The purple crocuses have opened to take in the sun.
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.
The windows in the house are open and the songbirds seem to have moved in.
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.