The last time I saw him was on the night of February 17. He left the house quietly, a little before eleven, lying face up on a gurney, still wearing the blue hat I had knit for him on January 27—the only reason I know the date is because he posed for a photo right after I gave it to him—and the new sweat pants I bought ten days prior because his old ones were swallowing him up, and I feared he was going to trip over them navigating about the house with his rollator, fixing things, working on projects, just as he had always done, but now smaller ones, and with a bit more intensity, and joy. Upon discovering the small storage area underneath the seat, he said, Good, a place for my tools, and was like a kid at Christmas when I brought the two pairs of sweatpants home from Rose's™, one for everyday wear and the other more dressy for his last outing, to watch me play tennis, buy his daughter a sub, and check out the Airbnb® in town where his sister and brother-in-law were staying.
Worrying about him out in the cold night air, I was pleased when the two strangers who carted him away covered him tenderly in a homespun quilt. Earlier, awaiting the arrival of the nurse to make it official, I lay atop his still warm body wailing, taking comfort in the lingering sweet smell of his no longer breathing breath, a smell that had been his for months, long before the diagnosis, and one of the reasons I knew, he would be gone before spring. I'm going to have to leave you, he said, after our family doctor gave us the diagnosis, and the calm acceptance, lack of fear, and innocence in his expression belonged to a man who lived without pretense and died without pretense.
Six days after he left me, I brought him home in the economy urn, a white cardboard box, and was pleased that I was able to snuggle his blue hat onto the top of it before strapping him into the passenger seat of the silver 2011 Rav 4® we bought shortly before his diagnosis. I like riding in this car. I like watching you drive. You look pretty, he said on the ride home from one of his December scans. This time, in late February, I noticed that his beloved daffodils were just beginning to bloom – yellow was one of only two colors his color-blind eyes could see. I didn't ask the mortuary attendant to save his new gray sweatpants with the royal blue piping on the sides or the old blue Henley long sleeved shirt that he looked so handsome in – even when it became two sizes too big – because I wanted him to be warm and protected on the way into the fire. That night I lay awake wondering, just how did he go in and what did it all look like and maybe I should've been there, given him one last kiss, held his hand. I also replayed an argument we had two weeks before his departure. Underneath the surface were worries about not having measured up as a husband and father and fears of me abandoning him. And now I wonder, who abandoned who? And why do I even ask that question?
I carried him into the house, placed him on top of the cold wood burning stove, taped the blue hatted impish smiling photo of him to the cool gray field stone surface behind, with an eight ounce bottle of coke on his left, a cast iron star on his right and in front a small section of track with two of the black steel Lionel® cars he had tinkered and played with recently, polishing the small brass plates he had affixed to them over four years ago when upon the engine car plate he had etched in bold black letters, No. 8956, my birth date, and on the passenger car: C & M RAILROAD. Atop his blue hat I placed a small candle.
In mid-January, the week after he entered hospice care, my man said, I’d like to set up the train, if that's ok with you. Since I can't go into the attic – though I know he snuck up on more than one occasion. I found some track online. If you're ok with this, will you order it for me? Five days later I returned from an errand to find him lying on his side on the living room floor, watching the train go round and round underneath his hospice bed on a track lit up with multicolored flashing lights. Other times I would catch him lying there, eyes half-closed, lulled by the rhythmic click clack sound of cars gliding over track into a half-awake half-asleep state of deep contentment, or maybe it was the oxycodone.
So, I know where his body is; the strong sure hand that held mine, the warm soft lips that kissed mine, for forty-seven years, the heart I no longer felt beating against mine the last time I lay on top of him. The shrinking I first noticed four months or so ago, when walking behind I saw the waist band of his black Wrangler® jeans folded over on itself underneath his belt, is complete and I no longer have to worry about that part of him. Now all I can do is take care of the part of him that's left in me, and I believe it has something to do with his heart, my heart, our heart. And that it's more than metaphorical.
Two days before his departure, we sat side-by-side on the edge of his hospital bed, in the middle of our living room, leaning into each other. In the photo one of our daughters took, his blue eyes look perhaps more beautiful closed, the inner light visible through soft puffy half-moon lids, a hint of a smile as I show him a video of our niece playing Auld Lang Syne on an old violin he sent her the week before. His right arm encircles my waist with a tenderness that had always been his but I hadn't been able to really truly receive, until then. Perhaps only a heart that's breaking open can let this much love in.
I had a dream on Saturday morning, four weeks after he left and the day before his Zoom service: I'm sitting on the couch in our living room. There's a baby boy, not more than one or two months, sitting in his carry cradle on the coffee table, intently focused on me with various adult expressions that keep changing into a mocking twinkly dark eyed gaze. He wears a knit cap on his tiny head. My friend, Aly, sits directly in front of me, in a small wooden chair, facing and leaning towards him, smiling. She must be his mother, I think, but no, she can't be because she hasn't been sexually active.
On Saturday afternoon, a friend brought me love in the guise of lunch and flowers and held me with her gaze as I transferred his ashes from the black plastic urn into the ceramic one he designed and his sister and brother-in-law made. I noticed that they were coarser and perhaps a paler shade of gray than my mother's or my friend Ann's ashes, as I sifted through hard gritty bits of white fragments with my fingers, wondering which might be bones and which teeth, and dabbed some of him on my wrists as if he were a perfume. After the transfer was complete, I rubbed my hands over the shiny smooth surface of the ceil blue lid and around the sides and back and hugged him before placing his hat back on, being careful not to cover his ceramic name plate, underneath which is the equation C+M = M+C and below this other mathematical and musical notations. With great care I carried him in and placed him back on the wood stove altar underneath the photo of him posing in the blue hat. On the hearth my friend and I arranged the flowers she had brought and others had sent. That night I lay awake thinking that the way his inner light had shone ever brighter as his outer-self grew smaller was like the cremation had started from within.
On Monday morning, the day after his service, a friend asked if I felt his presence here with me at the house and I struggled to answer, even though I spend most of my time here. Just me and his best friend George, surrounded by my husband's stuff and daytime memories and night time dreams. I miss the warmth of his body and his scent, even the one that became his only because of the disease. I cling to that and huff the fruity scented chap stick that I applied to his lips in his final days. Photos too, especially the later ones, in which I can see the light growing ever more visible through forever closed eyes and in his beatific smile when our daughter cradles his blue-hatted head. I wonder, is this presence, or what is left when the presence is gone? I don't feel him in the ashes but I do in the light that awakens me each morning, in the peacefulness that contains me when I slow down enough to let it in, and in my floppy heart that's trying to figure out how to beat in a new rhythm.
On Monday afternoon, George, and I returned from our walk to the park and entered the garage, his garage. I didn't want a dog when we retired but he had to have one. I used to say, only half-jokingly, that when we retired, I worked hard studying, reading, journaling, doing dream and other inner work to get in touch with my soul. All he did was go out and get a dog, named him George, and took him for long walks. Now, I can't imagine my life without George reminding me to keep my nose to the ground not the grindstone. But with his service behind I need to move forward, literally. I need to move from this house, the one we just finished moving into, I mean really moving into, two days before he left. Last year, after two years of tense negotiations, we finally agreed on the furnishing of our living room. We had our new compromise couch in place – replacing the one he made years ago and oh so strongly resisted parting with – and planned to shop for a couple of chairs in the spring. As it turned out, the only piece of furniture we needed to finish moving in was a love seat disguised as a hospital bed.
My oh so tender lover man was also a builder, a fixer, an inventor, a tinkerer, a plumber, a mechanic, a musician, an electrician, an astronomer, an audiophile, and a collector, and I'm overwhelmed by the amount of stuff he left behind: a jig saw, a band saw, a table saw, routers, planers, twenty + drills and all their associated bits, hand tools, power tools, half empty fifteen year old cans of paint, drawers and drawers filled with stuff, copper wire, other wire, tube amplifiers, turn tables, speakers, telescope parts, thousands and thousands of screws, nuts, bolts, nails, rivets in hundreds of different containers, Billy Jean King-era tennis racquets with moldy grips, an old stand mixer that he converted into a meat grinder, antique toasters, a whole shelf filled with plug-less frayed extension cords and other shelves overflowing onto the floor with stuff, most of which I have no effing clue what it even is. The oil-stained concrete floor is littered with sawdust, and rags, and tarps, and pieces of cardboard, and bits of paper, and plastic milk jugs filled with dark brown oily looking substances, and threadbare dog toys, and wood shims, and firewood bark, and autumn leaves.
How could he do this to me? Leave me all his fucking shit to clean up? What I can't sell, and I have no idea what any of this crap is worth, and I'll have to haul off to the dump all by myself, and I don't even have a truck anymore, and now I have this heart rhythm problem, and he left me all alone here on this mountain top in this Podunk town!!!! When I pause to catch my breath, something shifts, and when I look at the garage floor again it looks like a playroom and the tools look like toys. An afternoon spent wailing brings with it the realization that I'll have to get rid of some of my stuff before I can face his garage.
Two weeks later and ten pounds lighter I venture back in. Glancing up into the rafters, I see a long wide rectangular piece of green webbing and wonder why the hell he wanted to save an old beach lounge chair. My breath stops short when I look closer and see the honey-colored pine arms and remember the green webbing is the seat part of the couch he made forty years ago, one of his first pieces, and as comfortable as a church pew. I realize now that no matter how hard we worked to make it otherwise there would always be a part of him that saw my rejection of his creation as a rejection of him. The only thing I can do about that now is to make room for the tears.
Stuff. Wrestling with his, struggling to find mine; it's all so intertwined. Sometimes I remember to ask for help. On Easter morning it came in a dream: I'm in my living room. I look out through the front window to see throngs of people, like a mass exodus, coming up the driveway; men, women, children, all different ages, carrying things, some wheeling carts filled with belongings. I walk out to see what's going on, wanting to offer shelter in the house for those who need it and also wondering if I can make space in the house and garage for some of their possessions. I look down the driveway into the distance to see a fire that's spreading. I wonder how it started. I hear someone say that some very dry grass ignited. I think it happened spontaneously.
After recording my dream, I put it aside to work on this essay. I didn't get far before I met one of the refugees from my dream and I had to put aside my essay to write about her in my journal: This morning I met a part of me that wants to go with him and I found her in the tears that came before the words. It's the part of me that's saying yes to death, and I could only stay with her a short while, not because I don't trust her, there's actually a relief and comfort in meeting her, and I know that I need her and she needs me. It's just that she's such a game changer. I hadn't planned on putting everything else in my life aside while we just hold each other and cry.
We spent a lot of time together on Sunday and Monday. Tuesday and Wednesday she stayed home while I went house hunting but she was waiting for me when class ended Wednesday evening. I also met another refugee on Monday afternoon. She appeared seemingly out of nowhere just as I was finishing yoga after another writing class. I suspect she had something to do with the fire. She started talking to my dead father, in a sarcastic, angry tone that came as a stream of consciousness and my plans to walk George and start dinner were put on hold because she would not be denied and I had to write it all down. She made me title it, Thanks for the Ride, Dad, because she's so sarcastic. I, on the other hand, actually do want to thank him for the ride because if I wasn't running away, I wouldn't have run into the arms that held me for forty-seven years.
I know I can pay someone to help sort and haul and plenty of friends who would love to pitch in, but the me who hates to ask for help has to be reminded over and over again to ask and the rinsing out, resistant me needs soooooooo much help, which is why the one who wants to go with him has to stay with me. I need the angry sarcastic one too, to speak up and tell it like it is without worrying all the damned time about hurting people's feelings. We haven't even spent a whole week together yet, but so far I'm thinking we make a pretty good trio: the one who can start a fire; the one who can put it out; and me to hold us all together and keep us grounded, with a little help from my two- and four-legged friends. Earth, fire and water. All we need now is the wind, and I wonder if that has something to do with asking for help and with where the help comes from.
As far as his stuff goes…I think I'll keep one drill, one antique toaster, one turntable, one amplifier, a small sampler of his vinyl record collection, two kerosene lamps, two train cars, a blue hat, a dog named George, and the memory of the moment our marriage was consummated, sitting on the edge of his hospice bed with the C & M RAILROAD car circling the track beneath us.