I have conducted many of the most significant relationships in my life almost entirely by telephone. With so many miles of ocean or freeway stretching between me and those who matter most, it is often easier to continue the conversation from the comfort of our own homes. There is always something to talk about even when there is nothing to talk about. Before Skype and Facebook, I treasured long-distance phone calls with my mother, usually during the weekend when we could be less circumspect about the time difference and the cost per minute. And, there were sporadic phone calls from childhood friends, the rhythm of home so achingly familiar we would fall softly into conversation, easily picking up where we left off years ago.
By telephone, I have delivered and received the most important news of my life. from that which cannot be shared quickly enough: “I got the job!” “We’re getting married!” “I’m going to have a baby!” “It’s a girl!” to the kind that startles the silence too early in the morning or too late at night to be anything good. From a village in Wales, my oldest friend calling to tell me her husband had been killed in a car accident: “My darling is gone! My darling is gone! Gone!” From me in a hospital parking lot to my best friend, who, fingers crossed for “benign,” answers before the end of the first ring, only to hear, “I have cancer.” Two years later, I wait on the other end of the line on one continent while she on another, enters my home and calls my husband’s name once, twice, and after the third time, “He’s passed away! He’s passed away! Oh, he’s so cold. I’m so sorry.”
Thus, two people are connected in an ephemeral silence that leaves each with nothing to hold on to.
Nothing but the distance between them.
Writing a letter is different, giving us time to shape our tidings with the very best words we have, but in spite of my best efforts, the letter-writing of my youth has fallen out of favor, snuffed out by e-mails and text messages, that regardless of font and typeface ( or supplemental emoticon) are just not the same.
I miss walking out to my mailbox and opening it to find the red, white and blue trimmed letter that was its own envelope, light as onion-skin, marked By Air Mail – Par Avion. I have saved all my letters and will likely always keep them – to read and reread, because they are immortal reminders of people and places I treasure.
In part, it is this sentiment that is behind the Letters of Note website, a veritable homage to the craft of letter-writing. Editor, Shaun Usher, has painstakingly collected and transcribed letters, memos, and telegrams that “deserve a wider audience,” taking me back to the reading of telegrams at wedding receptions in Northern Ireland. They arrived from America and other places to be read by the Best Man. It makes sense then, that when I ordered the book that grew from the website, I opted for the collectible first edition because it was accompanied by an old-fashioned telegram.
Considering telegrams and old letters, and the heart laid bare on stationery this Valentine’s Day, I am reading again the letter of fatherly advice from author John Steinbeck to his then 14-year-old son Thomas, at the time away at boarding school and smitten by a young girl, Susan. There is both heart and craft in it, and the reminder we all need – ‘nothing good gets away.’
Steinbeck’s letter below can be found in the bestselling book, Letters of Note.
November 10, 1958
We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.
First—if you are in love—that’s a good thing—that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.
Second—There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply—of course it isn’t puppy love.
But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it—and that I can tell you.
Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.
The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.
If you love someone—there is no possible harm in saying so—only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.
Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.
It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another—but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.
Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.
We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.
And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens—The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
On June 15th, 2013, I wrote the following as a promise to Karen Sutherland. I am profoundly saddened to learn of her passing exactly four years later. Karen was witty and wise and much loved by her ‘sisters’ in the online breast cancer community. She always offered a soft place to fall and an encouraging word even as she dealt with the ravages of cancer and loss in her own life. It was my honor to know you, Karen, for you made the world a much better place. My deepest condolences to your family. I remember you once shared with me a lovely story about your Hugh, and I promised I would share it on Father’s Day 2013. It seems fitting to share it again today. Rest easy now and thank you
Originally posted June 15, 2013
I never met Hugh James Sutherland who died on Sunday, May 5, 2013, but I know he loved the New York Times crossword puzzle, Scrabble, Starbucks, and walking at dusk with his wife. Nor have I met his wife, Karen, but she is my friend. We first bumped into each other on the blogosphere, via a comment she left on my New Year’s Day post. Signed TC (diagnosed with ST IV metastatic BC, december 16, 2012, now NED) it reminded me of the first time I ventured into an online breast cancer forum where all the guests signed their names not with the typical first-initial-last-name standard, but instead the ironic pedigree that included in the following order: date of diagnosis-type of cancer-size of tumor-stage-grade-node involvement-estrogen and progesterone positivity-HER2/neu status. Conjuring for me a bookish teacher from my childhood, admired by my parents for the “string of letters after her name,” I must confess that I still cannot recite by heart the line and lineage of my particular cancer and still resort to looking up the answers in my pathology report).
An engaging and elegant writer, Karen, surely had a blog or a website. I searched high and low to no avail. When she shared her story with me, I understood why there was no blog. Her husband, Hugh, had been diagnosed in October 2009 with multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the blood that originates in the bone marrow, and although treatable, is incurable. It had been the couple’s 42nd wedding anniversary, and Hugh was putting something in the front seat of the car when his femur snapped in half. Next came the trauma of the diagnosis, followed by an unsuccessful surgery to rebuild his leg. He was in excruciating pain as he endured physical therapy, chemotherapy, two stem cell transplants, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. From her ring-side seat and her thirty years experience as a hospice nurse, Karen planned to write a blog from the caregiver’s perspective, knowing it would help others. Her blog did not come to fruition, because in December of 2011, cancer visited again. This time, it was Karen who would receive the diagnosis of Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer. Seriously. Because cancer is just that cruel.
A double nightmare as each observed the other endure the relentless assault of treatment that included chemotherapy and depression for Karen too. Eventually she would hear what we cancer patients all want to hear – “No Evidence of Disease” (NED) and by late summer in 2012, Hugh was responding to the stem cell transplants and no longer suffering from depression. By this time, Karen had become well informed about the diseases that had been visited upon her and the love of her life, largely from blogs written by patients and caregivers. Grateful for the information and buoyed by the support she found within the blogosphere, Karen decided to make her mark by commenting. It was a way to pay it forward for all the support she was finding in our virtual village:
I comment to lend support, to provide comfort and understanding and compassion, to share aspects of our story that might help others, to validate, comfort, encourage, commiserate, rant and rave, and thank bloggers like you, dear yvonne, who spend so much time and emotional energy to share your stories, to let you all know how much I appreciate all the profoundly and beautifully written words, many that will remain etched upon my heart and soul forever.
Thus, Karen TC (The Commenter) makes her mark on the lives of those who write in this online and close-knit community, and it was to them she turned the day she found her darling Hugh in their bed, unresponsive with no heartbeat.
“Karen The Commenter Needs Us . . . blared from AnneMarie Cicarella’s blog, and from all corners of the globe, we gathered around the couple we have never met, each of us having been lifted up by Karen’s comments sprinkled like breadcrumbs to help us find our way home, because we frequently get lost on our respective treks through through cancer country. We became ‘the commenters’ for Karen, as she began to accept the new realities of living without Hugh, missing him and realizing he would not be here for all those days marked on the calendar, those “first” days without him like this Sunday – Father’s Day – which leads me to my promise . . .
On Valentine’s Day, Karen had left a comment on a piece I had written, Ronald Reagan’s Love Medicine in which I was bemoaning the lost art of letter writing. I was touched by her comment, a gem of a story about how her family also cherishes words set down on paper. Recognizing its universal appeal, I asked her if I could re-post it when Father’s Day rolled around. She loved the idea, so here it is – for Father’s Day, for Hugh and those who loved him:
dear yvonne… here’s a little story about how we’ve treasured the written word. a few days before last father’s day, i was cleaning off a shelf in hugh’s closet. way in the back behind the shirts in cleaners’ boxes was a fathers’ day card our son made for his dad when he was 9 years old. adam had listed all the things he loved that he and hugh did together and illustrated each in his precious, childish style. i shared the find with hugh and we both shared some tears of joy that it survived so long – our son is 40 years old!adam has a son, our only grandson, brian, who, to our great joy, is a near clone of his dad. and it turns out that all those things adam had expressed to hugh in writing and pictures all those years ago are the same things brian loves and enjoys with adam. and what a happy, meant-to-beness it was to realize that brian was now also 9 years old, just the age his dad had been when he made that special FD card.when the kids came to our house for the big father’s day celebration, we took brian aside and showed him the card his dad made for his papa 31 years ago. he beamed when we suggested passing it on to his dad. adam was blown away to see written proof of happy history repeating itself within the words and pictures of the card. he was so overjoyed to see the love he had expressed for HIS dad was now being given right back to him by his darling boy.i, too, revere many things written by hand from so many family members and friends. i keep all our calendars, too, where i’ve scrawled so many milestones of so many lives. one of the greatest losses of things written down that still feels heartbreaking is the big thick cookbook my mom always had at hand. she stuffed it with letters from my grandmother, little love notes from us, her children, old photos, and emphemera of all sorts. with 8 children, and litttle of her own space to keep her little mementos tucked safely away, i guess the old cookbook was her file cabinet. somehow, it just diappeared. i’d give up my kindle gladly, just to have one more look through it’s pages, brimming with such marvelous history, pages of favorite recipes dog-earred, stained messy with beloved flour-egg-chocolate cake battered fingerprints of my mom and me, cooking together.i love this post, yvonne – it bought back a lot of wonderful memories. thank you.love, XOXO,karen, TC
I knew not what to say to Karen after Hugh died. I didn’t have the right words so I turned again to poetry and to something Seamus Heaney had written in Station Island, about himself as a father and his own father as well. This Father’s Day weekend, I am thinking of Hugh Sutherland and those who loved him, of his son and grandson, “taking the strain,” of the “long tailed pull of grief” . . .
A Kite for Michael and Christopher by Seamus Heaney
All through that Sunday afternoon A kite flew above Sunday, a tightened drumhead, an armful of blow chaff.
I’d seen it grey and slippy in the making, I’d tapped it when it dried out white and stiff, I’d tied the bows of the newspaper along its six-foot tail.
But now it was far up like a small black lark and now it dragged as if the bellied string were a wet rope hauled upon to life a shoal.
My friend says that the human soul is about the weight of a snipe yet the soul at anchor there, the string that sags and ascends, weigh like a furrow assumed into the heavens.
Before the kite plunges down into the wood and this line goes useless take in your two hands, boys, and feel the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief. You were born fit for it. Stand here in front of me and take the strain.
Memorial contributions in Hugh’s name may be made to Hackensack University Medical Center Foundation with Multiple Myeloma in the memo of the check in order to designate the funds. The mailing address is 360 Essex Street, Suite 301, Hackensack, New Jersey 07601.
“If it isn’t too forward, would you like to meet?”
Why not? Why not meet the tall stranger who says he’s slender and likes Bob Dylan and will open doors for me? Why not?
Between the time I met my husband and the time he died twenty four years later, the search for romance and Mr. Right had moved online, a perfect place for me to spend time, my dearest friends urged. It would be fun, they said, a way for me to reintroduce myself to the world as the single woman I used to be in the days before smart phones and texting and instant gratification. Online, I could be equal parts brainy and breezy, I could hide behind pictures that only show my good side and deftly dodge questions with cryptic clues about what I did for a living and the kind of man who might be the right kind for me. In a flurry of box-checking, I could filter out men who didn’t like my politics, my hair, or my taste in music and who didn’t care if I was as comfortable in jeans as a little black dress but did care about when and how to use ‘you,’ ‘you’re’ and ‘your.’ I could be Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly in “You’ve Got Mail,” instead of her Sally who had met Harry a decade earlier, around the time I immigrated to the United States. Yes, my next chapter could be the stuff of a Nora Ephron rom-com.
Sally was an extension of Nora Ephron – single-minded with a certain way of ordering a sandwich exactly the way it needed to be for her. I understand this particular idiosyncrasy and over the years have even hired waiters and waitresses to atone for the aggravation I have caused them. Now most people will remember Sally in the throes of a spectacular fake orgasm in Katz’s Deli, but for me, she shines brightest in a scene that snaps me back to the young woman I used to be, the one who still shows up to remind me how little time I have to become who I am supposed to be. Life, she asserts, is what happens in between the beginnings and the endings – in the middle –and in the twinkling of an eye. It is also for the living. She’s right. Of course she’s right.
When she realizes she’s “gonna be 40 . . . someday,” Sally is barely thirty and sporting a sassy hair cut that in 1989 should have worked with my natural curls. It gives me no pride to tell you that I subsequently carried in my wallet, for several years – maybe a decade – a page from a glossy magazine that featured Ms. Ryan’s many haircuts. For countless hairdressers rendered clueless and incompetent by the state of my hair, I unfolded that page as though it were the Shroud of Turin, while I beseeched them to grant me a Meg Ryan haircut. Not until I turned 50 and found Topher, did they ever get it quite right, but that is a story that has been told here before and one that does not belong in an online dating profile – unless Nora Ephron is writing it.
I remember when 40 was an eternity away from 20. By all accounts, forty was the deadline for letting oneself go. 50 was sensible and dowdy. 60 heralded blue rinses – for hair not jeans. 70 was out of the question – definitely not a new 50. And now I’m gonna be 60 . . . one day. Time to take stock of all I have accepted about myself, the “alternative facts” if you will. Some are minor – I don’t have sensible hair, and I spend a fortune coloring it and trying to tame it. Fonts matter in ways they shouldn’t – if I don’t like the lettering on a store sign, I won’t shop there, and Comic Sans on homework assignments forces me to question the teacher’s judgement. Even though I recently found out that it’s bad for the car, I only buy gas after the ’empty’ light comes on. I can finally go on record and confess that I don’t like Les Miserables, and I even fell asleep during a performance of the musical version. Opera doesn’t do it for me either, and I only went to the ballet once because all the other mothers were taking their daughters to see “The Nutcracker” for Christmas. I resent the aging process and the way it sneaks up on me at the most inopportune times. There was a time when, without glasses, I could read the small print on the back of a shampoo bottle (in French and English); now, I spend less time reading than I do searching for one of the pairs of cheap reading glasses I bought at the carwash or found on a desk, forgotten by some other woman in the same predicament. My hearing isn’t what it used to be either, which I would rather blame on my attendance at concerts over the past forty years than on something as graceless as aging. My memory is unreliable too. I can tell you what I wore and with which handbag on June 5th 1984, but not where I’m supposed to be tomorrow evening. If Mr. Right cares about punctuality, he should probably know I have a stellar capacity for getting lost. Although, with factory-installed GPS navigation systems de rigeur and knowing there is most certainly an app for that, I am much better at finding my way around the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. To be fair, if I have been somewhere at least eight times, I can get there without much assistance, but until such times, I lean on Google maps, Siri, my daughter reading directions from the phone that is smarter than both of us, and those friends and colleagues who consistently “bring me in” by phone from my destination – where they are already waiting.
Other truths are more painful. I almost learned from my ordeal with breast cancer to be kinder and more patient. My teenage daughter will attest that I have yet to reach a level of proficiency in either area. The circumstances around my husband’s death shattered my sense of certainty and made me cautious. The result? A fragile guardedness reminiscent of a temperamental garage door.
But who would want to read any of this in an online dating profile? It’s much safer – and easier – to sparkle and enchant as you would on your resume – except you have to be cuter avoiding clichés and divulging your home address. You also have to accept that it is going to be awkward especially if the last time you were ‘out there’ was 1989 and when you met a man at a bar, you did not already know his political persuasion or his favorite movie, how much he earned or if he had a tattoo. You wouldn’t know his deal-breakers. He would buy you a drink, ask for your number, call a day – or maybe two – later, take you to the movies the next weekend, and over time – real time – you would build the scaffolding necessary to weather every storm in a teacup.
Awkwardly, I built a profile. I checked the boxes, being scrupulously truthful about my age, politics, and marital status while taking some liberties with other details like hair color and the frequency of my visits to the gym. This was resume writing, right? My best friend reminded me I have an unparalleled expertise in ambiguity which reminded me not to give too much away. Emboldened, I provided ambiguous and annoying responses to the simplest questions: Favorite thing? The right word at the right time. Perfect date? Anywhere where there’s laughter. Hobbies? Binge-watching Netflix originals.You get the idea, and you’ll therefore understand why I abandoned the idea of online dating – or it abandoned me.
About a year later, after a period of offline dating which left me thinking my remaining days would be better spent alone, my best friend told me to take one more field trip online. Obediently, I touched up my profile, uploaded a recent picture in which I’m wearing my favorite green shirt, and waited to see what would happen while also weighing the benefits of spending my golden years in a convent.
“If it isn’t too forward, would you like to meet?”
I took a chance.
I. Took. A. Chance.
Ignoring the raised eyebrows and the sage advice from online dating sites who would deem his boldness a red flag, I broke protocol. Without any protracted emailing phase, I agreed to meet the tall and forward stranger the next afternoon. A quick study, I had filed away the important bits – he was a liberal, a non-smoker, and a music-loving musician who was divorced and had a little girl. I dismissed the interest in football (the American kind, for God’s sake) and golf (eye-roll), hoped he meant it when he checked ‘no preference’ on hair color, and held on to his mention of integrity – and the picture of the Harley Davidson. Box checked. He said he worked out every day – of course he did, who doesn’t – and no religion too. No deal-breakers. He had my attention.
Still, disenchanted by dating – online and off – I half-expected Mr. Forward to be five feet tall and 95 years old. Who knew if his pictures were current or if he had built his entire profile on a foundation of fibs? Maybe he didn’t really like Bob Dylan (a deal-breaker) and maybe he went to the gym thrice daily. Let me just digress to tell you that there are more than a few men in the land of online dating who claim to live in the desert – but also enjoy moonlight walks every night – on the beach. Honest to God. I also had no expectation that he would remember my name, anticipating instead the possibility of being number five or six in ‘the dating rotation.’
It was a Monday. I had sent a breezy text suggesting we meet at 5 at a well-lit bar. I was wearing the outfit I had worn in my profile picture perhaps to prove that I had posted a picture taken within at least the past decade. It was also a good hair day, Topher having redeemed himself with fabulous beachy highlights (just in case a moonlight walk was on the horizon). I was also a mess, embroiled in a legal battle that I’m probably not allowed to discuss here or anywhere else, but I think I probably told him all about it within the first five minutes. The Harley I’d seen in the photo was parked outside, silver steel shimmering. Unless he had borrowed it just for our first date, this was a good sign. Onward. He was sitting at the bar, staring ahead, and I watched him watch me out of the corner of his eye as I walked the plank all the way from the front door to where he sat. Butterflies. Even though I know you’re not supposed to have any expectations, I had prepared myself to be let down and lied to, but my instinct told me that the man at the bar was not going to lie to me and that I would not lie to him.
Over beers and banter, we sized each other up and over-shared, checking off those boxes our middle-aged online personas had created. He loved Bob Dylan. The Harley was his. Virtuality was becoming reality and although I was skeptical – sorry, musicians, but you have a reputation to uphold – I was also smitten. The bar closed, and off we went to another – our second date – but who’s counting. Having read and committed to memory the FAQ section of the online dating site, I knew this was another red flag. First dates that are too long (or turn into second dates on the same night) are deemed more likely to create a premature and false sense of intimacy. Too much too soon, the experts say. They’re probably right, but I’ll be damned if we didn’t do it again the next night and most nights since. We’ll do it tonight too.
A match made in heaven? No. In spite of all the tactics and algorithms deployed to make sense of our checked boxes and declare us a 100% match, and being declared ‘official’ by Facebook and the young bartender who thinks we’re photogenic enough to be “the desert Obamas,” we are making this match right here, right here where angels fear to tread, in the messiness of the middle of two lives that collided at the best and worst of times. There is no wrong time.
As for the rest of the story? The rest of the story is for me. And for him. As Rob Reiner reminded me in his tribute to Nora Ephron:
‘You don’t always have to express every emotion you’re having when you’re having it.’ There’s a right time to talk about certain things, and you don’t need to be out there all the time just spewing. It’s how you become an adult, and I think she helped me see that.
P.S. Because I know you want to know, I asked him what compelled him to be forward in the first place. He says he thought the woman in the picture was looking directly at him. I tell him there’s a song in there. Long may we sing it.
Laurie Anderson tells this story about the day she married her best friend, Lou Reed:
It was spring in 2008 when I was walking down a road in California feeling sorry for myself and talking on my cell with Lou. “There are so many things I’ve never done that I wanted to do,” I said.
“You know, I never learned German, I never studied physics, I never got married.”
“Why don’t we get married?” he asked. “I’ll meet you halfway. I’ll come to Colorado. How about tomorrow?”
“Um – don’t you think tomorrow is too soon?”
“No, I don’t.”
And so the next day, we met in Boulder, Colorado, and got married in a friend’s backyard on a Saturday, wearing our old Saturday clothes, and when I had to do a show right after the ceremony, it was OK with Lou.”
Like many couples, we each constructed ways to be – strategies, and sometimes compromises, that would enable us to be part of a pair. Sometimes we lost a bit more than we were able to give, or gave up way too much, or felt abandoned. Sometimes we got really angry. But even when I was mad, I was never bored. We learned to forgive each other. And somehow, for 21 years, we tangled our minds and hearts together.
The day Ken married me was like any other. We were not really watching TV when I suggested it. “OK,” he said, and he put on his boots and waited for me to put on a dress I knew he liked.
I dug out the yellow pages and found a wedding chapel in an old west Phoenix neighborhood. The preacher reminded me of the old man at the bar in Field of Dreams, the one with the pale blue eyes who tells the story of Moonlight Graham and all the blue hats he never got around to giving his wife, Alicia. Like me, Alicia liked to wear blue.
In our everyday clothes and without a ring, we asked a stranger to officially witness our wedding ceremony. Then we vowed to each other that we would stay together in sickness and health, ’til death us do part. A second time around for both of us, we were unwilling to settle for anything less than the kind of love that makes you leave one life with nothing but whatever you’re wearing that day. It was easy to say and to mean to say that only death would tear us apart. Madly in love, we had no reason to suspect that cancer (mine) or aneurysms (his) would move in and turn things upside down more than once and make us resent our bodies and ourselves. Oblivious to any possibility of dark days ahead, we filled up an ordinary November morning with a time-honored stream of extraordinary promises. We couldn’t stop smiling, and we didn’t tell a soul. Young and wild, we may as well have eloped to Gretna Green, and with our secret, we even went to work afterwards, delighting in the fact that no one else knew what we had done. Like so many of the rituals we performed every day, the act of marrying was as casual as it was important. Without fanfare or hoopla, it was ours – completely ours. Private.
For a long time, we were answerable only to each other and did as we wished without having to worry much about anyone else. There were random road trips north and to the ocean, the first of which on a hot Friday afternoon when I was desperate to smell the sea. He just told me to get in the car, and off we went to California. No map. No GPS. No bottles of water. No phone. No specific destination other than “ocean.” By nightfall, we were inhaling the salty air somewhere around Los Angeles and the next evening, we were strolling along a pier in Pismo Beach. As though putting America’s never-ending road to the test, I asked him to keep driving until we stopped by a lighthouse, the kind of place I had always thought would make a great home for us. There, we balanced a camera on the hood of his car, set the self-timer, and took a picture of ourselves, windswept, laughing, and clinging to each other, completely unaware that a decade later, we would stand again on that very same spot on the road to Monterey, smiling for a picture that would be taken by the only child we would have together – our daughter. Then, for another decade, San Luis Obispo County – Morro Bay – would be our family’s vacation spot.
Between us, for over two decades, we created hundreds of rituals and routines – lovely and easy labors of love that came naturally, in large part because – as my mother still reminds me – I could set my watch by Ken. I always knew where he was, what he was doing, how much he loved me, how much I exasperated him, how proud he was of accomplishments in my professional life and how much he despised the bullshit I brought into our home from that same profession. He told me he loved me every single day and at the end of every single phone call (even on days and at the end of phone calls when I was anything but lovable). Always in my corner, he was my number one fan, my lover, and the wise and best friend who told the young me whose feelings were too easily hurt and who cared too much about what other people thought, that she needed to grow some “hard bark,” because she would need it one day.
Well, Ken, I need it today. I know you didn’t want me to harden; you just wanted me to toughen up. But where do we find the toughness to fully absorb the blow of your death, the finality of it? What should I say to our daughter when the grief – boundless and unforgiving – renders her as vulnerable as a new-born? What do I tell myself when I look up and find myself surprised – still – that you are not there with another mug of coffee or a glass of wine asking me what I’m blogging about, and wondering aloud – with a wry and worried smile – if the woman I once was would be coming back any time soon, and when she did, would she remember the man you used to be? In hindsight, I know we both had an inkling that maybe she would not. So maybe I should just tell the truth – if only to myself.
Each of us wrestled with the ways in which illness changed us, forcing us at the most inconvenient of times to confront our mortality, and turning us into very good liars and strangers who fought dirty. We lied, I suppose, for self-preservation and out of fear, out of indignation or anger about our respective lots, out of denial and blame, and all the other words that belong in all the self-help books we would never read, all the “psycho-babble.” Our marriage had not been perfect, but it had until then been honest. Always. Honesty was one of those non-negotiables that somehow – unbelievably – was blown asunder by illness and our fucked up responses to it. We found ourselves diminished, transformed into weaker versions of ourselves that were unacceptable to us in light of the boldness that defined us at the beginning and for so many years. Ashamed of ourselves, we didn’t know what to do, and we turned our backs on the people we used to be.
And we used to be bold. We started out with courage and a chemistry that we were convinced would more than make up for the little we lacked in compatibility. We argued about little things but rarely about the big stuff, and – this is important – we never lied. We fell into a rhythm that included laughing every day and sometimes at the same old stories including the one about the first argument we ever had. It went something like this:
Are you sure?
So what are you thinking about?
Well, it must be something. I can tell. It’s something. Did I do something wrong? Is it about me? (I mean, isn’t it always about me?) Can you at least tell me what it begins with? Just the first letter? Does it begin with a “Y”?
No baby. Just private thoughts. Private thoughts, baby.
Ken knew this response would fall short of satisfying someone like me, someone hell-bent – hell-bent – on knowing the inner details, the finer points, the “but how are you really feeling?” liner notes, but he never told me, and growing up and older by his side, I figured out that we all have private thoughts, secrets never to be told, things that stay deep within us, desires, differences that will not be aired – private thoughts.
Maybe most people wouldn’t admit it aloud, but Ken did. I remember how he made that first argument in the same way he once told a cashier at Pep Boys – after paying in cash for new windshield wipers – that no, she could not have his address. Not that he was a conspiracy theorist, he just resented the notion of his name and address being placed on a list that would perhaps be sold to someone who would profit from it. When he detected her annoyance because he was not cooperating the way a good customer should, Ken looked at her, deadpan, and with a twinkle in his eye, he beckoned her closer so he could whisper to her: “I just can’t do it. I can’t tell you where I live, man. The cops are after me.” And, I had to put on my sunglasses and walk out of the store because I was laughing so hard.
That’s how it was, except when it wasn’t. There were times when he would insist I had lost my sense of humor, and I would argue that – au contraire – he had lost his ability to be funny. Like storms in the tiniest of teacups, these often passed, and as I sit here, three years after his death, I realize there were no boring days, no days that did not shimmer for at least a moment with what had connected us at the beginning. The wall we had built did its job for just as long as was required.