In Keeping

standard | Published on November 28, 2016 by Michelle Wirth

When my wife died of lung cancer, poems landed around me in the ruins like ashes after a forest fire.

Raymond Carver’s last book, A New Path to the Waterfall, was rested gently against my door.

He died of lung cancer, too.

Her downturn was so sudden there were ways in which we never got to say goodbye, ways in which we never said, “thank you.” We broke a thousand times and I cared for the pieces while my wife as I knew her was gone to me and I fell in love with her again, again and again.

I wanted to trade my life for hers. I failed. I never quit.

I am the adult who wanted to care for her out of love for her and the child who wanted to get it right so she would never leave me, get grief right so she would come back.

She lived her life according to her values, investing deeply in relationships in which she gave hundreds of people her undivided attention one massage appointment, one park walk, one art date, one phone call at a time, over decades. Her last chemo treatment was the beginning of the end. Nothing meant more to her than connecting with these people. Housebound in a western Pennsylvania winter. Neuropathic pain, cold-induced nausea, medicine induced hallucinations, a body that turned night into day and day into night. We put a visitation calendar where her massage appointment schedule used to be, and filled the book with appointments to visit.

One day she woke to find a friend in her room, and she came out to find me to complain about how weird it was to wake up to someone staring at her.

One morning she woke in the early dark, the house empty, and she wailed, “I need something to feed my heart.”

Friends come, and she is awake, and when they join her in our bed she relaxes into their presence and falls asleep.

She switches back and forth between our marriage bed, and the bed she had set up in her favorite room in the house, the room in which she used to practice massage. When hospice sent the bed to the house, she had them put it in the massage room and she renamed it the day room. She loved to work while she watched the western light pour in through the window and blush across the wall as the sun set.

On the winter night she began to die, I hurried to text the friends who weren’t there, but could be. I missed one. I’m sorry. She died in her favorite room, filled with family and friends. I can’t go after her. I’m here in the ruins of the last gathering we hosted together. I was true to my word, in spirit and in keeping. I failed without quitting. I have this going forward, and I shine this as a beacon into the ethers, into the void. She is not coming back.

I remember one beautiful summer morning years before, in Georgetown, as we walked in warm sunshine to have brunch at Cafe Napoleon. She said she thought I would lose her possibly another way, to Alzheimer’s. She thought she would lose me, failing to see me in plain sight. She said the only thing that stood in the way of her ending her own life in this event is that first she would want to say goodbye to me, but if she said goodbye to me then she knew I would stand in her way, but she couldn’t leave me without saying goodbye. So we stood in glorious sunshine on the sidewalk of Georgetown, stood facing one another, looked each other in the eyes. We said, “I love you.” We said, “Thank you.” We said goodbye. We held each other tightly there on the sidewalk in glorious sunshine. We kissed. We walked to brunch.

“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”

Raymond Carver, A New Path to the Waterfall

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