American Plains
American Plains
Various Voices
He's looking for a gun
He's looking for a knife
To kill the girl
He says he loves
He's looking for a poem
He's looking for the words
To cut her to the bone
To make her feel alone
He's looking for a way
To be insane
On the American Plains
She's cutting on her arm
She's taking lots of pills
To keep her eyes dull
While holding to a smile
She gives herself to men
Ones she hardly knows
They always treat her bad
And leave without a word
She's looking for a way
To be insane
On the American Plains
I can't stand it anymore
And . . .
I can't watch it anymore
I can't watch it anymore
It's like drifting
With the tide
Take me down
To the deep
I've got to get away
Find some other place
Nothing feels like home
I always feel alone
Won't you come with me
We'll drive until we're there
It might take a while
It might be far away
I'm trying to find a way
To be at peace
On the American Plains
Chapter 17
May 16, 2017

     It's unraveled.

     The semester in finished. The academic year is finished. Some of us didn’t make it.

     Those who remain wonder if this campus will ever be what it was, when what happened outside our classrooms seemed so unimportant.

     I just heard that some professor is Poly Sci died last week. I had never met him. He was young. Maybe early forties. An apparent heart attack. Some Assistant Professor in Business killed his wife, his mother-in-law, then himself. No one saw it coming. I’ve heard about a number of faculty, mostly Assistant Professors, who have found jobs elsewhere and left, without a send off. Some older profs have taken early retirements. If there is concern about what will happen in the fall, how we will cover classes, I don’t sense it. A few departments, beyond Poly Sci, have been weakened to the point that they may not be able to run a full schedule. The graduation of some students will be delayed. It will have consequences.

    But maybe not. Maybe the momentum of the place will carry things along. The university’s homepage is still filled with pictures of smiling students, looking just like every other homepage for a university, college, community college, or ice cream shop. This is, apparently, what we are selling.

     I have to admit the unwinding of a crisis has affected me in ways I didn’t expect. I don’t seem to care anymore. I just can’t seem to look very far ahead. I would imagine people in war zones probably never think about next week or the week after. They probably are focused on finding enough food and water to get them and their families through the day. They might look ahead a few hours, but beyond that is as mysterious as the afterlife. I’m going to sound like I am pitying myself again. I understand this. I know things are not right. I find myself lapsing into this kind of thinking. If I get through the day, that is enough. I haven’t felt like this since my wife died.

     I am not even sure whether or not I am depressed. I am not sure that I feel much of anything through the hours of the day. At night, I have dreams. Strange dreams. I can only remember bits and pieces of them. So, I don’t know what I feel at night, either. I keep looking back, reminiscing, thinking of times past, even times when things were bad, because these times had a certainty. Even if they were times of struggle, they had a certainty.

     About two weeks before my wife died, I had a nightmare.

     I haven’t told anyone else about this dream. This nighmare. Not even my sons. It’s in my mind. It’s been in my mind for a while. I am starting to feel like the lone survivor who has to tell his tale to strangers. All strangers. All those strangers that he encounters as he wanders. Now, without a home. Now, obsessed with his tale. He is convinced that his tale defines his entire people, that it also portends their future. He expects others will listen, hear his words, embody them, be transformed. He worries that they will not understand. Walk away. Let his words drop to the ground, echo off the water, become mere vibrations, a hum. Noise.

     I want to tell you this. The dream. The nightmare.

     We were in the second story of our house. The house in my dream wasn’t like the house that we were living in at the time—I’ve moved since then—or like any house we had ever lived in, but I knew it was our house, with that kind of certainty that often comes in the dream world, seldom in waking hours. It was like that other dream I told you about, the one when I came home and my house was wrecked. With that one, too, it wasn’t like my real house, but I knew, in the dream, it was mine.

     In the dream house of this dream, the second story opened onto a balcony that faced the street. The wall facing the street was entirely open. Vulnerable. A huge creature appeared. It was about thirty-feet tall, hairy, with broad muscular shoulders. Cartoonish.

     As soon as it appeared, the creature grabbed my wife by the arm and began to pull her from the house. I held onto her legs, but the creature was too large, too strong. She slipped through my hands. I woke screaming, a single prolonged scream that faded into heavy breathing, panting, silence, despair. Almost as soon as I woke, I began to feel light headed and dizzy.

     The fear I had been pushing to the margins of my chaotic life, a life without much sense for almost a decade, which had no sense, but which had a certain kind of meaning, a purpose, this life had imploded into an anecdote, a string of jerky images, an animation, a stupid silly dream with a cartoonish monster, a dream that scared the hell out of me.

     It was odd. Not so much the nightmare, which made perfect sense, perfect emotional sense. More the occurrence of any nightmare. I rarely have nightmares. At least, I haven’t as an adult. I didn’t even have many as a child. My wife often had them. It was not unusual for her to thrash about and moan in her sleep. I am a light sleeper, so I usually heard her moans before the terrors shocked her into consciousness. I would put my hand on her shoulder, rock her a little, and whisper her name until she woke, terrified and confused. If the dream were not too bad, she would go back to sleep. Sometimes, she would have to stay up, move through the house in her robe for the rest of the evening, fight sleep as long as she could, then return to bed, maybe not until the morning, or the afternoon.

     The night I had my dream, I was sleeping alone in the guest room. My wife had been sick for about eight years, maybe nine, with regular trips to the ER, as many as three in one week, and extended stays at the hospital. Her sleep was so erratic that I often slept in the guest room. I woke from the nightmare alone in a dark room, where no one could hear my scream, the single scream. It felt too much like a premonition to tell her about it. After her death, it felt like a weight, my weight. I held onto it.

     But the dream was probably triggered by a daytime event. About that time, maybe it was before my dream, maybe shortly before the dream, I can’t remember, but about that time, close to it, we were in the ER. She was experiencing congestive heart failure. A doctor and nurse were working to stabilize her. At one point, the doctor said, “I can fix this. Do you want me to fix it?” She had an oxygen mask on, so she nodded, eyes wide with panic. In all our trips to the ER, I had never heard a doctor say, suggest, hint, Do you want me to let you die? Maybe he realized that her body was already starting to shut down. If this happened before my dream—I wish I could remember the sequence—that might have triggered the images, the scene, that seemed, in retrospect, a premonition.

     My wife had health issues from the time I met her, about twenty-five years earlier. Keeping her well had always been a part of our relationship. She had been close to death several times, but she always recovered. For about a month, she had trouble breathing. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong, but her symptoms kept getting worse. She had four or five episodes where she couldn’t catch her breath and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. During two of these episodes, she stopped breathing and turned blue. When I administered chest depressions, she came back with a gasp. Even this almost seemed routine, as unremarkable as making a sandwich. That sounds horrible. I guess, it sounds callous. When you are dealing with that much trauma, you go to a different place. You detach from it. You have to.

     She seemed fine when I left for work that Monday morning. I came into our bedroom from the guest room to shower and dress for work. She sat up in bed and said my name, then she put her head down and went back to sleep. I know, knew, from a single word, how she was feeling. There was a sweetness in how she said my name, even an optimism. She was clearly okay, so I went to work. I needed to try to catch up on piles of paper work.

My older son, who was visiting, called me about 10:00 am to say she was having trouble breathing and I should come home. Charles was at the house. He often came by to check on her. They were better friends than he and I. They liked to go antiquing together. And fishing. They both liked fishing.

Charles had called the ambulance.

     We were in the Emergency Room for about an hour before a doctor and two nurses came out and escorted us into the family consultation room. I knew before they said anything that she had passed. The doctor started a speech. I am sure he was leading up to the bad news. I don’t remember what he said. At some point, I interrupted him and asked, “Is she still alive?” He said, “No.”

     That was it.

     Charles started to cry. He walked out and we didn’t see him again until the funeral.

     In the time that came, I found myself thinking that I could have done something to keep her alive. About that day, I wondered if I should have stayed home. About the week before, I wondered if I should have taken her to yet another specialist. About the month before, I wondered if I should have done, I don't know what, but something. Later, much later, I learned that my son felt he should have done something and that Charles felt he should have done something. Even my wife’s primary doctor worried that she missed something. None of us could put anything definite or concrete to the “something,” but we all had the same vague sense that we were responsible.  Even in the most simple passing, there is enough mystery to haunt the living, to keep them in that moment of loss.

     After her death, Charles rarely spoke of her. I don’t think he ever got over her death. Because of this share event, this shared guilt, this shared sense of responsibility, we had a bond. It was, in its own way, as much a wall.

     I was surprised that more people didn’t ask about the cause of her death. Charles never asked. I guess because she was so sick for so long, it didn’t strike anyone as a surprise. In the ER, I had to speak with a county coroner. The guy looked like he was about nineteen-years-old. He said he didn’t think he needed to do an autopsy because she had been sick. I didn’t see any reason to do an autopsy, either, but her primary doctor called me up, later, but before the service. She was in tears. She was astonished that they didn’t do an autopsy because she was fairly young. Just forty-six. She was afraid she had made a mistake, missed something. She wanted the autopsy to relieve her doubt, her guilt. She had been good to my wife. She had stuck by her, tried to figure out ways to make her illness more manageable. Maybe I should have asked for an autopsy. I don’t know. The coroner put heart failure as the cause of death, which was probably true enough. Words enough to fill a box in an official county form. Words enough to satisfy those who might ask questions. Words that have little to do with reality.

     I think the ER doctor thought some of her medications might have had something to do with the episodes of arrhythmia, but I’m not so sure. When the episodes started, she was evaluated by a Pharm D. So, I can’t say with any certainty what the cause was. There are so many times in life where we are left with uncertainty.

     We are born alone, we die alone. This is what they say.

     Everyone seems to believe it. No one seems to question it. Maybe no one wants to take responsibility for saying something so fundamentally stupid.

     We are not born alone. We are born with others and into a community that awaits us and embraces us, that is already prepared to receive us. If we were born alone, we would never survive.

     We do not die alone. Of course, others do not die with us, except in extraordinary situations like a plane crash. But our death radiates out to our families and loved ones, to our friends and acquaintances, to the friends of our families, to the friends of our friends of our friends. They grieve, sometimes so deeply they wish they could have died with us.

     Some die alone, you might say. Some people have no family or friends. They die alone in a seedy hotel room or on a park bench. Sooner or later, someone finds a cold body and says, “It’s a shame this person died alone.” At that moment, the person is mourned. At that moment, the person is with others. It is not our nature to allow people to die alone.

     Those who remain behind carry their loss. Sometimes the weight lessens with time. Sometimes other losses are added to it.

In the early hours after my wife died, someone told my son, my younger son, to breathe. He, this person, this friend of my son, this person I did not know, this stranger who was standing in for the father, who was standing in for me, this person was saying to my son, remember to live, concentrate on breathing, even when the weight seems to push all the air from your lungs, breathe.

Breathe. This is simple advice. Good advice. Remember to live. Remember that you are among others.

     We have to be reminded of the most simple, fundamental tasks. Breathe. Eat. Sleep. Move. Cry. Laugh. We mourn so deeply that we forget how to live. So, we need to breathe. We stop living forward and start living backwards, to memories, as if we are afraid we will forget the loved one who died.

     If we are lucky, we will have rituals to move us through the early days. A funeral. A memorial, a vigil. If we are smart, we will construct our own rituals, our own mechanism for processing grief. Looking at photographs. Sharing memories with loved ones. Visiting a gravesite. When I lived outside of Atlanta, I commuted something like forty-five minutes to work each way. I drove by a graveyard on the way. There was a family, this family, they sat at the graveside of their father. The grave had American flags and pinwheels, yes, pinwheels, all around it. And, everyday, there were family members sitting there, in lawn chairs, sitting at the grave. I used to think it was odd, funny. I don’t anymore.    They had found their way to mourn. They had invited their own rituals.

     Amid our pain, we can easily feel entitled. We are feeling a depth of pain that no one has ever felt. No one can know what we feel. But this harms others, and it harms ourselves. We need to mourn among the community because the community needs to heal. Only as the community heals can we heal. I know this at some level, acknowledge it, even as I push people away.

I keep going through periods where I lose all hope. In an odd way, after my wife died, I had more hope. I had been through—my whole family had been through—this long dark period. We were all—my sons and I, other relatives—dealing with the loss, feeling a sadness that bore into us, yet we knew that, at that point, life had the possibility of becoming more normal, more manageable. I remember, one day, a few months after she died, my older son saying to me that he had this thought one afternoon, this idea, this realization that, today, he was pretty sure nothing bad would happen. After you have been through years of chaos, even that little bit of certainty can give you a degree of hope. But, now, years later, I feel that things have come only so far and they will not go any further. This is as good as it will be. I am still sad, depressed even, and I want to be happy, or more fulfilled, and I don’t know how to change, and I don’t even know how that would feel. I don’t even know if anyone feels something like that. Maybe, all we can hope for is hope.

     The only way out is to find hope, if not for yourself, then for someone else.

     At this point of my life, I am too focused on loss compounded with loss. My entire family of origin is gone—my father, my mother, my brother. Many of my childhood friends. I was still mourning my wife when Charles died. I still have my sons, and I am grateful for that. We can be together and rarely feel any tension. I am grateful for this. But I can still feel lost, alone, beyond hope. I still feel that there is something I could have done to save my wife, to save Charles, to save myself. I believe that hope will not come for me. I must find it in others.