The Lady in Orange

 

 

I leaned against a cement pillar.

The sun was high and heavy and far too bright.

The woman who came over to me wore a vivid orange shift dress.

This near stranger, who had led us into the surgeon’s office where we heard the diagnosis, was no doubt leaving the hospital to go home after a long day.   Instead, when she saw me outside, leaning against the pillar in the awful heat as Jim waited for another scan, she came over, wrapped her arms around me, and let me wordlessly weep into the bright linen on her shoulder.

******

Today, exactly nine years later, I had not realized that the keynote address at my conference would be about trauma in surviving victims of violent crime.  It can reorder the brain and alter the consolidation of memory.  Time may be rearranged.  Some images may forever be indelible; other pieces may eternally be missing, never having formed, leaving disordered space like like the indeterminate bokeh beyond a sharply-focused photographic image.

The speaker paused.  “So, what’s the essence of trauma?  What is trauma?”  For a room full of lawyers it was uncharacteristically quiet.  “I’m willing to wait.”

Not one to leave a void, my right hand flickered.

“It’s the violation of expectations, something you don’t see coming and can’t prevent.”

She nodded, as if reading my mind.

******

I used to cling eagerly to dreams Jim visited, alive and healthy, sometimes a young college student again, though never any older.  Envisioning him at an age he never reached seems beyond the power of imagination.

But early this morning–so early as to be deepest night for anyone else–I awoke from a nightmare I did not understand until hours later, when I noticed the date.

My dream was of imagined calamities, all of them my own doing.  I steered obliviously backward, veering off a sand bar into the ocean, endangering three of my children who sat quietly in back.  In the next scene I drove furiously in the wrong direction on a highway, yet was aggrieved at the other drivers innocently in my way.  Then I was back by a beach, in the driver’s seat (of the car I’ve in fact quite safely put well over 120,000 miles on) when I saw Jim walking on a jagged cliff edge, weighed down by a bright green backpack.  I eagerly called out to him.

He looked at me in a way he never had, abjectly disappointed, and said words he never would have said, in a tone he was incapable of using: “Why would I want to go with someone who can’t even drive?”

I tried to shake off the dream, tended to my now lone beagle, left the house and turned on the car radio.

On came “Last Kiss.”

“Oh where, oh where can my baby be?”

That’s when I considered the date.  And reconsidered the dream.

In the yawning space between that June 28th and this one my focus has remained  disordered: I see the blurred blanket of disruptions and mistakes, and think not that Jim would, but that he should be disappointed in me, though I know he was never disappointed in me when he was here.  I miss that, too: how lucky I was to spend my adult life with someone who always saw in me the best person I was capable of being.

He would have wanted me to bring the other pieces into focus.

Like the strength and warmth of his hand holding mine as we first walked inside the hospital, when he must already have known what we would hear.

The buoyant tiger lilies, which arrived earlier that year, backlit by sun, tickling our legs as we brushed past a stone bench with a carved cherub on our way inside.

And the kindness of the woman in the orange dress.

 

 

 

 

 

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Out and Away

All it’ll take is just one moment and
You can say goodbye to how we had it planned
Fear like a habit, run like a rabbit, out and away
Through the screen door to the unknown….
Live like a pharaoh
Sing like a sparrow anyway
Even if there is no land or love in sight
We bloom like roses, lead like Moses, out and away
Through the bitter crowd to the daylight

—     “Live and Die” 

On Father’s Day my husband’s ashes billowed like a bubbling cloud the instant they touched open water at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

I was certain he would want to be among the elements, star stuff in swirling salt water, out and away to the horizon, a kinetic memorial for a man who never liked to be still, and had so many places left to see while the earth was below his feet. Few parts of the world did not call to him.

On Father’s Day, five years later and just a few years ago, my father died.

For my father’s theoretical memorial our plan had considerably more comical complications.  The objective was, we thought, simple: to disperse his ashes exactly where he would have wanted to be, at the landlocked academic building where he spent the bulk of his teenage years and his entire adult life.

We gathered outside there one afternoon and worked around the sauntering strides of an unambitious campus security officer.  He had eyes only for his cell phone, and obliviously passed us from both directions even as bemused graduate students began gathering and buzzing at the sight of us discovering a new form of condensed matter: ashes awkwardly clumping among the lachrymose recently-watered flora surrounding the building’s entry stairwell.

That, too, was perfect in its way.

My father and my husband had many things in common, including improbably clear analytical minds, and absolute loyalty to their friends and families.

Neither had even a soupcon of guile.  It was not simply that they did not possess the ability or inclination to deceive , or to willfully hurt someone else; for them it was  impossible to compute the concept of acting at someone else’s expense, much less execute the most quotidian trespass against a fellow traveler.

Neither of them ever criticized or insulted anyone.  I did not reflect on how remarkable that is until both of them were gone.

They diverged in temperament: my father had a temper that perhaps I–the only daughter, and possessor of some heaping attitude even before adolescence made it de rigueur–knew how to spark.

There was a little girl who had a little curl/right in the middle of her forehead/And when she was good, she was very, very good/And when she was bad, she was horrid

Jim had no temper.  Zero.  He never raised his voice.  He never responded to anger with anger.  In more than 25 years of marriage I saw him mildly irritated twice–in the kinds of situations which not uncommonly transform others into criminal defendants (whose requests for jury instructions on mitigation I routinely oppose).

To an extent, although not as great as it may have appeared, they differed in their tolerance for error.

Jim had infinite tolerance for other’s errors.  I’m not sure he even conceived of them as mistakes: they were just learning experiences.  I have continued to screw up in epic fashion,  from the more innocuous Lucy Ricardo variety to such egregious financial missteps that I’d probably be doing time were someone else’s money involved.  I know he would be fine with that; he always was.  “Don’t sweat the small stuff, Steph.”  Not even the big small stuff.

My father, on the other hand, at least was perceived as being so exacting in his standards, so unwilling to brook even a grammatical nuance in translation that could be viewed as lessening a scientific truth, that he was intolerant of error.  (One of his graduate students told me how my father had helpfully informed him that a few words of text in a dissertation that was essentially pure mathematical equations sounded more like a translation of Parisian French than that of its author’s Provincial provenance.)

As hard as it was to understand as a child why he seemed so disappointed in less than an “A+”; I actually don’t think he was intolerant of error–at least, error unaccompanied by lack of effort.  It wasn’t that he couldn’t tolerate it; it was that he was genuinely perplexed that not all brains worked like his.  Like dishonor, I don’t think he could conceive of a person not being capable of mastering all disciplines.  I sure couldn’t.  He was no harder on others in this regard than he was on himself.  Clearing out his office I saw that a textbook he’d written decades ago was covered with his own penciled-in corrections, in waves, as he’d probably begun refining it as soon as it rolled off the presses and continued until Parkinsonian tremors began to destabilize the surface precision of his tiny left-slanting script.  No one else would  ever see his revisions; he did it simply to make his work better,  to bring it closer to real, ascertainable truth.

In dedication to truth, they were the same.

They were very  different when it came to fear.  Jim had no fears for himself, including the death he knew was coming and despite his medical knowledge about how it would come. He spared me the latter, which would have made it that much worse for us.

My father had fears, notably a phobia of hospitals that derived from his being dropped off alone as a young child at a New York City Hospital for significant surgery.  His fear of hospitals was so profound that he could not cross the threshold of Mt. Auburn Hospital when my siblings and I were born.

But when his only son-in-law was dying he came to his suffocating hospital room and tenderly touched his sock-clad foot, one of the few places he could reach as other family  members encircled his bed before we finally brought him home.

And my father was, like most people, afraid of death.  I know this because I talked to him about it, in great detail, making sure I would know what he wanted because Jim was not there to have those conversations with him and take charge.

Jim had no fear.

And so he raised fearless, thoughtful, kind children who have seen and followed his and their grandfather’s examples, using their incredible minds and hearts to do what they were born to do.

And I hope they will always hold their father’s essence of living and loving with no fear, whether they are pulled back to the comforts of a known and settled home or carried forward, out and away and wherever the currents take them.

Sing like a sparrow anyway...

Happy Father’s Day.

 

 

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Cover Me

 

Every once in a while I experience a fresh burst of heartache when I listen to a song that Jim can’t hear.

Before there was Pandora (in her modern incarnation), I had someone who took my tastes in music and life and sheparded me into a wider world that stays with me as surely and indelibly as images do.   Another ever-expanding gift, as when he handed off the camera to me.

For my 30th birthday, which my husband attended in the customary corporeal way, he burned me a CD–a precursor to the gold one he left for me to find when I was very nearly ready to hear it.

Jim had an incredible, encyclopedic knowledge of music.  In college he occasionally jockeyed discs–when they also existed in the traditional way (though I understand vinyl has made a comeback, and I still have his boxes of records among the very few things he carried).

(He would have been equally as unnerved as I had he survived to the day one of our teenage children informed me that Nirvana now occupies the radio genre of “Oldies” music.  Sigh.)

Until the very end he followed and appreciated music of all kinds–even, to a degree, country music.  It was a remarkable feat when one of our daughters took it upon herself to produce a collection of his favorites to play at his Closing Ceremonies.  From Bob Dylan (father of The Wallflower’s Jakob)  to the Biff Jackson Group (whose motto is “Quality Through Volume”), decades-long friends with whom Jim played one last time on the same snowy winter day he must have known would be his last time at the wheel.

The CD he made for my birthday included some musical amalgams outside my imagination: not, strictly, covers, but companions, unexpected unions which honored the heart of the original but extracted rich new facets of both chords and lyrics. More marriage than replication.

Bruce Springsteen accompanied The Wallflowers on “One Headlight.”

So long ago, I don’t remember when
That’s when they say I lost my only friend
Well they said she died easy of a broken heart disease
As I listened through the cemetery trees

Luciano Pavorotti joined Bono in soaring interludes of  U2’s “Miss Sarajevo”.

Is there a time for keeping your distance
A time to turn your eyes away
Is there a time for keeping your head down
For getting on with your day

My husband was able to compile such esoteric musical wonders considerably before the internet placed them at our fingertips.  (How fitting that the physical monument to him is a bench dedicated “in musical memory” of the Portsmouth Clipper Band’s supreme chaperone.)

I, on the other hand, only just figured out how to put together a playlist of my own favorites to listen to during my prize-winning longest-in-the-country commute to work.

My new 78-song playlist contains a cast of bittersweet familiar characters, quite a few of them singing songs which were not yet a glimmer in their artists’ eyes when Jim’s playlists ended.

I have subconsciously coupled some of Jim’s enduring favorites, which along the way have become mine.  My personal soundtrack includes two Richard Thompson covers: REM does a surprisingly upbeat “Wall of Death,” and Greg Brown does a haunting acoustic “Vincent Black Lightning.”

Alphabetically, I discovered I have four “One” songs, including  the eponymous U2 version included on my 30th birthday CD, the original “One Headlight,” “One Last Time,” and Springsteen’s “One Step Up.”  Our youngest child introduced me to “Sunburn,” which appears in her own breathtakingly clear cover of a lesser-known Ed Sheeran song.

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

Memory was painful
Whenever I was away, I’d miss you
And I miss you

Among its more peculiar trivia, my commuting playlist contains three different songs which prominently feature train tracks, and two with references to bearded ladies (one of whom does a double back-flip).

My compendium includes the heart-filling and mind-blowing duet by performers Jim never had a chance to hear, but attuned me to savor: Lin-Manuel Miranda, covering Ben Platt on “You Will be Found,” harmonizes with Platt as he covers Miranda’s part in “The Story of Tonight.”

Only very recently have I come to appreciate Jim’s genius in sending gentle signals for both me and our children to get out of our comfort zones, at our own paces, to adopt and  adapt to shining examples of how to live life lyrically, whether the song is “just” a song or the  music is a metaphor.

If Johnny Cash can cover Nine Inch Nails, I can certainly get past my routine and set out into the world, to places I would have rather seen with him but can still take in for both of us.

I still hear Jim speaking words he never spoke and lyrics which were as yet unwritten and unsung when he died.

My love, take your time; I’ll see you on the other side.

And the inestimable John Hiatt keeps rendering both our old lives and my new life in song.

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 coming, like it never came

I’ve sang these songs a thousand times, ever since I was young
It’s a long time coming and the drummer keeps drumming, your work is never done
I still see you there in that silver-blue air and I never have moved on
Friend of mine said a long time coming, I’m just a long time gone

 

 

 

 

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In Spite of Spirit, In Spirit of Spite

In Newbury, Massachusetts, a lone house stands only a few bubbles short of round on the giving surface of acres of marshland.

In daylight’s glare the exterior is a Pepto pink not found in nature.  Decades of gusting winds with nothing else man-made to stand in their way have aged it less than gracefully, peeling striations away to a jaundiced layer of naked wood.

I had passed by this house for years, but it was not until last year that someone described it to me as a “spite house.”

Now every time I see it I can think of nothing else.

An oxymoron: a gift of spite.  Like sending black roses, or purchasing a roach in an ex’s name to be fed to a meerkat for Valentine’s Day.

It may be that one should never look a gift horse–or house–in the mouth, but the lingering story of this bright pink edifice’s creation is one of malice.

It is said that in the mid-1920s, a divorcing lawyer agreed to build his soon-to-be ex-wife an exact duplicate of their downtown New England home.  He reportedly availed himself of what, in legalese, comprised a contractual “gotcha” in the absence of a term (here, location).  In 1925 his former spouse found herself the owner of this unusable twin, in a desolate location so unfit for human habitation that its pristine pipes could access only salt water, the better to continue malevolent mockery of the marriage’s corrosion.

Salt marsh in the wound.

My own work involves people who have committed violent felonies, yet even I had to pause and marvel at the concept of building something–and I wince at the word “building,” because it embodies creation, an inherent affirmative and additive–for the very purpose of spite.

It seems a betrayal of human expectations and decency, particularly if the back story here is true: that someone could stir the embers of a human connection that began in love and turn them into a “gift” of hate.

I am stymied by the kind of person who would expend assets and energy not in a burst of  creating–or even in an off-the-cuff emotional release of tearing something down–but in twisting something so far from its purpose.  A home as hate, not hearth.  It seems several steps into an abyss beyond neglect, or even retribution.

But I am somewhat heartened not to have encountered anyone who remembers the name of the villain in this story.  He seems to have evaporated but for the community’s collective memory of his misbegotten treatment of a fellow traveler in this world (and that it was an attorney who, as it were, did the deed).

Nearly a century later no one pays any heed to the original marital home, or seems even to know if it still stands, while the orphaned pink house remains tenderly cared for notwithstanding the physical disrepair that attends its inaccessibility.  There remains collective support of a symbol of the person who found herself so abandoned and alone.  At least one society is dedicated to the house’s preservation, and pink stickers of support abound.  Children leave hand-made Valentines fluttering by its worn front post.  Snowy owls protectively cast their golden eyes from its roof.

When the rising sun completes its winter rotation, it bathes the house in such sublime bright orange-gold that one cannot focus on its imperfections, much less its poisonous origin.

The house is no longer a monument to spite; it is more even than a single house, just as Virginia Wolff’s lighthouse was more than a lighthouse:

“The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now—
James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?
No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.”

The other pink house is true, too.  A thing of enduring beauty and imagination, a memorial to the person whom it was designed to isolate.  A symbol of one man’s unkindness alchemized into the kindness of strangers.

 

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