Tag Archives: death

A Writer’s Fix-A-Flat

I haven’t had the ability or desire to write a blog post – or do much else – in months. Those two posts I was able to make about my partner’s death were all I’d managed in the almost nine months since, aside from the news stories and features I write for a living.

Two days ago, I was thinking about Laura (as I do nearly all the time) and also about our good friend Kam, who died a couple years earlier from melanoma. She chose to die here on the farm, in a hospital bed in the living room.

All the way to the end, even when a brain tumor prevented her from being able to communicate, she managed to mutter repeatedly, “Not gonna get me, not gonna get me.” She fought for her life with everything she had, and she lost. Her words haunted me all the way until Laura died, when they were eclipsed for several months.

But two days ago, I heard those words again, and I thought about how wrong it was that Kam and Laura, both of whom invested so much thought and energy into improving the farm and running a horse-breeding business, should both wind up dying here.

I thought about how full of life everything seemed in those first five or six years, how full of energy, and how different it is now that I and one dog are the only ones left. I have been the embodiment of Alison Krauss’ song “Ghost in This House.”

I pulled a photo of Kam building a fence from a pile on the coffee table, then one of Laura tending a just-born foal.

Then, without even thinking about it, I opened a Word doc and started writing about those early days, writing with humor about all of our dumb mistakes – after all, we were straight from a major metropolitan area and none of us had ever lived on a farm before – and yet the courage, inventiveness, and strength we discovered in ourselves as we overcame challenges (usually by doing it the hard way, as we would discover with more experience).

I even laughed as I wrote, something I haven’t done much of lately. And the words just flew from my fingers, page after page after page. It felt so good, sort of like when you attach a can of “Fix-a-Flat” to a tire and the foam pours out and the formerly flat tire starts to become whole again.

If you live in the city and have AAA, you may not have done that before, but it’s like watching a miracle take place. Writing and writing – yes, the words were pouring from me, like the can of Fix-a-Flat, but I was also the tire, the one rising from being flat-on-the-floor, and that, too, was like watching a miracle.

Below is an excerpt from what I’ve been writing. It’s very slightly fictionalized. It takes place three weeks after we arrived at the farm and the day after a small tornado ripped apart one of our outbuildings and blew all the windows out of the house:

*  *  *

As we drove along the side – the WEST side, I reminded myself, though I had to look at the sun to figure it out – of our property, Laura said, “Hey, look. What’s that?” pointing up at the half-destroyed outbuilding. I had a hard time seeing what she was pointing at, but after she stopped the pickup and we sat a minute I saw an almost invisible arc coming up from the wreckage and falling back to the ground not far away.

“It’s water!” said Kam. “That place must have had water run to it!”

Oh my god, I thought. It’s been spewing out at that rate since yesterday. I wonder how long until the well runs dry?

We all must have been thinking the same thing, because Laura stomped on the accelerator, sped through our new red gate and down the gravel driveway out to the barely discernible track that led up to that outbuilding. She slammed on the brakes under some supple trees that had survived the tornado, and we jumped out.

The arc of water was coming from about three feet from the end of the wreckage. All that remained was the solid wood floor set on thick stone slabs. Ol’ Jess was right – the whole wall – the, um, north wall – was completely gone. I didn’t even see it out in the pasture. What was left of the north end was caving in.

Kam squatted, peered under what remained of the building. “I bet this was the original homestead, not just some outbuilding,” she said. “It used to have a crawl space, but it’s mostly filled in with dirt. But I can see the valve that turns the water off.”

She reached under as far as she could, but her fingers didn’t even come close. We stood there, wondering what to do. We didn’t know then that we could have just turned off that particular water pipeline at the well-house.

“Well, there’s only one thing to do,” said Laura. “Kam and I are the strongest, and you’re the skinniest, so we’ll just have to lift up this side of the house and you’ll have to crawl under and turn the water off.”

“Are you nuts?” said Kam. “Pick up a whole house?”

“This side shouldn’t be so bad, with the wall gone. And there’ll be two of us.”

Kam shook her head and positioned herself two-thirds of the way down the house, and Laura went to about the same distance from the other end. I got on my hands and knees in front of where the valve was. They squatted, felt for good handholds.

“Okay, now!” shouted Laura, and damned if they didn’t manage to lift up the side of the house about half a foot. I wriggled under and had to really yank the valve to get it to move, then realized I was yanking in the wrong direction.

“Hurry!” shouted Kam.

I finally got the valve shut and wriggled backwards out as fast as I could.

The arc of water was gone.

We all stared at one another. “I can’t believe we just did that,” said Kam.

“Goddamn! We did it! We take care of our shit!” shouted Laura, and started jumping around, pumping her fist in the air. Kam laughed and did some kind of karate-like dance – she’s a black belt. I just stood there watching them, but my face hurt, I was grinning so big.

“And you were the brave one!” said Laura, giving me a big hug.

“Why do you say that? I just turned a valve. I didn’t pick up a whole house.”

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t have crawled under there,” said Kam. “What if we hadn’t been able to hold it? You’d have been killed!”

“Or what if there’d been a rattlesnake nest or a bunch of black widows!” added Laura, patting me on the back.

Now I was starting to feel a little less excited about what we’d done. Being killed hadn’t even occurred to me. Neither had rattlesnakes or black widows. I realized I had absolute faith in Laura and Kam, and wondered if that was such a smart thing.

The two of them danced back over to the truck and I walked behind, considerably slower.

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The Faith of an Atheist

Boy, the death of your long-time partner can really shatter your world, maybe especially if you’re an atheist, because then you have no pleasant notions of her being in a happier place or hanging around to make sure you’re okay, or that her spirit will slip into a newborn so that at some point she’ll re-enter your life, albeit in a different capacity.

It’s a natural disaster unlike any other – maybe something like a major earthquake where your heart used to be, followed by a volcano of anger and a tsunami of tears, and it all lasts not for split seconds or days but week after week after week. What with all the shaking and searing and drowning I haven’t been able to write a word since Laura died three months ago tomorrow. The earthquake threw me off a cliff, the tsunami rolled me into a cave, and ash from the volcano sealed off the entrance, turning it into a deep, dark hole.  Just continuing to breathe has been a victory.

But in the past couple weeks I have also managed to kindle a small fire in my hole, and by its light I can once again see that I had been working on a story, and I’ve recovered enough to remember that writing brought me joy and satisfaction. In the flickering light, I could even see the writing awards framed on my office walls and my collection of press cards and the stacks of magazines that have published my work. I think I used to be good at writing. Maybe I could be still.

The benefit of being an atheist is that I don’t have the guilt of thinking that Laura is out there somewhere shrieking at me to stop being so self-centered and to keep crying for hours on end every day. Not that she would ever do that, but if we exist post-death, who knows how the event might have traumatized us and what we might need or want from our partner?

I haven’t enjoyed being an atheist these past few months. Despite my avowed lack of belief, some part of me fully expected to feel Laura’s presence around me. I was afraid of but deeply wanted a supernatural experience that proved to me that I was wrong to be an atheist, that Laura still existed on some plane.

But either I’m so obtuse that I can’t sense her, or Laura did not survive her death. I’ve spent weeks just trying to come to terms with that, and I’ve been a non-believer pretty much my whole life. All the sobbing and self-blame didn’t help or please Laura because she’s, she’s … argh, I still have such a hard time saying it. She’s gone. Somehow that’s even harder to say than that she’s dead. She hasn’t just died; her light is extinguished and I will never bask in it again.

No, I am not going to cry, and I am not going to keep telling myself I failed her by not saving her. Those things are only harming me and, as far as I can tell, aren’t doing Laura any good.

Instead, I’m going to try to reclaim myself. I’m going to read and I’m going to write a blog and I’m going to get back to my novel.

Um, well, I may not get to the novel today, but I do feel something stirring in me again, like those first few days that you feel a baby moving in your uterus, and I’m trying hard to feed it so it will grow strong.

I started by reading a novel by the light of my little fire, and now I’ve come to the edge of my cliff-side cave where the volcanic ash is finally blowing away to holler out a few words and hope someone hears them. (Can you hear me?)

I’m going to strengthen myself so that I can stand relaxed at the edge of the cave watching the sun set into the water, looking for the beauty I know nature possesses despite its frightening cruelty.

Then I’ll sidle out onto the ledge and find a handhold and a jutting rock for my foot and start climbing back up the face of this cliff. One day I’ll find myself on solid ground and the purgatory I’ve been living in will be in the past and I will find myself again.

I’ll regrow those wings that have flown me through imagined worlds and brought me back safely time after time since I was four years old.

Laura’s love changed me for the better. Laura’s death blew me off the cliff. But as one songwriter wrote: I’m not lost; I’m not gone.

I can see the way back. And, atheist or not, I do have faith. My magical world of writing is still there, waiting for me. I can reclaim it. Doing so may mean quite a struggle, but I’m up to the challenge.

I have found my faith in that.

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The Deafening Sound of Death

This has nothing to do with writing, except that life-changing experiences always wind up in our writing. I just needed to write this. I’ll be back to blogging about writing and books soon; bear with me.

My partner, brilliant singer-songwriter Laura Shawen, died about two weeks ago. I was puttering around in the kitchen, making coffee and getting breakfast, and listening to Laura snoring in the bedroom—something she rarely did. She hadn’t really slept in a week, due to some medications she’d had to go on temporarily, so I was glad she was sleeping.

Her snoring stopped. Some people might have thought, “Oh, good, she’s turned over and is sleeping more peacefully,” but something caused me to run in and check on her.

She was turned on her side, silent. I came around the corner of the bed and saw that her face was blue. And she wasn’t breathing. With great difficulty, I managed to roll her onto her back and I shook her, hard, shouting, “Laura, wake up! Wake up!” But she didn’t.

I ran for the phone and dialed 911, and told the woman who answered that I thought someone was dying—the word “dying” coming out as a wail. I knew I needed to do CPR, but the dispatcher kept me on the phone long enough to ask for my address and for Laura’s symptoms, then assured me an ambulance was on its way.

I launched myself onto the bed and pinched her nose, tilted her head back, and breathed twice into her mouth. The air I gave her rattled out uselessly between her clenched teeth. I compressed her chest as hard as I could five times, then forced my air as far into her lungs as possible, then stopped and slapped her, screaming, “Laura, wake up!” Only she didn’t, so I went back to my CPR—something I could only barely remember how to do from a high school class taken thirty years ago.

This whole time I kept envisioning her coming back to life, gasping for air, opening her eyes, and having the glad knowledge that I’d saved her life, as she no doubt would have saved mine had the positions been reversed.

But I didn’t. I didn’t save her life. I heard the ambulance coming down our dirt road and ran out to unlock the gate so they could get in, then ran back in and continued with the CPR. Every now and then I stopped to listen for a heartbeat or rested my cheek against her lips to see if I felt her breathing, but nothing. No heartbeat, no breath. I kept on with my CPR and, my voice hysterical and quavering, shouted, “Laura, don’t you do this! You’re a fighter; you fight now!”

But then the EMTs came into the room and shooed me out so they could get her on the floor and check her and attach some kind of machine to her that gave spoken instructions that I could hear from the hall: “Stand Clear.” “Shocking.” “Checking for a pulse.” “No pulse.” “Stand clear.”

This went on for probably ten minutes until they gave up and got her on a gurney and hustled her out to the ambulance. They asked me to gather her medications and follow her. I quickly lost the ambulance, as they sped off down the highway, and all the way there I sang songs to keep myself sane: “This little light of mine. I’m a-gonna let it shine.” And “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world,” songs from my childhood when things like this never happened.

Once at the hospital, I tried to go into the room where she was, but a nurse pulled me into a side room where I could be private and told me to wait there. She offered me water and cookies, but I didn’t want anything except for someone to come and tell me that they’d gotten her back.

But what seemed like an hour passed and then the doctor came into the room. His face said everything. I don’t even remember his words.  Just that Laura was dead and they’ve given up working on her.

A nurse led me down the echoing hall to the room where they’d kept her, covered with a sheet. I pulled the sheet back and stroked her face and told her how sorry I was that I hadn’t saved her, and that I loved her and would always love her, and that if she could, maybe she could stick around for a while because I couldn’t imagine being without her, the thought of it was enough to send me into a coughing fit as I tried to swallow my tears because, after all, I was I a public place and everyone knows a lady never cries in public.

After half an hour, I finally left and told the nurse to take her to Wharton’s Funeral Chapel, and she told me the medical examiner would probably want to do an autopsy, which was a terrible thought to me.

I wasn’t home ten minutes before a woman called saying Laura had been an organ donor, and could I give her a run-down of her medical history to see what she might be able to contribute to the lives of others. This, again, was a dreadful thought—her body dismembered and shipped all over the country—even though I knew that the appropriate attitude was to be glad that her death could benefit someone.

Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for untold others, Laura had had a form a cancer in the past that disqualified her for any organ donation. “I’m so glad I called you first before I started the paperwork,” she said cheerily, but her attitude only chilled me.

That night, I slept on the side of the bed the Laura died on. The sheets were stained with her body fluids, but I didn’t mind; I wanted to lie exactly as she was when she died. Morbid, I suppose, but it gave me some comfort.

Someone told me that the aftermath of a death is like a rollercoaster, and it is in a way. It’s like a rogue rollercoaster car that smashes through the length of your house, deafening and terrifying. I found I couldn’t tolerate any noise at all.

I slept the night through, and then the next day all emotion was put on hold because my parents were flying into Oklahoma City and renting a car to drive way out here in the boonies to me and I had to clean the house. All the time they were here  I nearly choked on the passionate emotion swelling my throat, but I couldn’t let myself cry because that freaks my parents out.

They did wonders with the place while they were here. My father, the mechanical engineer, fixed nearly everything in sight, and my mother cleaned her heart out all day and then cooked us delicious meals every night. I, on the other hand, answered phone calls, wrote thank you letters, ran errands like picking up Laura’s ashes or her death certificate, mailing packages of old family photographs and Laura’s ashes to her daughter, and tried to manage the many requests I was getting from people for this or that of Laura’s things.

We held a memorial service for Laura here on the ranch. Laura was pagan, so we did our best to create a pagan “transition” ritual that would call upon the protection of those who loved her best and who had passed on, and sort of giving her permission to explore her new existence. It was a beautiful ceremony, I thought, though few of us were there. We all had a role to play in it, and we threw Dragon’s blood (a resin from a Chinese tree) onto the fire where it flamed up and sparked beautifully and released gorgeous incense into the darkening day. I hope Laura approved.

Finally, the requests for Laura’s things became too much. Laura died without a will, and of course gay people can’t legally marry in Oklahoma, so everything went to her daughter, who lives in Florida. She wanted it all within a month, so I went through our things and separated out those that were Laura’s and packed them—a task for which no good adjective exists. Horrifying, yes, draining, certainly, but the sense of loss, of having lost Laura and then losing everything that reminds me of her piece by piece, disappearing into boxes to be sealed and labeled and stacked and waiting to be picked up—that is unimaginable, unless you’ve ever done it. As I packed, I kept an inventory of everything that was Laura’s and where it was packed in case someone contested something someday.

The big thing was our stallion, Cattammen, the living icon of our land. I and Laura’s ex-husband purchased him at a substantial price, but Laura had registered him under her name, so he went to the daughter. I didn’t resent that at all, though; a child should have a legacy from its mother. Laura’s ex-husband and I agreed on that, and her daughter and I have managed to get through this with perfect civility. Still, I have spent two weeks trying to get him fit to sell and find a buyer for him, and to learn how to transfer Cattammen to Laura’s daughter without taking the estate to probate (not necessary in Oklahoma), which would have eaten up any proceeds of the sale of the horse. Her daughter needed that money in order to come pick up her mother’s things and hold a memorial service in her mother’s home town.

The second week of my parents’ visit I found myself suddenly in the vice grip of overwhelming rage, the like of which I’ve never experienced. I don’t anger easily, but suddenly everything incensed me to an alarming degree. I was angry that I didn’t have the space to cry, pissed off at people asking for things of Laura’s when I was having to send every last thing that Laura owned to her daughter and so it wasn’t mine to give away in the first place—which I must have explained umpteen times– angry beyond belief at some of the highly insensitive things some people say in the throes of grief—like implying that I didn’t do a good enough job giving Laura CPR, essentially blaming me for her death, or implying that Laura was having a love affair with someone even though I knew damned well it wasn’t true—angry that people wanted her things so quickly so that I couldn’t let myself first accept her death and then let go of her things but must rip each last piece of Laura from my heart and put it in a box, and angry, angry, angry most of all with Laura for not being invincible, even though that is so unfair of me.

After two weeks, when my parents felt I was relatively settled, they went back to Maryland. They hadn’t been gone an hour before I was keening and wailing and beating my hands on anything that wouldn’t break under the force—so angry, still.

But that proved to be the last of my anger, at least so far. After that, I just cried a lot, lay on the couch in a fetal position and stared at nothing, and was generally useless. I was glad, though, the rage was gone. I started trying to mend the bridges I’d set afire with certain friends.

I still cry many times a day, and some days it seems like all I do is cry, but I’m not feeling as out of control as I was before. So maybe with time this will get better. I hate to even say that; it feels like a betrayal of Laura.

But, no matter what certain people said, Laura loved me. She chose to be with me. She understood me better than anyone ever has. She would understand this.

Laura, my love, I miss you every minute of the day. I can’t try to look ahead because all those days are without you, and I can’t stand that. But I am getting through the days, one by one, and trying be strong, trying to live up to the image you had of me as strong. For all eternity, Laura. I still mean it.

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