Five years have passed since his last night.
Death by the numbers. He has not taken thousands of photographs. He already has missed a quarter of one daughter’s young life, four college commencements and one high school graduation.
Thirty household birthdays. Five of them would have been his.
It took two-and-a-half years for me just to manage the transition from the soft, sibilant multi-syllabic “he passed away” to the abrupt “he died.”
Tonight shares with that final Monday a cloudless deep blue sky and a nearly full moon, freshly fallen unseasonal snow, and silence (but for beagle Brady’s snoring) as I press my forehead to a cold glass window pane.
But the direction differs. From our porch that night was a straight shot east to an enormous orange perigee moon that seemed to swallow acres of pond and forest which were as much a part of our home as the old yellow house in which my husband was dying.
From the space I occupy now, the moon is slightly southeast, small and bright white above the trees, at the same distant elevation as a single bright star.
I know which direction I face only because I finally got myself a compass when I made a first weekend trip by myself not long ago. He would not have needed a compass.
Jim’s undergraduate thesis research involved whether magnetite enables homing pigeons to navigate home over great distances, without external cues. I can see him still as I never actually saw him, wearing a dark blue polo shirt with a white pigeon insignia, releasing lavender-tinged gray birds into summer winds far from their Massachusetts home base.
(Apparently some more recent research has pointed to a way to speed up the trip: the “Widowhood Method” places home-bound pigeon spouses in proximity to members of the opposite sex. Pigeons mate for life, and the company of other pigeons has been suggested to accelerate their mates’ already wondrous ability to find their way home.)
I have never been nearly as sure of my place in this world as Jim always was, and I don’t feel less unmoored than I did five years ago.
Kuuk Thaayorre of Pormpuraaw, in Cape York, Australia, greet each other with “Where are you going?” Professor Lera Boroditsky writes, “the answer should be something like ‘Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.'” This ability to locate oneself by cardinal direction requires staying “oriented at all times,” and “is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like ‘There’s an ant on your southeast leg’ or ‘Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.'” Professor Boroditsky found that after a week in Pormpuraaw she suddenly could orient herself as they did, envisioning herself from above as a dot moving on a map.
It is another form of dead reckoning I don’t possess.
Heavens; I can’t even keep left and right straight.
But I do have a strangely detailed visual memory of the earth beneath my feet. If I were to be plunked back in Kyoto I could retrace our steps and point out the spot by the canal where three of my children and I saw five ducks. I could lead you to the part of the Dublin beach where a caramel and cream dog the size of an insubstantial sandwich yapped with hilarious ferocity as he stood guard in the wind.
My map of the world is not likely to ever be like Jim’s, but in addition to bottomless grief it is populated with glorious images I shall keep for both of us…
Just in case he can’t take it all in from his bird’s-eye view.