Ah, yes, I thought, parting the curtains that slightly conceal the shelves just inside my kitchen door. The perfect thing. Cinnamon bars or seed-and-nut bars or whole-wheat bars, whatever they were called, they seemed the perfect, slightly healthy, complement to a morning cup of tea. Why not? Because there is always just the slightest possibility that they are past their pull date. But aren’t we all, I tell myself, rolling into the bedroom where Jane awaits the day’s first tea infusion. Leaving her the package, I roll back to the kitchen, retrieve my cup. And by the time I have returned to the bedroom, Jane has found the expiration date. More than two years previous. The same month as Marlou’s death. Time flies.
And when time isn’t flying, it is lying around being uncooperative. It is not healing all wounds, that is for sure. Or is it? Perhaps slightly. For although the passage of time may accomplish nothing on its own, having a sense of time makes a difference. Children famously have no sense of time, for they have had little time to sense. When I think of the most grueling and protracted periods of childhood trauma…my parents’ bitter arguments and that I must do something to stop this collapse of everything…there was no end in sight. What I learned to do was to hang on. In the absence of any conceivable point in time when conditions would improve, something in me learned to clutch at the present. There was a now, then another now, then after that yet another now. Often the underlying constant was fear. Which presented my moment-to-moment approach with a challenge. One could get from this moment of fear to that moment of fear, but beyond? Somewhere over the rainbow. Tomorrowland, as Walt Disney called it in his themepark. The sun will come up.
This will get better, a friend told me as we shared my one evening of Shiva just after Marlou’s death. Yes, this seemed entirely possible. And why? I’m certain that time has no magic properties on its own. But by then I had had the experience of making use of time, opening up, however difficult. And however long it took. The point being that healing takes time. But time can be taken. Which contrasts with my childhood sense that horrible events would have a storybook ending of some kind. Until which, one hung on.
And speaking of storybooks, what is the story behind this package of breakfast bars unearthed just hours ago? Actually, I see some of the same childhood quality. Letting things stand still, hanging on and on, while secretly despairing that the passage of time would bring nothing better. My friend Laurel was talking about getting beyond the horror of a death to begin true mourning. To me, this means regaining a sense of time. Which includes the knowledge that there isn’t all that much of it. Bad news, one might say. So, am I at the post-horror stage of grieving? If so, what got me there? Again, I don’t buy that time itself is responsible for such a shift. But something has shifted, and what is it?
Was it for Jane and her daughter Eleanor…or some Christmas party I was attending…that made me buy too many books in December? Hard to say, impossible to remember, except that the books are still sitting in my living room, wrapped. True, I’m not quite certain what to do about them. But one thing is clear. They don’t belong on the chair. Soon half a year will have passed. I complain that I have become Miss Haversham, living a life surrounded by remnants. But I must like things this way, pretending that the past isn’t. Actually, I don’t. It only takes a second to stash the books in unavailable space in my bedroom. As for the ones that are gift wrapped, trouble is that by now their titles are forgotten. I will unwrap them someday and surprise myself. Oh, you shouldn’t have.
In retrospect it must have been one of those times, faintly bleak, that seemed to go on and on without hope of improvement. I was living in San Francisco, occupying an apartment that owing to the city’s sloping terrain was half on the ground floor and half a basement. Entering the place required one step up. And at the other end of the apartment I could stare directly at people’s feet mounting the hill on the sidewalk outside. As for the slope of my life, it all seemed uphill in those days. I was on my second job out of graduate school and, my God, it wasn’t much. I worked part time in a hospital, some sort of outreach project for the disabled. Basically, my job was to garner more patients. Ostensibly, the work had to do with acquainting disabled residents of San Francisco with the many services at their disposal. Whatever. I was making enough to qualify for food stamps. It was both enlightening and embarrassing to get to the checkout in my local Bell Market and whip out these coupons. But everything was enlightening and embarrassing. My life.
My sister stayed with me part of the summer, sleeping in my front room. It was great to have someone around. Quite pleasant to come home from work and have another human to talk to, share meals with, exchange a laugh or two. Certainly, at home there was more room. At the hospital, my office was at best designed for two. Four of us had been crammed into the space. I had no desk, but a typing stand. Also no phone. When my boss was out, I borrowed hers. San Francisco. A long cold summer.
Every day, arriving home, I would extract my key and open the mailbox along the side of the building. Carrying the mail inside must have been a chore, and my strategy eludes me. After all, my one working hand would have been on the crutch I used in those days. I probably wedged the mail against my chest, my right arm being much stronger then. What I do recall is hobbling inside and dumping the mail on my dining table. The latter was covered in a cheap batik fabric bought from one of the burgeoning Asian import stores. It was probably not a tablecloth originally but now sufficed. Dumping the mail also sufficed. It gave me a strange pleasure not to deal with it. Fuck the mail. In fact, fuck the mail tomorrow and tomorrow. It built up. It built up amazingly fast. And why I allowed, or encouraged this remains somewhat unclear.
Except that I was fed up and couldn’t be bothered. Mail? There was nothing there. I would get to it. I would get to it when I got to it. Meanwhile, daily existence was getting to me. The next thing, was there another? How did one progress from this pathetic part time job in a hospital to something else? Was there something else? How had life wedged me into this corner? What was the next step? Actually, there were many steps, one after the next, around my apartment. Down the hill to go shopping on 24th St. Out to my 1968 Plymouth Valiant and up the hill about four blocks to my nearest cappuccino outlet. It was my golden age of ambulation. A physiotherapist or two had warned me it would end, but I couldn’t quite believe them. For the time being, I was happily schlepping about, without being happy. There had been enough losses in my life.
As for the mail, it proudly built up in its pile of dereliction. Until Judgment Day. That came in the form of a notice from a bank in Port Townsend, Washington. I had paid off my five acres. Fortunately, this envelope caught my eye. Unfortunately, it caught it too late. I began digging through the pile of mail in search of the deed. My one piece of property. My one p
iece of anything, it seemed. With the small amount of money left over from my father’s death, I had invested in several acres of forest. I had no plans for the land. Doubtless I would sell it someday. And meanwhile, after years of payments, it was finally over. Now I actually owned something, something substantial. Except, that I had fucked up. Surely it was in there somewhere, an official notice from Jefferson County, Washington. Surely. Weeks, perhaps months, of postal history passed before my eyes. But no. There was no deed. I phoned my uncle in Washington and asked what to do. A deed, he observed incredulous, could not disappear.
He didn’t know me. He didn’t know my life or my dining table or my futureless existence. For the next years I relied on the Jefferson County property tax statement to provide a legal description of my five acres. They were mine. Twenty years later, Marlou parked our rental car outside the County office building in Port Townsend, went inside with the tax bill, and emerged with a copy of the deed.
And then she lay dying. And how one thing led to the next, I do not know. Nor do I know how her dying led to the next…whatever. What I do know is that Marlou’s horrifying last days brought her to the company of a hospice nurse who talked about the ocean. How the sand felt on the North Shore of Oahu. A recollection Marlou quite willingly took part in. Lulled and encouraged by the hospice nurse. Until she shut her eyes. Forever. She had another 18 hours to go. And what looked horrifying to me from the outside, the lid hanging open on one sightless eye, may have been quite different from the inside. Perhaps Marlou remained on the warm Hawaiian sands, the waters lapping, time passing as she was. Perhaps the body knows when it is defeated, gives up and surrenders to time. However much or however little.