Middle March

Strictly speaking it’s not yet mid-March, but the month’s weighty core is everywhere.


March is the month of frantic emergency hospitalizations and hospital rooms with stale, feverish air and windows which neither opened nor allowed a peek of sun or moon.

The smell of hospitals in winter . . . .

It’s the month of death and the dread of death, the late weeks of a winter that cut short my husband’s life and took away our future together.

In Middlemarch, George Eliot wrote of marriage as “still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. It is still the beginning of the home epic – the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which make the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common.” 


After Jim’s diagnosis we spent hours in so many medical waiting rooms filled with couples of advanced years.  Wrinkled, white-haired patients sat side-by-side with their spouses in rigid chairs, and I felt myself unjustly resenting them for the comparative good fortune of being afflicted with cancer so much later in their lives.

Maladies and good fortune alike, at that point, seemed suddenly relative.  Scales had shifted.

Jim read my eyes in the first radiology waiting room and whispered in my ear: “Other people are allowed to get older.”

Today thick mud rivers lie between mountains of grimy, slushy ice.  Everything is saturated, densely layered from months of storms.  Nearly each day’s great middle is suffused with white-gray.


This morning, before black broke into hazy gray, I awoke from one of those Schrödinger dreams.  In my dream I was alone and sobbing alone upstairs in our old house.  My conscious self knew I was in that state because Jim had died.   Jim died downstairs, but his death, though a continuous feature of my waking hours, particularly in March, wasn’t part of my dream.

In my dream I was growing more and more upset, wondering why Jim wasn’t coming upstairs.  He was always the one to comfort me.  My dream self simply couldn’t compute why he wasn’t coming.

Sometimes a guy can’t win.

Jim had a couple of foolproof systems for maintaining an even keel in a relationship that included one comparatively volatile person.

His other technique for marital harmony was fairly simple, and foolproof: on the rare occasions when he had done something that upset me, no matter how irrational my perception, he would say, “You’re right.  I’m sorry.”

There’s just no comeback to that.


Once I had a dream in which Jim managed to do something wrong, no doubt minor–perhaps being late to an appointment or forgetting to pick up a prescription.

This had not actually happened.

In a very accusatory way (which comes easily to a prosecutor), when I woke I told my poor, sleepy-eyed husband what he had done only in my dream.   “How could you do that?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, dear.  I don’t know what I was thinking.”

He got me to laugh at myself, and had an uncanny ability to dilute the worst tensions and crises with gentle humor.

I knew we would miss him every day, but didn’t realize I’d even miss being given a hard time–always in the right spirit, and when I needed it.

I wish I’d thanked him for making me laugh.

Inexhaustible Treasure

But for a few distant, hearty shrieking birds, complete silence enveloped my sub-zero trek through knee-deep snow in ankle-high boots.  Without evident pattern, one foot would merely skim a soft powder surface and the next would crunch heavily downward through an icy layer glazed gold by a setting sun.
It was the gold of pirates’ treasure, and the treasure of endless waves–striated sun and sky and sea, fields and mountains made nearly indistinguishable.   A speck of me standing in one frigid golden fold among it all.
To poet Robinson Jeffers, “The Treasure” is life more than life.  A single life is but a “flash of activity” within the forever-cycling treasure.
A life decades longer than my husband’s is itself but “a notch of eternity,” though, to be sure, “nothing too tiresome”:
“Mountains, a moment’s earth-waves rising and hollowing; the earth too’s an ephemerid; the stars—
Short-lived as grass the stars quicken in the nebula and dry in their summer, they spiral
Blind up space, scattered black seeds of a future; nothing lives long, the whole sky’s
Recurrences tick the seconds of the hours of the ages of the gulf before birth, and the gulf
After death is like dated . . . .
Enormous repose after, enormous repose before, the flash of activity.”
“Surely you never have dreamed the incredible depths were prologue and epilogue merely
To the surface play in the sun, the instant of life, what is called life? I fancy
That silence is the thing, this noise a found word for it; interjection, a jump of the breath at that silence;
Stars burn, grass grows, men breathe: as a man finding treasure says “Ah!” but the treasure’s the essence:
Before the man spoke it was there, and after he has spoken he gathers it, inexhaustible treasure.”

Bittersweet Valentines

This week’s writing challenge asked us for a Valentine’s Day story.  Once again I shall travel back in time to a not-so-distant day when our family was whole but knew it was soon to be missing its core. . . .


Just before Valentine’s Day we were visited by two young nieces.  Jim rested up so he could spend time with them.  He gamely assisted with Valentine’s Day crafts, posing with a pair of blue eyeglasses one niece had adorned with sparkling beads and feathers.

He died the following month.


I had to stop at a drug store in which all the pharmacists know and likely pity me by sight.

To look at the cheerful carnation pink and red of Valentine’s Day displays is almost as sobering as it was to walk into a stationery store in June and come face-to-face with the Father’s Day cards.

I wheeled around and hastened back out the door as if the cards might swoop down and attack like Alfred Hitchcock fowl–a murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens, a sedge of bitterns.  (I am quite the fan of “terms of venery.”)

I do realize this “woe-is-me” me is not my most attractive self, but there you have it.


On the last Valentine’s Day he spent on earth, Jim handed me a box wrapped in shiny Boston Celtics green.  It matched the boxes I had seen and which I knew contained necklaces he carefully had chosen as birthday gifts for our two winter-born daughters.

First, I had presented him with humble and transient treasures: a heart-shaped cookie and some soap he had requested.  He gave me a diamond necklace.  We gave each other cards in which we had both included variations on the phrase that we did not know where to begin.

He had printed out a picture of the two of us on our last family vacation.  Because he chose it, it will forever be my favorite of us.  It remains propped up against the reading lamp next to where I try to sleep, and usually instead take in a great deal of good literature (and some so-so books).

He had adorned it with foam letters from the box of random craft supplies we had used with his nieces a few days earlier, noting that neither crafts nor Valentine’s Day was really his thing, but the circumstances were special.


Jim was frugal only with money.  Perhaps that was an artifact of his family’s reaction to the swift dissipation of the first substantial sum he, the oldest of five children, ever possessed—the amount with which he had been entrusted for both necessities and incidentals during his first year in college.  He was neither a traditionally demonstrative nor a lavishly-spending person.

Since his freshman year, when he blew two entire semesters’ allotted fortune ($500 in 1977 money) on a stereo system (kids: ask your parents), Jim had not spent large sums of money on himself or others–except on the exceedingly rare occasions when he would buy a house, which he excused as more of an investment (even though our timing, market-wise, was notoriously bad).  Our growing family did, after all, require a place to put all of those books, and all of my fabric.

It was a rarity when my husband would spend enough money that it was worth mentioning to me . . . although there was the time I was startled that a man showed up on the doorstep of our new home, asking me for a check because he had “my tractor.”  Jim forgot to mention the purchase.  He had always wanted to be a gentleman farmer in his spare time.

We spent my very first Mother’s Day, with our eight-month-old son, at the Jersey Shore (which then carried somewhat classier connotations in popular culture, due to no fault of the area itself; it was lovely) with friends from Jim’s residency.

All of us went to a diner for breakfast, heavily encumbered by our baby and our friends’  toddlers.  Swirling around us like the cloud of dirt around Pigpen in the Charlie Brown comic strip was a circle of enthusiastic juice-box wielding children (at least one of them sneezing wildly, having planted a direct hit on her birthday cake the evening before), folding strollers, clacking colorful plastic teething toys, diaper bags and assorted baby paraphernalia.

We sat at a long table and the children all experimented, in a Jackson Pollock sort of way, with scattered Cheerios and bits of buttered pancake and streaks of sticky condiments on paper mats.

Other families with less detritus and better-dressed moms (or, at least, moms not adorned with viscous, vivid strained food splotches) shrunk away from our table.

Later that day Jim gave me a lovely silver filigree bracelet with a pale blue gemstone and earnestly told me that the gift was because it was my first Mother’s Day.  I duly mentally noted that I should not expect similarly over-the-top treatment every May.


Years later–five weeks and forever before the surgeon said “This is your tumor,” but within the time when I later realized Jim was first feeling his peculiar upper quadrant pain—Jim again gave me unusually lavish Mother’s Day gifts.  They were not on the order of a diamond necklace, but still gave me pause.

It was so unlike Jim that I wondered, but did not ask him, if there was something special about that Mother’s Day.


I wonder now if he somehow knew–before he knew–that it would be the last with me, with us.  Did his condition register at some level?  Had he, like an Andre Dubus character, “simply known, as a person with a disease may know without giving it a name or even notice, long before its actual symptoms and detection”?

Many friends of ours began their lives as parents much later than Jim and I did.  They all have had fewer children, and most an only child.  More than one of them has told me of making a decision not to have more, given their ages when commencing the adventure of parenthood: “I’d be in my sixties by the time she graduated high school.”

It does not seem to occur to anyone, even when parenthood begins later in life, that he or she will not be around for high school graduation.

It did not occur to us until Jim’s diagnosis that either of us would not be around when one of our children graduated from high school, or that one of us would not be there for the first college graduation, let alone the next birthday or Mother’s Day.


By Valentine’s Day, of course, we all knew.

When I saw the necklace and read his card, I swallowed but couldn’t speak.

Jim said, “It’s also for your birthday of significance,” as if to excuse his lapse in frugality.

I could feel my eyes fill.  Because he knew he would not be here when I actually had my next birthday of significance, or for any other birthdays, and wanted to give me something for all of them.

Learning Curve

December 2012 (c) SMG

Last January one of my daughters shepherded me through the relatively minor technical work needed to begin this blog, giving me a nicely calendared progression of posts upon which to reflect.

Recently I found on my husband’s computer the 500 digital photographs–among tens of thousands he took–that he rated highest.  I studied them to try to discern exactly why these were so special to him.  Some were obvious: pictures of all our children, and other family members, and me (I am a very reluctant subject and he cleverly captured the latter from afar, without my noticing); pictures of nature–from an up-close tiny blue newt on our daughter’s shoe to panoramic mountain ranges–from three continents.

Some–like some of the favorite photographs I am posting here–may require a little bit more interpretation.  One I took at a farmer’s market after depositing a child at school on a gorgeous late August day; another was taken at a wedding, on a boat in Boston Harbor; another, an observer would be unlikely to know, is of flags waving atop a white picket fence in the aftermath of a murderous shooting spree just up the street from our home last spring.  Our little town’s police chief was shot to death, and four other officers grievously wounded.  The town’s lone elementary school’s parking lot had become a staging ground for an armed standoff.

Sometimes the story behind a photograph is nothing like you would imagine.

I decided to take yet another cue from Jim and try to wrap up this year on the blog by finding one photograph and post from each month of this blog’s brief but extremely therapeutic (for me) existence: not necessarily technically the best photograph I took that month, or the best-written post, but the ones which have some special meaning to me.  I may not even know yet why, but I’ll take a stab at it.

January Sky (c) SMG 2012

January is a close call, because the single poem I would want everyone I know to read, Kindness, is found in another of the month’s first dozen posts (The Other Deepest Thing).  But the post to which I return most frequently is The Things He Carried.   The title is a take on Tim O’Brien’s novel (with the intriguing narrator of self-consciously dubious reliability), and writing this post about the few small things my husband–who was not tied to material goods in the way most people are–carried to the end truly helped me to think about the ways in which an object without any monetary value can be rendered priceless, imbued with stories, with love and friendship and the fondest of memories.

February 2012 (c) SMG

I had the sense that I wrote nearly constantly in February, although in fact it appears that my roiling winter mind churned out only a few more posts than it had in January.  Again I have a close runner-up (Renewing Rituals), but it was closely followed by Coletanea de Death Cab–the post in which I reflected on being alone–but not entirely–during the long drive back from a memorial service in New Jersey. Continue reading “Learning Curve”

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