Coming home after work in late November, I hear the sounds of children laughing and look down from the BART station at the playground of St. Leander’s School. Children are running around, playing kickball, and delighting in life.
My wife Evelyn tutored at the school after hours for several years as her health slowly improved after a year spent in bed exhausted by Candida, then she was hired to work full-time. But it proved to be too much too soon in her recovery, and she ran out of energy after a few weeks. She had to resign and was crushed. Searching for what she could do, Ev was setting up an educational consulting business at home to assist parents and students when she died in her forties of an unknown heart problem.
When I get home, I find a white rose on my porch in a Sierra Nevada “Celebration Ale” bottle. The center of the rose is pink and has a delicious smell. I look around hoping that the rest of the six-pack is part of the gift, but find nothing. The “Celebration” label seems deliberate, but what do I have to celebrate? Evelyn died seven months ago and I am not happy. The Carlsons call later to say that they left the rose as a token of gratitude for Evelyn helping their children care about learning again. The rose had been Ev’s favorite in their yard.
In the morning, it’s Thanksgiving. I try to find something to be thankful for, even something tiny, because at the gathering of my wife’s family, Evelyn’s sister Barb is going to ask her traditional question, thinking that everyone should be thankful for something. It is going to be hard for any of us to celebrate this holiday.
I am grateful that Evelyn was in my life, although grief won’t let me celebrate that yet. I am grateful for friends like the Carlsons who have kept in touch over the months, inviting me over for coffee, encouraging me to share how I’m doing, and sending cards to remind me that I am still part of their lives.
I pick up Evelyn’s mother, Marjorie, in Oakland and we drive to Fremont where the family is gathering. The table is decorated with death — pomegranates, dried Indian corn in their shocks, cut mauve and yellow flowers, and hollow gourds. On Thanksgiving we feast on the dead.
Our gratitude for the season’s harvest is dampened by the one who is not here this year, the one whose presence made each of us feel better. After the main part of dinner is over, and before the four kinds of pie are brought out, sister-in-law Beth asks how I’m doing. As if connected by a string, all the heads at the table turn toward me, anxious to hear what I’ll say.
I haven’t shared much with them over the months, and today everyone is being careful. Barb has been going to a women’s support group and kept the family informed of how she’s doing, but I’m like Marjorie and not effervescent with my emotions. I can see that her protective shell has cracked and she is showing despair at having to bury her youngest child. Her husband died a few years ago with dementia, and on the drive here, she asked me why she wasn’t the one to die, because she’s had a full life and her physical ailments are increasing.
The next night after work, as dusk falls over the bay, rather than go home, I hike up Euclid Avenue into the fog pushing across the bay and into the Berkeley hills. I hike beyond Grizzly Peak Boulevard shrouded in low clouds and night, walking from one unknown road to the next. When the streetlights end, I walk into the darkness, feeling the way with my feet. When paved streets become gravel, I think about Orpheus entering the underworld. If given the chance, would I try to bring my wife back, or would I choose to stay there with my dead?
At the entrance to what I think is Wildcat Canyon, I listen for the sounds of mountain lions moving about, even though I no longer care what happens. Feeling thankful for the darkness that surrounds me, darkness that accepts my sorrow and loneliness, I hike to the top of the ridge. The fog has not made it up this high and here the night air is clear. And spread out before me is the valley, its rolling hills illuminated by a crescent moon and a heaven of scattered stars.
Thank you for this essay. Opening before Doug and I is the first Thanksgiving without his mother present with us in body. She died just two weeks back and memorial is still before us in Thanksgiving week.
I was comforted by the real nature of this writing. This is not our first walk with grief, yet every one is different and everyone redefines us.
Appreciate your work from across the years and miles. cmw
Thank you, Cathy. You are right that each grief is different, and that they each affect us in profound way. I follow your work and Doug’s on Facebook, and know how demanding pastoral care can be. My thoughts will be with you during Thanksgiving week.
First, I am struck by your unflinching observation that, at Thanksgiving, we feast on the dead. I remember the first Thanksgiving without my husband Vic. I wanted to hide from the celebratory gathering at my brother’s home and left early. Play charades? Not a chance.
Then there is your reference to Orpheus, a myth that taught me so much when Vic was dying. Orpheus looks back because he’s half-human; he can’t stop himself from reflecting and looking for what he’s lost. Like Orpheus, you and I had to return to life to sing and share our beautiful laments.
And finally, your turn to nature and the heavens for peace. I left that first Thanksgiving celebration, walked out into the night, looked up at the stars, and took a deep breath.
Thank you for this beautiful piece. The laments of Orpheus soothed everyone who heard them.
Thank you, Elaine, for your kind words. Yes, like Orpheus, we had to return to this world to sing our laments, of sorrow and gratitude and even joy. I hope that some of mine are beautiful enough to do justice to Ev.