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. 

I’m Back

Image

Where have I been since November, six months ago?  The painting above in part is the answer. When I sent my manuscript, Her Widow, off to Dog Ear Publishing, I took off my writer’s cap and put on my painter’s hat.

The painting above is a commissioned piece, oil on canvas, 4 feet by 4 feet, that I did for the apartment building where I live.  I hope to be commissioned to do a painting for each hall in the building.

I have just returned the corrected galley of Her Widow to the publisher so it won’t be too long before the book is available.

I will soon be seeking prepublication reviews and begin promoting the book, the business side of the writing life that is harder for me than the writing, but once the book is available, I will seek some readings which I enjoy.

In the meantime I will be providing excerpts from Her Widow on this blog once a week.

If you have anything you want to say about the story please feel free to send a  note to me at Jaden444@gmail.com.

I am happy to be back in touch with you. After long periods of solitude writing, it is important and a joy for me to meet readers.  I will send the first excerpt Monday.

Thank you for your interest.  Joan

Small Pieces

Unable or unwilling to start another novel or memoir, I have been writing small pieces prompted by a word.

EMPTY

I’m feeling empty as

the pumpkin my brother carved for Halloween, sitting on the step, sunken cheeks and smelly,

empty as the smile my sister wore standing back against the wall in the gym watching the others dance,

empty as the purse I carried because mama dressed me up for her boyfriend who was coming on the train,

empty as the glass resting on the bar that the bartender refuses to fill.  Says Dad’s had enough but he’ll buy some at the ABC on his way home,

empty as the checkbook Mom threw at Dad,

empty as the shoes in my brother’s closet because he was DOA, dead on arrival.

empty as the words the minister spoke at my sister’s service because he didn’t know her.  She never went to church but Mom insisted on a church service,

empty as my mother’s stare as she sat on the floor because she forgot what chairs were for.

A Look in the Mirror

 

 

Many years ago, backstage at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, I was reading John Steinbeck’s Life in Letters and I came upon a letter written by a young writer, asking Steinbeck how he felt about writers using their friends and family members as characters in stories, outing family members as the human beings they are or worse exaggerating their flaws.  Steinbeck’s immediate response was to feel badly for the families of writers or artists of any kind and he confessed that writers were thieves who stole gestures and words from others. Then, he explained that family and friends are the writer’s material, raw material, from which stories of humanity are told.  And yes, the family and friends pay a heavy price for being so.

I have recently used a family member’s behavior to tell a story.  In my last blog I spoke of my sister failing to bring my walker to me in the hospital. I confess that I was so completely selfish at the time that I did not even consider what she might think, reading what I wrote and knowing others would.  And when she confronted me, I was surprised by her reaction, proof of my gross insensitivity.

I, who thought I was making an important point, didn’t consider who I was using to make that point and did serious damage to my relationship with my sister.  I am the comedian on stage who busts her sibling for the sake of the joke.  I can’t defend my behavior and it’s too late to take back my words.  The best I can do is come clean and accept the consequences.

I’m back

 

 

Wow, it has been forever since I wrote in my blog.

I am sitting in room 581 of Sarasota Memorial Hospital, waiting for my neurosurgeon to arrive and discharge me to Rehab for the next week.

That explains in part where I have been, suffering from sciatica that turned out to be a herniated disc that didn’t resolve after two surgeries, and worsened until I needed a spinal fusion.

After the upsetting election I considered writing down my thoughts and feelings.  I passed on that in favor of being one person who did not feel her reaction to the election was important for others to know.  I did do something that was important to me.

I let some folks who were supporters of Trump know that I wanted off their invite list.  I decided that I need not be mean or argumentative or a crybaby, but I did need my friends to know my criteria for friendship included respect for women and disabled people and old people and poor people and foreigners and gays and lesbians and dark skinned people and anyone who isn’t a fan of Mr. Trump.

And I went on the women’s march in January.

It was a boon to my head and heart but I paid a bodily price.

Compromised already by MS, I pushed myself a bit too far to make the walk and I  did injury to a degenerated vertebrae.

So here I am.  Today out of the pain killers deep fog and off to rehab.  I had an interesting exchange yesterday and today which I think is worth telling because it is funny in a way.

I called my sister yesterday to ask her to stop by my apartment and pick up my walker which I was going to need, already needed.  She asked what else I might want and I mentioned a few things:  a change of clothes and perhaps apples out of my refrigerator.  The apples I’m getting in the hospital are mushy.

She said she would do that and hours later wrote that she wanted to know the pass code for my garage entrance so she didn’t have to walk with my things.  It seemed a strange worry since there are elevators she could take to and from my apartment, so I called her and sensing she was less than enthusiastic about the errand I had given her, I told her it would be fine to let it go. The items weren’t a necessity.

Today I called a friend in my apartment building who I had done a favor for, and I asked her if she would bring my walker to my hospital room.  She assured me she would.

Hours passed and unexpectedly my sister arrived with a bag for me.  Not the walker.  Clothes and a few items from my refrigerator.  The thing I most needed was not forgotten or overlooked by accident.  My sister decided it was not as important and the clothes she could easily carry.

To my sister what she wore the week in rehab would be more important than how she got around.  After an accident that nearly killed her and with a titanium rod down one leg at 75 she still walks in high heels.  She brought me what she would want, not what I asked for.

I called my friend to catch her before she left the apartment to tell her to forget the clothing items I had asked for.  I only needed the walker.  My friend said she had been at the computer filling out a questionnaire that she had hours more to respond to and she didn’t know how to save it.  I jumped in saying  she should wait until that was done before running the errand for me.  “Oh, come when you finish,” I uttered.

Lesson:

Expect people to give me what they would want in my circumstances, not what I ask for.

Question:

Where is the one person who will get me my walker before the sun sets?

On the bright side:

I can stop worrying that my life is worthless, that I don’t serve any important purpose, writing stories.  I am that one person in all my relationships who would drop everything and hop to.

My doctor has just arrived and I am off to rehab to learn  how to walk and sit and carry things with a fused back.  No more climbing ladders or moving myself from one residence to another or walking without a walker.

But hours later, Rehab didn’t have a bed, so I am staying on the neurosurgery ward another night.

At 9 pm I hear a wee voice, female, calling out, “Help, help, help!”  I hit my buzzer and tell the nursing station what I am hearing and next I hear footsteps in the hall and then a nurse say something that I can’t make out  but the “help, help, help” stops.

Earlier I was walking the hall and saw a man in bed with his left hand covered in thick white foam rubber to protect it.  He couldn’t stop beating his hand against the bed and wall and everything within reach.

“Dear God,” I prayed.  “Let me know before something like this happens to me.  Give me a warning that I will know is from you.”

Maybe these poor souls are so lost they don’t know they are lost but their affect looks like they know.  They look terribly disturbed.  And the loved one who sits by them knows they are lost and lost to them.  And it is tragic.  There are all kinds of tragedies.  This is one I hope to avoid.