A Wishbone Sunset and a Journey Home

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July 16th, 2016.

At the appointed late afternoon hour,  one of our daughters was a wedding guest several hours away. She was in the same chapel where, at a service of remembrance four winters ago, the sun had suddenly streamed through a frigid cloud cover to the last strains of the first verse from Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy:

“. . . .Hearts unfold like flowers before you, opening to the sun above. . . .Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the storms of doubt away; Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.”

July 16th is my wedding anniversary. Somehow, already it was my sixth one alone.

Does the journey of marriage continue after death parts those who took its vows?

Weeks ago I watched the end of my father’s life of more than sixty years with my mother, including just short of 59 years of marriage.  I wonder whether she too will come to tap–or, as I have, sometimes fitfully and fruitlessly beat my fists against–the boundary at which their paths unwillingly diverged, and how she will see the new space between them.

One can only share a journey so far…or at the veil’s threshold does the form of the relationship and of each of its innermost parts simply change, becoming not so much disordered as reconfigured?

My husband’s size 13 work shoes’ thunks on the sixteen stairs that curved upstairs in our house have become transfigured into “footprints like a butterfly’s.”

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The ever-present camera he used to carry, elegant and specially adapted to his patient photographic skills, has transmuted into a small and simple point-and-shoot one I cannot be without.

It is curious–one of my father’s favorite and most loaded words–that as traditional time moves forward, my mind carries me almost ceaselessly back . . . to my older brother clicking his heels at our wedding, to my husband plucking a plump leech from our youngest child’s toe at a first visit to his favorite lake, to the glimpse of a summer stand on the side of the road that looks just like the place we picked strawberries with visiting friends from California when our children were babies.

Now I have gathered in my arms, as if holding a child, black boxes holding my husband’s and my father’s ashes.  I had told my mother what the box would look like and what its weight would be.

It is as if everything, part and particle, has been rearranged in time and shape and space itself. And while there is conservation of matter, love remains capable of infinite expansion.

“When the sun hangs low in the west
and the light in my chest won’t be kept
held at bay any longer
When the jealousy fades away
and it’s ashes and dust for cash and lust
and it’s just hallelujah
And love in the thoughts,
love in the words,
love in the songs they sing in the church….”

Not infrequently, I thought I heard myself voicing Jim’s thoughts, in the measured tone he would have used, while speaking to my father as he was in hospice care at home.

And I thought of the single most ridiculous and selfish thing I said to Jim during his illness, when I wept in the deep winter of his hospice care and said he would never be alone, but I would be alone forever.

What I meant was that we–our children and I–would never leave his side, and I could not face being being without him, of not having him at my side, for the rest of my life.  I still can’t. I still and always will miss his physical presence more than words can say–the same measure by which we love the children born of our marriage–but I also believe what I read to the close friends and family who gathered after my theoretical physicist father died, about why you’d want a physicist to speak at your funeral:

 

to “remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. . . .  [and] tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives. And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that…scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.”

 

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July 16th.  The day my father had walked his only daughter down the isle of Memorial Church and I married my husband.  This was the first time both were gone. My husband’s ashes were mixed with the sea on Father’s Day; my father died three years later on Father’s Day.

“When my body won’t hold me anymore
and it finally lets me free,
where will I go?
Will the tradewinds take me south
through Georgia grain, a tropical rain
or snow from the heavens?
Will I join with the ocean blue
or run in to a Savior true
and shake hands laughing?
And walk through the night, straight to the light
holding the love I’ve known in my life….”

But I was not alone. Grateful for the indulgence and the company, I followed an impulse to go with a friend towards a spot I’d never seen before, where an outdoor chapel’s pews face the sea. Over the course of nearly an hour, we watched layered clouds brighten and sharpen into a wishbone suspended over the sun as it dropped under a purple band at the horizon.

What did I wish for as a child when I held a wishbone in my Drumphian fingers? What do I dare to wish for now?

The wishbone had to be broken, snapped clean through, to make its fulfillment possible.

 

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A few people then wandered near us and quickly left, remarking that they’d “just missed” sunset.

We waited.

The noseeums began biting.

We waited some more.

The visitors who had flashed by in search of the precise moment of sunset weren’t quite right.

They hadn’t missed it. Once we had waited long enough, it gloriously reassembled.

 

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Misty Memories

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“Memory — fragile, hazy-bright, miraculous, was to them the spark of life itself, and nearly every sentence of theirs began with some appeal to it . . . .”

— Donna Tartt, The Little Friend

One of my sons joined me on a recent summer night to seek a view of northern lights predicted to swirl so atypically southward that they would be within view if we drove just a few hours north.

On the way he indulged me as I pulled off the road and scampered with my camera towards relatively tame mountain vistas.  Like his father, he is very patient.

Meteorological predictions went unfulfilled.  But the fact that we saw no aurora of dazzling blue and green lights did not make it an unsuccessful jaunt.

The two of us wound our way in the dark around the White Mountains.  Mt. Washington’s serpentine blackened hulk loomed over us, reminding me of a dream I had when I was ten: my toddler-aged dream self was standing knee-deep in the ocean and I was surrounded and dwarfed by stacks of boulders.  No one else was in sight.

Ours was the only car on the highway, our headlights muted echoes of two stunningly bright lights in the night sky.

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The night’s dark watercolor whorl beckoned to both our former selves.

Still more coming . . . x, y, z . . . . ”  I murmured to my firstborn, who is now not far short of a doctorate in pure mathematics.

We were here before, and you and your brother wanted me to read Chicka Chicka Boom Boom the whole way.”  I added.

He had been only three on the night I remembered last winding down this road.  In the deep dark of that recent June night, though, I still could see not only the long packed-away picture book’s saturated pinks and oranges, green coconut tree leaves and neon letters, but the carnation pink velour shirt my baby girl had worn, the holly-sprigged cobalt parka in which one son had been swaddled in his car seat.  My husband Jim would have been playing his music, though a Raffi tape would have been at the ready.

Unsaid: the “we” in “we were here before” was our family.  It was I who read to the children in the car because my husband, their father, who has since died far too young, had always taken the wheel when we traveled.

“I remember,” my son said.  He paused a beat.  “I think this was the first time I went skiing, and dad took me and he brought me up a rope lift.  And the aunts were there, too, in a different part of the place we were staying, and there was something about a refrigerator?  A broken refrigerator in one of their rooms?”

He jogged my memories.  He was right on all scores.

“How did you remember that?”

We drove on, trading off pieces of our family memories, sequences of bright clattering dominoes, pictures from our past.

“We came back over this bridge with the big stone circles and it was raining, and we stopped right over there and had pancakes.”

“And here–just about a block away, around the corner–do you remember we stayed overnight and we were in the room decorated with the baseball posters?” 

“Oh, and then we went a little way off the highway near the mountain the next day and dad found a trail with a waterfall, and we went through a little tunnel to get there….”

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A few years ago I heard on my car radio a story about an elderly professor who remarked that when his wife died, all their family memories died for him too–that there was no point in his holding onto a past she was no longer there to curate with him.

Mercifully, that is not so for me.

In under a week it will be the anniversary of my wedding.  (Perhaps there should be a word for a widow’s or widower’s wedding anniversary . . . a widoversary?)  I have very few photographs of our wedding, which took place in the days of film photography.  We have no moving pictures, no preserved sound.  But I can easily call back our friend Gary playing the guitar, our friend Patty singing, the exact timbre and measure of our best man Jon’s words to Jim, my long-gone grandmother’s bright blue-green eyes and her patting the chair next to her and telling me to sit with her for just a minute before we left on our new life.

Rather than any formal recording, I gladly rely on what my aunt has referred to as the “haze of memory” of vows which lasted and which yielded this new family and all these boundless memories.

*****

My son and I spent several hours driving that recent night.  We stopped away from ambient light and walked into woods, peeper frogs and crickets providing the soundtrack, but no northern lights appeared.

Near midnight I stood next to my son, who towers over me.  He is nearly as tall as his father.

We gazed on glittering gray starlit skies reflected in Chicorua lake, much too dark to capture with my camera . . .  but a photograph, after all, itself is never just a photograph.  So that night too will softly slide into memory’s soothing mist.

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