It’s been a year since my husband, Matthew, passed away very unexpectedly from an undiagnosed heart condition. The last time I saw him, he was getting onto the city bus at the stop across the street from our house to go teach at University of Michigan. I was getting our son Ambrose ready for preschool, and the two of us waved from the window as Matthew stepped aboard. He was giving a talk about research writing in a big auditorium that day, and so he was more dressed up than usual. I remember telling him he looked handsome; I remember thinking it as he got on the bus. Very professor-looking in his long, black dress coat. Later that day, after I got done teaching as well, I drove over to Washington Street to pick Matthew up and he wasn’t there. That wasn’t like him at all. Yet at that moment, I felt more annoyed and confused than uneasy. I sat for a half hour staring at the ambulance in front of Rackham feeling bad for whomever it was for, and then went back home. A half hour after that, two policemen came to my door and told me that Matthew was dead.
How to handle such information? When the police came, I was making enchiladas. My hands were covered in red sauce. The kitchen was a mess. One of the officers walked to the stove and turned the oven off. They said, can we call someone? I said No. They said, do you want us to stay? I said, Please leave. They did and I locked the door, washed my hands, and then sat on the floor and wailed. Such a difference between crying and wailing. This was the first time I understood the difference. In my mostly lucky life, this was the first time I had experienced loss deep enough to cause such sounds. Wailing transforms your whole body into one, intensely focused yet uncontrollable channel. The sound that comes out is clear, clearer than any other sound I’ve ever heard, definitely clearer than any other sound that has ever come from me. When this wailing stopped, I stood and went to pick up Ambrose from preschool.
That was 365 days ago. In the interim I have wailed many more times. I have stood looking at clocks, at the second hand ticking. I have left public places because there were too many couples. Or even just one couple, drinking coffee, watching their children happily spin happily through playground equipment. I have wanted to throw myself in front of Ambrose like a shield every time he watches a child happily call for Papa and their Papa is there. Every time I hear or see an ambulance my heart briefly stops with Matthew’s. For almost this whole year, I have kept the blinds on my son’s window closed. I couldn’t stand to see that bus stop. Though I can’t block out the sound of the break and the accelerator. That stop every twenty minutes.
I have also found myself amazed that so much life continues around me, that I am part of that life, that Ambrose is still so full of strength and goofy joy. I have no idea how I have been able to continue working and to continue being as good a parent to Ambrose as I can. Sometimes I feel guilty that I didn’t quit everything and self-destruct. But then I look at Ambrose and know there was never any choice. I would do anything for him, and in this way, Ambrose and I are saving each other.
So many people have shown us kindness and friendship in this past year, opened their homes to us, helped us with finances, given us meals, shared their stories, asked about ours, entertained Ambrose, and kept me much more social than I have been in a decade. If you are reading this, you are probably one of those people. Thank you. I won’t ever be able to give back as much as you’ve given us, but I am trying.
This past week I reread one of Matthew’s favorite books, The Dharma Bums. It’s Jack Kerouac’s very thinly fictionalized account of his travels out west climbing mountains with the poet Gary Snyder and trying to experience, not Buddhism exactly, but something akin to it. It is a book of trying to let go of the noise of the world, to listen to and experience the things that keep us alive. In Matthew’s favorite part, Gary starts running down a mountain and then Jack follows:
“Then suddenly everything was just like jazz: it happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy [Gary] running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running , then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it’s impossible to fall off mountains you fool.”
I can still picture Matthew reading that part out loud to me, laughing at the dangerous implausibility of such logic and yet, still, the reality it creates.
Matthew was cremated, but I will be burying his ashes in the Forest Hill Cemetery this spring when it’s warm enough to lay the headstone. I picked out the headstone over Christmas break. On the back of the stone there is a quote from one of Kerouac’s journal:
“A man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life.”
The beginning of the sentence actually begins “I hope it is true that,” but there was no need to start there, because I know it is true. Ambrose’s handprints and signature rest above the quote. Ambrose was still making his “s” backwards then, and I hope his handprints and signature will be a reminder to him of the journey he’s making and the foundations that Matthew, who was/is the most wonderful Papa, has given him.
Until recently, I was unable to look at many photographs of Matthew. Each time I did I got dizzy and sick, but, gratefully, that is finally changing. I can look at the photos now and see his presence rather than his absence. Sometimes Ambrose and I go out and look at the moon because Ambrose is sure Papa likes to sit on it. Sometimes he’s sitting there, sometimes in heaven, and sometimes on the Milky Way, which, according to Ambrose, is the highest you can get.