If your husband has just died and if you are anything like me, which I hope you are not, this is how you “celebrate” your sixth wedding anniversary.
PHOTO: Walking toward the light. Our wedding in Alpirsbach, Germany, six years ago.
You start the day by opening your eyes, struck once again with searing grief at the realization that your husband is gone. Gone as in no longer a resident of Planet Earth. Gone as in deceased. Deceased. Deceased is the word the Medical Examiner used when he called you and told you that you were listed as the emergency contact for a Marcus Iken. He used the article – “a” – as if your husband was an object. A car. A watch. A book. A husband. A deceased husband. “Your husband is deceased,” he said, his voice deep and gravelly like a military officer. These are the words from The Phone Call you wished had never come, The Phone Call that you makes you wish you could turn the clock back a few years, a few months, even just a few hours. The Phone Call is what you remember each morning you open your eyes to reality. Harsh, painful reality. Reality that you are alone, that you don’t want to be alone, that you want to wake up next to the man you married, the man you loved, the man you still love, the man you would sell your soul to have back in your life, back in your bed. You want to close your eyes again, but you cannot. You cannot sleep even though you wish you could sleep forever, sleep and never wake up again.
You have two dogs that need to go out so you have to get up. You put on your husband’s bathrobe, the red plaid one that still holds a bit of his scent, the one you sleep with every night like a security blanket, pressed up to your nose, your faced buried in the cotton, your tears soaking it. You wrap his robe tightly around you, as if to wrap yourself in your husband’s body, his strong, manly embrace, the embrace that comforted you, made you feel safe, so many times. When he was alive. You open the door for the dogs, holding your hand over your eyes to ward off the blinding bright morning sun.
You say to your husband who is not there, “Good morning, my love. Can I make you a latte and toast with Nutella?” And you do. You make coffee and toast for both of you. And then you remind yourself, “You know, if you keep pretending Marcus is here with you, you will need to see a psychiatrist.” You don’t care. You need to keep talking to him. You need to believe he is with you in your desert cabin. You need to make him his favorite breakfast on your anniversary.
You’ve lost 15 pounds from the stress of losing your husband, your best friend, your confidante, your soulmate, so you figure you should just eat his Nutella bread and you drink his coffee, you need the calories.
After breakfast you take a shower. You use the Verbena soap you bought for him at Whole Foods, which you found when sorting through his belongings, it was still in the little sack on which you had written “Enjoy,” which makes you remember the day when you gave it to him, when he took an afternoon bath that you ran for him in your Venice apartment. The soap reminds you of just how much he left behind, how much he had been looking forward to, how instantly he vanished. You start crying. Not just crying but sobbing. Deep guttural sobs. You drop into a heap on the shower floor. You are crying so hard you sound like something primeval. Like an animal. Like a cow that has been hit by a car and is laying in the middle of the road moaning in pain from the impact, wishing someone, anyone, would come by and shoot it, put it out of its misery, end its despair. You are that cow, injured and broken, moaning with pain, writhing from despair. Strange sounds emit from your body, wailings that define the brokenness of your heart. Loud, desperate cries that you hope the neighbors can’t hear. If they hear you they will know how bad off you are, they will not let you be alone. You lay there in the fetal position for an hour, water streaming onto your body. Your back heaves up and down with each sob, each gasp for air. Somewhere inside you are aware that you live in a desert and that you really should be more conscious about saving water. But you tell yourself, “If a long shower is what will keep me from driving my car off a cliff into the Rio Grande, then let the water run.” The water runs and runs, as hot and steady and constant as your tears.
You’ve become an expert at crying. You have sobbed hard like this every day for 33 days now. You are used to looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing puffy eyes. Permanent puffy eyes. You don’t care. You don’t care about much. You don’t bother to brush your teeth. You don’t shave your legs. You never put on makeup or lipstick, not even lip balm on your dry, cracked lips. You don’t care that your jeans are two sizes too big from losing all that weight, uninterested in food, uninterested in life, unable to eat, unable to swallow with grief living like a rock wedged in your throat.
The phone rings so you raise yourself off the ground, slowly. You turn off the shower and crawl to the phone which sits on the bathroom cabinet. It is not The Phone Call. It is Melissa, your best friend in LA, the only person who seems to be able to rub any salve on your shattered soul. She hears your voice and KNOWS. She knows you need help. “Come home,” she says. “I will give you my bed. I will take you swimming in the ocean and walk with you on the beach. We will find you a place to live in Malibu so you can still be in nature. You need to come home.”
You say, “Okay. That’s a good idea. But first I’m going to check out Austin for a few days, as long as I am still in Texas.” You dry your tears, blow your nose, and pack up your Mini Cooper, setting off a day early on your road trip. You know that driving is better for you, safer for you, than staying home alone in your quiet little house with sharp knives too close at hand. Leaving today gives you a destination, a purpose, a chance to find greener grass.
You load up the dogs – “Team Terrier” you call them – into the car and drive through Big Bend National Park
. You choose this route even though it will add two hours’ driving time and cost you a $20 entrance fee, because you have been meaning to do this for several months and you still have not done it and your husband’s passing has shown you, you cannot wait. “Do it now!” you hear him telling you. “
Don’t wait another day!”
You recognize the friendly face working at the national park entrance booth. It’s Blue from your yoga class. You can tell from the way she looks at you with sympathetic blue eyes she knows about your husband. “You heard about my husband, didn’t you?” you ask her. She nods with compassion. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” she says. “I need to get out of town,” you tell her. She nods. “I understand,” she says as she runs your credit card through her machine.
You drive through the park, looking at the scenery but not really seeing it. The park feels so big, so empty. You cannot wait to get out of its confines, its wilderness only magnifying your loneliness. Once you exit the other end you drive into a half blue, half gray sky. It is a cloud burst. “That’s Marcus,” you say. “He is expressing himself. He’s mad that he was yanked away so soon.” You understand. You would be mad too. You are mad. You are angry with how life works, how unfair it is, how you can’t control things. You continue driving east and soon you see a rainbow. “It’s Marcus again,” you note. You drive toward the rainbow, thinking you are getting closer, but the closer you get the more it eludes you.
PHOTO: Chasing, but not catching, Marcus. Heading east on Highway 90, Texas.
“Oh yes, that’s just like Marcus,” you say of its unattainable-ness. You drive for more than an hour into the rainbow, its colors growing more intense, deeper, richer, stronger. You think you can finally touch the rainbow, that you’ve nearly arrived at its pot of gold, that Marcus will be there waiting….until the rainbow gives way to a thunderstorm. The rain begins to pelt the roof of your car, gradually at first, but soon becoming stronger. The noise grows as the drops come down bigger and faster. “That’s Marcus,” you explain to the dogs who are wondering why it has become so loud inside the car. You keep driving, driving straight into the middle of the storm cell. The storm grows, the wind intensifies, lighting strikes in bolts straight to the ground, thunder rattles the earth. The rain falls so hard you can barely see the road. You hold tight onto your steering wheel to keep your little car, yourself and your dogs from blowing off the highway.
“What are you trying to tell me, Marcus?” you ask. “What is it you are trying to say?” You cannot make out his message — you don’t understand how or why the lure of his heavenly rainbow has led you into this stormy hell. But you don’t have time to dwell on this theme as you are running out of gas, so in spite of the dangerous conditions, you keep driving in hopes of reaching Langtry
, the tiny town on the map, the one where Judge Roy Bean held his court.
You put on your hazards and move at 40 mph and finally hobble into the filling station, the one with the lone pump, a pump that doesn’t take credit cards. You discover the gas station is closed and will not open until 8AM — the next day. You realize you will have to wait out the storm and also wait for the gas station to open in the morning and you wonder how your sixth anniversary came to this. You were heading to the campground at Amistad Reservoir
, the place where you spent three blissful days camping with your husband only nine months earlier. You were going to drink an anniversary toast to him in this special spot.
PHOTO: Our special camp spot. Amistad Reservoir, Del Rio, TX, Dec. 2008.
Now you are going to sleep in the back of your Mini Cooper, curled up in a tight ball with your knees jammed against the door. You are sobbing yet again. “What are you trying to tell me, Marcus?” you ask for the tenth time as you lay there in a new form of misery, lightning striking all around, rain pelting your car. “Are you telling me to slow down, to stop being so impetuous?” You admit you left in a bit of a hurry, panicked by touching the depths of your grief, needing to run away from yourself. You acknowledge that he was a helpful anchor to you, like a necessary, stabilizing tether to your hot air balloon which constantly threatens to float away without warning. “You cannot get away from yourself,” he seems to be telling you. “You need to stay still and I am going to make sure you do.” That he had to create a tempest to get you to stop and listen is not lost on you.
Still unclear about his message, you sit in your car until the storm passes. The stars appear in what is now a deep black night sky. You open the car’s sunroof, staring at the stars and talking to Marcus, until you fall asleep. You wake up to the sound of a truck engine roaring next to your window. You look up and there is a large, handsome black man with a gun strapped to his belt. Your mind wonders what kind of danger you are in until you see he is a Border Patrolman. He asks you why you are parked at this gas station at 2:00 AM and after you explain – minus the part about your husband and his elemental messages – he escorts you to the next town where there is a 24-hour gas pump. You make it there, touched by this officer’s kindness, fill up with premium, and drive until you find a Motel 6, because Motel 6allows dogs.
It is 3:30 AM when you settle into your room. Finally, you pour yourself a small glass of sake, from the expensive bottle Marcus bought at Whole Foods, the same store where he discovered the soap that you bought him. You couldn’t possibly have known how much this bottle would come to mean to you, but you somehow had the foresight to bring it with you from LA to Texas. At last, after surviving the storm, surviving yourself, you raise your glass and say, “Love of my life, Happy Anniversary.”
You shut your eyes and pray that when you open them in the morning you will have a little less pain, a little more will to keep living. That you will keep remembering the man you love, and to keep appreciating what time you did have together, even if that time was cut short. You vow that you will keep celebrating what you had with him and what you still have without him. “Whatever else you want to tell me, Marcus,” you say, “I am here. I am listening.” And with that, you fall into a deep sleep. Wrapped in your husband’s bathrobe. With his scent. With him.