This past spring, as I moved closer to the date that would have been my husband, Jim’s, 65th birthday — and four days later, the anniversary of his death — the calendar was filled with land mines. I never knew when I might step on one.
There is a phenomenon that occurs in the life of a grieving person approaching the anniversary of her greatest loss. Trauma and pain have imprinted themselves, real as a tattoo. Every day begins with the knowledge of where you and the person you loved were at the same time last year: What flowers were in bloom; what song was playing on the radio; what was going on in the election whose outcome he came to recognize he’d never know.
It goes beyond conscious thought to sensory memory and you can’t predict what might summon it: a guitar riff, the smell of a hospital waiting room, the angle of the sun coming in the window beside the bed.
Triggers are everywhere. One day a few months ago, visiting my neighbors’ garden, my eye fell on blackberries coming ripe, and there it was: last year’s berry season and the little Tupperware container of homemade blackberry ice cream they brought over for Jim. That was the last food he managed to enjoy before the act of eating — like so much else (practicing law, playing his bass, railing against the Republicans, dancing with me and, finally, speech) — fell away from his world.
The first week in May, a little over a year ago and six weeks before he died Jim and I drove to the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierras, a place he’d been going to all his life. He’d always wanted to take me there. He brought along his camera and tripod and the gun he’d used for target shooting. He was in such pain that I wasn’t sure he could still make it to the particular patch of desert outside Lone Pine that his father used to take him to as a boy, a place he’d brought his own kids when they were young. But he made his way over the dry desert earth, and when he fired the gun, he hit the target square in the middle, three times in a row.
Three times a day we pulled over by the side of the road and set up an IV pole. We sat there in the shadow of Mt. Whitney one morning, and later, for that afternoon’s antibiotic infusion, overlooking the vast expanse of Mono Lake, as the drugs meant to keep the infection in Jim’s liver at bay coursed into his body. His arm was as thin as a child’s by this point, but back at the Dow Villa Motel that night he still did his push-ups. Two of them.
This is what the Eastern Sierras conjure for me now: Walking the dusty path at the internment camp of Manzanar with a beloved man who looked, himself, like a prisoner of war. That’s where I was last May, and I returned this May, though only in my mind.
I hear “Sympathy for the Devil” and the picture comes to me of the Memorial Day weekend when Jim was playing that song with the guys in his band. He got through the last “woo woo woo woo,” then set down his bass. “I need to go home now,” he said. He’d been playing bass since age 14. That was the last time.
This is how it works when you live in the land of the survivors, but have visited — with your favorite travel companion — the territory of the dying.
The last month that still held images of Jim — Jim still breathing — was June. Now came the Bob Dylan concert we’d bought tickets for six months earlier — back when so much still seemed possible. As the date of the show approached, it seemed unimaginable that we’d attend, but Jim wanted to see Bob Dylan. More accurately, he wanted to take me to see Bob Dylan at an outdoor amphitheater 10 miles from our house.
More than once that night, I thought Jim might die at that concert. But he wanted to stay to the end, and when Dylan sang one particular song he loved, Jim even stood up from his wheelchair. His words as we reached the parking lot after the show — “Did you have a good time, Baby?” — were among the last he ever spoke to me. Do I need to say what happens now when I hear Bob Dylan singing “Tangled Up in Blue”?
I live alone these days, but I keep the hat Jim wore that night on a newel post at the house we shared. I’m getting on with my life. My husband has been released from pain, and I’m released from the pain of seeing him go through it. No more anniversaries to mark. That carries its own brand of sorrow.
It goes like this: There was this person you loved. All those months you spent taking care of him, it was almost as if the two of you were one. His body contained the disease, but the pain consumed you both. You were off in the North Atlantic somewhere, stranded on an iceberg, and though it was brutally cold in that place, and every single thing about being there was hard, you were together on your iceberg. There was hardly one thing that took place there that you did not share.
Then your iceberg broke in two. You floated off in one direction, he in another. And though the place you ended up is a warmer one, with sailboats passing by — their bright flags fluttering in the breeze, and friendly people waving and calling out to you — your fellow traveler has disappeared. His iceberg melted away with him on it. New things are happening now that you experience and he does not. (Some wonderful. Some awful. What would Jim have thought about the election of Donald Trump? That would have killed him, I said to a friend, the morning after. If he wasn’t already dead.)
Maybe this is what people mean when they say, “Life goes on.” This is the good news and the terrible.
I’m into the second year now. Our story will have no new chapters.
And I’m left with this: That everything we had and everything that happened remains. But a grieving person cannot make her life on memories. All that’s left to do, for the one still standing, is to put that book on the shelf. And carry its lessons wherever life takes her.