It is the best of times; it is the worst of times.
It is October in Vermont. It is an election year (and what an election). It is the month of the year that was Ned’s last full month on earth.
The best: the transition of the leaves from verdant to plush flame, fuchsia, gold,
ochre, orange, salmon,
a hundred redefinitions and permutations of each shade, against that particularly sheer bright blue sky — no matter how many times you’ve seen it, or anticipate its arrival, fall catches you. Driving, walking, a pour of light illuminates a particular sumac or maple which is so startlingly brilliant that you gasp, and it’s as involuntarily as when a spectacular firework explodes in a dark Fourth of July sky.
October in Vermont, whether in small pieces (a leaf, a bush) or scanned as the larger landscape (a hillside, a vista, a meadow), is at every turn so unrelentingly beautiful. It’s almost physically painful. One can only see so much before rebelling, overwhelmed: where to look next when there is so much? How else can I explain why sometimes, when on a walk, say, I stop and just do a 360 and look, really look, I find tears stinging in my eyes?
It’s so much and so fleeting. It’s as the poet Wislawa Syzmborska joyfully, perfectly laments in Birthday (read this one out loud, even if you’re alone in the room, to get its gorgeous Dr. Seussian rhythms):
So much world at once — how it rustles and bustles!
Moraines and morays and morasses and mussels!
The flame, the flamingo, the flounder, the feather —
how to line them up all up, how to put them together?
All the crickets and thickets and creepers and creeks!
The beeches and leeches alone could take weeks.
Chinchillas, gorillas, and sarsaparillas —
Thanks so much, but this excess of kindness could kill us!
… I could look into prices but don’t have the nerve:
These are products I just can’t afford, don’t deserve.
Isn’t sunset a little too much for two eyes
That, who knows, may not open to see the sun rise?
I am just passing through, it’s a five-minute stop,
I won’t catch what is distant, what’s too close I’ll mix up.
(translated from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczack and Clare Cavanagh)
October in Vermont, an announcement of the end of summer. Loss, presaged: like the candle burning at both ends that will not last the night, the light fall casts, with its intimation of dark to come, is lovely.
Underlined in my case by the not-constant, but recurring, thought of this being the anniversary of the last month I went into and came out of (back several rotations of the earth around the sun ago), free of the knowledge that Ned would vanish from earth. It’ll be seven years, on November 30, that he took that last bicycle ride into… somewhere (or, possibly, nowhere.)
Underlined a second time because October 20 is (was) in fact our anniversary. The day on which we married, in Arkansas, in just such bright beauty.
Though few could argue that Ned’s early and sudden death was terrible, unfair, shocking — at least, by any accounting we have access to — it is also true that "until death do us part" is right there in the marriage contract, not even in fine print (unlike that of the note from a credit card company I got on Friday, informing me that on January 1 the interest rate was rising to 29% unless I chose to "opt out" by mail, by December 8, to an address — very fine print here — different from the address on any of the credit card statements or records). There is no "opt out" clause as far as death goes; both our own, and the deaths of those we love.
Knowledge of this non-negotiable fact may be one of the things that makes us most what we are; which is to say, human. Ned was not "mine", any more than fall is. He was, like all of us, and like October in Vermont, unownable. Like all beauty, love, and friendship, like our own troublesome and pleasure-giving fragile bodies, he was on loan to life.
Perhaps this fleetingness makes love and fall all the more beautiful, at least when we are able to "live in the now" , the wisdom-key, it is often said, to a life lived in joy. Perhaps. Certainly the now is, as so many have said, "all we have", and to do anything other than claim it with heart and eyes open is to choose folly and sorrow; to, as Shakespeare said in Sonnet 64, weep to have that which (we) fear to lose.
All right then, this particular fall, 2008.
The best: it looks like, finally, after a nail-biting political campaign, after an eight years that went from bad to inconceivably worse (as David once
remarked, "Who would have ever imagined that we’d say, ‘Ah, Nixon, the good old days’?") that Obama may be — do we dare say "will be"? — our next president. That we may have a leader who I think calls to the best in our nature — our hope, our unity, our kindness, our ability to be, one more time, inspired. Our ability to solve rather than be daunted by problems. In the I-Ching, crisis and opportunity share the same ideogram — I’ve heard that just about as often as "living in the now," but, though none of us would choose for this to be true, it is. Obama seems to recognize this.(One of the many subsets of reasons why Obama is my candidate is as a writer of books for children).
The worst: that this is still not a sure thing. That it could, conceivably, still be McCain (and his incomprehensible running mate; great SNL fodder but, Oh. My. God. To imagine her as president). These are people who, I believe, call out to the worst in us. Who speak to our fears, divisions, distrusts, irrationality.
Like A. A. Milne‘s Pooh, sometimes I simply like to have a Good Think. This is best accomplished lying
down. If and when I do this, it’s most often when I wake up, before getting out of bed, on
the rare mornings when I’m not only by myself but have nothing more immediately pressing than what is on my mind (and also don’t have to get it up and pee: can just, in other words, stay put, cozy under the duvet though wide awake). Left, one of the original Winnie the Pooh illustrations, by E. H. Shepard. These will forever, to me, be the real Winnie the Pooh: simple, charming, subtle, and everything the Disneyfied Pooh isn’t and can never be.
I had a Good Think one morning recently: It was the 19th, the day before what would have been Ned’s and my 30th anniversary. David was in Los Angeles; his mother, Geri, who is 94, exactly the same age as my mother, has just moved to assisted living. (Photo: Geri and me, in December 2007, when I taught a class at Let’s Get Cooking!, a cooking school near where she lives in Westlake, California. Can you believe how pretty and put-together she is? I think this bodes well for David, too…)
My Good Think meandered among all the topics I’ve mentioned here so far, and many more. I thought about how, having liquidated my IRA in the course of buying this property (an ongoing challenge, since I am a self-employed freelance writer, who has income events rather than an income per se), I lost a lot less than many people in the recent economic meltdown.
I also, I suppose inevitably given the date, revisited in thought Ned’s and my wedding day; the wedding brunch (I catered it — what folly! —but it was served by others, in a reception held in a room at the top of the Crescent Hotel, which is no relation to me). On leaving the brunch my father, now also deceased, went around the table from woman to woman and kissed each goodbye on the cheek, with great ceremony, for no particular reason than it struck him as a good idea at the time. I also recalled the later, larger party that evening, to which Jerry Stamps, a Eureka Springs pharmacist / herbalist who is now also deceased, brought the wedding cake. A many-tiered very dense carrot cake (not my favorite, but structurally necessary), it was elaborately iced, topped by a small bride and groom who were in a wagon he’d had someone weld out of thin brass tubes — a wagon being pulled, needless to say, by a dragon. (The little brass wagon and its dragon are downstairs, on the high kitchen windowsill, things outlasting people as they do).
(Honestly, all these people I loved. Dead dead dead, deceased, departed, known, loved, gone. Sometimes I feel I move through a world that is thick with ghosts, as if moving through a room filled with the kind of cobwebs you don’t see until you walk into them. And I’m youngish, and still have many friends alive! How must it be for Geri, David’s mother, who has outlived all, every one, of her contemporary friends? And yet there she is, cheerfully, on her second day at the Grand Oaks in this picture David took. She’s with her younger friend and sometimes-caregiver, Pattie, and looking forward, David says — for real, he insists, not just putting a good face on it — to making new friends and acquaintances among this new group of people including many who are her own age. The flowers behind her were a housewarming gift sent by my mother and me. The card: "Dear Geri, Welcome to the next chapter in your life. May there be lots of adventures and surprises… but only the GOOD kind! Love, CD & CZ." Only the good kind… for isn’t that what we wish for those we love, our parents, our children, our spouses, though God knows, as do you and I, that we can’t guarantee it? )
In the middle of the Good Think, I found myself recalling Ned himself and some of his sui generis particulars, in great detail, with fondness and sadness. Of the way he would occasionally, when putting away the groceries, create a sort of installation on the kitchen counter: a tall construct of cans of beans and tomatoes, boxes of cereal, carefully balanced pieces of fruit at the top. Of his thick, thick long eyelashes, and the way they lay across his cheek when he slept, almost as furry and dark as caterpillars, and the delicate petal-like lavender shading of his closed lids. Everyone who knew Ned noticed those large blue eyes of his; many remarked on them, to him and to me. But maybe I am the only one who also noticed their beauty when he closed then.
And, I also recalled, in detail, his penis.
This is a part of widowhood no one tells you about: that you might miss, remember, long for, your husband’s dick. His was, in my view (and I have to say, based on a certain amount of clinical research prior to marriage) one of the great ones. In size. In its… obligingness. In a way, it was like one of my
current cats (there he is, the cat in question, rolling in the October leaves; click on that picture, taken by David, to see him fully). You have only to lay your hand on Cattywompus’s head, sometimes even just say his name, and he immediately, happily bursts into enthusiastic purrs. Ned’s penis, similarly, was demonstrably happy to have attention paid it. And up for anything, as playful, in its own dear and graifying way, as is Cattywompus.
Now, of course part of it is that this particular dick was attached to someone I adored who adored me. But still. In a poem dedicated to Anne Gregory, Yeats said "only God alone, my dear, could love you for yourself alone, and not your yellow hair." I think I truly loved Ned for himself alone… but it’s also true that, like Anne Gregory’s hair, his penis was part of the package.
All this, again probably inevitably, also led me, in my Think, to walk through the three times he and I had sex the week before he died, each time different and distinctive. One was a fun, quick, utilitarian romp. The second was on my birthday, and had a long slow start (he brought a massage table over, and that is how it began). And the third time… the third was the best. I mean not just of the three times that week.
I mean in my whole life. I mean ever, including the times when we were young, hot, madly in love, couldn’t keep our hands or anything else off each other. There were certainly many memorable encounters in that phase (and I do remember many of them, being blessed or cursed with a memory that more than one person in my life has called "scary-good.").
But they didn’t come close to this time I am, inadequately, describing. (The Bob Dylan lyrics from Blood on the Tracks are coming to mind as I write this: "But there’s no way I can compare/ all them scenes to this affair / you’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.") That time, there was not one centimeter of me, inside or out, that
Ned was not touching, that he didn’t know, and, I believe the same was true for him. That lovemaking, that day, stopped on every floor of
the tall, tall building created of our 23 years of loving each other.
But it wasn’t that kind but lukewarm sex you often hear described by or said of the long-married: "Well, of course it’s not as passionate any more, but it’s better, deeper; you’re more friends and companions." That sex was passionate, desirous, heated — we were friends and companions and lovers/beloveds: it was sex and more than sex, but the "more" was shot through with sex. (In my view statements like the former are apologia: more or less excuses for not daring to want, sexually, the person you have grown to need so much over time and who knows you all too well — much easier to be sexual and show your wild sexual self to someone who doesn’t know you well, with whom you don’t share taking out the trash and saving for the kids’ college educations. This is a point of view I share with David Schnarch, one of my mentors, and the author of Passionate Marriage , a book everyone who is, or is planning to be, long-married, should read).
In retrospect, in its quality of culmination and completeness, I wonder was it perhaps inevitable that that lovemaking turned out to be the final time? Perfection doesn’t occur often in worldly life. That was and we both knew it. What we didn’t and couldn’t know was that it would be the last time.
I still don’t know how to think about the gift and the subtraction of this experience in that larger context, his death and my life without him.
(And speaking of gifts, here is the great gift of writing: it has just occurred to me is, having started this essay with October, that that ecstatic final lovemaking had the quality of fall itself: the extraordinary color and beauty and perfection that indicates an ending. Not something I thought of consciously when I began writing this, or ever, until the moment the paragraph above began to take shape.)
Remembering that lovemaking during my Good Think the other morning, I cried. This wasn’t the racking uncontrollable grief sobs that rend one after sudden loss. It was quiet; thoughtful tears if such a thing is possible. They flowed sideways out of my eyes, into my ears, onto the green flannel-covered pillow as I lay on my back, facing the very tall cathedral ceiling with its one long dangling ominous-looking cobweb I must figure out how to remove. They flowed as I remembered something else: how, maybe three months after his death, I tried to masturbate and had to stop; just bursting into that other kind of crying, bitter, stunned and stymied with grief, comparing the act of so-called self-gratification to that incredible last time we had and thinking, "Is this what I have been reduced to? After that?"
How on earth did I get through that? How do any of us who lose those we so love? I still don’t know; I just know I did and we do, despite ourselves. As I’ve heard said, "we make the path by walking."
It’s not uncommon that others, either well-meaningly or because they can’t handle it or because they haven’t experienced, try to rush one through grief. The day after Ned died, the day after, not one but several people
said to me, "You were lucky to have him." (My editor, who just lost her mother to cancer, had someone say something similar to her — we wondered, together, over the phone, how on earth it is possible that people can be so tone-deaf emotionally as to come out with such statements). I can hardly imagine more incomprehensibly cruel, stupid, foolish words to say at that time.
But that’s not to say that such statements are false. They’re true. They’re just not true then, not in the important way, and they ask the grieving person not to feel what he or she feels. It’s just that it is for the bereaved, and only the bereaved, to articulate when they they reach the point where it is true, experientially. Diana Ross said "You can’t hurry love;" even more so, you can’t hurry grief. You can’t skip over the pick-and-shovel work to get to the awareness part, you can’t fast-forward through the pain — oh, how you wish you could! — and the parts that make other people uncomfortable — oh, how they wish you could! — to get to the insight and gratitude. So, yes of course I was lucky to have Ned (Not that, as I have already said, anyone actually ever "has" anyone) and of course I knew that even then.
But knowing that spring will come does not and cannot exempt you from winter. You have to wear your coat, you mittens. At that moment? "Lucky" , in the blizzard of loss? That the person I had loved for decades had just pedaled off into eternity? That I would never, ever, ever see him again? The day after the night I had seen his broken body, wrapped in sheets, lying on a stainless steel table in the emergency room? Lucky?
But, on the morning of my recent Good Think, almost seven years after Ned’s death, as I lay there in bed
the same day David would be helping his mother move in the Grand Oaks, across the country, I thought, yes, now I can say what I knew even then but only partially — that I am lucky, lucky, fortunate beyond belief, that Ned’s life intersected with mine for all those years. Lucky that we didn’t give up on ourselves and each other when we hit the wall (and we did, at one point, hit that wall so hard we were both stunned and bleeding). Lucky I loved Ned and laughed with him, and also fought with him and came out the other side. Lucky I had that gorgeous and intense sex. Lucky I knew, caressed, and admired that pleasing dick of his (We used to joke about organ donation. Thankfully, I did not remember this on the night of his death when, in that complete and surreal state of shock, those people arrived — angels to some, necessary ghouls to others — to ask "Was he an organ donor?" I only recalled our dick-related riff on that some weeks later. And then, oh Lord, then I was beset for some time with those terrible tears, that rip the skin from your sternum and you see your heart, flopping and gasping like a caught fish, thrashing in your rib cage).
I know I will never again have sex in the way Ned and I did that time. It would be impossible, because it was built on every single way we knew each other and co-created a life in which we grew from youth to middle age. And this is a journey you make only once. Even if David and I get to have twenty-three years together, the journey that we will make is from middle age to old, and that is a very different journey, in every way:
developmentally, physiologically, emotionally, spiritually. And I am very deeply fortunate, to have not only had my past journey but now, to be embarked on this second one, in a different way, with a different human being. Not a day goes by in which I am unaware of this. Despite — no, because of — how wholly altered this traveling through time with David is from the trip Ned and I took until that fork in the road where we diverged forever, I am incredible grateful that DK and I are in each other’s complex, middle-aged, interesting lives now.
The dear and wise therapist with whom I worked with after Ned’s death, Bill Symes, told me that when I began dating and having sex again I would probably have "loyalty issues." I didn’t — until David. Why? David is 69 and Ned was, when
he died, 45: David and I have sex in a wholly different range of styles than Ned and I did. Now, because there is no way to tell this story without being explicit, and because for me as a writer, transparency trumps embarrassment or privacy, I will take a deep breath here: with David I have gotten to experience, over and over, something I didn’t used to believe in and never had with Ned, but now know to be absolutely for-real — g-spot climaxes. My loyalty issue was something like, "How can it BE that there’s this whole cool new thing I didn’t even know my body was capable of, that Ned and I didn’t get to experience with each other even once, when he would have loved it so much, and here I am having it and having it, with David?"
(A P.S. dropped in here a day after I published this. David — he’s
on his way home now, and called me from the Las Vegas airport between
changing planes — said to me, laughing,"You know, when I was reading your blog
I came to the part where I you said ‘David is 69’, and I thought ‘Holy shit!’
That’s old‘! I mean it’s one thing to know it but it’s another thing to
read it! I thought, the people that read her blog are going to
think, what’s that young chick doing with that old man!" I said, "Well, you just prove ’em wrong, then." He then went on to tell me about a twenty-minute call he’d had, from the airport, to a 71-year-old guy in Weston, Pennsylvania; he’s phone-banking as part of "Seniors for Obama." Then I told him about a story on This American Life about making calls for Obama in Pennsylvania, and how he just had to hear it — then the flight attendant arrived and told him to turn off his cell phone. Life, unfolding as it does when two people who share lives, or a portion of them, find each other’s thoughts and adventures deeply interesting. )
Back to loyalty issues and g-spot orgasms: here’s what my unconscious did with this one.
Maybe three years ago, I dreamed that Ned turned up here in Vermont, just walking in the house through the front door pictured left. We
greeted each other with great cheer, very happily and excitedly, as if we were picking up a conversation that we had, as if we’d just been away from each other for a little while. As we’re catching up with each other in the dream, I say to him, "And guess what? I learned this whole new way to come!" And Ned, in the dream, says, enthusiastically, "Really? Let’s try it!" And then, in the dream, I pause. I look at him. In the dream I am perplexed, and I have to stop and think about it, hard. And I finally look at him — I can’t see myself, but I feel my dream-brow knit together — and say, "Well, it’s complicated. See, it’s a real relationship."
And so peace, of a fashion, is made.
On the morning of the long Good Think, I thought, there is a fulcrum in the grieving process, where the balance shifts. I am always going to miss Ned, but now I’m on the side of the fulcrum that those idiots actually thought I should be on the day after he died: I am lucky, I know it, and I am filled with gratitude for it.
And then I stopped thinking and got up: to make the bed, to shower, to meditate, to call David, to have a breakfast of grilled wholewheat tortilla and egg and Vermont "seriously sharp" cheddar cheese, with sauteed onions,
peppers and potatoes and broccoli, pictured, with an autumn leaf on the plant, from the garden he and I had created (a shared joy particular to David-and-Crescent, because Ned was colorblind and found gardening frustrating and impossible… green and brown were the same color to him), and to work on The Bean Book , one of my current projects, some more… and to eventually go out for a long walk in the extraordinary woods surrounding our property.
Where I continued to muse about presence and absence, love and loss, best
and worst. And where, suddenly and wholly unexpectedly, I was moved from the cogitations by finding, to my huge delight, the largest single cache of puffball mushrooms (image from here, and this is exactly what they looked like) and then of oyster mushrooms, that I had ever found. I wasn’t looking for them, but there they were. Well, I just LOVE finding edible wild foods. It makes me feel connected with nature in the most delighted way — as if nature had nothing better to do than to scatter edible surprises here and there all over her (or his) big generous self and wait for people and animals to come along and be surprised and nourished. Coming on a wild ripe persimmon tree, just laden down with fruit, around this time of year back when I lived in Arkansas, used to leave me similarly overjoyed.
So, that day I gathered up the blue cotton pull-over I was wearing, into a sort of apron and eventually walked home, slowly and carefully so as not to spill a single puffball. My fungal treasures were so many that, had you seen me (thankfully no one did) I would have looked peculiarly, bumpily pregnant. I wished, yet
again, that David was here — I wanted him to take a picture, not of me but of those mushrooms.
For I knew I would write about them, and him, and Ned, and the Good Think, and Obama and McCain, here.
Because, although you bet I opted out of the damn credit card, I did not, do not, will not, cannot, and would not opt out of anything life offers me by way of growth and self-understanding. And material.
Because nothing is wasted on the writer.