“What can you ever really know of other people’s souls—of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know, and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands.”
— C. S. Lewis
To grieve one death is always to grieve two. Impolite to admit, we weep mostly for ourselves.
Even as I lay in bed that Friday morning, knowing that David was dying, wondering if he had passed in my sleep, and waiting for the phone to ring, it was my own hands that I considered.
Petting one of my cats stretched heavy on my belly, I watched my left hand as if it were a separate animal, studied the dry finely lined skin, the blue ridges of ropy veins. My hands grow older with each reaching, I thought. My hands enter the world, the future ahead of me. I imagined the bone buried in each finger, my wedding band slipping into the sheets but for the thickness of that temporary, flawed skin, the tiny tunnels of blood. These hands will die.
The phone rang then. In reaching for it, I began to cry, pulled toward two endings I wanted to deny.
I listened, processed each sentence. It happened before dawn, around 6:45. The horizon lit, but no risen sun. A room full of family and Pastor Linda gathered around him. A protective moat. He’d been unconscious a long time, but hands kept touching him. He seemed to know he wasn’t alone. Ah, skin tells skin. Cells can know. People were talking to him, just in case, voices in conversation, then prayer. His body became a cave of sound, his leaving a spray of wings, swifts or swallows wanting out.
I fell back into my pillow. Both cats walked on me, over hipbones to clavicle, paws kneading my ribs. One yowled for breakfast, the other purred, such a politician. Then they curled between my knees, ankles. Eyes closed, I listened to their fast cat breathing, conjuring the details of David’s face, his voice, his hands. His hands were the easiest, always fussing with something—cigarette, tee-shirt hem, cat hair or dog hair plucked from the upholstered arm of a chair—his fingers short, plump, a little awkward.
Wonderful how the mind can re-play reality. I could hear his voice, the exact way he spoke my name, and the childlike, high-pitched timbre that took over after a few glasses of beer or wine.
Ironically, his face was harder to bring into focus. He’d lost most of his hair by the time I met him, so shiny head is what first came to mind. The idea of David’s face, then slowly, an image. Full, round cheeks flowed down into a thick neck. A bit of grey-brown turf scratched around his mouth unless he needed to shave. Dime-store reading glasses sat on his head. Thin, pale lips tended to smile, so while he had few wrinkles, there was that creasing at the edges of his eyes. Eyebrows had long faded. For a while, he’d worn a stud with glassy stone, and I tried to imagine a puncture in the fleshy earlobe.
When I thought of his eyes, I panicked. Were they brown or blue? Green, hazel? How can I not know the color of his eyes? The eyes are who we talk to, how we see into another person. How can I not see the color of his eyes? I opened my own eyes, leaped from bed, and thumped through the house, room to room, on the hardwood floors, the cats hunched under the dining room table, blinking at my harried movements.
They’re blue, I’m sure they’re blue. I opened dresser drawers, kitchen drawers, bathroom drawers, the shallow drawer in the wine rack, the nearly jammed drawer by the computer, the cat food drawer, Why am I looking here? I rattled contents, muttered, felt stupid and self-absorbed, swore that I wasn’t stupid and self-absorbed. No they’re definitely brown, yes, brown. I needed a photo of David. Actually, they’re more hazel, aren’t they? Hazel. Has to be hazel.
I slumped in a chair, sobbed, gradually noticing the ocean, another sort of breath in the room. The surf must be high this morning. As if one long, relentless exhalation, the ocean’s churning found me through five miles of redwoods and ridges, then the double-paned windows.
Calm. Awareness is its own tide rising. When I looked up, the room a little murky through tears, there he was. David and his wife Suzy, my step-daughter, looked at me from the counter by the phone, grinning—the Christmas photos that never got put in an album. David, you have brown eyes! Had brown eyes. I’m sorry I couldn’t remember your eyes. I do now, I do now.
David turned 61 just three days earlier. There was no way to offer a ‘happy birthday.’ As for a gift, it must have been the PICC line and the graceful drip of morphine and saline. Morphine and sailing.
When he first arrived at the hospital 10 days earlier, everyone thought pneumonia, but surprise, David’s lung on the x-ray was a grey purse with one large coin. No joke to say we all knew his life was spent. The cancer was thriving elsewhere. There was pain, as I suppose there should be when one is literally being eaten alive by cancer. Did he know it was his birthday? Being a renewed Christian, David might say that his birthday fell not on Tuesday but on that Friday morning, waking into another kind of light. Maybe.
I’ve been travelling on business the last five days, and David has been with me—out of the long shadows of redwood-covered mountains, into the open rolling terrain of Mendocino’s Valley oaks, then the vineyards, and finally the slow shuffle of Bay Area traffic.
The world, wherever I looked, was unexpectedly beautiful. I drove though miles of what first struck me as bright flames—the various types of grape vines, their leaves, letting loose their wild colors, one at a time, all at the same time. Vineyards in November light, braided fire burning out of valleys and up the sides of hills.
Galileo said, “wine is light, held together by water.” So are people. In the surreal yellows, oranges, magentas of the vineyards is where I felt David with me the most. He’d worked for Korbel Winery for years, met Suzy, the owner’s niece, married her in view of waiting winter vines, putting in long hours for years during ‘the crush.’ This is David’s braided fire burning out of valleys and up the sides of hills. Lovely, thank you.
The landscape hummed and I hummed, because I remembered that I could.
My grandmother used to say that deaths come in threes, and so it seems. First, Steve’s soft Molly dog, then David, then George’s mother in St. Louis—all in a few days. They come in threes. Whew, the rest of us are safe for awhile. But maybe that’s just looking for sense and order out of what can never be more, or less, than mystery and chaos.
The life force is fickle, a hand in a plush puppet. Look, it says, I am a dinosaur, now a lion roaring, a bald-headed baby, the orange koi in a bloom of algae, mouth gaping. I’m the lizard in leaves, ferns in the shadow of hemlock trees, a string of peas where there used to be petals. Here, taste the green sweetness. Oh, but keep looking awhile, now I’m leaving an empty glove in the compost pile.
David, you once told me a story that you’d fallen asleep at a neighbor’s house years ago. You’d stayed too long, you said, drank a little too much. When you woke, you were in your own bed, and when you lifted your hands to rub your eyes, discovered your palms were caked with dirt. Then you remembered dreaming of being a dog and wondered if you had crawled home through the row of foxgloves in the dark.
I have no idea why this story sprang into my head, but when I stopped by what used to be your home to offer a check, a little help with your cremation and memorial, I thought of you dreaming of yourself as a dog. It seemed a happy sort of dream.
When I arrived, it was twilight, and the ground near your front door was wet and disturbed. The porch light was on, dropping a yellow glow on the stoop. You were there. I pressed my hand into the mud, leaving just a trace of my visit. Then I opened and closed my hand a few times, gawking at the mud in my palm. I could see my lifeline cutting though the earthen stain.
Special thanks to Rev. Linda Robert of the Santa Rosa First Church of God and the congregation there who became a part of David’s life and supported his family so lovingly through his loss.