Earth-smoke and rue. Ashy gusts burst and thin and billow again, like those trick candles that can’t be blown out.
Today is Jim’s birthday. Our birthdays, in different years, fell only ten days apart, both feeding into holidays our family now celebrates more in miniature.
We now live in a small house on a postage-stamp lot. My vehicle has shrunken considerably, the mighty mom van traded out for better gas mileage, fewer seats, and barely enough space to hoist a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Even the beagle has downsized.
The Lilliputian scaling is apt for a surviving spouse of my fairly petite dimensions.
Jim was at least a foot taller than I. His mark on the world remains large.
I just had follow-up x-rays at the hospital where Jim worked and was a patient. The orthopedist was checking on the status of healing bones (a story for another time, having to do with the cliff-side tail end of the adventure during which I took the photographs above and below).
The hospital receptionist, whom I did not recognize, asked me about the daughter who accompanied me on my recent adventure. My husband’s name came up.
“Oh,” she smiled. “I was wondering if you were related to our Doctor Glennon.”
English does not seem to have a word for a smile accompanied by tears not of the happy variety.
“Our Doctor Glennon.”
He wasn’t just ours–mine and our children’s–and I am glad for that. He was a loving and loved friend, a brother and son and uncle and cousin, a physician, a sharp wit and a gentle prankster, a masterful photographer, a musician, a Little League coach, a Boy Scout troop leader. Nearly five years, unfathomably both compressed and vast, since he died I am glad to know that he belongs to others as well, and that they still think about him too.
When you go to bed, don’t leave bread or milk on the table: it attracts the dead-- But may he, this quiet conjurer, may he beneath the mildness of the eyelid mix their bright traces into every seen thing; and may the magic of earthsmoke and rue be as real for him as the clearest connection.
As a transitive verb, “rue” occupies the same bittersweet ground as regret–which, like guilt, seems to me to lodge grief’s emergency brake into place: things not done or said in time cannot be done or said. Unasked questions will never be answered.
I am not without regret.
But I like to think I am also more capable now of viewing the other side.
As a noun, “rue” is a yellow flower, a medicinal herbal balm–as in the “secret belief/in perpetual spring“–the faith that “for every hurt/there is a leaf to cure it.”
Rilke’s native German provides a homophone shared by “eyelid” (Lidern) and song (Liedern). His roses’ folds are like closed eyelids, the sleep of death, but also luminous and unending.
Like the resurrective rose in Rilke’s self-authored epitaph, like the pairing of death’s earth-smoke with rue of the healing variety–perhaps even something like Schroedinger’s cat–the dead are at once two seemingly opposite things: seeing but unseeing, dark and bright, buried and wandering.
The way a crow Shook down on me The dust of snow From a hemlock tree Has given my heart A change of mood And saved some part Of a day I had rued.
I wait in my driveway in the morning dark while ice crystals on my small car’s windows melt into swirling aquamarine waves. Days earlier I had watched towering blue ice calved from a glacier and shadowed by coral sunbeams.
“Get out there and look around. It doesn’t have to be across the ocean; just pick up the crutches and go out the door.” I can still hear him, uttering words he never spoke. (“And next time listen to your daughter: hiking shoes with traction,” he reminds me, not unkindly.)
Sulfurous earth-smoke and yellow healing herbs. Snow dust and storms. Dark gray skies and heart-shaped clouds. Sunlight and a perigee moon. Your bright traces are everywhere.
Happy Birthday, my dear.
17 thoughts on “Birthdays of the Dead”
Steph, on this day of course I think of our Jim. But please know that each time I look up into the sky I think of him, and make sure that I think of something, anything at all, that makes me grateful. It helps so much, especially on days when I am straight out and don’t know if I am coming or going. I am reminded of when we took Papa Dick to the same hospital for something that was not life threatening. Well, once it became known that they were dealing with “their” Jim’s father, they wanted to share their own Jim stories, and I took comfort in knowing, they missed him as much as I did. Big hugs to you and the kids.
Back at you. He belonged to you first.
Oh, Stephanie, what a beautiful post. Mysterious, poetic, blending joy and dukkha together as only life can teach. My warm embrace to a kindred heart.
Thank you–and I love learning new things (like dukkha) from you!
What a wonderful testament to the man he was, that the people who shared his daily life, in so many spheres, claimed him as their own!
Thank you so much; it’s true–he was a Renaissance man and such a great soul.
We always think of Jim and you and the children — when Jim and you and the children have your birthdays. It does made us sad, and miss you all — I am so glad to have this beautiful remembrance. Thank you for your gift to us — Love
Thank you. It’s a bittersweet time of year.
What a lovely post.
Thank you, Marie.
of course, at the end of this, I wept. For the cavern of loss we all experience at one time or another — some sooner and more unreasonably than others — and for the luck of holding on to whispers, both imagined and very, completely real. Oh my heart. ❤
I’m so glad you share your heart with me–and your exquisite writing (“holding on to whispers” is another keeper!). ❤
Reblogged this on Love in the Spaces and commented:
Six years ago today Jim celebrated his last birthday with us.
I am sorry for your loss. It sounds as though many were richer for his having danced upon this Earth a short while.
Thank you–they very much were, and I love that you put it that way.
A very good episode to revisit. Bringing it back for us to read lends to that rhythm that exists in your prose and the topic itself. We are so entrenched in the rhythm of life it is a surprising thing to find that the absence has rhythms too.
That is such a lyrical thought, which I had not appreciated; the rhythms of absence sometimes seem even more settled, because the rhythms we recognize from whatever years we spent with the absent will now never change, into the rhythms of age or life together again in an “empty nest.” Maybe that’s part of what sends my mind so furiously and persistently back in time