Even though this story is about Margaret, it must begin with water that emerges from beneath a broken-crowned and hollow ash tree, a remnant of the forest that covered the Northeast before the land was surveyed, parceled and denuded. The bark is smooth-ridged between its furrows, like the soft translucent skin between the wrinkles of some elderly people, and the buttressed roots have greater girth than do some boles of the pines planted nearby 80 years ago; and yet the age of the freshwater spring, the ash drinking from it throughout who knows how many droughts, makes the tree seem young by comparison, rising from the earth as this water has since at least the melting of the last glacier that crushed and gouged the landscape, the flow of the spring slipping over the shattered shale in its downhill path. It provides my house water and fills the 1-acre pond where I fish and swim and from which my geothermal system concentrates heat and warms my home all winter. On hot days, I like to sit on a mossy hummock near the spring, in the shade of the old tree. My wife drank of the water. I still do.
One afternoon, our 10-year-old daughter was telling Margaret and me about the competitions she and her friends were having at the spring to determine who could keep her hand the longest in the water. “I win every time. It hurts, but I hold it in until I can’t feel it. Now they won’t play the game anymore.” The water rises at between 43 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit all year. Whenever I clean the entrance filter at the pipe that funnels some of the flow to my home, I must partly submerge my hands, which soon ache of the cold, and pain travels to my head, somehow lancing it hotly.
I explained to my daughter that the hurting was a warning and if she left her hand too long in the spring, she could lose it. I added that her friends were smart to stop playing the game. “That’s OK if I lose it,” she said. Her father was again worrying about nothing. “It’s my right one and I’m left-handed.”
After our daughter rejoined her friends outside, Margaret said — to herself more than to me — “Leave it in as long as you can, honey.” I asked what she meant. She smiled and began to dance to a record playing on our stereo. At least that is how I remember it: her dancing, today transfigured by a departed day.
While falling asleep, especially if sleep is eased close by marijuana, I sometimes see Margaret dancing in the freshwater spring. The flow is inescapable and rising and has reached her waist, though actually the water is never more than an inch deep except when someone wades into the pond it fills.
Maybe you are inclined to dismiss hypnagogic half-dreams as impertinent to daily life, even a reoccurring one such as mine of my wife dancing in icy water, and particularly if the dreamer was stoned. You probably aren’t entirely dismissive, but let’s suppose you are. OK, then, immutable facts: Each person is born and each dies, and it is true that between these loop-linked facts about which even James Agee would not be skeptical or dismissive — he who wrote, in a footnote in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, that all journalism is “a clever form of lying” — Margaret danced with passion. I don’t know how to explain the cognition and physiology of that certain type of dance, and I don’t want to. What is important to me here is that she and I were once on opposite sides of an indoor ice rink and soon were heated by her dance.
Although she was wearing skates, she was standing still to talk with a young man over the music hollowed by the loudspeaker of the rink. When I next noticed her, she was skating and dancing alone — and with such graceful fluidity it seemed the ice was melting to join her. I worked at the rink, and she had been recently hired, but I didn’t know her yet. I introduced myself as she left the ice, her shift about to begin. This memory cheers me as I write these words, but I feel a bit guilty about such happiness, as if all music should be hollow now that she is gone.
If a radio was on in our house and a song came on with a rhythm Margaret liked, she danced. In moving cars, if the radio was on, and regardless of whether she was in the passenger or driver seat, she sang and danced to the songs she liked most; she wasn’t the world’s safest driver. We danced for two hours at an outdoor party, until, fatigued, I stopped, although she wanted to continue. Once she pleaded with and then loudly heckled a nightclub band until it agreed to play Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” to which she desired to dance. When she was earning her master’s degree in education and was studying for a test one evening, she danced to a rock album playing on our stereo, notebook in hand, gyrating between the kitchen sink and table. I commented that her study method was probably ineffective.
“You old man,” she said.
We were in our 20s.
Other than when she was sleeping or reading or watching television, she was usually in movement. Which I suppose is one reason why on occasion I think of the freshwater spring when I think of her, my wife dancing against the flow. Rising at sunup no matter how little sleep she’d had the night before, cleaning the house, getting her laggardly husband out of bed to help, doing aerobics, taking long walks; heading somewhere fast in a car, with or without me to a concert or play or church, out on the town with friends, to visit kin, to collect traffic tickets; flying without me to a vacation in Sweden and Finland. I was tired or had work to do or was uninterested or wished to be alone. The children and I would ask her to slow her walking so we could keep up in parking lots and shopping malls, which reminds me that back when we were dating, she challenged me to a race. I had been the starting halfback on my high school football team, and easily won; she demanded a rematch, stuck out her foot to trip me and won race number two. She refused to participate in a tiebreaker. In the parking lots and malls, she would say, “Hurry up, you guys. We’ve got places to go, things to see.”
If you described to me someone like her, I might presume a hackneyed explanation for her kinetic nature, such as that she was hyperactive or attempting to avoid thinking about something in her past or present. No. Margaret was dancing in a freshwater spring.
In moving cars, if the radio was on, and regardless of whether she was in the passenger or driver seat, she sang and danced to the songs she liked most; she wasn’t the world’s safest driver
Here I am trying to remember my wife when she was still healthy, not to resurrect her. Two months before my writing of these words, on the first day of the season of spring, Margaret died; or rather, death finally dissolved her. I would love so much to see her again, and I don’t want to offend anyone, but to me any belief in a personal afterlife, whether of heaven for devout monotheists or of writers surviving through the literature they create, is an emanation of wistfulness or hubris. I’m now being the dismissive one, I admit. I second what folk singer John Prine has his father say in “When I Get to Heaven”: “Buddy, when you’re dead, you’re a dead pecker-head.” I like the whimsical afterlife Prine sang and hoped for and which his father dismissed as impossible — cocktails, cigars, nights on the town, pretty women and reunions with beloved kin — but it would be greedy of me to desire more than the life I’ve been fortunate to have. And yet, a week after Margaret’s death, I was crossing a gray and chilly meadow when suddenly I bellowed her name and waited hopefully for a reply. I heard only the strong wind surfing over the tamaracks bordering the western side of the meadow, the naked crowns bowing before waves of void. I am here trying to counter my grief by recalling what to learn in the face of such a wind, although I have been late to class.
For a few years, grief art was culturally fashionable, in part because of memoirs by Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates and lesser-known authors whose spouses or other family members had died, books of mourning that — depending on the book reviewer’s point of view — were beautiful and brave explorations of profound loss or were lugubrious transformations of talented writers into hearse-chasers. I haven’t read any of these books. I know all I wish to know about grief.
Each summer while I was employed at St. Bonaventure University in western New York, I taught a college preparatory class. Many of my students were from New York City, and some of these were quite homesick in the distant, bucolic setting of the university. I sympathized, but in a way they were lucky, homesick in part because they loved someone and someone loved them. Once when I said this to a class, a student responded, “I’m not homesick. I hate my family.” He was the one I pitied.
The difference between the homesickness of new students and the grief of a widower is of course that, despite the often-quoted title of the Thomas Wolfe novel You Can’t Go Home Again, students can hug their loved ones again; one danger to a bereaved spouse is that the only way to rejoin the deceased is through figurative or literal death. The surviving spouse might begin to hate what remains of his or her finite life.
It can be difficult to avoid bitterness, calcified grief. In supermarkets I reach for food Margaret liked, and then I recall her death, and on many mornings I wake like the character Marthe in Jean Giono’s novel That My Joy Remain: “She had suddenly felt cold from the empty side of the bed. It was just daybreak, the hour when couples, half asleep, always snuggle together to warm each other and are a little tender, even those unconscious of it, because day is dawning.” But my bed need not remain cold forever.
In her recently published book, Natality: Toward a Philosophy of Birth, author Jennifer Banks posits that our culture is more interested in doom than in birth or in renewal, “which has hovered long in death’s shadow.” Banks reminds me that during the 11 years when Margaret had brain cancer, she never complained, seemed to pity herself or showed fear — about the surgeries and radiation treatments and chemotherapy, the gradual loss of concentration and memory and independence, the muting aphasia, the smothering fatigue, the seizures, the persistent urinary and fecal incontinence, the death stalking her — except she worried that her loss of eyesight would eventually be total and prevent her from seeing the grandchildren she hoped to have someday: “Those beautiful, beautiful babies.”
Banks urges her readers to see the act of seeing. During the Anglo-Irish war known as the Troubles, a magazine sent me to Belfast, and Margaret came along. Driving in the city center was forbidden because of car bombs — the Europa Hotel was known as the world’s most bombed building — and almost everyone we met in Belfast knew someone who had been threatened or maimed or killed by the British military, the Northern Ireland police or the paramilitaries. On both sides of the discontinuous “peace walls” that ineffectually separated loyalists from republicans, we heard stories of suffering and grief, but also of resilience and reconciliation. When we left the city for a short vacation on the Antrim coast and Rathlin Island, my mood was grim. Margaret was hopeful.
We saw harbor seals and puffins and stood on the precipices of cliffs incrementally crumbling in the force of the cyan surf. We were hiking a narrow road between a scattering of abandoned cottages on Rathlin, somehow aesthetically and emotionally pleasing despite the fallen roofs and disintegrating walls and the long-dead inhabitants. Yet I was giving a soliloquy about the terror that raids and wars and retributions had brought to the island, about the people Vikings had massacred or abducted into slavery and those that Scottish and English armies had thrown over the cliffs, about the sorrows back in Belfast, about the error in the philosopher Hegel’s belief that the tide of history lifts humanity, until Margaret interrupted me. “I’m visiting a beautiful place,” she said. “You’re visiting a morgue.”
I stood flatfooted for a short while before I jogged to catch up with her.
I mean neither to create a saint of my wife nor to commit a sacrilege, but I need to tell you of my realization that our daughter’s hand in the spring — “Leave it in as long as you can, honey” — was to Margaret a holy and germinating defiance. Margaret wouldn’t have put it like that, with my grandiosity, but she felt it, I’m sure.
Our teenage son and daughter and I were critical of Margaret’s attendance at Mass while the national news was full of reports and editorials about sexual crimes committed by hundreds of Catholic priests and the cover-ups by members of the Church hierarchy. When she had listened to enough of our variety of preaching, she became angry, and said, “I’m not letting those priests drive me away from my church.” I abruptly realized something I should have known by then, that to her the word “church” had the most important meaning when it began with a lowercase “c.” Mass was to her about ancient rhythms of communion between parishioners and between parishioners and God, not about the institutional Church.
To Margaret the Church was a church, one in motion. When she was volunteering at a group home for disabled adults or employed as a teacher of disabled children, she was in church. When she was holding a newborn child, she was in church. She was far from being any manner of saint, but even her worst sins — if that is what they should be called, and about which I’ll say no more — could be regarded as secular communions. The fervent dancing in some churches: Often that was my wife’s way of life.
I’ve left much out. If you’ve been married, you already know I have. The quarrels, the instances of mutual selfishness and pettiness, the wounding accusations, the various kinds of betrayal. The chilly days between the forgiveness and the many warm days. But Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has already been written. I know what Margaret would want me to remember. More important: I know what I should remember.
I am beginning to forgive the meadow that shunned me after I hollered the name of my deceased wife. The bobolinks are back from South America as I write this. In their gradual rising and dipping flight they cross the meadow in small black and white and yellow waves. They sing their name. The blooms of dandelion resemble glowing embers as they poke above the new growth of timothy and clover.
Margaret and I danced in that meadow, longer ago than it now feels to me. It was during a clear night following one of those classic September days when bees speckle the flowers of goldenrod and aster in sunlight aslant, alighting lightly. We were in our early 30s. Well after dusk, I parked our pickup away from the dirt road, and we set up lawn chairs and sat and drank beer until Margaret felt cold. She switched on the truck radio and found a song with a rhythm she liked and began to dance on the stubbled hay. She danced lyrically and erotically, becoming the song. She said, “Come on.” I felt paralyzed in some sort of interlude. I sat watching her beneath the stars and moon: fluid dancing in the fluid darkness and fluid light. She was gradually moving away. “Come on, old man.” I finally did, I strode to her, but I wish now that in those seconds before the song ended out on the meadow awash, on the earth spinning, I had sprinted.
Mark Phillips, a regular contributor to this magazine, lives in southwestern New York. His essays have appeared in Commonweal, Salon, The New York Times Magazine and other journals.