Her Widow Excerpt 10

                                                    Her Widow

 

The purple crocuses have opened to take in the sun.

Dear Catherine,

A couple of mornings ago, I woke thinking it might be good for me to do something different, go somewhere I’ve never been with you and see someone who knew me as a child, long before you came into my life. The dogs are welcome or I wouldn’t consider it.

I made my decision today after seeing the number 444 three times yesterday: on the license plate of a car I let into the flow of traffic crossing the Rip Van WinkleBridge, on the side of a landscaper’s truck in his telephone number, and over the cleaner’s door where I turned around when I overshot the animal clinic. All ordinary sightings but seen in a single hour in the same town not more than four miles apart.

And then this morning, waking early, I felt directed to read Elizabeth Bishop’spoem “The Fish,” a favorite of yours. The last line in the poem is: “And I let the fishgo.”

Bishop’s message is the same message Stella Adler gave her drama students when she told us we didn’t need to be rich to have all the riches of the world. Everything could be ours if we took it in when we came upon it. Stella had us get up from our chairs, walk to the window of the conservatory classroom, and look out at a tree that stood in front of Lincoln Center. Waving her arms in the air and clutching herself, Stella described every detail of that tree. We were mesmerized as we listened and watchedher, and finally her large blue-green eyes settled on me. “Make it yours,” she said. “Make it all yours.” Elizabeth Bishop describes the fish in exquisite detail then lets the fish go, rather than make a trophy of it.

It put me in the mood to take a risk and leave home for a week with the possibility that something beautiful existed in the world for me to come across.

 

April

 

The windows in the house are open and the songbirds seem to have moved in.

Dear Catherine,

Early this morning I dreamed that you didn’t die, but left me, and your cancer was something I made up to protect my ego. For most of the dream I am searching for you. When I find you living in an apartment in another state, I ask you to come back home with me. You don’t.

I wake from the dream soaking wet, feeling I’ve done something awful to you. I jump out of bed. Movement, doing something—anything, might break the spell. I run to the bookshelves for our photo album and open it to a picture of you at The Ice House in San Francisco.

In the photo of you, your right thumb is pressed into the cleft of your chin. Your eyes are open wide, gazing across the table where I sit. Your brow is raised slightly as though you are surprised by something. We hadn’t known each other long when we had lunch at the Ice House and I took the photograph of you with your camera.  After taking the picture that day, I set your camera down on the table, scooted my chair back, stood, and motioned for you to follow me. In the Ladies room, we kissed. Had we been a straight couple, falling in love, we would have felt free to kiss at the table.

My dream loosens its hold on me as I gaze at the picture of you and remember my passion for you, but the images from the nightmare, or perhaps the vibration ofthe nightmare, is present, floating over my head, threatening to overtake me if I letdown my guard.

I turn to the back of the album to the last picture taken of you. You are sitting up in bed, your cheeks and temples sunken and your hands, boney, clasped in front of you like a good Catholic girl. Your wedding band is loose, a reminder of how emaciated your disease left you. It is painful to see all that again, but it confirms that I didn’t make up your cancer and death.

I flip the album pages back to earlier photos and settle on one of us sitting beside each other on a friend’s sofa. It is your 40th birthday and the room is crowded with people I’ve just met who are there to celebrate you. Most of them work with you at Harper and Row. I remember Dare Porter joining us on the sofa and when we made room for him, your knee and mine touched and I felt the small hairs on my arms stand up. I watched the faces of your friends shine when they talked to you and I felt enhanced by my association with you. I was proud as though I had been married to you for years when that night was our third date.

On another page, I find a picture of us ten years older, swimming in Nancy’s pool across the street. You are floating on Nancy’s large inner tube when I break the waterlike a dolphin and throw myself across your body. “Like a dolphin” is too generous. I was more like a big dumb dog certain I’d be welcome on you lap. It is obvious in the picture that you are surprised by me but pleased. You laugh and Nancy snaps our picture.

At last my nightmare drifts away, and I return the album to the bookcase, but I am still reminiscing in my mind. On my way back to bed, I remembered us lying side by side in your hospital bed, watching television when the night nurse came in to take your vital signs and cried out to me, “You don’t belong there!”

“Of course, I do,” I answered, and she left without taking your blood pressure or temperature.

I was lying beside you in bed at home when you took your last breath and your           body went limp in my arms. Some reflex perhaps or simply a relaxed muscle causedyour tongue to thrust forward and you spit up bile. I was quick to clean your cheek and chin and close your mouth, but the sight of that dark liquid spilling out of your mouth and the sour smell of it stayed with me, distressing me until days later I recalled throwing up in the hospital from an overdose of baclofen, and at the same time losing control of my bowel. I must have looked frightful to you, but I didn’t feel any pain or sickness. It was like a damn burst in me and the agony of sickness broke free and ran out of me like a river breaking through a dam. I experienced it as a pleasant sensation, and I want to believe that your release was pleasant.

But I don’t know. Can’t know, and that is what my dream was about: not knowing. As well as a reminder that I feel guilty when I am in pain. Mother tied me into a jacket when I was four to stop me from sucking my thumb. I was to blame for the harsh punishment and emotional pain I felt being denied the comfort of my thumb. All the losses in my life have felt like punishments.

During our years together, I sometimes felt you were too good to be true and that I didn’t deserve you. But in bed with you each night my confidence was restored. After we kissed goodnight and I thought you had fallen asleep, you would reach out to me with your foot, as Cleo and Caleb do when they come to me to settle down and take a nap. Your cool leg against mine under the covers in the darkness of the night is the hardest thing to live without. That loss pulls on my insides as though it has in mind to remove my guts and leave me hollow.

Her Widow, Excerpt 9

 

Her Widow

Today’s sunshine arrived too late for the earthworms. Numerous swollen bodies lay like fat noodles on the sidewalks.

Dear Catherine,

Sleeping my days away means I don’t sleep well at night and I have been getting up at 3 a.m., confusing the dogs. They think it is time for breakfast, so I feed them.

Yesterday, well before dawn, I went to your closet and removed the rest of your clothes. I folded and placed your shirts and pants in two boxes and took them to the guest closet where nearly all your belongings are now stored, everything but your blue chambray blouse that I put on at 3am this morning. You are wearing this blouse in the first photograph I took of you. We were in Golden Gate Park where you took my author photo.

I had brought along a couple of changes that day, and while I was behind a bush, changing out of one shirt for another, you called out to me and asked if I would let you take a picture of me before I put my next item on. I stepped out from behind the bush, naked above my waist. You lifted the camera to your cheek and took several pictures. I felt bold, nearly bawdy, and at the same time like a good girl who had done what she was asked.

Weeks later, we drove out to Stinson Beach and you were again wearing the soft chambray shirt. I can see you in it as I did that day. The loose fabric rippling in the wind that is coming in the car window. I stare at the nearly transparent fabric, picturing what I know to be underneath it. Nothing like that arouses me now.

 

Sunlight and shadow follow me from window to window in the house.

Dear Catherine,

You were asleep when John Hyde called and asked me what I was up to. “Lying in bed beside my wife who is dying,” I said without much thought. I hadn’t spoken to John in thirty years. I didn’t explain you or me. Under the circumstances the last concern of mine was how others saw me. “I am so awfully sorry,” John answered. “What can I do for you?”

John and I grew up together. I was crawling around in diapers at his family’s cottage one summer day when John, two years older, grabbed a toy from me and ran with it. His mother and mine had been friends since high school. I called her Aunt Doris because that’s what we kids called close friends of our parents.

John has phoned me every Sunday since you died. This morning he invited me out to California to be a guest at his ranch and stay as long as I wanted. What trust and generosity it took for him to offer that. I wonder what he would do if I actually took him up on his offer, but I can’t even imagine leaving home for a couple of days let alone a week or more. I would be homesick just driving to the airport. I would break down the moment I saw a couple greet or part at a gate. And I would feel disloyal to you if I had a good time.

Nevertheless, I promised John I would give his offer some thought. I hung up, remembering that the last time I was on an airplane was when we were on our way home from Ireland. Everything that occurred before you got sick now seems a lifetime ago and lived by others.

After hanging up with John, I jumped out of bed and ran to the guest room closet to search among your personal papers for the small red notebook you wrote in on our trip to your ancestor’s homeland.

June, 1989, you wrote:

Yesterday arrived Shannon airport smoothly. Drove northward immediately and stayed the night at the Spa View Hotel in Lisdoonvarna and had dinner there. We were struck by so little development or modern architecture. Stones, stones, stones and emerald grass everywhere. Pastures of sheep and cows all walled in with stone fences. Roaming foxglove of a rose-maroon color, ferns, Scotch Broom pine forests, and calla lilies in cottage yards. Many birds, especially large black ravens and a little black and white fellow that jumps into the lane a lot.

After dinner Joan and I went to the Cliffs of Moher that are seven hundred feet out into the Atlantic. Puffins make their homes on the sides of these cliffs. Joan walked to the viewing area by herself. She was impressed but fearful of the height.

At 9:30 p.m. it was still light. I took some pictures. Later we had long baths in a deep tub, and then went to our pink chenille beds. We are greatly impressed with the small scale and tidiness of it all.

Today started with breakfast at the Spa View. Had sulfur baths, then a massage for Joan. Drove to Galway County and went north through an area called Burren—quite rugged. Saw a young entrepreneur at roadside with his donkey offering photos or a ride for 9 pence.

Galway was a bustling place. We tried to find Joan a good novel— no luck. Made our way westward and got a belting of rain. We decided to try to make it to Clifton for the night, but I stopped once for a few photos at a remarkable spot, an abandoned cottage with a log-bridge over a stream and a silver band of light at the horizon, under fog.

Got to Clifton and made evening headquarters at the Rock Glen Hotel. It is very luxurious here with chintz on the chairs in our room. Found a large snooker room and took a photo of Joan at the table. After settling in, we had a walk across a meadow toward the Bay. I took photos there of Joan who looked beautiful in the evening’s spectacular show of silver and gold light. This was a long walk for Joan. To bed by 12:30 a.m.

I can smell the peat burning in the stove in Aunt Agnes’s tiny kitchen as I read your notes, and I can feel the cold tiles under my bare feet as I run for the bed that has been warmed for us with an electric blanket because there was only the peat in the kitchen to warm the house.

It was as if the Queen had come to visit them, the way they treated us. We protested when they gave us their bed, but it did no good; they cuddled up together on a narrow single.

We learned that Uncle Boyce was a postman in the village and delivered mail on his bicycle. They never owned a car and had gotten their first telephone that year.

The bath towels we were given to use while we were there had been a wedding gift to them forty years before. With her eyes smiling, Aunt Agnes said that she had saved them for special people.

No family member of yours or mine was as open hearted. The good Catholics they were had no problem with us being lesbians and lovers.

 

Her Widow excerpt 8

 

The Forsythia has bloomed.

Dear Catherine,

This sunny, spring day doesn’t lift my spirits. It feels like an affront. Anger is now baked in with my sadness because the world is coming alive after a blistering-cold winter, and you are not.

I attended a bereavement group at the Dutch church in Claverack this week. When it was my turn to introduce myself and I said my wife Catherine died three months ago, the woman beside me in the large circle leaned away. Minutes later, a woman describing her struggle to do the things her husband had always done for her, looked me straight in the eye and said, “You wouldn’t understand.”

 

What a fickle month March is! Winter has returned.

Dear Catherine,

The simplest things once brought me joy: cleaning out my desk and sharpening my #1 pencils, looking for turtles sunning on the banks at Olana, playing a competitive game of badminton in the backyard until dusk, but also scouring the bathroom sink and tub because I knew it would please you, or rebuilding the steps to the garage that you thought were beyond repair. Doing any chore for you was a joy compared to this feeling I am good for nothing, not needed.

I don’t know this person who can’t find meaning or pleasure in anything, who tosses out the newspaper without reading it, who stays in the house, day in and day out, who doesn’t change the sheets on her bed. I would be better off if I had a job to go to, if I had to get out of bed in the morning, shower and dress for work.

Your good friend Margo called the other day to see how I was doing. When I mentioned I was unable to write, she said, “You’re beautiful; you don’t have to do anything.” I was shocked and disappointed to learn that in her mind physical beauty trumps all. I thought she was a feminist.

 

It has rained for three days: the street drains are overflowing and Main Street is flooded.

Dear Catherine,

My days are empty. I am merely passing time. Doing nothing with you had meaning. I sit in rooms I once called home and feel homesick.  My favorite chair is no longer inviting, and a bowl of hot soup doesn’t soothe me.

 

The rain drizzles than pours.

Dear Catherine,

Last night I couldn’t fall asleep. After hours tossing and turning, I decided sleeping in the room where I slept with you, especially during the long process of your dying, was keeping me awake nights, so I moved the bed downstairs.

It was a scene from I Love Lucy.

I slid the mattress off the box springs and leaned it against the bedroom wall, then lifted the box springs and stood it up against the mattress to hold the wobbly mattress secure against the wall while I dissembled the bed frame, took it downstairs to your office and reassembled it. All that went fairly smooth, but climbing upstairs to get the box springs and then the mattress to bring down, the muscles in my legs started to tremble.

I didn’t let that stop me. I’d made up my mind what I was going to do. The boxsprings, being rigid, wasn’t too difficult to slide down the stairs and lift onto the bedframe, but on my second trip up the stairs I had to stop twice to catch my breath and give my thigh muscles time to recover. I gave myself a pep talk and charged on. It was challenging, but not impossible to push the mattress to the stairway.

Sliding the mattress down the stairs was impossible because the mattress wasn’t rigid and on the second step flopped over and pinned me against the wall. And when I pushed the mattress off me, it flopped against the opposite wall. It was about to tumble down the stairs when I threw my weight against it. Then, with both hands grasping the fabric and bracing the mattress with my back, I raised the mattress off the step and eased it down to the next step with me. Thinking I could manage this twelve more times was idiotic.

The mattress had its own plan. It knocked me off my feet, carrying me down the stairs with it. I landed hard on the floor in the hallway below with the behemoth on top of me, pinning me to the hardwood floor.

It took me several minutes to gather the strength to crawl out from under the mattress. Too tired to do anything else, I crawled on top of the monster and fell asleep in the front hallway.

After a day of rearranging the furniture in your office and bringing my clothes down to the closet there, I took a hot bath and went to bed, but I found I slept no better downstairs and  I missed the bathroom upstairs. It took me most of the next day to lug the mattress and box-springs back upstairs.

 

 

The ground is saturated and Thompson Street is the river stream it was when Native Americans lived on its shore.

Dear Catherine,

I got out the vacuum today to clean the house, but when I got to the stairs it seemed too daunting a task to climb them, so I left the vacuum at the foot of the stairs and retreated to the couch to sleep the rest of the day.

That is what I do, I sleep because awake I’m in a world that has lost its meaning for me and in a house that feels like someone else’s.

I had a dream this afternoon while sleeping on the couch that I was in my grandma and grandpa’s attic, but it looked nothing like their attic in real life. The dream attic was huge and went on and on, room after room filled with enough furniture for a furniture store. I pulled open some of the drawers in the polished chests and all the doors in the tall cabinets, and delighted in one in particular that had glass doors. The shelves were filled with curious items that I admired, and I felt a strong urge to take one or two of the porcelain items that were smaller than the palm of my hand.

I looked around for a basket to collect the items, but in the end, although I told myself I was entitled to anything there since grandpa and grandma were dead and no one had come to claim these things, I decided against taking anything, even passing up the small cream-colored saucer that might have belonged in a dollhouse.

In an adjoining room, I came upon a closet that held fine linens and I ran my hands under and over the soft cotton, wishing I were small enough to crawl up to the very top shelf and fall asleep with my cheek against the lavender scented pillow cases. It wasn’t easy pulling myself away from the closet, but I moved on curious about what I might find in the next room.

There was a dresser that once belonged to my dad containing old, black and white snapshots in a drawer. I poured over them, slipping two into the pocket of my pants before waking from the dream.

For nearly an hour I lay in the mood of the dream until I knew what the dream meant. I had longed for the lovely things of my family and never felt entitled to them. That I took the two snapshots says something. One was of my father as a young boy and the other a wagon that was surely his.  I must have seen myself in the young boy.

Her Widow excerpt 7

 

Note to readers:  There are two letters here that are separated by a great blank space that I can’t control.  Hopefully, you will find both. Joan

 

 

The dogs were out in the fresh snow this morning and Caleb returned with snow balls hanging from the fur on his ears like ornaments on a Christmas tree. 

Dear Catherine,
I have been asked to write something about you for the church newsletter and I don’t feel capable of writing a narrative, so I’ve made a list I’m calling: 

What you might want to know about Catherine that she wouldn’t mind my telling you:

Catherine found many things in the physical world, things of nature as well as man-made, utterly beautiful. And she photographed them when the light was best, in the early morning hours and late afternoons. 

Catherine was interested in hearing what others were doing and rarely talked about herself. She thought people’s foibles were funny and pictured them in her mind as cartoon drawings. 

Catherine didn’t think of herself as beautiful, though she knew being agreeable-looking was an advantage. And she never wore make-up except lipstick and always that. 

Catherine loved poetry and the opera and began drawing as a child while her mother braided her hair. Her favorite birthday was our trip to Yosemite and our overnight stay at the Ahwahnee. Lemon meringue pie was her favorite dessert and geometry her favorite subject in school. 

Catherine’s pastimes were going to the movies
and reading The New Yorker,
but more than anything she enjoyed a walk in nature. 

Catherine would do almost anything to avoid personal confrontation and believed I only won our arguments
because I was a better debater.
She regretted not doing more for her mother, especially rubbing her mother’s feet when her mother came home after a hard day at work. 

Order gave Catherine peace of mind and made her cheerful. She felt life was meant to be enjoyed, believed kindness was the highest goal in life, and trusted there was something on the other side, but had no idea what, and she was comfortable with that.        

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

A dark sky on Palm Sunday. 

Dear Catherine, 

It is cold and overcast today, and I am back in bed after feeding the dogs. Cleo followed me here, but Caleb is delayed, probably still in the kitchen licking the two empty food bowls. 

After a month in North Shore Hospital, we headed home. It was a Saturday. The next day was Palm Sunday three years ago. You encouraged me to go to church without you. You weren’t ready to be in public. You hadn’t yet thought how you would tell people your story and how you would respond to questions and suggestions. You wanted most of all to spend the day quietly with your dogs who you had missed greatly. 

At long last the barking of a public-address system had ceased and the alarms on every piece of medical equipment. You were looking forward to not being awakened just when you fell asleep. No more blue light of the TV, clanking of the meal cart, smell of disinfectant, feel of rough sheets. No more doctors and nurses and lab technicians and, God Almighty, no more me. 

You must have been looking forward to luxuriating in your privacy. Your home would be your church. I understood that despite my help, as long as I was with you, you never had a moment to yourself. I would want to sit in the stillness of my home for an hour or two on Palm Sunday and see again the personal world I had left behind for more than a month, and perhaps, more than anything, I might want to face my grim circumstances in my quiet home without concern for another. 

I was doing you a favor going over to St. Peter’s. My going on to church that Sunday morning was a brief respite for me as well. 

When Steve announced to the congregation that you had a grave illness, I heard several people gasp. I don’t remember the sermon. As we left the sanctuary, we were each handed a palm, and while I stood in the foyer, receiving condolences and good wishes, one parishioner after another handed me her palm as though it had been planned that everyone would do this. 

You seemed as thrilled to see me as you were to receive my armful of palms, so I gathered you’d had enough privacy. 

Before you got sick, you were more independent than I. You were just as happy going for a walk by yourself as having me along. You were perfectly content to sit in a room by yourself and read The New Yorker. I was the one who brought a book into the room where you sat and curled up next to you to read. You never fussed when I didn’t accompany you to a friend’s house or down to Long Island to see your brother. But once you got sick, you didn’t accept any invitations unless I could go with you and you would rather go to the post office with me than sit at home by yourself for fifteen minutes while I went alone. 

I don’t mind that it is a cold and cloudy day today. I wasn’t planning to go out. Like you three years ago, I’m not ready to be asked how I’m doing. What could I say that was honest that wouldn’t disturb the listener? 

Last night, in the middle of the night, I rearranged the kitchen cabinets and bathed the dogs, replaced buttons on a coat and paced from room to room, taking something from the bookcase in the dining room up to the bedroom and returning with something to put in the living room. 

In my restlessness, I don’t read magazines or books. The written word for some reason pierces me. Music is worse and I don’t watch television. The news that had been a part of my daily life doesn’t concern me. 

You said in the end that all that matters are the feelings we have for one another. Everything else we can discard. If you were me at this moment in time would you call a friend? As soon as I do that I’m full of regret and want out of the conversation. I’m a stubborn child who won’t eat her peas because she remembers cream puffs. 

Before your transfer to North Shore, when we were in the small hospital in Hudson, I went down to the café to get a ham salad sandwich and a vanilla shake, favorites I hoped would make me feel better. There were a dozen people in the café and I felt compassion for each one. I don’t feel that now. I don’t feel for anyone. I don’t look at strangers and wonder what their struggle is. I’m far too selfish now, absorbed entirely in my grief. 

My connection to the world is through catalogs. I have begun to order things daily from the catalogs: new sheets for the bed, a soft sweater, expensive soaps, luxuries I don’t need but can look forward to. 

 

 

Her Widow 6th excerpt

 

 

 

Our fights were rarely over anything serious, but a result of taking ourselves too seriously. 
I recall one time in particular that was silly. We were on our way out of your apartment with friends to go to a favorite restaurant on Union Street. You were leading the group and I was holding up the rear.

One moment I could see you and the next you were missing in action. You must have stumbled on a step, but from my vantage point it looked like a trap door in the floor had opened and gobbled you up, and I laughed.

You didn’t see the humor perhaps because you hadn’t seen it from my vantage point. You were furious with me for laughing when you could have hurt yourself, and as hard as I tried not to laugh, I couldn’t stop. Your feelings were hurt and you refused to speak to me throughout dinner.

When we got back to your apartment and our friends departed, you went to your bedroom, locked the door, and went to bed. I pleaded with you from the other side of the door, but every time I tried to be serious and apologize to you, I saw you on the stairs, vanish as if by magic, and I giggled.

I slept on your couch that night and by morning I was able to keep my composure and apologize.

What is interesting to me about that fight and why I’m sure I remember it, is that we both acted out of character that night. It was you who rarely took herself too seriously and me who couldn’t stand to be laughed at. Stella always said it was the contradiction that made a character believable.

On another occasion, you were on my case about something and I said, “You suffer fools gladly,” and I paused for effect. “Unless I’m the fool.”

You nodded and asked, “Do you want to be a fool I suffer or the one I don’t?”

You were a pip, Catherine, and I miss the hell out of you, and I worry that you might be feeling well rid of me because you fell in love with my can-do attitude and my resilience, and I’m lacking both now—

Oh, wow, is that you?

Sitting here just now, writing to you, I felt your presence. I had put my pen down and was staring at your crystal that sits on the desk, sparkling in the shaft of morning sunlight coming through the window. And suddenly, I felt you standing behind me and I turned around, expecting to see you.

You believed the white quartz crystal had the power to heal you. I wanted to believe that also, but I had read too much on stage IV ovarian cancer.

Still, I tell myself often, every time I look at the crystal, that perhaps it hasn’t failed you. You are alive. I just can’t see you.

I catch myself looking for you and listening for you, and then I remember you are not in the next room. I saw them put you in the blue body bag and carry you down the stairs. And once I am over that shocking reminder, I return to the feeling you are in the next room and I tell myself your spirit is there.

I have managed for six weeks to hang onto the belief that the spirit you are lives on, and not just somewhere, but here, standing behind me moments ago. And then I begin to worry that I’m deluding myself. The truth is Catherine, I don’t know what or where you are.

I look at your crystal and remember the night you thought you’d lost it, and I feel our desperation again. You were sure that if you didn’t find the crystal, you were not going to survive the cancer.

We had gone to the park after your chemo treatment to put a pleasant ending on a difficult day. We laid a blanket down on the hard ground and had a picnic under a large maple and walked along the path circling the pond. When you tired we shook out our blanket and walked to the car. You didn’t realize until we got home that the crystal you kept in your pocket at all times wasn’t there.

You insisted I not drive back to Pittsfield to look for it. The sun was setting and there was no hope of finding it in the dark.

So, two weeks later, after your next chemo treatment, we returned to the park and were dismayed to see the trees nearly bare. Their leaves covered the ground, hugged the trees’ dark trunks, buried the pebbles on the path to the pond, and were floating on the pond.

A few leaves fell onto our shoulders as we stood forlorn under the tree where we had our picnic. You said we would never find the crystal, but you were the first to begin the search. You headed for the path around the pond while I stayed to search the area where we thought we had spread our blanket.

I followed you with my eyes as you headed away from me, your shoulders rounded and your head bent, taking slow steps as you searched the ground.

And I closed my eyes and spoke to the invisibles saying, I can’t do this without your help.

Minutes passed and I waited. I stood perfectly still, waiting as I do for words when I write.

After a while I felt a nudge on my back as gentle as the wind in my hair. I took a step and then another and another and another until I was more than twenty yards down from the tree.

I stopped when my legs felt heavy, knelt down, and cut through the carpet of leaves with my hand to the damp ground. Something hard and cold lay there. I wrapped my fingers around the crystal and raised my arm to wave to you and holler, “I’ve got it!

Many years earlier, living in Columbus, Ohio, Allyson was biking home from campus after work and her work keys fell from the basket on her bike. She was the first office manager of The Leadership Foundation without a college degree and knew she was on probation, so when she unpacked the basket and saw the keys were missing she panicked. Five miles of road was too much ground for us to cover at sunset. We went to bed.

In a dream I had before dawn, I saw the keys under the ground cover at the corner of a yellow stucco house on King Street. I woke suddenly from the dream, threw on my jeans, and jumped on my bike. Several miles from home, I found the house with the pachysandra along the walk. I jumped off my bike, letting it fall to the ground, and reached down into the leafy plant.

I don’t think I ever told you about that, and it seems odd of me that I didn’t tell you the day I found your crystal unless I didn’t want to spoil our moment with a story about another.

What did you never tell me, Catherine? What did you forget to say or thought you couldn’t say? What don’t I know about you that was too personal or painful or perhaps too difficult for me to hear?

 

 

HER WIDOW 5th excerpt

 

 

      We gathered our courage one day and wrote your obituary. I pulled the narrow desk chair over to the side of our bed where you lay, I sat down on the honey oak seat with the fine tapered legs, and I took your dictation. 

“As difficult as those three years were, we were lucky to have the time to say goodbye. How terrible to lose a loved one unexpectedly. 

“You would have been satisfied with nothing more than the simple facts: your name, date of birth, cause of death, and survivors. I wanted more: 

“Catherine J. Hopkins, a photographer and graphic designer of Catskill, New York died Thursday, January 4, 1996, at home from ovarian cancer. She was 55. Born December 12, 1940 in Reidsville, N.C., the daughter of the late Mary Ann McGowan Hopkins and Robert Speight Hopkins, she moved with her mother and brother to Oyster Bay when she was just three years old. There she attended St. Dominic’s Elementary and High School and after graduating, spent two years at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Later, Catherine graduated from Parsons School of Design and the New School for Social Research in New York City. 

“Catherine lived most of her life in New York City, working in book publishing as art director for Doubleday and then Harper and Row. In 1978, Harper and Row transferred Catherine to San Francisco. While in California, Catherine became a free-lance designer and returned to working on her photography, which had always meant a great deal to her. Since moving back east in 1985 with Joan Alden, with whom she published the children’s book A Boy’s Best Friend, set in Catskill, Catherine has been in 10 photography shows: The Lake George Arts Project in New York, twice at the Warren Street Gallery in Hudson, the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, the Russell Sage College Gallery in Albany, the Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh, the Art Show at the Dog Show in Witchita, the Phototropolis in San Diego, Time and Space Limited in Hudson, and the Catherine Hopkins Photography Gallery at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Hudson.

“Catherine is survived by a brother, Jack Hopkins of Long Island; a sister-in-law, Nancy Barrell Hopkins; two nieces, Jacqueline Hopkins and Amy Hopkins Walsh; and two nephews, Brendan Hopkins and Colin Hopkins; as well as by many good friends and her domestic partner of over 16 years, Joan Alden.”

Allyson arrives tomorrow and I’d rather she didn’t. I have enjoyed sitting quietly with you, walking about the house with you, eating a sandwich with you. Already Allyson’s visit feels like an intrusion.

 

The crocuses that sprouted during the thaw are now under the weight of new snow. 

Dear Catherine, 

Finally, after carrying around so much sadness, I escaped from Allyson this afternoon to cry in our bedroom. How quickly Allyson withdraws when she sees me struggling to keep my composure. I know it must sadden her terribly to realize she can’t make me happy. I ought to be gentle with her, but I’m impatient over the smallest of things, how she hangs the dishtowel after drying the dishes or where she puts her things in the guest room. Rather than hanging up her clothes in the closet, she leaves them in her large open bag on the floor. I hold my tongue and don’t bark at her, but at times I do reach in and take the reins from her even when I don’t care a whit how the towel hangs or her clothes don’t. I care only about one thing, that it is she and not you who is sitting across the table from me. She’s not to blame, but I make it seem so by the way I mope and fuss. I’m behaving like a child whose toy is taken from her when she sits down to eat. 

I have begun to sense you retreating, Catherine, like the afternoon light on a winter day. Are you tired of my moaning? 

I accused you once of being a fair-weather friend. We were entertaining at home and someone at the dinner table asked me about my MS. I went into more detail than you felt necessary, and you got up from the table and left the room. When you returned someone said, “Hey, where’d you go? You missed the best story.” 

You deflected by saying, “If it was about you, you won’t mind telling it again,” and of course we all laughed because it was the truth we never spoke and there was a lot of tension that needed releasing, and because you were able to say it, to make a joke out of it without animosity or judgment, and relieve us all. While Jill’s tooting her own horn irritated me, it seemed to be something you enjoyed. Later, you and I talked about your leaving the table, and you admitted you had heard enough about vertigo and morbid fatigue. I called you a fair-weather friend, and we didn’t speak the rest of the night.

In the morning, I asked you what truly bothered you when I spoke about my MS, and you said,

“I need you to be strong.”

“What do you suppose I need?” I asked.

“You need to be strong,” you said.

I felt the muscles in my jaw tighten. Other times, I might have said something that I would later regret or I might have walked out of the room. For a change, I took a deep breath and said, “I think you and I have different ideas about what is strong. I think someone who can say she is hurt or having trouble, who can admit she has lost confidence is strong.” 

You said nothing.

I waited.

Finally, I asked, “Would you like to tell me what you think is strong?”

Your face softened and you smiled and said one word, “You.”

 

Her Widow 4th excerpt

 

 

Valentines’ Day                                                   

Dear Catherine,

I remember nights when the thrill of lying beside you was so great I couldn’t fall asleep, and I would lie awake listening to you breathe and count my blessings.

Other nights I would slide over to your naked body and feel the coolness of your bottom against my belly as I curved to embrace you. I remember the firmness of your full lips on mine and the trail of kisses you left on my collar bone and breast and thigh.

And after making love, I watched you get out of bed naked, bend over and step into your white shorts on the floor and pull them up in one quick motion from your ankles across your knees and over your small bottom.

You don’t put on a shirt. You waltz out of the bedroom to put coffee on and while it brews, you cook bacon and eggs for us to eat on your porch that gives us a view of the Bay. You snip off a bit of bacon that is on your plate at the table and offer it to Gussie, leaning into your bare legs. She snaps up the bacon like a lizard snatches a mosquito in flight. When your head comes up and you look at me, I am laughing. Nothing was funny. I was just so happy.

 

We are having a thaw and the streets have flooded.

Dear Catherine,

At 3:00 this afternoon, I left the house. As I opened the car door my chest tightened, but when the motor turned over I had the familiar feeling that you were sitting in the seat beside me, and as I slowed down to turn at the corner onto Main Street, I imagined you looking out the window at the shadow of the sugar maple on the side of the house.  I’m thrilled each time you visit me this way, loosening the heartbreak in my chest.

My errand took me to Town Hall for copies of your death certificate. When I returned only minutes later, the dogs were waiting for me on the other side of the garage door, barking, barking, barking—scolding me for being gone so long.

I thought it would pain me to look at your death certificate, but instead I felt joy, seeing your name in print. I have always admired the refined sound of your name, Catherine J. Hopkins, and its fitness with you. Catherine, not Cathy, although some old chums called you that.

 

Her Widow 3rd excerpt

Another storm is forecast and everyone must leave here early tomorrow to get ahead of it.

Dear Catherine,

I’m exhausted and afraid of the letdown after everyone is gone. What will I look forward to? Will I find inspiration when I need it? Will I find joy in the world around me? Can I laugh again?

The natural world isn’t the comfort I hoped it would be:

You were chatty on our way to Wellfleet to join your friends there for the last time, and you were unusually open about your anxiety. You said your friends, who had been a part of your life for nearly three decades, didn’t actually know you.

“They see an idealized version of me,” you said. “And that’s impossible to live up to.”

“Are you afraid when they see you changed as you are, they will be disappointed?”

“They won’t see me as I am now,” you answered.

“What do you want them to see?” I asked.

“I’m dying and it’s not pretty,” you answered boldly, “and I don’t just mean my bald head.”

The next day your friends turned on me. They had been raving about how strong and brave you were. I thought you would be glad that I offered us all the possibility for a real conversation about your dying, but you weren’t happy with me for saying that you weren’t always brave.

You said, “Joan, why don’t you want my friends to think highly of me?”

I felt slapped. Your rebuke bolstered their case against me that they’d harbored ever since meeting me. In many ways, they had indicated they felt I wasn’t good enough for you. I was too direct and opinionated. They, like you, avoided confrontation, so my choice to be out of the closet and unapologetic about being a lesbian was considered by them to be boorish. Each in her way let me know they wished I was less important to you.

That evening in Wellfleet they followed your lead and asked me why I didn’t want them to speak well of you.

“I do,” I answered, “but Catherine is human.”

Perhaps they wanted you to be super human because that supported their romantic version of you and their crush on you. I was a rotten spoiler.

I left the house to walk off my irritation with them and you, and by the time I returned you had all gone to bed.

I sat out on the deck under that giant live oak. Looking up through the tree’s gnarly branches lit by a spot at its base, I thought, I will have that. When I lose her completely, I will have that, all the natural wonders of the world.

After a while I went into the house and joined you in bed. You pulled yourself to me and whispered, “I don’t know why I said that.”

I didn’t ask for more. We had so little time left and I was grateful for your arms around me and your tears of regret.

I was so sure a gnarly tree and the sun glistening off the snow and the sound of rain on the roof would be a comfort to me. But they are not.

 

The furnace chugged away all night, the coldest night of the year.

Dear Catherine,

Today was my first alone in the house. I hardly moved off the couch. We are supposed to get more snow tonight.

The dogs don’t let me out of their sight. Cleo whines when I cry and Caleb jumps up to lick my tears away.

I should go out for milk but I’m afraid of everything beyond my door.

 

 

February

The snow at the curb is as black as my mood.

Dear Catherine,

I’m living in the past because the present is too painful. Today I retreated to a sunny September afternoon in 1979 when I waltzed into your office at Harper and Row.

It was a warm day without fog or a breeze; September being San Francisco’s summer. The lawn surrounding Harper and Row was green and rolling, like a green sea rising and falling. Allyson and I were on our way to an afternoon movie in the Embarcadero and we had time to kill.

Two weeks had passed since I was introduced to you at the Washington Square Bar and Grille, and I was worried you might not recognize me from that evening. We later said the book signing at the Washington Square Bar and Grille was meant to be: My going to meet up with my literary agent, Carol Murray, and sign my first book contract, and you going to deliver a Harper and Row book contract to Carol.

I saw you make your way through the crowd over to Jane, who was talking to me. Jane had waved to you to join us. Allyson was waiting for me at the bar while I spoke to Carol, who had then introduced me to Jane. What a fortuitous crossing of paths!

If Jane hadn’t said, “Here comes my ex,” I would not have picked you out of the crowd as a lesbian until we were introduced and your cheeks blushed a deep red. You complained to me later and often that your fair complexion gave you away too easily.

Jane teased you about the two thin ribbons hanging loose from the collar of your blouse. I was wearing a man’s knit tie and Jane suggested I might show you how to tie the collar of your blouse. I was on the spot and felt self-conscious. Playing with those delicate ribbons at your collar meant touching your bare neck and my hands were shaky. In the end, after several attempts, I saw that what you had done, letting the ribbons hang loose, was best.

The four of us, Jane and you, Allyson and I, left the book signing together to get a bite to eat somewhere else. Moments before, while you and Allyson were discussing where we should go, Jane dipped into your purse for your business card and handed it to me, saying under her breath, “If you play your cards right.”

Over dinner, I didn’t take my eyes off you long enough to eat and I left most of my hamburger on the plate. Allyson and I had been together nearly ten years; the last  three had been difficult ones, and we had agreed to an open relationship. Therefore, in a fashion, I was available but so also was Allyson and we were both smitten by you.

Eager to see you again, Allyson and I stopped by your office on our way to see Apocalypse Now. Yours was an interior office without a window; all the radiance came from you.

I can see you as you were that day, sitting at your desk beside a wall of books with an assortment of natural artifacts among the books on the shelves: a nautilus shell, a rock with a fossil, an open book of pressed seaweed, and more. You blushed when I stepped forward to shake your hand and I knew you remembered me.

A month later, you took the author photo of me for Mrs. Cooper’s Boardinghouse and invited Allyson and me to dinner at your place to look at the contacts. After dinner Allyson announced she had to get up early for work, but she encouraged me to accept your invitation and go out dancing at Amelia’s.

What was she thinking? Was it a test? I never asked her.

It was nervy of you, standing behind me in line outside Amelia’s, to slide your hands into the deep pockets of my khakis. Your excuse was the chilly San Francisco night.

“I won’t be able to stand here much longer if you keep wiggling your hands,” I said, and you answered,

“Let’s not.”

We went to your place, and I called Allyson to say I wouldn’t be coming home that night. Allyson and I had an agreement to never keep the other wondering where we were.

I didn’t realize at the time the strong impression that call made on you. You hadn’t yet told me that Jane had carried on an affair for months before you found out. How ironic that the two of them, Allyson and Jane, had a hand in getting us together! They would later regret deeply their actions.

I woke before you the morning after our first night together, and gazing at you asleep beside me, I thought, she’s my dream girl. But you were more than I ever dreamed was possible for me.

We went out to breakfast and you asked me how I was going to explain my night with you to Allyson.

I was home several hours before Allyson came in from work and asked me, “Are you in love?

“Yes,” I told her.
“Then you will have to leave,” Allyson said. “You can’t stay here with me.”

“Yes, I know,” I answered.

Allyson didn’t whine or complain or beg me to stay, but I could see in her sad eyes how hurt she was. We were no longer lovers but we were best friends and family to each other, the only family either of us had. We had been passionate lovers and we had come through a lot, but our relationship had shifted and we were no longer romantic.

Sixteen years later, Allyson is alive and you are gone. If I had known at the time that this is how it would turn out, I would still have left her to be with you. And my dream girl? Where is she tonight? I want to believe you have survived death, and for years I have nurtured a belief in an afterlife, but I’m on shaky ground tonight. What if I truly don’t ever see you again?

Her Widow, 2nd excerpt

 

 

 

 

Great chunks of snow fall with a thud from the trees and roof. 

Dear Catherine, 

I’ve talked too much today. The story is losing its pull on me. I say the words but don’t feel anything. Yesterday, at least, I was real in my pain. Tonight, I feel false. 

It will be days before everyone is told, before the story is old, and only I am here with the full weight of it. 

I called your Aunt Agnes in Ireland, and for a moment, lifted by the lilt in her voice, my heart sang. 

Homer came by to fix the toilet.

By noon, a turkey had arrived that is now in the fridge, keeping company with a casserole and a cake from church.

Tomorrow, Clyde will be here to sweep the snow from the roof. 

 

The bright sun streaking in the bedroom window lights a nearly square patch on the floorboards. 

Dear Catherine, 

This morning in my dream you came to me and combed your fingers through my hair. I woke, remembering your promise to do this as a sign to me that you had survived death. 

I got out of bed and stepped to the window to look out. Snow had stopped falling and everything was still. The sun glinted off the frozen world beyond, making a showy splendor of the ordinary. Branches were bent down, heavy with snow. The wind had blown drifts down the road and made peaks out of chimneys. It was a picture you would have raced down the stairs and out the door to take. 

 

Plows have been pushing snow down the roads all day and are still at work tonight on Main Street. 

Dear Catherine, 

Everyone is in bed except Marc and me. Marc sits in the kitchen, reading the Unobstructed Universe that I lent him, while I wander aimlessly in and out of rooms. Everywhere I set my foot or direct my eye is strange and cold. 

I’ve received no calls or cards from my family. I have only my nephew Marc, but he is everything. Quiet and respectful, he washes dishes, brings me plates of food I can’t eat, shuts off the lights, and locks the doors.

Last August when I stood beside you in the surgical office and watched the surgeon insert the tube into your stomach, we understood it was not to feed you. It was to remove the food you ate and prevent any from lodging where your bowel was obstructed, to prevent your bowel from turning gangrenous. You would not die quickly or easily from the tumor in your brain stem. You would starve to death. We lived with that awareness. How do I live with the awareness that I will never see you again? 

Battered by a storm that has taken you away from me, I feel certain I will never see a sunny day again. I struggle to keep my head above water as all around me goes under, afraid I will soon drown and at the same time, wishing I would. 

I’m sorry I didn’t follow you in death.
I lie on the couch all day and sometimes all night. I feed the dogs. That is what I do.                                                        

 

The New York airports are closed. 

Dear Catherine, 

The snowstorm has raged on and made it difficult for some and impossible for others to get here today, but the church was packed nonetheless. Every pew was taken. Some friends of yours stood and spoke about you. Pat described the evening you drove her home and hit the car brakes suddenly in an intersection, and jumped out of the car to rescue a spring peeper you’d caught in your headlights. 

When Pat sat down, Linda stood to tell us at sixteen years old, you climbed out your bedroom window late one night and rolled the family car down the drive. You were not sneaking out to meet someone but going to the Sound to park at the water’s edge and listen to the surf. 

What made you more enchanting, Catherine, your gentleness or your nerve? And how were you able to cheerfully accept people as they were, never asking more from anyone then she could give? 

Steve ended the service saying it was not only the love you brought to the church or the love I brought, but our love for each other that changed the hearts and minds of so many. 

Your brother never showed though he’d told me he would. I was relieved in the same way I was relieved not to hear from my family. How would they have comforted me? 

My family’s three letters, written just after you got sick and all arriving on the same day like a school assignment, seemed calculated. Mom’s letter addressed to you, my brother’s letter to me, and my sister’s letter to the two of us. I can guess who gave that assignment. 

I remember only the sarcastic remark in Mom’s letter to you in which she said I must be distraught because I had made you my all and everything. 

Of course, it wouldn’t have occurred to her that I did so because my family had turned away from me, never shared family news with me, never invited me to visit when others would be present, never asked about my life. 

Twenty-five years earlier, well before you came into my life, our family battle began. I was summoned to England to explain the letter I had written to Mom and Dad saying I was in love with a woman, Allyson. My sister advised me to write a letter rather than call. 

“Give Mom and Dad time to adjust to the shock of it,” she’d said. 

I was in England a week. Mom and Dad waited until the last hour on the last day of my visit to grill me. It was an awkward conversation made worse by Mom’s decision that we have our talk in the parlor where the sterling tea set was front and center, obscuring our view of one another. We sat in a circle around it, in tall wing-back chairs set too far apart for intimate conversation. Mom didn’t speak at all, although from the sound of it, Dad’s question was hers.“ 

“Joan, just exactly what is your relationship to Allyson? Are you friends, like sisters, or mother and daughter?” 

I answered, “We are all that but we got together because of our romantic attraction to each other.” And, because I was irritated by the delay that kept me on edge for seven days, as well as the formal setting, and that first question, a cowardly way to ask if Allyson and I were sexually intimate, I said, “You know Dad, it doesn’t take a penis to have an orgasm.” 

To his credit, Dad didn’t flinch, but Mom pushed back in her chair. Dad, in a cheerful voice, said, “I’m glad to know you have a sex life. I would hate to think any of my children missed out on that. I won’t ask you anything more.” 

I thought he meant he wouldn’t ask me anything more about my sex life, but he evidently meant nothing more period. Neither Dad nor Mom ever again asked me anything about my personal life. My sister and brother followed suit. They were either afraid I would share something that would make them uncomfortable, or they were simply not interested. 

Mom and Dad considered themselves worldly, but I saw the muscles tighten in their faces and heard the uneasiness in their voices whenever Allyson and I were present. Our sexual orientation unnerved them. Their message was that I was no longer one of them. And Allyson, and later you, Catherine, would not be invited to events where there was a chance someone outside my immediate family would be present. We were excluded from all weddings and christenings, even my grandparents’ funerals. 

In each instance, I received a phone call from my sister or brother, saying I was welcome only if I arrived alone and kept quiet about my personal life. I went to Grandpa Baldwin’s funeral but none of the others because going alone to that first funeral felt like a betrayal of Allyson, of me, and of us jointly. 

 

HER WIDOW

 

       

                       

 

As promised, an excerpt from my memoire every Monday

 

 

 

                H       E      R               W      I      D      O      W  

                              J   o   a   n       A   l   d   e   n

 

 

 

January 1996

Last night’s snow and wind buried cars on the street and stilled the world outside my window. 

Dear Catherine, 

I woke this morning wishing that I, too, had been buried by the wind and snow last night. I heard footsteps on the stairs–your sister-in-law or your niece. Not you. Never again you. 

An oil truck on the street below revved its motor, struggling to make the turn, heading toward The Point. And then silence once again, and with the silence, emptiness. 

I lay still in bed, not even stretching out my legs between the cool sheets, staring at the red wall where it meets the white trim of the window that was frosted this morning. 

A bug crawled along the sill. A rare visitor, this bug in winter. I might have watched the tiny creature longer if I hadn’t heard Cleo yelp and Caleb bark. 

My bare feet touched the cold floor and I hurried to the bathroom to pee before I went downstairs to feed the dogs. 

Lying in bed with you days before, I said, “I don’t know how I will go on without you.” That was the first time I had said those words aloud, but they had been on my mind for three years, from the day I was led to a small room down the hall from the OR. 

The surgeon had promised me that once he’d opened your abdomen and saw what was there, he would come out to the hall where I stood waiting and tell me. Instead, he sent the anesthetist who led me to a small windowless room. I knew, as I walked beside him down the hospital hallway, that good news didn’t require the privacy of a room. 

The door was opened for me and I stepped in. Two metal chairs and nothing more had been given to the space, nothing on the white walls but black marks waist high, scars from the chairs rubbing against the wall. There wasn’t room for a desk or a small table with a lamp. There was a ceiling light with dead bugs silhouetted in its globe. What does the staff call this room? I wondered. Surely there is a code for it. There are codes for everything in a hospital: ER, OR, ICU. Maybe it is called the BNR for the Bad News Room. 

“The cancer is spread across every organ in her abdomen,” the anesthetist said without taking a seat. And that was it. Not even, I’m sorry. He had to rush back to OR. I was left in the BNR to break down, but I didn’t. In emergencies I keep my emotions in check long enough to do what is necessary. Later, when I was at home, I cried. 

In the three years that followed we cried often. Alone. Together. With friends. I was crying when I lay beside you in bed a week ago, imagining my first hour without you, the days that would follow that and the weeks and months and years. I was 51 years old. I might live forty more years without you. Thirty was certainly a possibility. 

You said something I thought strange. You asked me, “Why do you write?” 

I was hurt by your changing the subject. I didn’t want to talk about writing. I wanted you to comfort me. 

“I don’t want to talk about that,” I said. 

Today, I understand the importance of the question and my answer, which you knew. 

I write to feel connected to something, to be in the good company of my imaginary friends and someone or something I can’t name or explain that whispers a word to me now and again or shows me an image. Whatever or whoever is guiding me at those times is also good company. 

I write when I don’t know what else to do, when I’m unable to read, watch television, or listen to music. When I can’t fall asleep. Writing is the one thing I can do when I can do nothing else. 

I’m writing to you tonight because I miss your company, Catherine, and because this is what we did at the end of our days: we talked about the day’s events, our pressing concerns, our hopes for tomorrow, our plans for the house or the garden or the next holiday. We talked about who we were and what we worried was lacking in each of us. 

If you were sitting across from me now I would tell you what happened after you took your last breath. 

Just past midnight your breathing changed. It became loud and raspy and you labored like that for hours. The sound disturbed me and I wanted to put my hands over my ears, but I promised you I would be your witness. 

Your last breath wasn’t a breath at all. You opened your mouth like a fish underwater, but your lungs didn’t inflate, your chest didn’t rise. 

I looked at the clock and called Hospice. A nurse arrived who had not been to see you before. I noticed a Celtic cross hanging from a chain around her neck, and at once it hit me. It wasn’t a quarter to five when you died. It was 4: 44. 

The week before, we were sitting up in bed. You had just woken from a nap and you were tapping your two index fingers against each other and saying, “Four by four 

by four.” I was puzzled by the words and the gesture, and I said so, but you kept at it, tap, tap, tapping and repeating, “Four by four by four.” 

You said that you had a head full of images from your dreams that you were desperate to share with me, but you couldn’t find the words. 

I asked, “Is that a cross you’re making with your fingers?” and you nodded. You knew that I didn’t share The Church’s view that Jesus died for our sins. I believed Jesus’ crucifixion was meant to comfort us when we suffer from misunderstandings, judgments, torture, and death, that his dying on the cross is a message to those who suffer: You are in good company. 

After my call to Hospice, I got out of bed beside you, filled a basin with warm water, and brought it to the bed. One of your eyes was open and the other closed, and I flinched and spilled some water. I felt ashamed that I was frightened by you. I wanted to honor you by making my last act of kindness perfect. 

Minutes later, putting a fresh pair of pajamas on you, I felt as I had always felt about your dear body that was delicate yet strong. You were beautiful even in your frail state, and I was drawn to you as a small green shoot is drawn to the sun. 

When I combed your hair and clipped your nails, I felt no separation. We were one; death was an illusion. And yet each act of caring for your body seemed to move you farther from me, like a balloon that once released floats higher and higher till it is only a speck in the sky and then can’t be seen, and I wanted to return to the moment before. 

In the small chapel at the cemetery, I stood looking at you for the last time. Your body and mine were in a shaft of light that shined through the stained-glass window above us. A quiet man stepped close, gestured it was time, and wheeled your body away to be cremated. I asked if I could wait and he shook his head and said it would be many hours. 

At home, I was surrounded by friends, but I felt disconnected from everyone and everything. I went up to the bedroom and found dirty puddles on the floorboards that were left by the men who had come for your body and carried snow in on their heavy rubber boots. I got the mop from the kitchen closet to clean the floor, but as I pushed the mop my heart broke open and I wailed. 

Nan heard me and came running. She helped me into bed and brought the dogs to me. I fell asleep. 

When I woke it was dark out and I was frightened. I hurried downstairs, looking for company, and sat in the living room with Nan and Joy and Jacqueline, and I felt sick to my stomach. They were chattering and their words made no sense to me, but their voices were better than the silence upstairs.