Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Friends and strangers alike wrote me notes with remembered anecdotes, demonstrating how special he was.  I read his poetry. His “Pilot Hi-tec point V7 fine black pens” were everywhere; he had accumulated a stash of perhaps 150 of them because he was afraid they would be discontinued. His many notebooks with only a few pages written in them; his clothes—all the shirts he bought secondhand; the artifacts he created--gourds, paintings, rugs: they all invoked his actual being. The roomful of his collection of books set in Maine breathed his presence. At first I was reluctant to leave the house even to go for groceries because he was here, but then he was at the store too and was at our camp when I at last took courage and went there.

Alive, he was a tremendous presence, thoroughly original, brilliant—often described as a genius—but I suspect that a living presence will remain even of those with a less powerful personality. I’m not talking about memories or mere reminders. “You have memories” the sympathy cards state. I am talking about something “out there”, a manifest indication of a life lived. It was not “the spirit of Bill” either; it was more palpable, more human. 

I describe my encounters not sure that anyone else will understand. I describe my sense of my husband’s presence after his death. Like God, Bill hasn’t given me any irrefutable evidence that my experience was not just a figment of my imagination or a dream or the chemicals in my brain fulfilling a hopeful wish. This comforting palpable presence faded, and one day I realized that it wasn’t here anymore. I had not wept much until then, was even euphoric with relief, but when the presence was finally gone, I wept often.

God said to Moses, “I am who I am”, always a subject, never an object.  Bill continues to be what he was, even now, but he is no longer an object, only a subject. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bill had three more good years, but near the end of the last one he had a brain hemorrhage, and his vascular dementia deepened. This resulted in his being difficult at times because he would have irrational rages. His dreams became real. “Why were you struggling to get out of bed?” I asked when he had fallen and hit his head. He said, “You were brawling with two burly men.” His life dwindled down to a precious few—precious few days and precious few joys.  I lost my patience with him, insulted him, swore like the proverbial trooper--using the f word, not previously in my working vocabulary. Gradually I was having those fits when I myself was being irrational. Sometimes if he slept longer than usual I would think, Maybe he has had a massive stroke and has died. The thought gave me momentary relief. But then I would think, How am I going to feel when he really does die?

He developed colon cancer, and because he was in such a weakened condition there was nothing they could do for him, no chance of an operation or chemotherapy. On the night of June 11, 2010 the palliative care nurse phoned me to say she had seen signs that the end was near. “Come early in the morning.”

My daughter Grace, son John, and I were with him at the moment of his death. The nurse came in, looked at him and said, “It’s going to be soon.” We each got up, kissed him, held his hand,  sat back down to wait, stared at him for perhaps two minutes. Then the nurse said, “He’s gone.” One second he was alive though barely, the next second he was dead.  Those two minutes were mystifying: the veil between life and death was so thin, but we couldn’t do anything to save him. “I’ll get a stethoscope,” the nurse said. But she was sure; she had seen so many at the moment of death. What did she see that we couldn’t? I’ve gone over and over those two minutes but still can’t make sense of them. A terrible regret: why hadn’t I continued to hold his hand?

I’m troubled that the Presence wasn’t in the room then and hasn’t been here for me at home either. Now that I am old, the Presence comes rarely. “The other” is something I long for. But the strange thing is that for many months Bill’s presence was everywhere, not as everyone hopes for, a message from beyond the grave telling me that there is an afterlife or that he was happy. But it was unmistakably his presence. One night I felt a hug. Twice I had a daydream scene in my head, at first not with him present, but then he popped into it, a wicked smile on his face. It was as if at the movies, a giant but real face appeared from behind the screen at the top. Nearly everything I did was with him in mind: grocery shopping, getting gas, making lunch.  

Saturday, September 08, 2012


He who has love is in God, and God is in him, for God is love. Leo Tolstoi, What Men Live By

One Saturday afternoon in April of 1953 my Amherst College blind date Jack asked his fraternity brother Bill Bauer to give him a ride to Mount Holyoke College to pick me up. As I slipped into the front seat (in the days when three people could sit in the front seat of a car), I looked at Bill, he smiled, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I fell in love.  I can still recall the image of that smile and the instantaneous love, “sweeping like a gentle tide” over me. It was made up partially of physical attraction of course, and perhaps over the years I’ve exaggerated the feeling, but the Presence was there, not the numinous awe felt in grand cathedrals, but still the mysterium tremendum. “Some enchanted evening, you will see a stranger, you will see a stranger across a crowded Ford front seat.”

From then, fifty-seven years ago, we lived our lives together, were married fifty-four, raised three children, and jointly created the home we lived in for 44 years. How could we be separated in any meaningful way? How could we not inhabit the same patch of history even now after he has died?

On a few occasions when Bill and I made love, I had the experience of being “no more twain, but one flesh,” a mystical ecstasy combined with the sexual. “What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

Mysterium tremendum: It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. Rudolf Otto

In January 2007 a series of medical disasters began to befall Bill: first a broken arm, then a stroke, a diagnosis of severe COPD and lung cancer, three bouts of pneumonia, five skin cancer operations, dense cataracts. The fact that some day he was going to die was forcibly brought home to me.

In June of that year, he had the lung cancer removed. Because of the stroke and COPD, the surgeon warned that it would be iffy. “But it’s the best chance you have.” The morning of the operation, the surgeon and the anesthetist came into Bill’s room to talk to him, our son, and me. The anesthetist had done extensive tests, examined him again in the room, and said to Dr. Peters, “I don’t think we should go through with the operation.” The surgeon said, “It’s the only chance he has.” Sitting with my son, waiting for the operation to be over, I imagined Dr. Peters performing that delicate surgery, the courage it must have taken because he knew it was dangerous. Then we saw Bill being wheeled to the Intensive Care Unit, several nurses and orderlies running, one holding the IV post, one at the back, pushing the bed. That nurse looked back at us, a big smile on her face, and hollered, “He’s breathing on his own.”

In that moment of pure joy, I felt an intense veneration--veneration is not too strong a word--for the astonishing ability that Dr. Peters had been given and not only that but gratitude that he cared.
A little while later he and his resident surgeon came out to talk to us. They too had big smiles as if they had accomplished something tremendous. The cancer was small, contained, they had only to take out one lobe. The surgeon’s brother is a priest, and there’s a story, apocryphal perhaps, that their mother had slotted Dr. Peters to be the priest, and Father Peters to be the surgeon.