with me for all my adult life.

I woke up from a dream in Halloween’s early hours, repeating one sentence of relief-laden hope for return, as if about to click the heels of my ruby slippers.

“It was all just a mistake.  It was all just a mistake. . . .” In the dream from which I’d awakened, Jim and I had been packing up our family’s things to move back into the home we’d occupied with our children for fifteen years.

But it was no more a mere mistake than was Jim’s shocking diagnosis.  I’m still here. Another family lives in that house and likely hangs stockings by the chimney, skates on that frozen pond, measures night’s passing hours by the church chimes across the street, opens eyes to sun filtered by lace curtains previous owners left for us and which we left for them, and lights fires in the beehive stove.

And if I told it true, all these memories of you, well that’s why I play the game
Friend of mine said a long time comin‘, like it never came….

I still see you there in that silver blue air and I never have moved on
Friend of mine said a long time comin’, I’m just a long time gone

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A small bridge once made it easy to reach a tiny island just off the Maine coast in Kittery. Now enormous square frames emerge from the ocean at regular intervals, topping pilings from which the path has been shorn.  The island’s lone structure has long been empty and inaccessible, the spaces within growing larger over time: wooden beams have been weathered down; stone has spilled into the sea; earth has eroded.

You can’t get there from here anymore, as Mainers are often said to say.  Even if you could, there’s no longer any color or life there but for the birds which briefly touch down when the wind calms.  Yet it’s a comforting, seemingly solid presence. There comes a moment when the rising sun seems to swallow it completely before it reappears in daylight.  It supplies scale to a rising full moon.  Just by being in the background it magnifies and brightens each sunrise I see as I remain standing on the shore.

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Light, Hope and Moth Wings


November 10th. It was the worst of days; it was the best of days…..

Originally posted on Love in the Spaces:


It’s an understatement to say November 10th was a terrible day.

It’s the date Jim was handed a radiologist’s report and read the words “metastatic disease.” And then the devastated two of us headed out of a Boston hospital into a cold, black early night.  If any color seeped from that night’s sunset, I didn’t see it.

No light.  No hope.

If that day had not come as it did, engendering all the days in between, then this year I would not have found myself celebrating the November 10th birthday of a little girl who hadn’t yet been born on that deeply dark day.

I met her mom only because the universe’s butterfly wing machinations somehow had deposited the two of us on the same stage last spring to tell our stories about “Coming Home.”  Mine was about bringing my husband home to die, four endless short months…

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Grace Notes and Trills

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Louis Comfort Tiffany, ornate glass mosaic fountain Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Give me Shaker, not Chippendale.

Having been raised in a home decorated in Danish Modern, I have always gravitated toward clean lines: painted walls in neutral colors, spare furniture, clean uniform planes.

Possibly fueled by being dwarfed and overwhelmed when my parents ventured out into gothic cathedrals and baroque galleries, I developed a bit of an aversion to the ornate.

I was unsettled by the unnecessary: the curls and flourishes and gilding, the scale and echoing separations within these man-made spaces, the sheer expense involved in generating such tangible adornments.  I don’t like the cold heaviness of rich materials like marble and onyx and iron.


Ornate gate, Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts

This has never been so with that which cannot be purchased, a realm in which I adore the trills and grace notes.

Wildly impractical petals and leaves quiver like the flibbers my brother and I would cut from rolled-up Boston Globe newspapers when we were little.

A chorus of cartoonishly plump coral and violet  clouds announces an ordinary daybreak.

Overwrought plumage and intricate songs entice birds’ mates.

On the band field at dusk, my young daughter’s carefully varied breaths add trumpet notes that resonate and dance in the air so I can hear them still.

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A Late Summer Night’s Dream

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I was born and raised in New England but we tended to stick to Massachusetts. I don’t remember ever going to Maine as a child.

As our family grew, Jim and I began taking our little ones to Bar Harbor, Maine–a place we first visited in a summer when we both had a rare overlapping break from school and work.  I had just taken the Massachusetts Bar Exam and was about to start the new job that would turn out to be my life’s calling.

When our family was just the two of us–in our hearts the certainty that one day there would be more–Jim had driven north in the Olds Delta 88 (otherwise known as the “Living Room on Wheels,” a vehicle that evidently screamed “short-term renters” when we eventually drove it around seeking to purchase our first home.)  He acquired it for free, a quarter million miles already under its fan belt.  It would prove to be our sturdiest and best vehicle.

Jim always did the highway driving. Always glancing left more than right as he drove. Always keeping the beat of some song in his head, even when nothing was playing on the radio.

Highway driving is one of many things I feared before I understood what is worth being afraid.

Although that first camping trip to Acadia was made with no little beings in our car–which always provides great cover for someone who never abandoned a child’s awe at visitations of the vast–that never stopped me from endlessly wondering about cloud formations.

“That one looks like a dinosaur–more like a triceratops with gazelle horns. . . .Oh, look: an eclair!  And a banana split right next to it . . . by that pile of little cream puffs–Oh!  I’ve got it! It looks like a croquembouche!”

“Getting hungry, Steph?”


The first time we returned to Acadia as parents we had a happy, curly-haired one-year old in a pack strapped to Jim’s back.  It was a rainy October when Jim took his assured long strides around Jordan Pond.  Baby Sam smiled and laughed every time a raindrop tickled his cheeks or one of Jim’s footfalls made him bounce and settle back into the green canvas seat. I woozily followed, pregnant with the next baby.


We returned with two boys, then their baby sister, and then another.  By that time Sam was in first grade. Our son Noah lost his first tooth while visiting Acadia.  By the time that happened, no one batted an earnest blue eye at the logistics of having to navigate the Tooth Fairy’s toll-free number to report the need for an extra-jurisdictional collection.


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Last month, on summer’s last weekend, I took my first trip overnight by myself since our marriage decades ago.  I could see our family in every nook of the Acadia National Park Loop–our children’s little selves hand-in-hand with their dad, clad in summer cotton and climbing across the rocks atop Cadillac Mountain; skipping pebbles by eponymous Sandy Beach (where our Sam and Noah were startled to hear another mom call out “Sam, Noah!” to her similarly aged sons); the bright yellow midriff-level flower on our youngest baby’s first tiny swimsuit, at the pond near Bubble Rock where Jim swam with our children and tickled her belly and she laughed and laughed.


I was standing by myself by Eagle Lake, taking pictures of a teal kayak against the teal water, when the kayak’s silver-haired owner appeared. He took one look at me and said, “It looks like you lost your best friend.”

It turns out the kayak’s owner is a retired psychologist–evidently a pretty good one. And he lives in the Southwest Harbor, so I seized the opportunity to ask where he would go in search of sunset. He gave me meticulous directions across the island.

Soon after that, wind and rain descended.  The harbor settled with a fog so thick and opaque that I could barely make out a lighthouse only yards away.  Hoping it would clear, I hiked around the island; just as the sun poked through the woods, I found the trail head that had been described to me.

I began the trek from a main road that angled into an increasingly claustrophobic path, from asphalt to gravel to dusty earth and then a carpet of copper pine needles. It was lined with an increasingly  dense collection of trees and overgrown sea grasses, both darkening and quieting the path. As bird songs faltered and fell off, I saw twisted felled trees which had been weathered into fairy tale creatures.

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Finally the path veered sharply, like an elbow pushing through a crowd, through a small orchard flecked with gnarled crab apple trees and white butterflies whose wings caught the sunlight, flickering lights joining dragonflies’ silvery-plum flashes.

Almost as suddenly as the path returned to shadowed deep woods, it emerged at an even narrower razor’s edge of a space through piled boulders to the rocky shore: a perfect view west, to a lingering gold-dusted sunset, all by myself but never entirely alone.

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