The envelope arrived yesterday. No check for 68 cents, rather a lovely, sympathetic and continuing apologetic letter, and the outstanding balance statement in Eric’s name, with a dollar bill taped to the paper.
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.
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.
“Honeycrisp? I’ve heard they’re like crack,” Adrienne said, after asking if there would be apples to pick when she comes home for Yom Kippur in a couple of weeks. I’d told her there are already good apples ready, there will be plenty in two weeks, and David and I have been eating lots of Honeycrisp apples, new to both of us and delicious. Addictively delicious, apparently.
“This is crack corn,” I said to David, eating last night’s ears of fresh corn, which have been as consistently sweet and popping fresh as we can ever remember. We’ve had a lot of company this summer, family and friends, and we’ve served basically the same menu every time — caprese salad with tomatoes and basil from the garden, green beans from the garden, fresh corn, and some kind of protein on the grill. It’s been our standard menu for ourselves too, for weeks now. The farm truck parked at the traffic circle we go through on the way home makes keeping well stocked in native corn, peaches and nectarines easy. We’re happy, because we’re eating real food, as Michael Pollan prescribes, we’re eating local, as slow fooders would prescribe, and much of what we’re eating I grew myself.
Slow food, delicious food, simple food, crack.
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.
Sue met Dennis her first night in Key West. He was captain of a wine tasting, sunset sail tour , they got talking, she got his number, they went for a sail two nights later on his boat. She told me about the sail, I said I love to sail, and last night we both went out on his Catalina 42, sailing out of Key West Harbor, into the Gulf.
I admired his boat. “I sailed her to Venezuela,” he said.
“What did you do in Venezuela?” I asked.
He looked at me with a quizzical smile. “I was on a trip.”
Later, when we were underway, I said, “The way you looked at me when I asked what you did in Venezuela makes me think we have very different approaches to how we spend out time.” He laughed.
Dennis has been in Key West for 11 years. Before that he “practiced retirement, and was really good at it,” sailing through the Caribbean for a year and a half. Several years as a boat captain in Key West, then the trip to Venezuela, now back to being a ship captain. He owns a house in Key West but rents it. He lives on his boat.
“I’m practicing retirement soon myself,” I’d said and Dennis congratulated me. “I think you’re a good influence on Sue and me. We work too much.”
Later, with the mainsail and jib both full of wind, the turquoise water slipping by, the water slapping rhythmically against the hull, Dennis smiled and said, “This is the way life should be.”
I wanted to say, “This is the way life is, right now,” but I didn’t.
Later, he showed me a map on his GPS gizmo that had tracked every anchorage of his trip to Venezuela. The sweeping line of triangles was enticing, the path of a journey across the water.
In a strange bed last night, which is not strange for me (I travel a lot), I knew almost immediately I would have trouble falling asleep, so I took more medication, and then overslept. That included getting up in the middle of the night to pee, and spending almost a minute banging around in the dark bathroom, unable to find my way out. Door edge, bang!, wall, bang! door jamb, bang!, sink, bang! It’s one of those hotel bathrooms in a bathroom, the toilet and tub off the alcove with the sink, so there were two doorways to manage. I made it back to bed, and woke up to David calling.
As I talked to him, I pulled on some shorts, slipped on my flip-flops, grabbed my purse and headed out for the dock-front coffee shop to get some cappuccino. I’m in Key West for a meeting, it’s miserably hot and humid and I’d planned to get up early to try running before the worst of the heat builds. Not today. I walked down the steps and came out a side door of the Westin and turned towards the water, around the corner of the building and there was a wall of cruise ship taking up all of my horizon. Bang!
Later in the day, after the meeting adjourned, I walked to a state park to swim at what seems to be the only real beach on Key West. Surprising, the lack of swimming here. People come to party, I’m told, not to be on the beach. It was gloriously tropical — palms trees, deep blue sky, sea water streaked emerald and turquoise and aquamarine against the crushed shell white sand. As I swam along the beach towards a breakwater that marked a turn of the shore, I came up for a breath and there was the cruise ship again, coming around the corner of the key where the water turns from ocean to gulf. It’s monstrous white hull was all I could see. Bang!
What’s around the next corner?