Hunters on the road
Camouflage, rifles, morning
Shot with grief’s hard wind.
Two years ago on Erev Yom Kippur, I went upstairs to change for services, and lay on the bed for a few minutes, to collect myself, and to let some tears loose. It was my third High Holy Day season without Eric, so I was getting used to not finding Eric at the Temple when I went to services, and David was in my life, so I wasn’t feeling the wrenching loneliness I’d felt in the first year after Eric’s death. But it had been another hard summer, losing David for a time during his return home to be with Laura and their children on her journey to death, and reliving a quick cancer death, even though it was happening to a family I only knew through David.
Sam came into the room and lay down next to me on the bed. “What’s up?” he asked.
“I’m just getting ready to go to services,” I said, wiping at the tears.
“You know what I think about every year at Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur?” Sam asked.
“Daddy?” I said, half laughing.
“I realize that Daddy had the life he wanted,” Sam said. “I used to think he just spent his life working for The Man. That he was cooped up in these jobs that weren’t what he really wanted. But now I understand that he loved his work, he had a great family life, he spent a lot of time doing things he loved liked hiking and kayaking. He had a good life.”
“Yes, he did,” I answered. “He said over and over in the weeks he was dying that he didn’t regret anything. There was nothing he wished he hadn’t done, and nothing he wished he could go back and do. That’s a gift. To die without regret.”
“And you’re really lucky,” Sam said.
“Well I think so too,” I said. “But I’m interested in why you think I’m lucky.”
“You had something with Daddy that a lot of women don’t get even once,” Sam said. “You had real love. And now you have it again, with another wonderful man.”
I smiled. I got up and we went to the Kol Nidre service. Last year neither Sam or Adrienne were home at Yom Kippur. This year, Adrienne was home, beautiful and pregnant with a grandchild Eric will never know. We have a new Rabbi, David came to Kol Nidre services with us, we broke our fast with a private, home-made memorial service with Mark and Andi, on their new patio under their ancient maple tree, then went and celebrated the 60th birthday of Eric’s best friend John. It was a fun party, a joyful conclusion of the Days of Awe.
But my contemplation of atonement and forgiveness and the repeating cycles of life and death is not over. The Rabbi’s stories and sermons are still reverberating in my head and somewhere in my heart too. I’ve been weepy off and on since walking into Rosh Hashanah services without Eric, yet again, 11 days ago.
I’m feeling lucky and sad, maneuvering my way past regret.
“We glove you,” a plaque above the high doorway on an abandoned building declares. Downtown, almost every building is abandoned, with more empty storefronts than any place I’ve ever seen. Gloversville was built on leather works, tanning, cutting, stitching, with gloves a central product, and that work has all gone overseas. “‘Hell,’ people said,” says Richard, who has lived here all his life. “‘We can send this work to South America where people will work for 17 cents an hour and we can dump all the toxic shit in the rivers.'”
Grandma Knowles lives in a high-rise behind downtown, full of elders like herself. Her second story windows look out on an old brick building with “Zimmer’s Gloves” written in big faded letters across the side. I walk around her apartment looking at all the family photos and she talks about her friends and her family and her sweet cat and how grateful she is for all she has, even though it’s been a hard life and she’s lost a child. Laura, David’s late wife, was her daughter, and we’ve come to visit, to be with Grandma around the anniversary of Laura’s death. We fill up the apartment, David and his children, Melia and Mackenzie, and Daisy, Mackenzie’s girlfriend, and me, meeting Grandma for the first time.
David rented a mini-van so we could all ride together across New Hampshire, then Vermont, and into New York. Rolling up and over mountains and hills, woods and pastures and short views and long vistas stretching out along the route, we are all assaulted by memories. For David, Melia and Mackenzie, this was a familiar family trip. For Daisy, we pass signs for the route to Peterborough, where her grandmother lived, Grandmother who died in June. For me, the first third of the trip, to Brattleboro, is most of the route to Lisa’s house. Lisa had been my best friend since I was 11 and we lost each other in the year after Eric died amid a confusing swirl of grief and inappropriate boundaries and an over reliance on the comfort of intoxication.
We all carried our own pieces of emptiness, into this empty town, spilling out of the full mini-van at snack breaks, pee breaks, stretch our legs and stand up so it’s easier to hug breaks. Grandma Knowles is full of love and kind words and sweet appreciation for the richness of her life. We take her out to dinner, and the next morning to breakfast, Laura’s brother Richard joining us for both meals. We pass the empty stores, most of them not even posted for rent. Why bother.
We drive up into the mountains in the rain to visit Laura’s grave. I leave a rock on her gravestone and explain to Grandma it’s a Jewish custom. “I like that,” she says. And then when I hug her she pulls my face down next to hers and says into my ear, “Take care of David, because he needs taking care of you know.”
“I know,” I say. “We all need taking care of.”
I’m alone with the sun slanting through the trees on the short horizon of the yard, casting shadows across the grass, illuminating the copper heron statue in the garden. Eric comes to me in herons and stands between my garden boxes all year. On Saturday I passed a heron as I ran over an abandoned turnpike causeway that cuts across a marsh. The heron looked over its shoulder, seemed to shrug, then lifted off from the water, a fish in its beak. Later in the day, kayaking in Portsmouth Harbor, stroking our way back to the car in sunset light, David and I passed a heron at the tip of a small island. It watched us as we moved closer, then walked up the rocky beach into scrub pine and bushes.
One morning on vacation I got up first and let David sleep, and later he asked me to wake him up on mornings when I get up before him. Our mornings drinking cappuccino on the deck are sweet, and ours alone. Eric and I didn’t do this, because we didn’t have this eastern facing deck when he was alive. Sam and friends built it a year after Eric died. At that point, I was still bursting into tears most mornings when I first walked into the kitchen, seeing the sun rising above the trees, realizing it was another beautiful day that Eric was missing. “It can be my crying deck,” I said to Sam.
David doesn’t want to miss too many of our mornings together on the deck, and neither do I, because we both know we don’t have that much time. We both watched spouses die very quickly of untreatable cancer, we both know some trapdoor of life could open at any moment and one of us, or someone one of us, or both of us, loves immensely could go crashing through. We hike, we kayak, we swim, we walk and talk and wring everything we can out of every day because we’ve both lived right next to numbered days and know the number can be small.
But this morning David needs the sleep and I need the solitude. Last night over dinner we talked about the black hole of grief, how it never goes away but it shifts. At first the black hole is enormous on your page of life, it’s all you can see, but as time goes by the inexorable scribblings of life begin to fill in the margins of the page, and then the page gets bigger as more and more scribblings fill in. The hole never goes away, and in fact never gets smaller, but so much life fills in around the circumference your perspective of it shifts. The black hole where Eric used to be now has four years and four months of sunrises and sunsets, hikes and kayaks and triathlons and runs, new love and lost friends, weddings and funerals and birthdays and parties spilling into every margin of my life. And mornings on the deck.
I hear the shade going up in the window above me. David is awake, the sun has cleared the trees, the day is moving on.
“You’re a manifester,” a colleague said to me one day, meaning I’m someone who moves ideas into action and reality. She’s also manifester, which is why she seemed to recognize it in me.
Yesterday, my birthday, I manifested an idea of Eric’s. Seven years ago, the summer I was turning 50, Eric and I did a lot of hiking together. I was trying to finish all 48 of the mountains over 4,000 feet in New Hampshire, which gains you entrance into the 4,000 Footer Club. It also makes you a peakbagger. Eric was happy to peakbag with me as I closed in on the last few mountains on my list, most of them requiring long, arduous hikes. We grew closer than ever that summer, even after 28 years together, spending days and days on long trails, talking, walking, just being with each other.
Due to a very rainy summer, I didn’t finish the list before my birthday. But that October, on a fine day, with blue skies and yellow birches dotting the hillsides of spruce, we did a 17 mile hike on the Zealand, Twinway and Bondcliff trails to Mt. Bond and West Bond, my last peak, then back out the way we’d come. On the hike, we met two groups of people hiking the entire Bond ridge, end to end, which also includes Bondcliff (I’d already done that peak, hiking in from the Kancamangus Highway to the south). A 19 mile hike, the Bonds traverse provides unparalleled views of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, crossing the wildest part of the state, on a rocky, open ridge. But it also presents a challenge in having a car ready to collapse into at the end of the hike. Spotting a car at the trailhead where you finish, then driving around to the trail where you want to start, is over 50 miles and takes over an hour.
“We need to find some friends who want to do the traverse with us,” Eric said that day. “We’ll start from different ends, pass each other keys when we meet on the trail as we hike, then drive each others cars to a meeting place and have dinner when we’re done.” We both loved the idea, and started talking to hiking buddies about it, but never made it happen before Eric got sick and died. We hadn’t realized we had such a tight deadline. The summer after Eric died, Anne, on of those hiking buddies, made a pact with me that we would do the Bonds traverse as Eric described, in his memory.
So yesterday we started off from the Zealand trailhead to the north, David and Betsy and Cathy and me. Anne, Ellen and Cynthia started from the Kancamangus Highway to the south. This only happened after months of planning, and an already aborted hiking date, due to weather. Being my birthday, Anne was carrying mini-brownie cupcakes, and I had a candle and matches so we could have a mini-party on the trail. Marsie, my psychic friend, who shares my birthday, told me to watch for magic, since I was manifesting Eric’s spirit on earth.
Early in the hike, Betsy took a short side trail to go to the true peak of Zealand Mountain. Cathy and David and I waited on the main trail. Two men, came up the trail from the direction we were heading. They didn’t really look like hikers — they had no pack, were carrying one bottle of water, and didn’t look particularly fit.
“Do you know Eric?” one of them asked me.
Taken aback, I simply answered, “There’s no one named Eric with us.”
“Well there’s an Eric that way on the trail,” the man said, pointing back. “He told us to look for a group of people hiking together and let them know he’s not going to make it, he’s headed back to the Galehead hut.”
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
“We stayed at the Galehead hut last night.” At this point, it was about 9:00 a.m., and the Galehead hut was a three-hour hike away.
“Where are your packs?”
“We left them back on the trail,” the other man said. “We’re just here to grab the Zealand peak, then we’re heading back to Galehead and Garfield.” Then they disappeared up the side trail to Zealand.
We never saw their packs as we continued on the trail, and we never saw them again. But we all knew someone named Eric.
David and I sat at the kitchen table last night, having our bedtime snacks, talking about beauty. We’d just watched A Single Man, an exceptionally true and beautiful movie.
“I wonder where my life would have gone if I’d followed my sensory attraction to form and color,” David said. “The lines of the rear view mirror on the Mercedes in the movie were beautiful. The body moving in water made me want to draw the curves and angles and lines.” We were still awash in the visual and emotional depths of the movie — the stark, haggard grey toned shots of Colin Firth as George, the bereaved gay man in 1962, having to hide his loss, his lost love, his feeble grasp of continued life, the brilliantly colored views of other characters George sees, the fair and youthful skin and soft blonde hair of Kenny, the flouncing red-skirted dress of the neighbor’s little girl, her hair also blonde and tightly braided. Time slows down and George dives into the eyes of those he encounters in the day the movie follows, Kenny’s round blue eyes, Charlotte’s eyes rimmed with black eyeliner and mascara.
“Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” Thus Elaine Scarry begins On Beauty, a book I picked up in a bookstore because the cover was so beautiful, a five square of different colored birds’ eggs on a pale green background. The opening page of the book made me buy it, because of my own impulse to record what I see, to translate my sensual and visual experiences into language, in new and surprising ways.
“For the first time in my life, I can’t see my future,” George says at the beginning of A Single Man. I remember the year after Eric died, how my future had dropped away and each day was simply, “getting through the God-damned day,” as George says. Get out of bed, I would tell myself, go for a run, take a shower, go to work. Each step was predictable and doable, by itself, but not a string leading into a future that had been sheared off when Eric died. Continuing on was unimaginable, so I continued on without any imagination.
Except there was still beauty in the world, painful, insistent beauty, setting off chains of language in my head that had to be written down. So I began writing — about the catbird singing on the wires crossing from the street to the house, about the seasons moving on from summer to fall to winter, about the sheets of snow that fell, filling the yard and driveway. I wrote about grief and deep sorrow and rivers and demons and tears, because even though grief is hard, it has its own real beauty, the depths of loss connected to the depths of love.
Next year at this time David and I will have embarked on our year of following beauty’s lead. I have a future now and it includes creating a year with David in which we wait to see where sensual input leads us. David to his canvases, me to my pen? Today we will try some stretch of that. There is beauty in each moment, the smell of basil from the garden, the dark bark of the trees along the brook peeking through the high summer green of leaves, the marbled clouds against the blue sky, the chatter of birds and crickets, the taste of our cappuccino, the muscles of our thighs as we sit side by side.