BLESSING

“Earl had a good death,” I said to Bonny on the phone one evening. “That’s one of the things that makes it easier for me to accept. He died the way he would have wanted to.” “He died the way we all want to!” she exclaimed. “He used to say,” his sister had commented, “that before he’d waste away from cancer or lose his mind to Alzheimer’s, he’d drive his car off a cliff.”

Earl had been trying for years to get me to learn to drive a stick-shift. I knew he was worried something might happen to him behind the wheel—a heart attack or stroke—and he wanted me to be able to take over. His death finally brought home to me how immanent a danger this was, crowding my mind with alternative even worse case scenarios. Rather than dying in his sleep, he could have died behind the wheel with me in the passenger seat, in which case I might be dead, too. If he’d survived a crash and I didn’t, he might have felt overwhelmed with guilt. If he’d had a fatal heart attack on some trail, trying to keep up with me, I would have wound up the guilt-ridden one. Or if he’d had a heart attack or stroke he could have recovered from if I’d been able to get help fast enough, but, unable to drive his truck or MG, I couldn’t—I would never have been able to forgive myself.

As much as I miss him, I’m coming to understand that it was a blessing for both of us that he died the way he did.

IRIS

Driving back from Earl’s house the other night, I saw radiant cumulous clouds towering above the Berkeley hills, so staggeringly lofty they took my breath away. “Oh, Earl,” I thought, “If only you could see this!”

                                                                             …

In my bereavement group that evening, I tracked my feelings with crayons—coloring a yellow patch of light in the middle of my paper for that moment of elation. Then the darkness of loss circumscribing it—I found myself ferociously circling that narrowing bright patch with a black crayon, hardly able to stop, feeling like the pain of Earl’s death would never let up but would remain with me for the rest of my life. Then I was scribbling blood, red crayon zigzagging—splattering and pooling everywhere—obliterating everything else, I was so angry at the fact of mortality. And finally, a philosophic impulse, green sprouting from a pool of blood, a flower blooming—out of death, birth, the beginning of a new cycle.

                                                                              …

Today felt, though it’s still January, like the first day of spring. The calla lilies were just starting to bloom in my neighbors’ gardens as I drove home from my doctor’s appointment, and, along a curb, I saw my first iris of the New Millenium.

BELATED GIFTS

I’m now in two bereavement groups, sponsored by different organizations. When I told the psychologist doing the intake interview for the second group that I was thinking of taking the two simultaneously, he said, “Oh, no! You can take them sequentially but not together—that would be too intense. No, I don’t think the leaders would permit it.” I went home furious at him for thinking, like so many of his ilk, that he knew better than I did what I could and couldn’t handle—and at myself for my misplaced candor. I was supposed to call him the next morning to let him know which group I’d settled on. Instead I left a quietly emphatic message that after careful consideration, I was quite clear that I wanted to take them both concurrently. When I found out a day or two later that, coincidentally, my friend Betsy was going to be in the second group, it felt like fate.

My first group was lead by Birgitte, a pretty blond with a gentle voice and a Scandinavian accent. She’d had a stroke, limped, and couldn’t use her left hand. We met in a slightly depressing little room in the Bethlehem Parish House, sat on metal folding chairs, and helped ourselves to teabags and hot water from a thermos with a spout at the center of our circle. Birgitte led us through brief meditations, read inspirational poems and quotes, and had us do a little art and writing therapy (when we had to write a letter to our deceased loved one, we were all in tears by the end of the exercise). Everyone in the group had lost a parent, except me—some had even nursed them through terminal illnesses.

My second group met in a cozy therapist’s office in a handsome old residence near Lake Merritt, sat more comfortably on love seats or director’s chairs, brought in photos and mementos that we placed on an altar, and did half-hour memorial presentations of the loved ones we’d lost. We had two leaders—Chris, whose office it was, and John, who was so tender-hearted he often teared up over our stories. In that group, too, everybody but me had lost a parent—actually, in one case it was a parent-in-law and other relatives in a car accident.

One evening I brought two photos of Earl in silver frames to my second group. I’d finally finished some unfinished business, I said. Then I explained how on Christmas Eve I’d promised myself to buy Earl two beautiful frames as belated Christmas presents. Since his death, I’d been scouring photography and gift shops. “These are the frames I would have given Earl if he’d lived,” I said, placing them on the altar. In one picture he was bearded, in his red shirt and red suspenders, pouring himself a glass of wine under the boughs of a tree. In the other he was clean-shaven, in sunglasses and a windbreaker, a snapshot I’d taken of him up on Grizzly Peak Boulevard when we’d stopped to look at a sweeping view of Oakland, the bay dazzling in the late afternoon light. Then I told them about the astonishing symbolism that I recognized later of the gifts I had given him—two pet dishes with angel cats and two photographs of a sunset, the second capturing the last brief moments of light.

REMINDERS

Everything reminds me of Earl—my beat-up old Reeboks, still scuffed from our last trip to the beach; my threadbare black jeans, the only pair that still fits me, which finally split irreparably in the seat while I was prying myself out of the MG. His Christmas gifts to me, The Art of Maurice Sendak and Lighthouses, which have become our coffee table books.

                                                                         …

Tuesday, I dropped by Earl’s house to take pictures of the paintings on his walls.

“Doesn’t it feel really weird to be in here,” Pippa asked me, “in Earl’s inner sanctum?” I was searching around his bedroom for the album I gave him for his birthday. His family had said they couldn’t find it—but there it was, still in its box, in the middle of his desk. To one side in a cigar box were the pictures I took on our outings—except for the sunset card. It didn’t feel weird, I realized, because his bedroom didn’t remind me of him—I’d never been in it, except when his sister was sorting through his things and showed me a shopping bag full of sixty-one pairs of socks. “That’s the side of the bed I found him on,” Pippa said, “where you’re sitting now.” A part of me wished I’d found him then, cold and still, to help me know—really know—that he was gone.