My fault entirely for making the task so difficult. How foolish to have created so many enticing views from which I was forced to disengage. How indulgent to have installed a window over my husband’s Jacuzzi, in which he bathed and read in the early morning hours while I slept, and from which it was possible to see all the way to the south gap in the Massanutten Ridge.
How absurd to have six windows rounding the north and east corners of our bedroom, all the better from which to watch a raccoon, for instance, make its way along the entire length of Farmer Marsden’s apple orchard before disappearing into the pasture on the other side of the vegetable garden.
I had no one to blame but myself for making it so painful to say goodbye to the small house my husband and I had built in the Virginia countryside, and the vivid mental picture I’d painted of the long life I thought we would spend in that beautiful light-filled space.
But I hardened myself to the siren song of the panorama and closed the blinds to the ridge, then to the apple orchard, then to the western view from my stepson’s room — blinds that were never fully open because he preferred the womblike comfort and warmth of darkness to the expansive beckoning energy of sunlight — before steeling myself against the allure of the writing room, which is arranged around a 12-foot long Hepplewhite Tiger Maple table that sits beneath four windows and two frosted glass and brass pulley lights.
A master carpenter had managed to strike the perfect spatial union of proximity and distance; there was ample space for two writers to work side by side, or, possibly, to be pulled away from the often lonely task of writing by the sudden presence of a groundhog, or a motherless fawn, or a fox. I always left the blinds open in that room, liking the way the sun’s rays flowed between them onto the gold-toned wood, spilled onto the floor and washed across the bookshelf against the back wall. In summer a tall row of lilacs provided a bit of camouflage when the room was lit up at night, but in winter there was something decidedly exhibitionistic about my favorite place in the house. I stood behind the desk — a framed poster of Bob Dylan on the left facing two huge framed posters of Billy Joel on the right, all three of which I’d produced during my days in the music business 30 years before — then reached across the deep expanse of polished burled wood and closed out the view of the Shenandoah Valley that had kept me company since June 2009.
I turned and opened the double glass doors to the patio — from which I’d watched so many suns set over the Appalachian ridge to the west, from where I’d once spotted a massive swarm of bees high atop a tree on Walton Woods, on which I’d grilled many a home-made pizza — and was suddenly joined by Gatsby, our Black Lab, who always rushed to my side the instant he heard the metal blinds clang against the glass. The sound signaled a quick pee of course, but also playtime, a lazy nap on the sun-soaked grass, a leisurely early morning walk around the house to watch me dead head the knockout roses, or to investigate a variety of caterpillars making their way to a nice lunch in my vegetable garden.
Every weather worthy morning in spring, summer and fall, we would sit together on the step up to the house and take in the rising sun and the landscape as it warmed and came to life, my left hand cradling my coffee mug, my right pulling Gatsby’s soft ears. And every weather worthy evening in spring, summer and fall, we would sit there together again after dinner and watch the sun go down and the birds come home. I’d drink whatever was left of my glass of red wine, and Gatsby, tired from his long day of protecting me, would lay his nose down between his paws and wait for a sign, any sign, that it was time for bed.
Yet on this particular morning, Thursday, January 25, 2011, Gatsby hesitated when he reached the door. He pushed his nose under my hand and looked up at me, sniffing the chilled air and sensing my own hesitation, unsure whether to run outside or stay close beside me. I hooked two fingers into the back of his collar, slid him backward across the floor, locked the door, closed the blinds and walked down the hall to the living room, my hand on his head, his gait in perfect lockstep with my own. I trimmed the blinds on the glass door to the south side of the patio, then crossed to the windows looking out on the French’s snow-covered cornfield to the west.
I had often stood at that window in the middle of the night, when the howling wind woke me up or the moonlight was so bright I couldn’t resist its pull. The winter before, on a moonlit night after a heavy snowstorm, I had awoken with a fierce hunger and gone to the kitchen for a snack. Sliced apples in hand, I stood motionless, as though I might be heard, as a large black bear ambled into the middle of the cornfield and began pulling the dried and barren cornstalks up through the snow looking for something to eat. It ravaged a large circle, but finding nothing to assuage its own hunger made its way across the field to the north to begin another excavation in a fresh spot. I watched it dig through to the earth for another hour before my eyes, hypnotized from watching a bear dance on a white field under a blue black star-studded sky, begged for more sleep.
The next morning Gatsby and I set out across the snow, the deep powder reaching his nostrils, bear scent calling him forward, foam collecting at the corners of his mouth. When we reached the spot of the bear’s dig, Gatsby tore through the snow with his muzzle, straining away from me, searching for the source of the powerful aroma that filled his lungs. At the spot where the bear’s tracks headed north, I turned back toward the house, pulling hard on his lead, “Come on Gats…let’s go.”
But that had all been a very long time ago. And on this particular Thursday morning in late January 2011, as we both stared out the window toward the woods where the summer before I’d found a lone five foot tall sunflower growing out of the end of a hollowed out log, toward the cornfield where we once watched an old skunk slowly make his way home, I looked down at Gatsby and wondered whether he remembered any of it, wondered what he might be thinking, if he saw what I saw and felt what I felt. I looked at my watch. It was 9:00am and I wanted to be on the road by 9:30. “Come on Gats…let’s go.”
Reluctant, resistant, woebegone, I put his bed in the back seat of the car, fixed one last cappuccino and sat down at the kitchen table. The stone birdbath under the window that had functioned as a landing strip for an endless variety of feathered aircraft was iced over now, the hydrangeas, heavy with snow, drooped over the walkway, the still green grass reeds were as high as the eaves and leaned into the star magnolia for support. I was as frozen as the birdbath, as heavy as the snow-laden hydrangea leaves, as atilt as grass reeds in winter.
I’d had plenty of time to nail this goodbye, since October 2010, in fact, when my husband was asked if he would like to do a six-to-nine month stint as a civilian orthopedic surgeon in the Army, covering for an enlisted surgeon who was being sent to Afghanistan. Although the recruiter had phrased it as a question, my husband had interpreted it as an offer of survival – a lifeline – an invitation to continue working, to continue paying the mortgage on the house I loved, to continue the trajectory his life had been on since, at four years old, he had announced to his surgeon father and radiologist mother that he, too, wanted to be a doctor when he grew up.
When a man comes from eight generations of doctors, his is not a life path lightly trod, nor a profession the electrical current for which can easily be turned off at its source and redirected along another pathway. Nor is his a mind set that can be gracefully channeled to some other worthwhile endeavor, even if that man suddenly loses his job as a hospital surgeon, as mine did one mind bending day in May 2010.
Not mind bending in an Scotch-induced manner, which would have worn off after a good night’s sleep, nor even mind altering at the prodding of some mid-life spiritual quest, which might have contained the possibility within it of a life or soul-enhancing experience. You know, the sort of mentally and emotionally transformative Aha! moment that leads one to suddenly realize that it’s not too late to become a sculptor, or archaeologist, or sommelier, or painter…or rock star, for instance. No, my husband did not have a transcendent enlightening. He did not have an Aha! moment, or a soul-enhancing experience. He was not thankful. He was not uplifted. He was flat out panicked.
My surgeon husband’s sudden job loss, thirty years into a career as a member of a fiercely proud clan of doctors and scientists, was more like starting out one’s day sailing on the ocean, only to find one’s boat suddenly moored in the Gobi Desert in the middle of a Close-Encounters-of the-Third-Kind episode come supper. People loose their jobs all the time. They switch careers, regroup, go back to school, dust off their old business skills, polish up their resumes, and chart out new territory. Yet the average surgeon is not that kind of person. A surgeon is so singularly purposed, driven by the demands and stresses of fixing things that are broken, of managing other people’s pain, of repairing life’s mounting physical cruelties, that little time is given over to contemplating what one might do if one day a part of their own life should break, if one day they too should happen to be in pain, if one day it should all come to an end. And come to an end it did for my husband in the spring of 2010.
The phone began to ring. Like roving hyenas smelling dinner in the air, the headhunters began to circle. But the potential roads they were paving to our future did not lead to any city remotely close to my job and life in New York, to which I had been commuting from Virginia with the support and blessing of my company. Instead, the roads to our future pointed to frigid upper Michigan, to New Mexico, to inland Maine, to the southern coast of North Carolina, to Colorado, all of which choices, while requiring my husband to get yet another medical license, portended the end of my own job.
The offers that were drifting in led to places about which Gertrude Stein had said, “There is no there there,” and with each one investigated, discussed and rejected, my guilt at dismissing them increased until the anxiety about where we would end up and what would happen to my own career in the art world was almost unbearable. I couldn’t fathom how it had come to be that my own needs now seemed so cruely and irreconcilably pitted against those of the man I loved. Given how many Americans were out of work, how could anything be more important to me than my husband getting a job, wherever that might be? How could I even raise the issue of my own needs? It felt as though the electrical current that fed my own professional life was about to be shut off.
I longed to be 22 again, pre-career, pre-well-worn-life, pre-established lifelong friendships, pre-needs independent of my husband, pre-routine that glued me to Planet Earth. I wanted to be the partner who had lost their job; within that horror at least lay the possibility of another job to which to hang on, where one would eventually chat in the hallways with colleagues, through which one one would potentially meet friends, and which would begin to refill one’s bank account. I thought about the bear, forced out of the woods because of heavy snow. I thought about the swarm of bees, its queen leaving her hive before another refuge had been discovered. I thought about the motherless fawn. While I was certainly not a hungry animal without shelter or mother, still I felt rudderless, surely bound for some distant sand dune before it was all over.
By the time the offer from the Army arrived, the battle between fantasy and reality was in full sway, the reality of mortgage and car payments a far more forceful armament in the discussion that than of any view of the Shenandoah Valley I might have loved. As for my own job, I had one, and if I could commute 350 miles, then why not 650? I felt Gatsby’s wet nose on my toes. “Come on Gats, let’s go!” It was 9:30am exactly.
We drove in silence south down 81, Gatsby’s nose on the armrest beside me, the sun pouring down between the clouds onto the melting snows, before heading west on 64 through the Appalachians of Virginia and West Virginia. The landscape was gorgeous – foggy, snow-covered, shifting cloud formations, sometimes sun, sometimes mist, unpredictable, cool then suddenly warm. Exactly like life, like our life. As we entered Kentucky I reminded myself that five years before I had not yet been in love with Virginia, that I was capable of adapting, that I would fall in love with a different landscape, with a different lookout from yet another writing table, that Gatsby and I would find another way to enjoy nature together.
Winter gave way to Spring, we found a more permanent place to live, and I took weekly comfort in ballroom dancing and flying over the Kentucky countryside. The more welcome and at home my husband felt in the Army environment, the more his psyche healed from the trauma of the previous 18 months. Buoyed up by his respect for the soldiers who protect our country, I could not deny his increased sense of well-being. I filled pots with flowers on the veranda. I brought framed photographs and art from Virginia so that we would both feel more at home. I continued my habit of fixing dinner for my husband every night, a ritual that grounded my days. I began to turn our rented townhouse into a home. Yet still I struggled. While my heart and body were with my husband in Kentucky, my own psyche was lost somewhere along highway 64.
I was beginning to feel the warmth of Spring on my skin and the possibility of making a more complete spiritual transition over the course of the summer when Gatsby suddenly became ill. He would stare out the window, confused about why I could no longer let him out whenever he wanted. It was as though he was allergic to Kentucky. His breathing became labored, he sneezed constantly, his energy waned, his spirit became depressed. I sensed another goodbye in our not too distant future. By mid-summer he was gone.
I recently wrote to a friend that sometimes I don’t understand life at all. I don’t think anyone really does. I agree with Christopher Hitchens recent assessment in Vanity Fair that Nietzsche’s maxim “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is patently ridiculous.
I am not stronger, I am merely more in touch with the delicacy of the threads that hold life together. I am not stronger, I am simply more in touch with my love of nature. I am not stronger, I have just become more aware of my need for a home in which I feel safe. I am not stronger, I miss Gatsby every day. I am not stronger in any way.
But I love my husband. And I have come with him. And maybe that means far more than being strong.