Deeper Lake Of Blue
by Mark Liebenow
I lay you down in the resting place.
As for me, I will let my hair grow matted,
put on a lion skin, and roam the steppe.
Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet VIII
Photo by Mark Liebenow
The morning after death, I look to Evelyn’s side of the bed and see nothing. I feel nothing. I haven’t forgotten what has happened; barely closed my eyes. I could have risen at 2:05, 3:27, or 5:13 a.m., according to the clock’s glowing red numbers. At eleven I finally get up, sit on the edge of the bed for a long time. Pull on a robe. Feed confused, hungry cats. The sun is up and looks warm, but the chill of death holds the stillness in. Evelyn’s dead.
Sitting on a stiff, wooden chair at the dining room table, I stare out the back window at the crepe myrtle tree. Light shimmers on its leaves in the breeze. Flickers. Goes out as the sun travels across the sky. Buff and Minya rub against my legs, lie down nearby when I do not move for hours.
Phone rings in the distance. Answering machine records muffled sadness. They hang up. My throat tightens and tears surge.
Leaving cold food on the table, I move to the recliner, stare at the blank TV. Watch sunlight fall down the wall, pull shadows across the forest green carpet we installed last year, withdraw through the back window. Grief repaints every wall in the house dark gray.
Did I eat anything today?
When it gets dark, the day dies beyond the mute trees and backyard shed, and night opens up black and fixed like Evelyn’s pupils, letting her light escape this world. When it gets dark, I light a thick, red candle on the mantel to celebrate Ev’s compassion. Pull a blanket around to keep the pressing cold away.
Dark. Wide open. Fixed. In the hospital I leaned over the edge of Evelyn’s eyes. They had depth, not the emptiness I expected. A path leading somewhere. Eyes wide open, her hunger for answers searching a far horizon. Eyes like the Helix Nebula, the “Eye of God” whose core is gone but whose great, last affirmation spun glowing epithelial rings into the cosmic expanse that fluoresces red, blue, and green. She is following an ancient god’s starred footprints through the origami of the unfolding universe. And night, dark, tender, transparent, pulls her light away from my incoherent shore.
In the morning an invisible, thick wall blocks the warmth of the sun. The world’s light continues to dim like a total eclipse moving in, like a theater production where another light is switched off in each successive scene until the stage is cloaked in shadows. The world is Hal, the computer in the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, rejecting the astronaut’s request to be let back into the warmth and safety of the spaceship: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
In Greek mythology, wanting to die with one’s mate was a noble ambition. It was the heroic code of honor, and I understand this in my guts because living without one’s mate is wrenching. I’ve known spouses who survived only a few weeks. My grandmother had been with grandpa for over sixty years and she lasted a year after his death, but she was a stubborn German American. The Hindu tradition of Sati takes this devotion a step further for a variety of reasons, some social, some financial. In it, the widow commits suicide on her husband’s funeral pyre. The thought enters my mind.
When I was growing up in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, Mrs. Michael lived in a tiny two-story house in the neighborhood. She was a widow and paid us a penny for each clamshell we found in the lake and brought to her. She said she used them to clean her coffee pot, but we wondered how much coffee she drank to need so many shells. Her husband left her the small house but no money. I don’t remember her grieving, just being sad and quiet. This was probably why she wanted us to visit. St. Xavier Catholic Church bought her land to build a parking lot, but let her stay for as long as she lived. Then she seemed tired all the time, sitting on the chair in her blue-print housecoat looking at something far away, preferring to stay inside in the dark instead of tending her flowers, the house increasingly in need of repair. One day she was gone, the house razed, and a parking lot paved with black asphalt and white lines.
I sit in the shadows like Mrs. Michael, reciting the litany of my dead as darkness closes in.
The same phrases penetrate the swirling chaos every five minutes like the blaring announcements at airport drop-off zones, and I’m unable to silence their words:
Evelyn has collapsed.
You’d better come quick.
I’m unable to think of anything other than death and the life that has been lost, unable to find a neutral place where I can breathe for a few minutes. Every show on TV revolves around relationships. Every song on the radio is about love, finding, keeping, or losing it, none of which I can bear to think about. When Paul McCartney sings, “The Long and Winding Road,” about being left behind, the crying begins again, and the phrases never stop.
Paramedics are working on her,
but I don’t know…
Hundreds of thoughts surface throughout the day that I want to share with Evelyn. Should we get a new skillet because the old non-stick pan is pitting? Should I stop by Duffy’s Ice Cream and pick up something for dessert? Thoughts jolt every time I realize that I can’t share them with her anymore. Coming out of one bout of crying, I think of something else and begin again. I knew that I’d cry if she ever died, but I didn’t think that it would be this much, this often, or this hard. We did not know of any heart problems. Who dies in her forties?
It doesn’t look good for her
ever waking up again….
John Donne wrote “Holy Sonnet 17” after his wife of sixteen years died, believing that she was now in joyous heaven. Then he wrote of his despair in “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,” feeling as if he were every dead thing, a carcass, the grave.
Unable to sit any longer, unable to focus, unable to face the empty chair, the empty desk, the emptiness of the bed, the silent room, the silent kitchen, the silence that has emptied the air of her voice, I pace around the house looking for something that needs to be done, some distraction, something that I can do. Ev took care of the bills at the start of each month so work begins there.
We will do more tests,
but it doesn’t look good.
In the evening, two tall purple candles burn on the mantel for Evelyn’s beauty of soul and body. They bring needed light into the room, and the feeling that I am doing something important for her.
A month ago, Evelyn had an attack of pain in her abdomen. We went to our local ER, then to a gastroenterologist, and finally to a specialist at the UC-San Francisco Medical Center, but tests provided no answers.
Driving back from San Francisco over the Bay Bridge, we hit rush hour traffic and slowed to a crawl. This flat bypass replaced the elevated Cypress Freeway that collapsed during the earthquake twelve years earlier during rush hour on another ordinary day. I watched Evelyn sleep from exhaustion in the passenger seat and felt the bleakness of a despair descending that I had never known. There was nowhere for us to go. All options had been tried. Whatever had been set in motion was going to happen, no matter what we or anyone else did, like the hundreds of people unable to stop the concrete of the Cypress from falling and crushing them. Like Karen Carpenter, who sang, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” as she struggled with anorexia nervosa, unable to understand what was happening to her or stop losing weight until she lost her battle at age thirty-three. Like them, the ground was slipping away with the relentless movement of an unsettled ocean taking away the sand.
In the middle of the night, I startle from sleep and realize that Ev’s not in bed. Did she get up unable to rest and fall asleep in front of the TV again? I go to wake her, then remember. Evelyn’s dead.
Grief is a river lined with eddies that catch every doubt and fear and circle them around and around and around.
In the morning each hour drags into the cold of the next. It gets darker, then lighter, and darker again. I don’t know how many days have passed. The doorbell rings. Bev and Dean with a gallon of chicken soup. “We got busy cooking and somehow made way too much, figured you could use some.” I don’t buy their story, but the soup is warm and I eat it sporadically for the next week. I have no energy to cook. No desire for food.
An ambulance siren speeds down Preda Street, its red light flashes off the walls; the gurney with a body strapped in. “Someone else is dead,” I think, surprised that any of us make it to the end of the day still alive.
Behind where I’ve been sitting for hours, on the shelves of the hutch we stained mahogany, are Evelyn’s collections of Irish Belleek pottery and ceramic bells. What happens to them now, and to everything else that she loved enough to save? I walk around the house looking at her possessions, stopping abruptly at the theater posters on her workroom walls. Although an introvert, Ev loved to perform, especially in melodramas such as “Little Nell,” when she was able to include her talent for comedy.
When her health improved from Candida a decade ago when she was in her thirties, Evelyn felt a surge of energy after having to stay in bed for a year because of exhaustion. She began singing again with Cantare Con Vivo and explored her old love for the theater, joining productions of the Christmas Revels in Oakland, and Piedmont’s Light Opera. In the last couple of years she also did voice-over work for radio and television commercials, recording at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley where Santana, U2, and the Grateful Dead came. She recorded for Dreyers Ice Cream, Alta Vista, Smith Barney, and Direct TV, making use of her silly side by grunting, yelling, and burping.
Two years ago Ev seized her lifelong dream and began a consulting business. She had been a teacher in the public school system for years and was frustrated by the large class sizes, low pay, and the politics played by career administrators in almost every school district. She knew that mainstreaming children with learning difficulties did not work. With a background in speech pathology, special education, and learning disabilities, Ev could sit down with a student, run a few carefully chosen tests, and know what to do to help the child learn.
Now that the past has been tapped, memories begin flowing, like the party where Ev smashed a beer can on her forehead in a display of bravado and almost knocked herself out. How she hated toothpaste in the sink, how we agreed to say “window” whenever one of us let a fart loose in the car, and how she loved to watch the antics of Victor Borge and Spike Jones with her father.
I remember our trips to the mountains of Yosemite, the long jeep ride through the hot Mexican countryside during our honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta, our trip to Britain when we rode horses in Wales over King Arthur’s famed Gower Peninsula, the boat ride across the Loch Ness, and the trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium where we viewed hundreds of jellyfish. Evelyn was mesmerized by their sizes, from tiny tinkerbells to the golden giants. Their delicate colors ranged from white to pink to blue, and all illuminated like ghostly shapes, moving through the water by pulses or ripples across a black background.
Did I eat lunch? Damn it! I need to eat meals at regular times, even if I’m not hungry, because I just can’t remember! Not that it matters. Nothing matters anymore.
Looking for something else, I find the bundle of cards and letters I saved that Evelyn had given me for birthdays and anniversaries and risk reading them, having forgotten how open she was when we first met:
I want to drop you a note of gratitude. I have trouble holding on to unexpressed feelings, so decided to write. I came away with a sense of warmth and acceptance. I hope to work with you again.
with love and care, Evelyn
Heaviness drips lead into every breath. My body feels like a turgid swamp. My eyes are constantly leaking. Grief has served me the combo plate.
In the evening a green candle glows in the dark to honor Ev’s love for family and friends. Candles make me feel there is still some life as long as a flame is burning. Maybe the candle’s light tonight will keep something I need alive—some hope, some echo of Evelyn’s laughter, some memory of her warm skin.
After midnight the full moon pushes its flat light through the blinds and wakes me to share its grief over being alone. I watch the moon play shadows across the walls, and think of how Evelyn woke almost a week ago in distress, alone at home after I went to work, and the trauma she felt in those hours leading to her death—the dizziness getting out of bed, confusion that escalated into panic when she couldn’t breathe, the dread when she realized that something was seriously wrong, the terror that filled her eyes, the rushing of thoughts, and the gasping for air until she fell unconscious.
In the morning, after watching shadows until 4:37 a.m. when the moon traveled down the street to another house and darkness closed back in, I make my way to the bathroom, raise my eyes off the floor and catch sight of a stranger in the mirror, his face distorted by grief. I watch the scrabbled man to see how he behaves. He does not turn away or blink. In bad need of a shave, he looks at me for answers he doesn’t have. It’s a dead man’s face. A face lost in a forest brambled with thorns and horror. Disintegration spreads across his blanched skin. I look away, afraid of the despair settling in.
Why is the sunlight so dim?
At 4 p.m. the mail drops through the slot in the door; time to strap on the grief bag and munch today’s bunch of sorrowful oats. Letters tell me that others are grieving Ev’s death and are available if I need them. One is from Beth, another Revels theater friend: “Evelyn’s spirit is imprinted on this earth and in my heart. I went out to sit in the stone circle and she was there—an imprint left when Evelyn sang to my fetus, blessing my pregnancy. I still hear her joyous laughter and feel her unending love.”
Also a letter from John, a friend from church who lost his wife last year, offering support and guidance for the rough year ahead: “Evelyn was a very special human being—a beautiful, loyal, courageous, and loving woman. There’s not much to say, and words don’t make it. If I can help, I will try.”
People call and talk about missing Ev. I stare at the walls. Then stare out the window. Two hours pass. It gets dark again.
At night I halfway sleep, but wake every hour from the revolving nightmare, stare at the ceiling remembering the verdict and the world tumbling into numbness, remember her kissing me goodnight, then nudging me awake at 5 a.m., getting up in the darkness of the predawn world, eating breakfast, going to work, taking the call, rushing to the hospital, and holding Evelyn’s cool hand, but I can’t remember ever being happy, as if joy has never existed, only darkness, disappointment, and death.
In the morning, in the chill of the open back door, I sit with a blanket wrapped around to keep me warm, listening to the rain fall in the back yard. Such a simple, reassuring sound—rain falling on the earth, water nourishing the land and comforting my heart; rain endlessly coming down. The weight of the rain pulls the sky down. Trees soaked with water bend close to the earth. The world mutes to shades of charcoal gray. Across the way, a yellow light glows in an apartment window in the darkness. The landscape is somber and filled with loneliness. Crows call, asking the sun to return. Soon flowers will rise from the earth and trees will bud, but today there are only hints of color, and feelings of isolation and dreariness. Yet the calm is reassuring. There is no thunder or lightning ripping the sky, no swirling winds, just this presence as I sit by the door holding my grief.
Rain falls throughout the night, falls into the following dawn, pouring down through the sky and filling up the eaves and downspouts, flooding the grass in the yard, drowning the iris and tulips we planted last year, and overflowing into the street. The entire world is murky with shadows, and soaked with deepening, unending grief. The slow-moving storm spreads two hundred miles east. On a webcam link I watch rain soak the meadows and dark blue mountains of Yosemite, the place where I go when life turns dark and I need to see light. As evening falls, the rain slows, and clouds above the valley draw down and shroud the earth.
I drive through the drizzling rain to the Maundy Thursday service at Lakeshore Avenue Church in Oakland. Thankfully only twenty people have braved the weather and come and I can hide in the shadows. Tears continue to fall, and I don’t know how to get them to stop.
Back home a gray candle burns in penance. I let the hot wax drip down and burn my fingers. At dinner, I spoon enough raw horseradish on my hamburger to ravage the back of my nose, hoping it makes me pass out. Symbolic pain on a day of despair and separation.
Good Friday. Evelyn died a week ago. For what? Thoughts of tragedy and grief draw me over to those gathered around the foot of the cross, their hearts as torn and splintered with the wooden shards of death as the body hanging above them. I’ve become one of those who mumble on the street with a vacant stare, disheveled clothes, and no place to go. Weighing myself, I’ve lost ten pounds in one week. My weight hadn’t changed in fifteen years.
Saturday’s skin is brittle. I’m an abandoned, see-through house on the High Plains where only the tattered, leaning frame holds on against the steady, unsympathetic wind.
Paramedics are working on her.
They can’t get her heart stabilized.
Sunset’s light dies beyond the hills and night rises. In the deepening nocturne, a silent movie shows Evelyn smiling into the camera, dancing around on the grass, playing with hula-hoops and neighborhood cats, before the light flickers out. Evelyn’s dead.
We will do more tests,
but it doesn’t look good.
The air stalls and grows heavy with mist. Wet sounds drip from the thick branches of oak trees. Each of my senses weaves an invisible cord of despair through the air until it is overbearing and dense. Thick. Suffocating. Evelyn’s dead.
The breeze picks up and the neighbor’s woodchopper wind gauge hacks furiously at its hollow log. It clacks faster and faster in staccato until I can’t take any more, light shatters into silence, and I am left floating alone in dark, zero gravity space.
On Easter morning I feel no resurrection. Death’s pall stills the gutted land, binds me to Saturday’s corpse, and suspends me between the blunt reality of death and the scattered promise of hope. Unable to rise to my feet, I sit with a blanket in the chill of the open back door listening to the rain fall. Everything feels condensed. Spare. Like consommé boiled down to essence with an intensity that burns. Stillness penetrates everything. Nothing moves, not even time’s measured drift.
How do I live with grief? How I stop the draining away and fill the emptiness, this void? Even my community of faith struggles to find something to say for someone who died this young.
Returning to work after my week of bereavement leave, I receive condolences from fellow workers. It’s hard to listen to their words because tears are waiting on the edge of every minute. Ev’s death has struck like Kafka’s axe, chopped apart the frozen sea within, and a polar bear of emotions has surged up to play me like a seal pup. I just want to work, go home, rejoin my dead.
Today I was sure that Evelyn was walking ahead of me on the street, but it was a woman with a similar body. Later I caught the scent of Ev’s hair, and a few days ago I heard Evelyn’s voice laughing and had to hold back from rushing across the crowded room to find her.
My temptation is to close up and shut the drapes, but this did not work before. I know that if I do not express my grief, I will stuff emotions inside where they will smolder and burn me out hollow. When friends ask how I’m doing, nothing is held back. What makes this easier is not caring what others think.
Along the edges of each day, anger is beginning to simmer, especially for the local emergency room that misdiagnosed her symptoms. I don’t know how I will react when anger arrives full force.
Life has become simple again. I work, come home, and spar with grief. I have a desk where I sit each night and write down the thoughts that come, the feelings that sweep through or won’t go away, and the partial answers I find. I have a lamp that provides light so I can write, and a bed to rest in at night. Sometimes a big theme has commandeered the day and I focus on that, especially the ones connected to doubt, such as, Did I miss something the night before Evelyn died that could have saved her? This particular thought carries a heavy bludgeon. I write until there is nothing else to say. Then I try to let go.
Every few days, people show up at my house and hug me, even some of Evelyn’s friends that I barely know, and this simple act, with the warmth of their arms, keeps me physically connected to others. Then they listen for an hour to whatever is chuffing through my heart. What touches me are not their words of comfort, because such words do not exist, as far as I can tell, but that people are willing to listen to my sorrow, knowing that they will have no words that can take away the pain. Their presence in an empty house is enough, even when we don’t speak for long minutes.
Friends also bring books, thinking that the authors will know what to say, but their books don’t help—“Think good thoughts and you’ll be happy!” Right. Some are pie-in-the-sky religious—“Let God into your pain and you’ll feel joy!” I’m angry with God. Evelyn suffered with illnesses for years, then died just as she was returning to full health.
One book drives too deeply into the logic and psychology of grief—the different phases, the aftershocks and reorganization, the “creative survival,” although it does quote Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese writer and a favorite from college: “And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”
I read each book searching for something honest. I read until there’s a thought to ponder, a feeling is identified, the author goes off on an unrelated tangent or jumps completely over the pain to when everyone is happy again, as if grieving served no purpose. I don’t get far in any book. There hasn’t been a single one that stays with the sorrow, describes how it feels or tells me what I can expect each week for the first few months.
What helps the most are the rare passages written by people who say in raw terms how they struggled with grief, broke down, imploded, gave up. They don’t pretend to have the answers, and I need to hear this. I need to know that my chaos is common, that people feel this loss of being for more than a few weeks because mine isn’t going away. I no longer trust the easy answers or the glib advice to “Give it a month and you’ll feel better,” because this ignores the despair and sorrow. The deaths of too many friends, and our struggles the last few years, have taken these illusions away. Grief isn’t going to go away until it’s faced.
On evenings when the games are broadcast, I watch the Oakland A’s play baseball, but my thoughts are elsewhere, and when the games end I usually don’t know who won.
Life is surreal. Even the texture of the air has changed. It has thinned. Sunlight feels chipped. Sounds are all distant. I can’t smell the roses in the backyard, even when I panic and push my nose between the petals. Spicy Kung Pao chicken from Ruby’s Café around the corner, which I picked up tonight to cut through the fog of a dull, gray day, tastes like sawdust even though it’s full of garlic and ginger. I’m never warm enough. Tattered feelings attach themselves with invisible hooks to my arms and the edges of my clothes, tiny lead weights I carry around that drag on every movement. Time has no hours, just long sighs of exhalation. The day has no balance. I lurch home from work, take care of bills and household details, sleep, rise, and return to work. I used to recycle everything, taking the labels off tin cans, washing out glass jars, and separating plastics. But the effort seems pointless, like the rest of life, and I stop.
In the evening, as I catch up on dishes that have accumulated in the sink again, more memories of Evelyn return. Letting the plates and bowls soak, I sit at the kitchen table and write the stories down before they disappear, feeling like a packrat on a sinking ship trying to collect every feeling and fact, every scrap of Ev that might be crucial for remembering who she was. I write to keep her alive, as Shakespeare did, telling his beloved that as long as his play lived, so would she. As I write, steam rises into the night air, as does my beloved, her gossamer soul floating off like a luminous jellyfish into the wonders of the dark cosmic sea, trailing long strands of memories that sting.
Two candles burn on the mantle tonight. One is for Evelyn’s spirit, a votive for the deceased to guide her way to heaven, and a second votive for me, for the living, to guide my way out of my gloaming fear that the best of my life is over.
On Wednesday I pick up Evelyn’s ashes at the funeral home, strap the ten-pound, off-white, cracked-glaze urn to the seat of the car to keep her from rolling around on the drive back. Arriving home, I carry Ev’s body in my arms up the front steps, over the threshold, and joke, “It feels like you lost the weight you wanted,” and hear her retort, “Probably mostly water.” Holding the urn, I imagine hugging Evelyn again, and for a moment her body is back, before the cool, hard ceramic reminds me it isn’t. I carry her around the house tucked in the crook of my arm like I do with my cats.
Is this the weight and shape of love, what it comes down to in the end? Urns of ashes, snippets of hair carried in lockets, baby shoes bronzed, notations of first and last words spoken? Is this our reward for loving someone, that we are given the grace of burying them?
Late at night, unable to sleep, I get up and dig through the fridge, eat pickles and olives, scrounge the cupboard and gnaw unsweetened chocolate and stale crackers, walk down to the corner store and buy chips, beer, and full-fat Spam that I fry up crisp at home. But nothing fills the emptiness. Tilting my head back, I pour Morton salt on my tongue. Finally, something I can taste.
Most of every day I’m numb and unaware of my surroundings. I feel like the old Teddy Bear from Evelyn’s childhood that I found today, stuffed with sawdust and empty glass eyes.
Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, died on a Thursday while the Civil War was raging. Every Thursday after that Lincoln would sit in Willie’s empty room. That summer he suffered depression and melancholy, but Mary Todd Lincoln never went into her son’s room again.
In the evening I begin emptying drawers and packing away Evelyn’s coats, placing her empty shoes in boxes, and taking her empty nightgown off the bathroom hook. I will never do the dishes with Evelyn again. Never joke with her again about the day’s events. Never watch meteor showers in the backyard with her, our arms wrapped around each other for warmth. Never hear her sing again with her beautiful, powerful voice. Heaviness creeps in as the nevers pile up in the middle of the floor where I see them and have to step carefully around.
On the day that Evelyn died, a great red aurora burst into the night sky over New Zealand, the result of a massive solar flare. In the year that Evelyn died, the 21st century began. A nine-foot-tall black monolith was placed in Seattle, to honor the movie 2001. An earthquake hit Gujarat, India, killing 20,000 people and destroying much of that historical city, Apple released the iPod, and Douglas Adams, the sci-fi author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, died of the same heart problem and at the same age as Ev.
A massive thunderstorm rages through the night, with thunder and lightning ripping the dark. Dawn rises cool and wet. I sit at the end of a pier staring over a large, tranquil lake. There is solace in sitting by calm water that asks nothing of me.
Sue comes over and places a coat on my shoulders. I can see that her heart is breaking. She was a friend of Evelyn’s for a long time, yet she has come to sit with me in grief. We wait in the quiet without speaking, thankful to have each other. We wait for the breeze to turn and bring the sweet, warm air of spring. We wait and listen for sandhill cranes to fly over the hills and call us home. Nature is providing a place to heal.
I do not know where this journey will take me or when it will end, but I know that the path I am on is an ancient and well-traveled one.