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Opening the Heart
“OH LORD,” I yelped as I came around the bend. The road was nearly blocked by half-buried rocks the size of watermelons. I hit the brakes, pulled the Dakota into low, and did the best I could climbing over big black chunks of lava from the Pleistocene. The constant pitching left and right had already caused the shoulder strap to saw into my neck and I’d unhooked it. The 20-year-old truck had honker six-ply tires but I still went slow enough to stop if I heard scraping and we made it through unscathed. By “we” I mean the Dodge and me. My honey was represented by a gorgeous scarf I’d hung behind my seat, her red beret, a wooden Day of the Dead skeleton ornament, and a Japanese tea can with a portion of her ashes. When I’d finally driven as far up the mountain as I dared, I turned the truck around to face the sun, lowered the window, and killed the engine. I grabbed the can, stepped out, and tossed some powder in the breeze. “I love you, Kathy,” I said, looking to the sky with open arms, and turned to dust in four directions. Several times I did this, breaking into sobs (which I did not expect), then climbed back in and ate my lunch washed down with hot sweet coffee. There might have been a little Kathy on my tuna sandwich.
This was the terminus of my backroads quest, partway up the lower slopes of the extinct volcano where the junipers and piñons start, 8,300 feet above sea level. I could see the tall straight trunks of ponderosa pines in a near-vertical canyon high above me. It was 45°F and sunny. Crazy cirrus feathers splashed across the blue. Coming up I’d seen a flock of several dozen bluebirds, moving just ahead along the road where hardly anybody ever goes. This was only my second time but I had never come this far. No wonder on the one hand, how could we not now, on the other. After I finished my lunch, I got out again and walked a little way to take some pictures. I could see the twisting canyon of the Rio Grande far below. As far as I could make out, there was not a sign of human habitation but the rocky road, and I was overcome with joy. “Can you see this, honey?” I asked, knowing full well that she could, and cried again. The oscillation of emotion was exhausting and a validation, like the bridging of two worlds. I stood there in suspension till the wind began to blow and made me cold. There’s just something about mountains, you can tell that they’re alive. Kathy would have understood and had a hand in this. There was not the slightest doubt.
I’d come up with the idea to drive out to Ute Mountain as a way to celebrate the Solstice, since I wasn’t doing Christmas this year. It doesn’t feel at all like Christmas anyway with Kathy gone. For all our time together, in truth it was really just us each December. When our parents were alive and far away, we always traveled, usually by road trip. The journey was the main event, the days in Iowa or Arizona interludes along the way. During our years in Maryland, Kathy had Christmas concerts to rehearse and play and there were parties with our friends. Then everyone we knew would disappear, cocooning with their families. We’d shoot out of town at high speed heading west and have insane adventures, dodging semis in the blizzards on the way to find a motel room in Indiana. No internet or cell phones, no way to check the weather at your destination or look up lodging on a website. We grabbed a local paper when we stopped for gas and checked the printed weather maps and prayed. I kept a scrap of paper in my wallet with phone numbers from the year before so I could call ahead if there were vacant pay phones at the rest stops, otherwise we winged it. Pulling into Des Moines to stay with Kathy’s folks was always a relief with certain protocols and reassuring sameness. Like re-entering 1956, perhaps, with overheated houses in the snow and happy female chatter in the kitchen. Pecan “tassies,” lemon curd, extra money for the paper boy, endless football on TV or radio in the little den that used to be her room while I gamed our getaway between the storms.
Basically though, she and I were all the family we really needed, especially after we moved to Taos and the lights went out in Iowa. (Arizona lay under boycott.) Five or six years ago I left a note for her one evening where she’d find it in the morning when she made her tea. This was after yet another depressing real estate experience where we’d visited a house for sale, come back to the old adobe, looked each other in the eye, and both said “no.” Written boldly on an index card and initialed with a flourish, it read:
Wherever you are Wherever you and I are together That is my home
The note disappeared before I got up. I knew she’d seen it, but I soon moved on and never thought of it again. A week after I closed her eyes at Holy Cross, I found it in her dresser in a drawer she opened every day…
A week or so before I “decided” to drive out here, I’d been through a terrible time, unable to write for more than a month, making progress with my art but feeling old and left behind. I was worried about my health as well with heart rates well below alleged normal. I consulted with my doctor, who didn’t seem concerned and said my heart was slow but otherwise okay. (“The highest reading I have on file for you is 60!”) He ordered up some blood work1 and sent me on my way. But for me the main thing was the grieving. Who knew I’d feel so bad some eight months later? The loneliness and loss of intimacy had staggered me. I felt like I was sliding down into a hole I’d never climb back out of and just die. It happens. After seeing Dr. White, however, it occurred to me that I should also talk to Kathy. Hang on.
It wouldn’t be the first time. The voice is very quiet and sounds like her. While I hear it in my head, spatially I’d say it comes from near my heart inside my chest. There’s better “reception” out of doors sometimes. Maybe it’s the sky, or sun, or birds. Who knows. I started off by telling her I loved her, missed her so damn much, and just how fucking lost I was. None of this was easy, but before I’d even finished, I heard clearly:
Be proud of yourself. Share the beauty and the joy.
Those are not my words. As a strategy for coping, I never would have thought to tell someone to “share the beauty and the joy.”2 I mentioned this on Twitter and a friend shot back, “You’d better listen!” I made a little joke about how simple it was. “It is brilliant advice!” she said. Since then “share the beauty and the joy” has been a mantra for me and a demon killer. The point is not to ANSWER anything but TRUST… The heart again! You see?
The power of the place I was.
The bridging of two worlds by letting go.
The blood test results came back the other day. My cholesterol is down 25 points. All chemistry is normal. My resting heart rate has almost doubled up to where it should be.
Thus lending credence to the provenance.