Mark Liebenow

Every evening, I make spaghetti and try out different seasonings in the sauce, including hot spices from the southwest, which you would have hated, or I pull out leftover chicken and eat it cold in front of the television as I watch The Simpsons. Sometimes, I pick up a loaf of Colombo sourdough bread on my way home from work, still warm and crusty from the bakery. The Simpsons is the only show that makes sense these days. Its irreverent humor loosens the tightness of grief for a moment, and sometimes I laugh, although it’s a tight sound and closer to a cry.

fatigue, floating, forever
Ever since you were a teenager growing up in San Leandro, your gall bladder flared up occasionally and could only be calmed by a shot of Demerol. In December last year, when you were in your forties, you began having similar pain in that area. We drove to Oakland to see your old gastroenterologist. Not knowing what to do, he referred you to a different specialist. Her tests also came back negative. In January, we drove across the bay to the UC San Francisco Medical Center to see a world-renowned doctor. He slipped an endoscope down your throat, did bile duct surgery that opened a blocked port in your pancreas and released the built-up pressure. You smiled for the first time in a month, relieved that the pain was gone, the problem fixed, and you could return to teaching.

liminal, languid, lost
Each Simpson character is an archetype: Lisa the Creator, Bart the Destroyer and Prankster, Homer the bumbling Man-Child who wants what he wants, and Marge the Peacemaker who makes personal sacrifices to hold the family together. I’ve been each of them over the months. On some days, I have to work to hold everything together, even though I don’t feel like it. Sometimes, I want to hide everything that reminds me of you because it’s too hard to face what is gone. Some days, I want to be left alone with a plate of doughnuts and a six-pack of beer.

despair, denial, darkness
We returned to UCSF in late January. This time, the doctor said the endoscope didn’t reveal anything, and he had no explanation for your pain. Leaving the medical center, we drove home over the Bay Bridge, hit rush-hour traffic on the Nimitz, and slowed to a crawl. This bypass replaced the double-decker Cypress Freeway that collapsed in the earthquake in 1989 during rush hour on another ordinary day, and forty-two people died. Watching you sleep from exhaustion in the passenger seat, I felt a bleakness descending that I had never known. There was nowhere for us to go and no other options left to try. It felt like whatever had been set in motion was going to happen, no matter what we did, like the people unable to stop the Cypress from falling and crushing them beneath tons of concrete.

invocate, incurvate, imbue
For your first birthday after you died, I invite your friends from school and theater groups and throw you a party in Tilden Park high in the Berkeley Hills because I promised you I would, although I think you expected to be here. I don’t want you to come back and haunt me because you were tenacious when upset. After the party, everyone returns to their families with their dreams intact. I drive away knowing that no one will be waiting to hug me at home. No one will worry if I’m late, or pick me up if our old car breaks down. I no longer have my one person who will always be here. When I pull into our driveway, the house is dark, and I turn on the single kitchen light. No longer do I entertain the notion that one day my grief will stop, although it probably will. Every day, I will think, “I miss you,” and tear up. Every day, I will get angry, yell, tear things apart, and want to run into a wall so hard that I knock myself out and can’t feel this damn despair anymore. Some nights, I deliberately drink too much just to go numb.

sunlight, solitude, seagulls                
One spring morning last year, when we both had a day off from work, we drove over to Pt. Reyes for a picnic. The sun was warm, the air briny and cool, and the breeze flowing offshore had pushed the coastal fog half a mile out on the Pacific Ocean. The long, incoming waves made white lace ellipses on the beach, seagulls squawked hoping for scraps as they circled the fishing boats chugging by, and tule elk grazed on the green headlands in the distance. As we ate our sandwiches, we talked about everything and nothing, about music, love, and dancing, and about our dreams for where we wanted to be in twenty years when we retired.

starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight
The long night silence. The empty longitude of the hours. I float on the ancient ocean of grief with my sorrow, buoyed with memories and lost hopes, filled with the presence of death and the corrosion of fear that more people I love are about to die. The boundary between physical and imagined realities dissolve, and the years that used to separate time into places cease to exist. The lights of the stars, and your ancestors who once lived here, shine in the dark heavens above, sparkling like fireflies on the undulating surface of the water around me, water that comforts and nourishes as it sways me in its sleepless dream. I give up trying to control what is happening and let grief’s ocean take me where it will.

regret, remember, resuscitate
On a Friday late in March, just before midnight, we rushed to the local emergency room because the severe upper abdominal pain had returned. After an intake interview, we waited for an hour in the empty ER before the doctor stopped talking to his colleagues, came over and questioned if you were really having that much pain, gave you a mild sedative, and sent us home. The pain returned after a couple of hours, and you spent the rest of the night kneeling on the floor in discomfort, frustrated and worried. I held you in my arms and rocked you back and forth until finally, at dawn, the pain had ebbed enough for you to sleep. We decided that if the pain returned, we would not go back to this ER, only three minutes away, but seek help elsewhere. They would bill us twice because our one visit went into Saturday.

compassion, caritas, cry
Although it left you emotionally drained, you sat with your friends and comforted them when their parents or spouses died, even traveling with Janet to her mother’s funeral in Utah to help her cope. You cared for Giff as he was dying of AIDS and worked with his adopted son on schoolwork. Then, his partner Dan was murdered in Athens for his passport, leaving their son an orphan. When your father died in anguish after several years of struggling with Creutzfeldt-Jakob dementia that ate away his brain, something inside you broke, and it became almost unbearable for you to see all the dead animals along the road when we drove to Yosemite. I knew I would cry when you died, but I didn’t think that I could cry this much, this long, this hard.

tremor, tender, touch                         
In early April, you felt congestion in your chest, and we went to our family doctor in Pleasanton who prescribed medication to help with your breathing. You took the first dose before heading off to rehearse your Quilters play in Alameda. You were a little dizzy when you came home, and we assumed it was from the pill. In the morning, you woke me up at 5 a.m. to go to work. Several hours later, when you got up, you felt unsteady and called a friend to take you back to our doctor. You were joking with Sue during the twenty-minute drive, but as you arrived at the clinic, you had a heart attack. Paramedics came from across the street but couldn’t restart your heart, oxygen didn’t reach your brain in time, and you disappeared to a place where I could not reach you.

emotions, endurance, empty              
Evenings are hard because it’s when we would have closed the drapes on the world and celebrated being together. Tonight, I light yellow candles on the mantel to keep you close. Sometimes, I wonder if you would have survived if you had returned to the local ER instead of further away. I try not to dwell on this because it pulls me down into a dark funk. No doctor had ever warned you about your heart, and none of the specialists looked outside their domain and said that something serious was going on and we needed to find out what. With the information we had, you made a logical decision. I try to let go of this, too, as well as my guilt for not seeing and doing something, anything, on your last night that would have kept you alive, but I still go over these details a thousand times.

heartache, heavy, halted
A medical study on the news tonight reports that women experience different symptoms than men when they’re having a heart attack. Valerie Reitman, of The Los Angeles Times, found that in 1998, 10,000 American women younger than fifty died of heart disease, more than the 6,286 women who died of breast cancer. In addition, women were twice as likely to die of heart attacks than men of the same age because women were more often misdiagnosed in the emergency room and sent home. Rather than sharp pain in their left arm, or feeling like an elephant was sitting on their chest, women can have discomfort in their upper abdomen, feel dizzy, or think they have the flu.

nature, nurture, nadir
When your absence becomes too much at home, I drive to Yosemite to camp and be with you in a place that you also loved, especially at Happy Isles where you delighted in watching the river cascade down the canyon in sunlight and in listening to the river’s song as it flowed into the forest. It was hard to be here the first time I came back after your death because this place held so many happy memories of you. They each burned like a fire, and I left early. I was also scared because I could not feel any of Yosemite’s wonder. This had never happened before, and I worried that I had lost my last place of refuge.

When I return now, I often walk through meadows at dawn. The rising sun makes the dew on the plants sparkle, and the mist drifting over the surface of the river gathers enough of my heart to get me through the day. This land continues to nurture me. As I hike alone in the wilderness, where black bears and mountain lions live, I try to understand why good and compassionate people die young. At night I look up into the fathomless depths of the cosmos and listen to the soliloquy of the stars for guidance.

grief, gratitude, gone
You always had a difficult time convincing doctors that your pain was real. Apparently, they don’t teach gall bladderology in medical school. Finally, a doctor in Berkeley suspected what was going on, did a simple test, performed surgery, and removed a gall bladder that was perforated with holes. Years later, you developed Candida, a form of chronic fatigue, that left you exhausted for a year. Doctors didn’t know what to do. Finally, you found an alternative medicine practitioner who created a strict diet that helped the yeast that had built up in your body to die off. You often said that you wanted the words on your tombstone to read, “See, I told you I was sick!” Cheekily, I invite the dismissive ER doctor to your memorial service.

remember, repair, rise
Friends say that because I’m still young I should start dating to help me recover, but my heart aches and isn’t interested. It’s hard to care about any future that won’t include you. I sift through my broken rubble of anger, despair, and longing looking for what has survived, and begin patching my life back together. Who I was is gone, and a hard edge has formed. I don’t know if I will ever be okay, and I no longer believe that goodness is the foundation of life. Perhaps I was naïve to ever believe it was. I’m impatient when people chitchat for no reason, but I’m more compassionate of people who are suffering. Each day, I do something that I can call exercise, try to eat nutritiously, and go to bed at the same time each night to help with insomnia. But on some days when I come home from work, all I want is the solace of chewy sourdough bread and to watch Lisa the Creator come up with a reason to go on.

Mark LiebenowMark Liebenow writes about nature, grief, prostate cancer, and the wisdom of fools. The author of four books, his essays, poems, and critical reviews have been published in numerous literary journals. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. He studied English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, creative nonfiction at Bradley University, and can often be found writing outdoors at Cyd’s Café in Peoria.

Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #46.

Submit to Cleaver!

Cleaver Magazine