Okay, I really thought, over four years after Eric’s death, and over three years after I finished all the financial death chores, that the one dollar bill was the last of it. But yesterday, the very day after the dollar arrived, there was another envelope addressed to Eric. In it was a check for $15.36, a settlement from a Securities and Exchange Commission administrative proceeding from some mutual fund Eric must have owned at some point in the past. If things really do come in threes, and each subsequent, unsettled piece of Eric’s estate increases by a factor of 15, like this latest check, then I should be receiving $225 any day now. I’ll let you know.
There was a message on the answering machine last night. “This is Linda from Dr. Bezon’s office, calling about a credit balance on your account. If you could call and verify your address, I can send you the balance.” She left the phone number to call three times. I didn’t recognize the doctor’s name.
Though wary this might be some sort of scam, I called the number this morning. Linda answered, and when I told her I’d gotten a message from her, she asked my name. Still wary, I gave her the phone number she’d called and asked who she was looking for. “I don’t recognize the doctor’s name,” I told her.
“Let me see,” she said. “I can’t find that number, what’s your name?”
She seemed legitimate, so I gave her my last name. “Oh, here’s the number,” she said. “Do you have an Erica or Eric there?”
“My late husband’s name was Eric, but he died four years ago.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Linda said. “But this is from 2006. Dr. Bezon is a chiropractor your husband saw.”
“Yes,” I said. “Eric went to a chiropractor a couple of times for the back pain he was having. We didn’t know yet the pain was from metastatic cancer in his bones. The chiropractor didn’t help.”
“I’m so sorry,” Linda said again. “We just got a new accounting system, and we’re finding balances we didn’t know we have. Eric’s account has a balance of 68 cents, from a visit on March 10, 2006.” Two months before Eric died.
“Well, you can have the 68 cents,” I said. “That’s fine with me.”
“Oh no,” Linda answered. “If you could just verify the address, I’ll send you a check for the balance.” She told me again how sorry she was, apologized for being so tardy in finding the balance, and said she would be putting a check in the mail.
At one point in the year after Eric died, I got two checks two days apart. I’d transferred an account in Eric’s name, but the order to transfer didn’t catch the last of the interest. A check, in Eric’s name, arrived for $7.32. Then a check for $.01 came. The account was finally closed.
At least this check will be in my name.
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.
Like green beans and tomatoes this summer, my pee wee (panicle) hydrangea tree has produced in abundance. Many years the blossoms don’t take on their rose blush until some of the flower petals have already turned brown. Not this year. The tree is hanging ripe with pink blossoms like a fruit tree. Drying the blossoms is simple enough that it’s a garden task I get done every year. Snip the stems at whatever length I want, put them in a vase, or hang them from a rack, and the blossoms dry in whatever shade of cream and pink they held when cut. Eventually the flowers turn brown, but it takes until the next summer, when the world is full of color again, before I notice that the blush has faded into a uniform drabness. Still, the conical shape of the flowers holds and makes a bouquet.
As I went out yesterday to pick the last bouquet, I heard a familiar clatter and chug of machinery from the field across the street. Looking up, I couldn’t see the baler, but the mounded rows of cut hay lay across the field in parallel strips, curving with the slopes of the field, a swirl of dried grasses ready to be packed into blocks. More summer being saved, to feed horses or cows over the winter. It was getting late in the day, but the sun was still strong and hot, soaking into blossoms and grass, dried by the clear wind and ready to be harvested for seasons to come.
“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.
The problem with time is how it marches on, no matter what you’re doing. However, that’s also the blessing of time. Vacation days pass on, but so do days weighted with grief or anxiety. On days when I wake up anxious, I know, from experience, that if I can just get through the day, the anxiety will start to wash out as the day passes. By evening I can feel the tide of release start to seep in.
I’m in the midst of a time out. I’m on vacation, with no concrete plans, no trip itinerary or rental cottage, just days off, time out. David and I get up in the morning, drink our cappuccino, and talk about what we’ll do for the day, which isn’t necessarily what we’ll do. I’m handling this remarkably well for me. There are moments of feeling the time off, time out, slipping through my hands, worrying that vacation is passing, but when I do go back to work, those days will pass too.
When we sit on the porch to get out of the sun, we can see the morning glories I planted this year, blue throats open to the day, big blue faces on the vine that’s crawling up a string I strung from the eave of the barn. The flowers open in the morning, then close up by late afternoon. Glory, glorious, timed to be enjoyed, and then pass.
“What about the bunch of you?” Sam asked. Of the eight adults at dinner, only one had finished college in four years. All of us professionals, three had never gotten degrees, one had dropped out of high school but still ended up with a BA in philosophy, one had started her degree in her 30’s, Eric also didn’t get his BS until his late 30’safter attending four different undergraduate schools, and my own college history included a bad marriage break for a year and a half.
“The world is different now,” Eric said. “You need a degree.”
“Look,” I said. “This is the path you’re on right now. Stay on it and see where it leads. Life is more about floating down river than it is about marching across a field.”
“Where did you hear that?” John asked.
“I made it up.”
Two months later, Eric was dead, at 54, from metastatic ocular melanoma that we’d had no idea was busy eating away his insides. The river got really turbulent for a good while, and still does from time to time, but we’re still floating and the water is still moving to the sea