All of my animals are taking refuge from the heat. The chickens have scratched up the plants that separated them from the cool soil beneath and lay on their sides, each flapping dust through their exposed wing. The cat has roamed through the garden, running from the sun, all day. First beneath the butterfly bush, then amid the tall feathery love-in-a-mist, then beneath the cool cloak of the Cecil Bruner growing along the fence. He finally gave up and retired to the day bed on the porch.
It is 80 degrees. Sunny. A slight breeze. It is perfect. It was a day very much like this, nine years ago, that we lost Michele. It was just about this time – 3:30 in the afternoon – a sunny, glorious day that seemed to take no notice that she was slipping away. In the hospital, I had no knowledge of a change in the weather, but Charlotte, at home in Cream Ridge, said that about the same time Michele died a wind blew up and dark clouds rolled in. A violent storm ensued, banging the shutters against the house in angry protest. I had felt that same way – raging against the injustice – before that moment and for a very long time afterward. In the EXACT moment, though, I felt something else. A letting go. I knew I had to let her go. We told Marie, “Tell her to go to her father.” Marie said it, though it was undoubtedly the hardest thing she’s ever done, and then her only daughter passed away. She knew that we had finally realized that she was really only sticking around for our benefit. In that tired, ruined body. She must have been so relieved. Enough of this, she must have thought. I am so tired.
That moment and the frantic weeks that preceeded it (“What are her counts today? If we can get them to this, she might turn a corner.”) changed me. Defined my life. I could have gone through it – from birth til death – making half-assed decisions, taking the easy way out. I could have let myself be led around like a wobbly toddler. But because of that beautiful woman, that horrific struggle I witnessed, my life, with all of its twists and turns, is mine. I have done a lot more work to get it this way than I may have had it not been for that day.
I drove through a canyon once – its walls so high I could barely see the sun. It turned so much I could see only a few feet ahead. I was tiny, even in my pick up truck, in comparison. I felt swallowed by a giant. The calls of birds that echoed on the walls were laughter at my folly. Where I was heading, I really wasn’t sure. Just away – from home, the past, from the images of Michele dying that I tried to drive away by tapping my breast bone harder and harder and harder. But in that canyon I knew – being scared was good. It made sense to be scared. But not moving forward because of it was not an option. She was there in that canyon. She would be my guide.
Nine years. The bad memories have been pretty effectively filed away under TOO PAINFUL. They come when I let them, and I take as much as I can before I put them back. I spend much more time categorizing her parts, making sure I don’t forget. Her great voice, rich and throaty. Her infectious laugh. The expressiveness of her face – with her huge smile and perfect teeth, impossibly high cheek bones, beautiful almond shaped blue eyes. Her hilarious wit. Her bottomless compassion. Her ability to forgive.
I am no longer incredulous about the fact that the weather is almost unfailingly gorgeous every June 23rd. Why shouldn’t it be? The world is so lucky to have her, just as we were so lucky to have had her. But life does not go on unchanged now that she no longer walks among us. Everything is different because of her life and her death.
Man, do I miss you. Nine years, girl. Sweet, sweet girl.