Satchel Paige has been credited with warning, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you,”
I did it anyway.
I surveyed my “lookback,” prepared for me by a social network algorithm that uses snippets of members’ internet pasts.
The micro-show begins with a mosaic of thumbnail photographs from recent years. I catch a flash of Brandeis blue, a glimpse of me leaning into my son’s graduation gown in a picture taken two months to the day after his father died. Gathered mint silk peeks from a top frame; it is the curved hem of my youngest daughter’s prom dress, which Jim never got to see. Above the frame she is beaming, beautiful, a young lady.
Cut-off segments of the mosaic show puppies’ upturned noses and white-tipped tails, rectangles of tree branches backlit by vivid orange and lavender sunsets.
The mosaic fades out and a single photograph takes it place. On a June day in New York City, one of my daughters is standing in front of one of her oil paintings in a gallery. It is eighteen days before the day everything changed.
18, 17, 16 . . . .
Then a picture of an empty dock at dusk, steeped in late summer’s stark shadows. No one but I knows the context. It was August. My husband was sitting outside at Prescott Park, drinking juice and snacking, waiting for a Richard Thompson concert to begin. A fanny back held the chemotherapy drugs still being pumped into his newly implanted port by labyrinthine tubing. He wore sunglasses, a baseball cap, and the same soft orange cotton T-shirt he had worn the day he was diagnosed. He smiled and enjoyed the night. I wandered to hide the trickle of tears and, facing away from the crowd, took pictures of the gathering night.
I stare at my most popular status report: it is about a Father’s Day toast we made to Jim on a mountaintop.
From pictures I have shared, the mini-movie displays photographs of three of our children graduating without their dad, a favorite picture of us on our last vacation, and, mercifully, a panoply of puppy pictures: new life, new love.
Of course, I engage in time travel every single day.
Unlike the Trafalmadorians, however, I travel in only one direction, ceaselessly back, as a member of the Class of ’17 once wrote.
It seems I lack the ability to picture my own future, except in the limited sense that I have an idea what it will be like to be in my office tomorrow, or before a certain court, or in front of my classroom.
I can peek ahead in mundane matters. Sometimes I accurately gauge when I am perilously close to being out of dog food or gas, and I occasionally fall on the correct side of a tuition payment’s due date.
But those tentative steps into the future are repeating patterns, things I can envision doing only because I’ve done them before. For a reasonably imaginative person, I can’t seem any longer to venture beyond what I’ve already experienced. I wonder if that’s a part of grief. When my husband was alive I had no trouble envisioning a future. I could imagine our children going off to college and having lives and families of their own, and see us spending decades together in the phase of life that comes when children have grown.
All of that ground to a halt in the space of a few words. From that moment, I could only see as far ahead as Jim’s death and, perhaps mercifully, could not imagine life beyond that for the rest of us.
Some people lead lives of hopeful, assured planning and aspiration. Some of my best friends actually write down and daily survey their future goals. I don’t.
The rest remains unwritten, and as yet unimaginable.
6 thoughts on “An Empty Dock at Dusk”
Tears in my eyes as I read. I’m so sorry. I know there’s nothing I can say. That the hole remains. But I will keep you in my good thoughts and my prayers. There is a simple courage in just getting out of bed each day when you’re grieving. I wish you that.
What a wonderful ‘look back” collection, Stephanie. Cute puppy! Thanks for sharing!
My favorite part about your writing is that I am there, where you are, instantly. It’s as if I’m sitting there next to Jim wondering where the hell you’ve gone off to now and there watching Scooter eat Noah’s shoe. By the way, your students (and a great many other people) are busy envisioning you in their futures. What would the young lawyers-to-be do without a continued diet of songs about female farriers? You know I’m right.
One of the most difficult hurdles in my relationship with Steve was envisioning a future with any real enthusiasm. He was my best friend in my grief; the present was a very good place. Gradually it dawned on me that he was waiting for me to commit to pointing our canoe to the horizon. We’ve been together 5 years now, and we’ve definitely jumped the hurdle, although I can’t tell you precisely when. Like I couldn’t imagine loving another baby, I couldn’t imaging loving another man. Miraculously, there’s more love and there’s more life than I imagine. It’s good to remember that my own brain is smaller than the world.
Steph, this time of the year brings back so many hard memories for me, and I can see clearly that it’s also for you too. I find myself thinking of Jim a lot lately.
Even though it may be hard for you to envision a future beyond the daily tasks of living, I do see a strong, intellectually honest, life-affirming vision for you. I see you moving, forward, at your own pace, fully back into the throng of life. Look how far you have already come in the last 3 years, and you have managed many obstacles. There is a valuable future for you in this world, and I see it.
Another thought for you – Perhaps not having a set plan is the best – that way you are open to all sorts of unknown possibilities. An open heart and a willingness to look at new things may open doors you didn’t realize were there.
Hugs to you.
I don’t know Denise, but if I were to venture any “wisdom” it would be exactly what she says so well.
EVERYTHING is a part of grief. We grieve until the grief is used up, in the way that mulch is used up, until it’s been absorbed into the soil so thoroughly that it can support new growth. That takes as long as it takes. No matter. In T.S. Eliot’s phrase, at some point it will “nourish the life of significant soil.”
Out there in virtual space, I greet you.