A Handful of Pieces

“A marriage, willy-nilly, requires you to trust that your spouse will tell your story truthfully and lovingly when you are no longer around to tell it yourself.” 

Kate Braestrup, Here, If You Need Me
Spring Break on Cape Cod
Photo credit: Fiona Rollins

In what now seems like another lifetime ago, my sisters and I met in Chicago for an evening of amazing theatre. For two hours and fifty-five minutes, we were mesmerized by the story, the music, and the fast-paced lyrics of Hamilton. The musical is jampacked with memorable moments; however, it was the final song…the final scene..that reached in and grabbed my heart. Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story. At the time, having been a widow myself, for a scant six months, I immediately connected with Eliza who accepts the responsibility of telling Alexander’s story and honoring his legacy.

Every life is a mosaic of tiny bits and pieces. When it comes time for our story to be told we can only hope that the storytellers scoop up the shiny, brightly colored bits. Then too, it would probably be nice to have some of the dull and broken tesserae thrown in as well…just to add some contrast and perspective.  In the end, the chroniclers can only use the tiles they have collected and the way the light shines on the bits they hold to tell our stories.

Covid-19 Spring
Barbara Abraham

It makes me a little sad, to think that there are many people in my life who never met my husband, Dave.  I’m sorry, too, that I can only tell his story with the pieces I have.  Granted, after forty-three years of sharing a life together I’ve got an awful lot of pieces, but after decades of living side-by-side, our individual bits have all been dumped into the same box. I’m afraid that trying to separate the jumble of my life from his would be a rather dusty, time-consuming, and ultimately futile endeavor.  

So, with a mound of those tiles cupped in my hand, I’ll give you a tiny glimpse into one part of the man I knew.  There’s still an abundance of pieces remaining in the box for another day.

Dave and I both come from families where a sense of humor is held in the highest regard. Storytelling, practical jokes, playful innuendoes, quick retorts, and snappy comebacks were what we were both raised on.  We have a professional comedian in our family for heaven’s sake and several other family members who can probably hold their own with him.  In fact, my mother’s final words were the punchline of a joke she liked to tell. Humor and laughter are in our DNA.

Over the years, the two of us sometimes worked as a comedy duo. We often played off each other with the hope of making our friends laugh.  Our repertoire ran the gamut from Archie and Edith to Lucy and Desi, often switching roles between the comic and the straight man. The biggest challenge and the most fun was getting the other to laugh or catching them in a joke.  I have to say, especially since Dave isn’t here to object, but I know he’d agree, that in this game I was most often the victor. I think Dave was just too naive and trusting.  I’d get him to fall for the easiest stuff…hook, line, and sinker.

“I have always felt that laughter in the face of reality is probably the finest sound there is and will last until the day when the game is called on account of darkness. In this world, a good time to laugh is any time you can”.

Linda Ellerbee
Do You See a Resemblance?
Entrance to the Kröller-Müller Museum

In a recent documentary, I watched a group of archaeologists trying to reconstruct the floor of a Roman villa. Most of the clay tiles were missing, but there were some sections that were bright, beautiful, and close to being complete. There are stories about Dave that are much like that restored section of that ancient mosaic floor.  They have been told so many times that they have been worn smooth but they are so funny and familiar that they are continually repeated.

Ready for Duty, Captain
Jamestown, VA 2011

On Valentine’s Day, 2007, a massive snowstorm hit Vermont dropping between two and three feet of snow in a twenty-four hour period. For several days people were clearing snow from sidewalks, driveways, and rooftops.  On the third day,  after hours spent on the roof, Dave came in to give a report.  He had worked his way to the front of the house and was vigorously moving shovelful after shovelful from the roof to the drifts below.  As he worked, instead of warming up from the exertion, as he expected, he was getting colder and colder.  What he had failed to notice was that with each shovelful he tossed from the roof a fair percentage had blown back and collected in the pockets of the pants he was wearing.  When the pockets reached maximum capacity…weight, gravity, and maybe just because the snow wanted to return to the roof…Dave’s pants slowly slid down his legs and gathered around his ankles. Our house was on a fairly busy street.  One wonders how many people he mooned before he realized that his arse was on display for the entire world to see.

Dave was not a small man and he frequently used his size to great comic advantage. When our church instituted an annual Christmas Pageant, he was one of the Wise Men. After several years in the role, he decided to mix it up and play the part of an angel.  I assume that angels come in all shapes and sizes, but I’m pretty sure that until the moment he appeared on the chancel no one in Montpelier had ever seen anything quite like his rendition.  To complete his angel ensemble he and his cohort, Bob, also dressed as an angel, carried small bells that they’d ring occasionally and then look to see if either of them had gotten their wings.  “Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”  

He’s The Angel In The Christmas Play

I supposed his greatest achievement at visual humor was The Great Shower Caper. One summer, while I was spending a week at Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire, he got together with my friends, Bettie and Nancy. The three of them were aided by my daughter-in-law who photographed the entire escapade. Nancy, Dave, and Bettie, posed in such a way as to create the illusion that the three of them were enjoying a playfully nude romp together in our outdoor shower. I can’t imagine that this was Dave’s idea, but the fact that he was willing to go along with it was classic. The rest of the plot involved having prints made for each of the participants to hang surreptitiously in their house to see how long it took their spouse to discover it. I can only imagine how much fun they had creating this bit of visual hilarity. I keep a framed print in my bathroom. I look at it every day and always smile.

Ain’t We Got Fun
Nancy, Dave, and Bettie

When you are a joker you have to be ready to take a ribbing as well as dish it out. Dave was always a good sport when it came to being the butt of the joke, so to speak.  One of his favorite stories involved his friend and surgeon, Larry.  We were living in a small Michigan town where everyone knew everyone else.  Dave had gone to the doctor for a cyst that had formed at the base of his spine.  The doctor, Jack, told Dave that the best course of action was to have it lanced.  “Just go over to the hospital. Larry is still working and he’ll take care of you.”  Dave arrived next door at the hospital and sure enough, Larry was ready to take care of the problem. 

The set-up for this story also involved Larry telling Dave that although some of the numbing-agent had gotten into his eyes he was sure he could see well enough to complete the procedure at hand. As a now nervous Dave was bent over the gurney with his drawers once again around his ankles…I’m beginning to see a pattern here…Robin…remember it’s a small town…came into the room and began to prep Dave for the procedure by shaving his behind. Embarrassed, Dave asked, “Does Robin have to do that?

“No,” replied Larry, “But she asked if she could and I didn’t see any harm in it.”

Dave would roar with laughter telling that story.  He loved it.

Of course, Dave was much more than jokes and funny stories… I still have lots of tiles left in the box…but it was the part of himself that he liked best. In many ways, it was the essence of his being. Who he was.

We never talked much about what happens when we die. I really don’t know if he believed in an afterlife or not, but when I read this quote from Kate Braestrup, I always hear it in Dave’s voice. “Ah! To be able to make someone I love laugh years after I’m gone, that is all the immortality I could ever ask for.

You Left in Autumn

“Grief is the price we pay for love.”

Queen Elizabeth II
A View of the Muskegon River
Penny and Dave’s, Big Rapids, 2020

Autumn is definitely my favorite season, but this year along with the foliage, the multiple flocks of geese winging their way south, and that crisp, juicy bite of the season’s first apples …quite unexpectedly…October arrived with a replay of the grief I thought I had put into a manageable box months ago. Soon, I will mark the second anniversary of my husband’s death. Of course, I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t expecting to have such a visceral response to a mere date on the calendar.

You left in autumn. The leaves were turning. I walked down roads of orange and gold. I saw your sweet smile. I heard your laughter. You’re still here beside me. Everyday. ‘Cause I know you by heart. ‘Cause I know you by heart.

Terrance Harrison / Margaret Nelson “I Know You by Heart”. sung and recorded by Eva Cassidy
A Singular Beauty at Plum Loco
Shepherd, Michigan, 2020

Several times in the past few weeks I have been awakened in the night by the sound of my own weeping and the chill of tears soaking into my pillow. I feel myself moving uncontrollably toward the empty pit of despair. The colored leaves that litter my path offer no traction to brake my footsteps as I slide toward the edge of the abyss. I grab saplings to slow my descent and I resist with all my might until I am balancing on the edge of the void…halted…and safe…but knowing that I am precariously perched. I breathe in and breathe out.

Leaves on the Path
Sylvan’s Solace, 2020

The return of autumn colors, the sounds, the smells, and yes, the taste of sweet cider and pumpkin doughnuts…involuntarily…put me back where I was at the time of Dave’s death. Without conscious thought, I was…I am…reliving that chapter and all the emotions that accompanied it over and over again.

It seems that my nearly five-year-old grandson who was with me on the morning of Dave’s death is also having a difficult time. As little boys are want to do, yesterday, he built himself a fort complete with a picture of Dave. Later he told his friend that he was feeling very sad because he missed Papa Dave and he wished he hadn’t died. Could it be that Autumn was bringing this wee one’s memories into the light too?

Perhaps, much like the rising action of a good novel or the mounting intensity of a particularly good piece of music, this is a necessary wave of grief that builds until it is suddenly released on the anniversary where it can be acknowledged, named, and then put away until the wave crests again.

I’m not sure how that works in the heart of a little boy, however.

Imagining At An Early Morning Window
2020

Grief is so complicated. Just when you think you’ve tamed it…bam…it whacks you upside the head. At times the pain feels so raw and fresh and at other times it is just a dull ache that moves in, follows you around, and makes itself at home. There are also days when grief remains so quiet you almost dare to believe it’s gone and you spend the entire day smiling.

Grieving is a lonely business until I remember that in addition to the personal griefs we each bear, during this long and painful pandemic we are all experiencing a communal loss. Everyone on the planet has lost someone or something. Each of us…children, too…can easily create our own long list of what was taken and what we long to have returned.

The Missing-Dave part of the mourning process has taught me that when looking back over our time together the petty annoyances that drove me crazy, the minor disagreements we occasionally shared, and the less than stellar times that filled the empty spaces in our lives all begin to fade into the mist. What I remember…what I miss…are all the simple day-to-day experiences that make up life…the fun, the laughter, the mundane, and the knowledge that someone was witness to my existence.

With COVID-19 we are still in the rising action of the plot. At times the intensity is nearly unbearable, but when finally we reach the climax, falling action, and resolution will we look back and watch some of the negatives fade into the mist and remember the positives that have come out of this challenging time? Will we remember how precious the smallest things were and honor them for the richness that they bring to our lives? Will we remember the good? I wonder.

So far, I am resisting the gaping maw of depression that threatens me. I am sad…and that’s OK. Pain and joy are simply opposite sides of the same coin. When I relive the pain of loss I cannot escape the adjacent memories of love, tenderness, laughter, and joy.

Mary Oliver instructs us that “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go”.

Leaves in the Chippewa River
Sylvan’s Solace, 2020

“These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur — this lovely world, these precious days…” 

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Next year, Autumn will come again. The trees will swish their leafy skirts, apple trees will share their bounty, little boys will build forts, and once again I’ll be ready to ‘let it go’.

There Are Bears on the Way to The Promised Land

I have seen the Promised Land, but contrary to the milk and honey advertised in the brochure, I found a land of maple syrup, early fall foliage, and lots of mask-wearing people, but I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Camel’s Hump from Charlotte

For months…after following all the guidelines, wearing a mask, keeping social distance, and having very minimal contact with others…I still debated whether I could or should make the trip from Michigan to Vermont during this pandemic. I missed my family and the anticipated isolation of winter was looming on the horizon but was it sensible, wise, or even safe to do?

“Sometimes you have to go through the wilderness before you get to the Promised Land.”

John Bytheway

One Sunday in late August, during a sermon on courage, my minister, Rev. Andrew Franz, shared the analogy of meeting a bear in the woods. “Fearing the bear in front of you compels you to choose action. Fearing a bear that might or might not be there in the bushes is not a useful emotion, ” he said. ” Fear of the abstract is not useful. It is debilitating”.

In September 2016, Dave and I visited Glacier National Park. Before the trip, my sister, Penny, gave me lots of instructions and admonitions about meeting bears on the trail. Since Dave wasn’t able to hike much farther than the parking lot, any hiking I was going to do I’d have to do alone, so I paid close attention.

One afternoon, I began a short hike to a waterfall. In less than fifty yards, I came to a sign reporting bears in the area. A little farther on, I came to a second posted alert. Perhaps, I thought, the prudent course would be to heed these warnings. I hesitated momentarily and then turned around. As I retraced my steps, I got a glimpse through the trees and down the mountain at the trail I would have taken. Hiking together in pairs and trios were several other people. Certainly, they were making enough noise to intimidate any bear. I could have done the hike and seen the falls if I hadn’t been worried about the bear that might have been in the bushes.

The Water is Really Low on The North Branch

On the other hand…if there had been a bear…I’m pretty sure I’d have been the tasty morsel who couldn’t outrun the other hikers. Realizing how temptingly delicious I’d have been…maybe I made the right decision. Then again? Bottom line…I missed the view.

Was I letting the may-be-bear get in the way of my Vermont decision?

“Often any decision, even the wrong decision, is better than no decision.”

Ben Horowitz

“You do seem to perseverate on things, you know”, my sister said. “No kidding, I thought, but it was clear that it was time for me to get out the map or put the suitcase back in the closet.

OK…I’d make the trip.

Suddenly There Was Crimson

I began the preparations needed to comply with the requirements for travelers to Vermont. If I drove my own vehicle…stopping only for gas, food, to use the restroom, and short rest breaks… I could quarantine for two weeks in my own home as opposed to two weeks in isolation after arrival by plane. I rearranged appointments and reluctantly canceled all opportunities involving possible human contact and began to psych myself up for the drive.

The route through Canada is very familiar having done it innumerable times …easy peasy…but due to the high number of infections in the US, the Canadians aren’t allowing Americans in…not even to simply transit through. I know. I called. I wanted to say that I’m Justin Trudeau’s cousin…10th cousin, twice removed…but I doubted the no-nonsense woman at the other end would have been impressed. I’d just have to go south to go north.

With These Green Hills, the Vermont State Song, playing on a loop in my head, I left my house at 2:30 a.m. to avoid major construction near Toledo and to miss morning traffic around Cleveland and Buffalo, besides I like driving on the highway in the dark, and frankly, once I made the decision to go, I was like a horse heading for the barn. I couldn’t wait.

These Green Mountains…The State Song of Vermont

Crossing the Crown Point Bridge into Vermont I felt a surge of emotions that I cannot adequately describe or define. After just fifteen hours I had arrived once again in my spirit’s home. These green hills and silver waters will always be my home wherever I live, but it was the people of this ‘brave little state’ that were pulling me back. My children, grandchildren, and so many dear friends live within her borders. It made me sad to think that COVID would keep me from most of my friends and my proximity to their unsharable hugs was painful, but I would cherish the memories of the ‘before time’ and look forward to when we would be together again in the ‘after time’.

Vermont is a glorious place, but…along with moose, woodchuck, and beaver…Vermont has bears.

Along the Path

Many years ago, Dave and I were in Alaska where we hiked in Denali National Park. Granted we only did laps in the parking lot of the Visitor Center, but…hey…I’m counting it. During our laps, we became aware of for-real-hikers who were checking-in at the ranger station to document that they were setting off on an adventure or to report that they were safely returning. It was easy to recognize these people by the bear bells around their ankles and cans of bear spray hanging from their belts or backpacks. Whether the bells actually work is disputed, but those hikers were doing all they could to be ready to discourage any bears that they might encounter. The bells, the spray, and the bear-sighting board at the registration counter provided the hikers the information they needed to weigh the risks and prepared them for the hike.

The level of risk regarding COVID in Vermont is very low. Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that Vermont could serve a model for the country, but reminded Vermonters to keep vigilant. Vermonters listened.

Showing Our Love By Wearing Masks

During my brief stay, everyone I saw was wearing a mask or social distancing outside. Small children, old men, high school soccer players…everyone, without exception…was masked-up. On hiking trails, people wore masks or signaled to those approaching that they would move a reasonable distance off the trails to keep each other safe. The few stores I entered had sanitation stations set up just inside their doors. The number of shoppers was limited and enforced. I’m sure there are maskless Vermonters, but I didn’t see any. It appeared to be…as I expected…a matter of course that we’d all wear masks; we’d all take care of each other. I was warmed by the deep sense of connection I had with all those…strangers…who were wearing masks to help keep me safe. Vermont isn’t actually Utopia. It has its faults, but I certainly felt as if I’d seen The Promised Land. A glimpse of life as it once was…the possibility of what it could be.

The compassionate mask-wearing and rule-following nameless Vermonters allowed me to be with my family and others I loved after being isolated for months. I knew, that I’d have to preserve the blessings of the simple pleasures I was enjoying, remembering and holding them in my heart, keeping them ready to sustain me through the coming months ahead so I paid close attention to the way my grandson’s tiny hand fit into mine and the weight of my granddaughter’s head on my shoulder and the smell of her hair. I memorized the way it felt to share a smile and a laugh with my daughter and the warmth of my son’s skin through his shirt as we shared a single quick hug. I delighted in the opportunity to ride in my little car…masks on and windows slightly open…as my teenaged granddaughter learned to drive. I recorded upon my heart the voices of my family and the few friends within my small COVID restricted circle. I bottled the joy, contentment, and renewal of this adventure keeping it ready to add to my cocoa…or…wine…and sip slowly on a cold winter night.

I know that somewhere a bear still lumbers among the trees and bushes…but…maybe he’s simply munching berries or settling in for a long winter nap.