Like a Burning Spear

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It’s about 1:30 a.m. and I’m thirteen hours into a ten-hour trip in the dog days of August.

I’m alone in the baby blue mom van, lost off a highway, pulled over in a dingy industrial park somewhere in Connecticut–either because or in spite of a quirky and outdated GPS. A smart phone is a few years away.

A day earlier, with my youngest daughter riding shotgun and providing the musical score, we made a seamless drive from New England, skirting across the top of New Jersey and meandering along to Pennsylvania.  I was moving my baby girl into her freshman year at college.

The dormitory into which I helped hoist her belongings was bedecked with cherry red balloons.  She has a redhead’s temperament, a mathematician’s mind, and a dancer’s body, the latter sporting a sleeveless cream top and a swirling aubergine skirt as she gently shooed me away.  Lovely.

I’ll be fine.  

A pause. I looked at her, tilting my head slightly upward to get a direct line into those amber eyes.

You’ll be fine, too, mom.  I love you.  ‘Bye.  

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******

I was still well within city limits when I took my first wrong turn.  Without my daughter next to me to provide entertainment I relied on the radio and a handful of CDs.  But by the time I pulled over, long after deep dark, in that abandoned industrial park I had given up on scanning for stations within range and was weary of even my Mumford & Sons.

That’s when I rifled around in the mess of miscellany in the pocket of my mom van’s driver’s door.

That’s when I caught a glint of gold, deep among ancient receipts, vintage paperwork, and expired Barnes & Noble coupons.

It was a CD, labelled in Sharpie in Jim’s distinctive writing: “John Hiatt.” My husband had burned me a CD.

The thing is, he had died two-and-a-half years earlier.

******

I took in a fathoms-deep breath and popped in the disc as I tried to find the interstate again.

It’s like I got two hearts with you, baby
Like I got two ears
It goes in one and out the other
Whenever you are near
A train of smoke and dreams keeps coming
Like a burning spear
And I know you, you watch me go
Even as I’m standing here

Doppelganger caterwauling
Notes trail off low
Love comes and love keeps going
That’s really all I know
You hear the sound of a lonesome town
You want to let that whistle blow
But it gets there before you do
And it leaves before you want to go

He had made me a soundtrack of the grief he knew was coming . . . like a burning spear. Three of the songs he chose for me had been titles of posts in the blog I would start more than a year after he died.

A false move here, a stumble there
A box of letters and a lock of hair
That’s all that’s left when I turn out the light
I count the missing pieces every night

 

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And I realized, listening to this collection of songs on the highway in the dark, heading back to a home that would be empty of children for the very first time, that I couldn’t have listened to it before then.

The songs captured me so well–the me he knew and the me who had precariously evolved in more than two years without him–that he managed to make me laugh aloud, alone. There I was, surprising my ever-unflappable husband after I’d slept off some out-sized work  grudge:”I’ve seen you when you felt like running, I’ve seen you with your gun/ A single bullet in the barrel/Midnight chamber’s spun/ A morning kiss, an unclaimed fist/ And you laughing at the sun.”

There I was in my enduring Grammar Nazi incarnation, tackling the misplaced modifiers (he would sometimes call me from work for an authoritative decision on a grammatical point): ” I was thinking back to the first time we met/Over plangent chords in a sad vignette/You were waving goodbye in a cherry red Corvette/And your lips were too/Cherry red that is, with the sky so blue/It was almost mean and your eyes were, too/So blue that is, now I am too/And my heart burns cherry red for you….”

*******

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The last song on the CD is “Circle Back,” from the album”Beneath This Gruff Exterior,” just about the most upbeat tempo and magnetic beat you’ll hear in a song about loss–including the very particular loss experienced by a parent dropping off a child-no-more at college.

Well it’s 99 in Topeka
The wind is blowing hot
Blowing through my oldest daughter’s hair
With everything else I forgot
I drove her out to college
Drove back to an empty space
Thinking back to when she was a baby
Trying hard to see that face

I got to circle back
Touch something near
Find out which way to go
Just to get on out of here….

******

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Jim knew me better than anyone else ever will.  He introduced me to most of the music I love.

He knew that when he was gone, gone away, my mom van would continue to be a mess for as long as I kept it.

He knew our youngest daughter would graduate from high school  and go off to college somewhere, and of course that I’d be the one taking over all the driving and helping move in and settle all of our children.

He knew I’d continue to get lost, both in my own head and in unlikely and foreboding places in the dead of night.

He knew I’d have inadequate directions and an insufficient supply of music for a long trip.

He couldn’t have known I wouldn’t find the CD until I was finally ready to listen to it.

He couldn’t have known I’d happen upon it on my way back from dropping off a daughter at a school farther away than I’d ever driven by myself, a place he had no reason to know she would one day attend.

He couldn’t have known I’d get just far enough off course that I’d choose that moment to fish around in my car door, when there was just enough flickering light to make the gold CD call to me.

But somehow he knew.

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Mirrored Mosaic Magic

 

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“Are dreams the limpid discourse between the facets of a crystal block?”…

 “The world is of glass. You know it by its brilliance, night or day. 
 The earth turns in a mirror. The earth turns in a scarf….”       

— Edmond Jabes

 

Nothing captures the ephemeral present as does ancient mirrored mosaic.

Three shimmering glass peacocks perch in bas relief in the Peacock Courtyard of City Palace in Udaipur. Assembled from thousands of fragments, they have been in place for hundreds of years.

One stands in for each season: winter, summer, and monsoon.

No in-person appraisal of such works will ever be the same as another, not even for a repeat viewer.  A forever facet of mirrored art is its incorporation of the viewer into every glimpse.  If you step back your presence will multiply, reflected in hundreds of silver diamonds.  Stand close and your scarlet kurta and bright scarf may startle you, fractured amid royal blue, lime, and rust.

An instant’s reflected light–or the absence of sun–also will change each snapshot in time. A courtyard crowd on a sunny day will add dazzling fragments of color and light; a monsoon may yield a scene muted by steam, inhabited by solitary sodden selfies.

The Earth keeps turning.

 

 

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Framing the Sky

 

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It could be nearly any swath of cerulean sky.

Perhaps it should be raining, given that it is monsoon season.  Maybe a dusky smoke could betray some hint of what kind of earth may lie underfoot or what surrounds this view.

Instead it has a tell-tale frame: beams erected in 1192 still divide the sky with mathematical precision, locating the commonplace within the extraordinary.

I’ve long been drawn to views framed both by what surrounds them and how one approaches and looks at them, rather than being defined by what deliberately has been placed around them–to a unique vantage point of the moment, rather than an artist’s enduring choice for the many who may behold an exhibited work: a lake at dawn, a single building bathed in gold light for just minutes; a single door opened to boughs steeped in steamy rain; a tree bisected by ancient ruins; doorways within doorways; a pink city revealed through a tiny window in a palace door.

My favorite frames look up, eyes upon the heavens, moving us from the ancient and earthbound within our grasp to forever’s swirling star dust skies.

 

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The Last Lap

 

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Trees Through Tears (c) SMG

It was an unspeakably awful thing to say.

After an exhausting and unnecessary verbal battle, the hospice’s medical director–who had been openly skeptical of my physician husband’s emphatic wish not to die in a hospital (at least when I was the one to express that wish as his medical proxy)–asked whether my husband wanted to drive with me from the hospital or wanted an ambulance to take him.

“Held on to hope like a noose, like a rope
God and medicine take no mercy on him
Poisoned his blood, and burned down his throat
Enough is enough, he’s a long way from home . . . .

Laid up in bed, you were laid up in bed
Holding the pain like you’re holding your breath
I prayed you could sleep, sleep like a stone
You’re right next to me
But you’re a long way from home.”

Referring to the ambulance, that doctor added, out of my earshot but not that of our friend and my sisters-in-law, “You might as well, for your last lap.”

This remark’s casual cruelty–its trivialization of my husband’s determination to come home, its grotesque appropriation of the fundamental unit of an unending journey, when we all knew this was a one-way trip to an imminent and early end of life–makes my heart race even now, as I sit alone in a different home in summer rain’s dappled quiet more than five years later.

******

One of the many privileges of parenthood has been getting to know my children’s remarkable friends. Not long ago I went to a senior honors presentation by one of them, who gave a talk about linguistics and Jacques Lacan, and introduced me to a French Holocaust survivor’s account of a uniquely healing moment.

Gérard Miller’s film “Rendez-vous chez Lacan” shares her story of having been haunted for two decades by her nightmares of the Gestapo seizing her and her family; she was describing a recent nightmare when Lacan leapt up and ran his hand along her face– converting the terrifying power of the word “Gestapo” into, in her native French, a tender touch, a g’este à peau that she was able to recall as a physical memory.

In the ambulance on the way home I had clutched the neon pink card-stock portable DNR in my left hand, rolled like a diploma and splotched with my tears. I had touched my right hand to the side of my husband’s temple and cheek.  A g’este à peau.

It’s well past time for me to reclaim that journey  home, our last trip together.

******

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Just Off the Road (c) SMG

The ambulance arrived late in the afternoon, an hour-and-a-half after we had been assured it would come.

We had a quiet ninety minutes, no one checking vital signs, no one administering medicine or checking on us.  No machines buzzing or beeping.  I had not realized how unaccustomed we were to being undisturbed.

The room’s single window could not be opened, and the temperature seemed unbearably to rise.  We lay together on the hospital bed.

Eventually growing restless, Jim mustered the energy to walk a single circle around the unit floor, leaning against me. This was the same hospital where he worked, and every physician and nurse and staff member who saw us looked at us somberly and silently, some of them wiping away tears.

Our children and friends had been at our house for hours, setting it up for Jim’s return.

The ambulance arrived and its two-person crew came up to Jim’s room as I gathered our few belongings.  By that time the things we carried were few.  The driver seemed surprised to see me there. My older brother, who had flown in from Chicago, had driven Jim’s truck  back to our house from the hospital.

“It’s OK if I ride with you?”  I asked the ambulance driver.

“Yes, but you understand you have to ride in front.  You can’t be in back.”

“That’s fine.” I said.

I walked alongside the gurney and into the elevator, my hand on Jim’s shoulder.  We stepped out on the first floor, through a sequence of sets gently whooshing sliding doors, to intense late-afternoon sun.  I squinted and turned away to see Jim’s boss, our friend, speed-walking into the hospital just inches away, into a rare Friday evening meeting.

She immediately hugged me and I became undone, hysterically weeping into her shoulder, “He wants to go home and I just can’t stand the thought. . .”  I did not mean  the thought of going home, but of his dying.  I simply could not believe that time had come.

The ambulance crew stood there, and by the time Jim’s boss had disengaged from both of us, looked at me—undoubtedly an immeasurably pitiful sight, weeping and holding that pink paper anyone in that line of business can identify—and said, “You can go in the back.”

I sniffled into my sleeve.  “No, that’s OK, I can sit up front.”

They looked at me and spoke in unison.  “Please get in the back.”

******

For the first among thousands of trips we had made together on the same road, we faced backwards, or view of the familiar obstructed only by the outlined letters spelling “Ambulance.”

The sirens were off.

And so we traveled back home, a fifteen-minute ride.

Only afterwards did I begin to imagine, when I see a silent ambulance, that it might contain someone truly on the way home.

******

Jim brought up two subjects on his way home: one was wildly practical, and one was from his heart and required some interpretation.

His conversational palette cleanser was a ministerial reminder to me, from his cautiously frugal side as the family financial planner who had in each child’s infancy begun saved money for another college.  As the ambulance pulled out in front of the hospital building where Jim had been bombarded with fruitless chemotherapy and radiation, he said, “You need to remember to cancel my phone line, because it’s a hundred dollars a month.”

That out of the way, he paused and told me quietly, “It’s important to do something for Bob.” Our Doctor Bob.

I would had to think about that for several weeks more.

******

Jim’s last trip covered the same stretch of road we had traveled thousands of time, to and from Jim’s work, and my work far away along the highway to which it connects.

We had turned left onto that road on the way to the hospital when I was in labor with our first child, then nicknamed “Bud,” on an uncharacteristically cool August day.

We covered exactly the same path when Jim had driven us  from our first home to the hospital where our next three children were born.  Each time, the return trip on this road was made with the newest addition swaddled in an over-sized, grandmother-knit sweater—first white, then mint green, then yellow–slouched into a backward-facing infant seat. Summer, spring, and twice in winter.

The only other time I had been in an ambulance on this  road, all of the children (then numbering three) had been with me.  Jim had calmly been waiting in the emergency room on the other end: Noah, at two, had hit his head in a fall onto cement and had an ostrich egg-sized lump on his forehead. The ambulance crew gave him a green velvet teddy bear, a gift that provided him comfort long afterwards.

When we first began driving on that road there had been two working dairy farms.  The children never tired of exclaiming “Moo cows!” every single time they saw the rural wonder of wandering cows, any more than the beagles tire of the sound of the same food clattering like tiny pebbles into their metal bowls twice every day.

We passed the bakery where we had picked up treats for family celebrations, and where on the way to preschool years earlier a well-weathered man had given our four-year-old daughter a two-dollar bill that he said had been passed along to him in a bakery for good luck when he was about her age.

“Has it worked for you?” I asked him.

“It has.”

We passed the SPCA, where our younger daughter had fallen in love with countless animals and we had brought two of them home forever.

We passed the family farm stand where we had picked out juicy summer tomatoes, buttercup corn, fall pumpkins, and gourds.

We passed the fairgrounds where we had gone every summer, one son somehow deftly outmaneuvering the games’ designers so he could bring back arms full of enormous stuffed animals for his little sisters.

This was the same park where we had trudged through many annual fairs, including one only days before an August birth, when my feet were so swollen that I had to borrow huge tennis shoes from our visiting friend Jon’s trunk.  He took a look at me and laughed heartily, dubbing me “Preggo the Clown.”

We had traveled that stretch of road either at the beginning of  nearly all our family vacations, loaded with sand toys and summer books, or  ski equipment in a rack on top that I invariably forgot about before doing some degree of damage pulling into the garage at trip’s end.

Almost every day our daughters spent at high school involved at least two nearly identical round-trips.

The road branched off at about the half-way point towards our dear friends Randy and Judy’s house, which had been the siren call to moving across the state line when Jim began practicing medicine–two weeks before our first son was born.

Eventually we had driven the same route between home and the hospital to get Jim to the Emergency Room for a sequence of horrific complications. It was always in a blizzard.

This time we pulled into our driveway just in front of a van bearing bright spring tulips from relatives in California. Our friends and family were there to meet Jim. He declined the stretcher and walked inside on his own steam and he never suffered again.  The ambulance pulled away.

Inside our home, until he peacefully lost consciousness less than a day before he died, Jim laughed with friends among endless tender words and gestures.

“At last I was sure
That you weren’t far away from home.”

 

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