Now, as then, one rock’s broad surface comfortably seats a man over six feet tall, allowing him to look up at the much slighter young woman facing him under a Long Nights Moon.
You faced the moon and I faced you. . . .
Technically I have been alone when revisiting the spot, in mind or body. Even now, few couples would make the rocky climb on a December night. Its most perilous stretches had no guard rails then. Hemmed by poison ivy and washed by surf, scattered signs warned of the trek’s perils, beginning with the precipitous drop from unsteady earth to roiling sea.
And we talked about the future we hoped to have and came to be.
From the narrow, rutted path’s highest point, where the young man sits and she stands, an overlook offers a panoramic view of the horizon, bracketed by ridged limestone shelves angled into the seabed, as glaciers had decreed.
The young man’s vision is razor-sharp, as it will remain all his life. Beyond his moonlit partner he sees a swath of inky, noisy ocean punctuated only by a rocky outcropping miles from shore. There, tiny Boon Island personifies the word “barren.” No less a luminary spirit than poet Celia Thaxter, of New Hampshire’s convivial close-knit Isles of Shoals and their blooming gardens, is said to have once described Boon Island as “the forlornest place that can be imagined.”
Despite its size and solitude, its uneven granite has drawn in and grounded ships over the centuries. And more than one sturdy stone lighthouse there has been storm-toppled into the sea, rearranging itself into mazes on the ocean floor.
The distant toothpick of the most recently rebuilt lighthouse is in fact New England’s tallest. Standing at strict attention atop the granite pile where nothing grows, it laconically cycles its pure white light, lest another insufficiently attentive traveler come too close.
Compared to its nearest neighbor, the gaudily scarlet-strobing, holiday-bedazzled and aggressively photographed Nubble Lighthouse, one would have to concentrate very carefully to commit this shy slender cousin to pixels or film. When one does, the tiny island itself often appears to be hovering above the water, as if it is present both as we know it to be and also its own ghost.
At this spot my husband and I shared at the cliff’s edge, the only sound likely to be heard during any season gently floated upwards. Thousands of water-smoothed stones companionably clattered as waves cycled below. They mingle and chatter as each wave washes over them and recedes, resettling their companions only slightly as they all await the next incoming wave. The sound becomes less mellifluous only in the most ferocious storms–the rare, intense storms we sometimes do not sense are coming, and which might fell even the most dependable beacons.
It is no coincidence that this single quotidian patch of earth and rock snuck itself into my subconscious memory, and in turn has played a role in both my fiction and non-fiction.
My husband died almost twelve years ago, but I will always find him–and our younger selves and our future children–in this spot, at least as present as the rocky shore and surrounding sea, and the seagulls who pause to quietly survey the rising sun along with me.
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.
Movers could have unfurled the enormous Persian rug in one of two ways.
Once spread out, it fills more square feet than did our entire first apartment as newlywed grad students.
A symmetrical design falls away in layers from a central medallion reminiscent of a quavering diamond, outlined with both gentle waves and angled peaks. The rug is distinctly in my husband Jim’s calm color palette: gentle golds, russets, and moss greens, with a smattering of milky blue. (I find that I gravitate to riots of color, at least when I surface from grief to come up for air.)
Over the years I have, heel-to-toe, paced these never-ending lines while preparing to argue cases, waiting interminably as my customer service calls were “escalated” up the line, and giving and receiving both good and Very Bad news.
After the not inconsiderable task of unfurling the rug in my newest home–now three full cities and one state distant from its original tenure with us–I saw that the movers’ serendipitous choice of where to deposit it has laid bare its deep flaws.
Some might have discarded this rug many moves ago.
Had it faced the other way, its mutilated corner would have been hidden from view underneath the cream-colored couch (which, of far more recent vintage than the rug, bears only a minor flaw: a sprinkling of puppy teeth marks) .
But now the abraded corner has been splayed for all to see, if they are in the habit of periodically looking down to see where they are going.
Patches of hand-knotted wool have entirely worn away; fringe has thinned to weary threads.
The selvage cannot be salvaged.
The manner of injury was inadvertent; the cause was over-watering (of a potted ficus that towered over me).
The venue was a more modern home, the sun-soaked slightly sunken living room, to be exact.
My husband made very few mistakes in his all too short years, especially when it came to living creatures. But boy, did he over-water that plant.
The water, in turn, seeped through drainage holes in its large clay pot, and into a significant swath of the perfect new rug that was then our most expensive purchase in our years of marriage.
We did not actually notice this until we were almost ready to roll the rug up for a move to the old house he loved so much, where his earthly possessions would remain for me to tend to when we moved the next time, and the next.
The damaged portion is now a tattered island moored to the mainland by its underside, where it seems Jim fashioned a large rectangular dressing from carefully cut adhesive strips of silt-colored paper.
Over the years the adhesive hold has become more tenuous; fissures have developed, revealing ragged shallow ridges of scored, carmelized once-sticky paper which poke through the surface like baleen teeth.
The rug’s measurements are the same, but it is off kilter. Perfect symmetry is a thing of the past. It’s as if only this portion of the rug has aged–badly, in the way too severe a shock robs a body of its power to entirely heal.
Even in the dark, this damage would make itself known by the gentle crinkling sound the paper dressing still makes when a foot or paw treads even lightly upon it.
I have left the rug that way, not simply because it is far too weighty for me to move. It is right at my home’s threshold; if you enter and simply glance down you will see it, cross over its threadbare glory, and perhaps contemplate its story.
It was pristine when it came to us. Jim purchased it after careful appraisal, and with some consternation about the price–more than we had paid for any car we’d purchased, and four times the entire semester’s cash he’d carried as a college freshman–in the dog days of August. Our first baby was in my arms and a welcome breeze came in.
For awhile the rug was the only furnishing in our living room. In the only shaded corner was a large stone fireplace where we posed our perfect baby boy in the tiny Santa suit his Aunt Liz gave him before he was born.
A year later, I sat on it in a room still bereft of furniture , and baby Sam gently patted the belly under which his brother dwelt.
After we had next moved, by then with three preschoolers, we returned to the empty house for one last visit. Our smiling sons sat on the two low wooden steps into the living room, where our seated toddler daughter’s image was reflected in the gleaming wood floor.
I have noticed, only in retrospect, that once we became parents Jim became more of a caretaker to all living, growing things. He brought the ficus home shortly after we brought home our firstborn, and surrounded our homes with bird feeders which he carefully maintained. Over the years he planted and maintained flowers and bushes and trees and grew berries and vegetables he readily sacrificed to wildlife visitors, rather than safeguarding in a way that might endanger critters emerging from surrounding woods. He even enlisted and supervised less complex organisms, tapping maple syrup, tending to sourdough bread starter, and brewing beer.
He maintained bird feeder cities, tending more meticulously to their culinary sensibilities than I ever was capable of when attempting to sate our humans and beagles.
Perhaps it is needless to say I am not such a fan of perfection. Maybe it’s just a chicken and egg proposition, as I have never been close to that mark.
I now have another, far smaller rug that appears to be perfectly symmetrical. I acquired this magic Mughal carpet in Uttar Pradesh, where one of my daughters and I saw such rugs being hand-made. Unlike the damaged rug at my home’s threshold, its asymmetry is well hidden but complete: due to the arrangement of its warp and weft, from one side it is deep sapphire, and from the other a steel blue-gray.
Little in life satisfies the human impulse to see and seek beauty in perfect symmetry. And among what is worth holding on to, few things are unscarred.
My husband’s out-of-the-blue diagnosis was confirmed seven years ago. It was a suffocatingly hot morning, the last Monday in June.
For weeks beforehand I had a profound and decreasingly punctuated sense of dread.
I was at the wheel of the now-retired mom van, thinking about one daughter’s upcoming high school graduation and her stresses, when I was visited with the unmistakable thought, “These worries will soon seem like nothing.”
Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven weeks earlier: a dream in which I visited someone I loved in a hospital room I’d never seen. Completely still. Quiet. Sterile white. In the bed a man I assumed upon waking, distraught, had been my father, although I did not see his face.
I think Jim sensed something, too, although he did not communicate it to me in words any more than he communicates with me now by traditional means.
I realize now that he did not tell me what lay ahead until he had ruled out all other reasonable possibilities.
Don’t be too eager to ask What the gods have in mind for us, What will become of you, What will become of me, What you can read in the cards, Or spell out on the Ouija board. It’s better not to know.
Or was it?
For more than two decades, until that final Thursday night in June, our marriage employed a device known as the “Steph news blackout”: if something would endlessly worry me but was likely to turn out fine, or simply not worth my mental energy and tendency to catastrophize, Jim would take it upon himself to resolve it.
In tandem with the news blackouts, Jim, who would have been the first to say he was not a natural joke-teller, had an approach reminiscent of his tale of the vacationing parents:
The parents go on vacation and leave their son with his grandmother. Mom and dad call home the first night to check in; their son answers the phone and says: “The cat died.” The father, sobered, says, “You know, you could have eased us into that. The first time we called you could have said, ‘The cat’s on the roof,'” the next time, maybe ‘The cat’s on the roof and we still can’t get her down,’ and then we could have been more prepared.” “OK, dad, I understand.”
The next night, the parents call home again and ask how things are. The son answers, “Grandma’s on the roof….”
Thursday night: “I think we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that this is a tumor.”
The surgeon, Monday, just after noon, in a windowless white room, pointing to a computer screen image of my husband’s pancreas: “This is your tumor.”
Our first move to a house big enough for three was to a house at the edge of acres of conservation land. To get to it one had to wind around a long driveway.
Winter was coming. Jim had some people come by the house to give estimates on plowing. I went to the door, baby in arms, to let one of them in.
When he left the house I said to Jim, “Not that one. Do not have him come back here.”
Two years later I was driving home, now with a second baby in a car seat. We were diverted by a police barricade. It was an armed standoff involving the person who, without doing anything but asking if Jim was home, had made me uncomfortable enough to tell Jim not to have him come back.
Days before my father died a year ago, a nurse thought to mention a certain phrase he haltingly had spoken, which would not have been particularly meaningful to me had Jim not spoken the exact same words in his hospital room days before he died. I called my older brother and suggested it might be a good time to fly out.
What do I do now with my intuition? What do I do now when I feel diffuse dread?
Atul Gawande wrote in Complications, a memoir of his surgical residency, “It is because intuition sometimes succeeds that we don’t know what to do with it. Such successes are not the result of logical thinking. But they are not the result of mere luck, either.”
I think the real danger is that I am now conditioned for the heaviest of shoes to continue to drop, horrific echoes of the once steady and reliable thunking of Jim’s size 13 shoes on the wide pine floorboards in our bedroom.
But intuition, particularly conditioned intuition, can be the enemy of hope.
It may also be illusion.
Maybe what I have thought of as intuition was actually based on observations I didn’t even know I’d made. Maybe I had seen the winces of persistent muscle strain-like pain flash across the face I knew so well. Maybe I had seen my husband hold himself differently in some infinitesimal way. Maybe I had seen micro-flashes of concern in his bright eyes and his unlined face.
Maybe I had seen or heard the first wave of tremors which would signal my father’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease.
Maybe the plow guy, or even his truck, had at some level reminded me of some distant defendant I had observed in a criminal case. Maybe I’d once read something detailing crime statistics involving men with red pick-up trucks.
Ultimately I think experience is more trustworthy than intuition. (They don’t call me my office’s “institutional memory” for nothing.) Of course, a devastating run of life experiences can also be at war with hope. But I shall try to surrender to neither foreboding intuition nor scarring experience.
Yesterday I was with a dear friend who, with some trepidation, gently asked me if I knew my ring–the one Jim gave me 23 years ago and I have never taken off–was missing its center stone, a bright cobalt sapphire the identical shade of the silk dress I wore on our first date as teenagers.
I took off the ring, its center starkly bereft of its ballast, to make sure the surrounding stones would not escape as well. Almost immediately I felt the ring’s absence. A subtle divet circled the base of my ring finger.
After nearly two hours retracing steps and grid-searching waterfront docks and brick sidewalks, heart lifting and then falling at each of hundreds of pebble kernels glittering in the parboiling sun, my friend Judy found a lucky penny in the street. She held it aloft toward the sun, cast her eyes upward, and asked Jim for a little help.
I gave up hope of finding the sapphire soon thereafter.
And then, within minutes, I lifted from the ground a brilliant fragment of beveled blue, its underside clouded by a dusky silver-gray sheen from 23 years’ inattention to the thin gold prongs which held it in place until it was time to catch my attention by letting go.