I wrote this post five years ago, while leaning on one of many pairs of crutches (the coolest among them, with built-in reflectors) I accrued as I quite literally fell to pieces as a half-decade younger widow. Back then I had all our beagles by my side and underfoot; now Rufus and Brady have joined Jim. It is one of my favorite posts, though I could not say why, and now something of a birthday tradition for him. He would have loved everything about Iceland….
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 shrunk considerably, the mighty mom van traded out for better gas mileage, fewer seats, and barely enough space to contain 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.
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.
. . . you are much more than simply dead/ I am a dish for your ashes / I am a fist for your vanished air….
Charles Bukowski, “The Unblinking Grief”
Ten years ago today, at 12:52 p.m., give or take a minute-without-end, the surgeon pointed to a scan I would not have looked at even could I have seen it that far across the windowless white room.
“This is your tumor,” she said to my husband, whose keen eyes would have immediately absorbed the labyrinthine contours of his inoperable pancreatic tumor.
Some of the things he did next, knowing what he knew as as a physician, have puzzled me for most of that decade.
I instantly knew there was no hope: he would certainly die within months, as he did. But at times he seemed to think otherwise.
I now know I had framed and answered the wrong questions.
In the past year I’ve found clues in the strangest places.
Within a city block in Boston, on two sides of a magnificent courthouse I was drawn to even as a kid–and in which as an adult I have for decades argued to uphold first-degree murder convictions–are two dedicated gardens. Only one contains flowering plants.
The other is made of stone.
I’ve never encountered another soul in either.
The Garden of Hope is dedicated to cancer patients, and to curing cancer. Visiting it makes me feel ineffably sad.
The Garden of Peace is dedicated to homicide victims. Stones are engraved with their names and dates of birth and too-early death. Water circles through from a granite orb, representing the weight of grief resting with victims’ survivors. Visiting it gives me hope.
In the space between them I may have finally come upon some answers.
Within an hour of his out-of-the-blue diagnosis, my outwardly robust, healthy husband sat in the Lahey Clinic’s expansive lobby, reading journal articles on his laptop about pancreatic cancer.
I pressed myself against an outside stone pillar far broader than I, my skin feeling as if it were steaming from the day’s heat, and wept. I, distinctly not a physician, immediately knew there was no hope: he would die, soon. As he did.
He knew exactly what his protein marker levels spelled out. He knew how dire the meetings ahead would be. He knew what the oncologists would say.
I didn’t grasp the medical in-between, but the stand-still second I heard the diagnosis I absolutely knew the end.
When it was time to go back inside and accompany him to a PET scan he closed the laptop screen, calmly looked up at me, and said, “Whatever happens, it looks like I’m going to need an extensive course of chemo.”
Already, I had trouble computing what he was saying. What’s the point, I thought, but did not say.
And I continued puzzling as he subjected himself to ghastly side-effects from twelve-hour infusions of chemotherapy drugs over the rest of the summer. He must have known they wouldn’t help. Nurses were swathed in full PPE so as not to come into contact with the poisons they were injecting into his port, turning his tongue to cotton with which he could not form words, leaving him nauseated and too exhausted to move, sometimes sleeping 20 hours a day, turning his hair white, casting a dark spell that made taking a sip of cold liquid like swallowing broken glass.
I would wander aimlessly around the chemotherapy wing; when not piecing together angel puzzles I would gaze at the same photographs and posts and calendars with something approaching….anger: they were always of and about survivors, always about those who would live. Survivors’ Poker Night, Survivors’ celebratory Banquets. Nighttime meetings for survivors of different types of cancer. Bright ribbons of different colors, but nothing rendered in black.
Nothing for those without hope of “getting well.” There isn’t even a Hallmark card for that.
The physician-patient’s own physicians wouldn’t bring up hospice care. When I mentioned it to his oncologist, he nearly fled the room, murmuring how good my assuredly dying husband still looked. Eventually, during an emergency admission when he had only weeks left, and after I’d made multiple requests to the floor staff for a hospice referral, Jim picked up the phone in his hospital room and referred himself for end-of-life care.
Through this brutal, fruitless treatment, the tumor did not shrink. Its cells had spread to his liver, likely before he had been diagnosed. His pain was indescribable.
Why was he putting himself through this?
By the time November arrived and we were hastened out a Master of the Universe surgeon’s examining room door and into the dark with a dismissive, “Good luck,” even my husband’s human and humane doctors knew no additional course of treatment was to be ventured. He promptly, joyously, planned his dream trip with our children. As he finalized the details he paused. I asked him why.
“I’m wondering if I should get insurance for me.”
Again, my mind, flashing to the $82,000 bill for two vials of a single post-chemotherapy drug, did not compute. “We have insurance.”
“In case I die there.”
In case we had to bring back his body, I then understood. I had to look away.
Uncharacteristically, he briefly balked after computing the final numbers. I voted “no” on trip insurance. He told me how much it would be to take the six of us on the necessarily short-notice last family trip–well over what my paltry public servant’s salary would thereafter allow. “It’s going to cost a lot.”
“Oh yes, we are going,” I heard myself saying. “I can always get a second job later.” We understood what “later” meant.
It was only this winter, nine years after my husband’s death, when I began to understand why I remain so unsettled by the Garden of Hope, yet take solace from the Garden of Peace, which takes death–almost always sudden and violent–as its starting point.
I have far too narrowly understood what hope is, raging against reality and unable to release my own grievance against the universe for not including my husband among those who could ever have hoped to be cured.
I lost hope because I shared that narrow view of it.
Jim never once lost hope; he seamlessly and instantly recalibrated it to whatever reality he encountered.
He was never in denial; he completely accepted not only what he faced, but what we who have to carry on did.
He didn’t sign up for those horrific treatments because he expected to be cured, or even feel any better, but maybe he thought it plausibly could get him just enough time to see one of his children graduate, or move his daughter into her freshman year at the school where he and I met, or climb another mountain, or take photographs of a Darwin Finch. And he did climb that mountain, and he did take those pictures. And as tired as he was, both were glorious.
The recalibration of hope came naturally to him, and is always possible.
This is the tenth Father’s Day that has dawned for my children without their father here with them. This year, they all are also separated from each other, occupying different spaces on two continents.
And, strangely, it is just four years since my own father died on Father’s Day , after living to teach generations of students and be a grandfather to young adults.
I am a theoretical physicist’s daughter: I understand chaotic progression cannot be undone. But I can’t help feeling the world might seem a little less profoundly disordered were they here now.
Could Jim have averted this pandemic? Perhaps not, but he surely would have seen it coming and calmly set in place and guided the communities around him to a reasoned response, adopting practices which would have saved lives, just as he did with earlier viruses which spread into human populations. He took significant time out of his early career as a practitioner to devote himself to mastering emerging, fast-moving research about a past zoonotic pandemic, in order to be able to help people many others were at best disinterested in treating. His hallmark always was a prescient, “Show me the data”; he would listen and always, always learn a great deal before proceeding.
At a far smaller scale . . . .
I would not currently have a bleeding, throbbing, plum-hued thumb, embedded with a fierce circa 1802 splinter. I would neither occupy my current home, nor have been doing a household chore involving unfinished antique wood. And even had I been, Jim would have been able to extract the splinter.
I would not have learned the patterns of the seasons in which flora grow and collapse before doing it all over again.
Hundreds of thousands of photos would have gone untaken. I do not exaggerate.
I would not have driven about a quarter-million miles, including the miles between Pittsburgh and New Hampshire that delivered me to an industrial park, lost in the middle of the night in Connecticut, where I found the musical score Jim made for when he knew I’d need one.
I would not have known so many people had such depths of kindness….or that a few people I thought I knew better would be capable of so grievously disappointing me.
I would have had a lot more sleep.
But what else would not have happened?
Would one of our daughters not have gone into global health and recently put the final touches on a dissertation modelling the spread of spillover pandemics?
Would one of our sons not have chosen, after hearing from physicists at his grandfather’s memorial service, to start in a new direction and begun an additional graduate program in physics?
Would I have gone back to my home state and my original job, or ever met the colleagues and friends who have brought so much to my life?
I would not have stood up alone on a stage and told more than 2,000 people about bringing my husband home to die, and I would not have met my friend Bethany, who told her story on the same stage and told shaky me to just look at her when I got up there, and I’d be OK.
I would have slept through, or not been outside to see, countless dazzling sunrises.
I would not have stopped being afraid of all but one thing.
I would not finally have learned how to love with no fear; had I paid more attention, I would have realized our children got there long before I did.
The hardest thing to admit is that I would not have become a better person. The experience of a devastating illness and premature death distills a good marriage to the essence of the people who share it, and gives both a chance to know and to choose what to hold onto.
Today, for Father’s Day, I am wearing the color Jim liked best–though scarlet creates an unfortunate match in feverish feel and tone to my violent global allergic reaction to summer’s arrival–as if he needed its bright beacon to locate me, when I know part of me accompanied him as well.
This morning I stood in the place where I now live and faced sunrise, as I usually do beginning in the dark wee hours of summer, waiting to see what kind of light and color will erupt and shimmer over the Atlantic., while feasting noseeums remind me I am indeed still here, hair-trigger immune system and all.
I don’t usually remember to look behind me, but this time I did. The color there was gentle, the clouds swirling and soft, without the hard bright edges of the too-bright-to-behold sun being delivered squalling into the horizon for the day ahead.
Sometimes looking back is uncomplicated and beautiful.
In this case, to bowdlerize the first sentence of Love in the Time of Cholera: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the run on spices that left the aisle as inexplicably barren as that of TP.”
A quarantined extreme extrovert and lifelong NYC friend had circulated a blog post updating opening lines in great novels. Surprised that it did not contain an homage to social distancing encompassing a full century’s solitude, I contemplated a first line as ideally suited to pandemic as it is to every other aspect of human life: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father told him, ‘Stay the f*** home.’”
In some ways we’ve reframed love. Or perhaps we just see a gloriously expanded array of acts which now express it.
Love is crossing the street when you see your neighbor coming.
Forever ago—that is, earlier this spring—maintaining a Smoot-length separation from one another did not neatly fall within our framework of an act of love, a noun that embraces affirmative physicality, not negative space. I suspect most of us think of love as encompassing tactile expression, starkly incomplete as an interior experience.
Adopting a habit of strict distancing, on the other hand, is quite a bit easier than navigating the scope of a statute, a Commandment, or even an office-wide email. It is not fraught with nuance; doesn’t entail awkward conversations with children or peers, or a foray into any framer’s intent; and seems impervious to miscommunication if one pays minimal attention, even with a pandemic-distracted mind.
When the love lies in the apartness….Well, six feet is six feet.
Dropping the sense of touch from love’s repertoire may be a sea-change for most, but it is nothing new to those grieving the loss of a life’s partner. For years I’ve felt space change shape in a way that rewrites how love is shown–intimately, profoundly, and perhaps most of all at unfathomable distances.
My husband died nine years ago, from the speedy and ghastly exponential progression of a disease that had declared its end even before there was an outward hint it had arrived to occupy his his body.
An internist, he described to me by its precise reflected sensation, but before he or anyone else could see anything there: a small, persistent lower-quadrant “ping” that lingered just a little too long after his daily run with Rufus and Brady, our exuberant rescue beagles.
By the time he intuited that this sensation differed minutely from the muscle strain it resembled, the deadliest cancer’s cells had spread and could not be contained, having first staked their claim to his pancreas and irretrievably wrapped around his portal vein. I could never bear to look at the projected scan that accompanied a doctor’s uninflected, oddly lyrical description of his tumor’s “labyrinthine varicosities.”
Suddenly, it seemed, we were living in José Saramago’s Death with Interruptions. Death, aware of the problematic unintended consequences of having taken time off, and having herself become flesh and fallen under the sway of its physical desires, had resumed her job but changed it up: now, as appointed dates approached, she dispatched handwritten notices to those whose time was about to run out.
My husband had been handed one of her violet envelopes.
Love whittled to its essence by the prospect of a loved one’s imminent death makes holing up in solitude—and the spatial do-si-dos when we encounter people outside–seem among the lightest loads to shoulder.
This is not to say that physical separation is insignificant. Far from it. Multitudes of people will be haunted by outliving those who fell gravely ill and perished, whom they could not comfort face-to-face and hand-to-hand. I am thankful that my husband was able to be at home, surrounded and enveloped by love when he died; as traumatic as his death was, it would have been ineffably harder had we all not been able to touch and be with him.
I’ve found mere measurable distance from my children as they’ve grown sometimes physically painful. Dropping them off at schools and airports has been a minefield of exquisite sadness, pride for the people they’ve become, yearning for the spirits of their younger selves when we all were together, and profound regret for all I could have done better when we were.
When it comes down to the point of even impermanent separation, it always seems far too soon. Kiran Desei described such a moment in The Inheritance of Loss, writing of a mother whose son had left his home in the foothills of Mount Kanchenjunga to travel to New York City, and who “was weeping because she had not estimated the imbalance between the finality of good-bye and the briefness of the last moment.”
The dissonance is a function of the uncertainty of not knowing how long a separation will last, or how or whether it will end.
I gratefully accepted the privilege of an opportunity for home confinement with one of my sons only a little bit before it become au courant, and well before the first shelter-in-place order expressed the alchemy of an act of isolation as a commitment to community.
I found myself trying to put my dread into words for someone whom technology permits me to see and hear on a wee screen. My subconscious seized on those who will survive the pandemic. (Cue, as ever, Hamilton: “Dying is easy; living is hard,” and Eliza, who outlives her husband by a half-century).
I finally stammered, “It’s the grief that’s coming, for so many, so soon.”
Six feet apart is essential, but my husband would also have been early to understand that for countless people it comes too late to escape six feet under, or whatever measurement we may assign to the “thin” space we can no longer breach between heaven and earth once people we love are no longer within our reach.
These thin places are where I best understand how touch can be the least important of our senses. According to Eric Weiner, those who originated the term “almost certainly spoke with an Irish brogue. The ancient pagan Celts, and later, Christians, used the term to describe mesmerizing places like the wind-swept isle of Iona . . . . Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”
A thin place involves only one corporeal presence but is soul-to-soul. It lacks complicating barriers and layers, physical and otherwise; it cannot accommodate pretense or posturing or guile. It cannot sustain a space in which “furtive things [begin] to crawl.” Although we cannot reach out and touch the person we love within that space, it is hard to envision a more intimate connection than that which happens there.
This new practice of love-at-a-distance has helped illuminate something that’s been nagging at my sleep-deprived subconscious for nearly a decade. At about the two-year mark of widowhood, and with varying degrees of enthusiasm and tactlessness, friends started suggesting that I should try to “meet” people. Even yours truly, who married the boyfriend I met when I was not quite seventeen, could understand an entreaty into the world of dating into which many of my divorced friends regularly and readily dive.
To some I was direct. To most I merely demurred, having not yet identified that my unwidowed friends and I think in different languages. “You might as well get a rocking chair and a shawl,” one separated friend, summonsing years of unresolved aggrievement to which I cannot relate. What could she possibly think is wrong with that? I thought.
These conversations, which I abruptly fled, were focused on one sense: the physical.
I suspect that is not even within the top 100 of the list of missing pieces from the ranks of the grieving so many are joining. The experience of watching someone you love so deeply at the end of life can consolidate sensory memory and distill the essence of intimacy in love, to which touch may be tangential.
Were I forced to pick something physical that catches my heart still, it is a memory that doesn’t even involve touch. I can still see every detail of my husband’s left shoulder, rising and falling with the subtlety of a shimmer as he, always on his right side, slept the “sleep of the just,” as he called it with a twinkle whenever I incredulously asked him about his capacity to occupy the present and disengage for restorative rest from what he could change in this world and what he accepted he could not.
Inside my shuttered window on the world I have come to think that disorientation by physical distancing has little to do with the physical, including romance; it has everything to do with love, and quite a bit to do with grief, anticipatory and present.
The fathom as the unfathomable.
On an icy early spring day in New England, just like the March day my husband died, snow had dissolved and darkened into finely-crimped crêpe a sizeable cohort of a bed of violet crocuses which just the day before had sturdily faced the sun.
After I darted across the street to avoid them I watched an elderly couple, gloved hands on wool coat sleeves steadying each other, as I hope they still do and always will.