Coda

I have been following the week’s blizzards obsessively on the Capital Weather Gang page. At eleven the post came through: “It’s over, really.” Radar cleared out. Wind blowing, but no more snow. Washington exhaling.

“Let’s all go to sleep,” suggested the weary weathermen.

I looked out at an ocean arrested in mid-surge on my front lawn — the swirls and ramparts of snow created by two double-digit snowfalls’ worth of blowing and shoveling, a crazy wavebreak compounded with the shapes you see when your airplane breaks out of a big stratocumulus.

Three Februaries ago in a spell of bloody godawful icy weather, my former husband — brilliant, childlike, gentle, daft  — finally came in from months of wilful exile on the streets of Washington, where he refused to admit to me that he was living. The man who had once performed on a stage in Lincoln Center, who’d played chess with Yehudi Menuhin’s teacher and Margaret Mead’s husband, wouldn’t wash, wouldn’t ask for help, wouldn’t let go of the storage unit full of books and recordings whose rent was eating up most of his Social Security. He had been dropping weight and obviously ill for months, but I couldn’t get him to see a doctor, until somehow, I have never gotten the whole story, he collapsed somewhere near Union Station, where I think he was spending his days and nights.  I took a call from an emergency-room doctor on a bright and howling morning a few days after a storm that was maybe the kid cousin of this one.

He was in the hospital for two months, and the only thing he wanted as soon as he was coherent enough to talk was a personal CD player. I brought him that, and a pile of the recordings that he had most recently exclaimed over; he had just become a fan of the Dvorak E flat quartet, an out-of-the-way piece that I had never come across either. The second movement, said my ex, contained a little ascending second figure that was supposed to echo the half-feral cats of a farm village hunting between the rows of the cornfields at night. My ex, who wanted to save and feed and take care of every animal on earth, got a little teary and quavery as he explained it.

The last day he was alive — I had had to break him out of a nursing home the day before, and he was back in the hospital trying to breathe and not exactly able to talk — I asked if he wanted some music, and he managed Yes, and I hooked him up to the Dvorak and sat with him while he listened, until I had to go back to work. By then it was April and the trees were bending under blossoms the way that, tonight, I see them bending under snow.

I was about to pack it in, until I walked into the living room a few minutes ago to turn off the radio and heard the lyrical first violin, the cats mewing.

When the house doctor came, bleary-eyed, to pronounce him dead, he asked me what our relationship was. “Ex-wife,” I said. “Best friend.”

Coda: in music: something added after the exposition of the piece is completed.

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16 thoughts on “Coda

  1. I’m teary-eyed. What a bittersweet story and relationship. BTW…this is a beautiful piece of music. I had to listen to it all the way through before I would post my comment.

  2. Very beautiful. Must be very painful at times for you. Do you know what led to his retreat? I ask because I think we are all potentially subject to such a retreat from reality, and a slide into the despair he must have known. Or maybe it’s just me but either way, the process is something that needs understanding. No, it isn’t just me. The west coast Burner community was recently looking for one of its former lights, who also disappeared into homelessness while refusing to stop paying for a storage shed full of books and the like. The payments finally stopped and no one knows what happened to him. I have to wonder how many brilliant individuals become so pressured by {whatever it is} that they end up indigent yet sure enough of who they are such that keeping the documents that define them becomes more important than food and shelter. Yes, I guess I *can* see going there.

    All that aside, I hope you have peace over it all.

  3. I am afraid sometimes that I am getting to be like Queen Victoria, who talked to the end of her life about Albert, but there it is: he comes into the room at these times, and I am humbly glad that I can talk to people about it here.

    @Don, “why” was the $64K question always and in the end I had to decide it didn’t matter: the man’s family was fucked-up, but that goes for a lot of people who do not end their lives on the street, picking up odds and ends of debris because they “look lonely” (I once had to clear out a cupboard he had secretly stuffed to overflowing with discarded baby dolls, nameless drogits, gloves of all sizes and types…). He himself like to quote an aphorism to the effect that people are blue plate specials, you get what you get, no substitutions.

    It’s comforting, in a sad way, to know there are other people of like character who have done the same thing. We emptied out that storage unit when he died, about 250 cubic feet of it, and I filled twenty-four boxes with chess books alone and donated them to a center that ran kids’ chess classes and clubs.

    Thank you everybody for the kind thoughts.

  4. I pray God grant him memory eternal. I didn’t know him well, but fondly. I’m glad you were there for him too, my dear friend.

  5. Some people get a half-life with someone who has no eccentricities and nothing to give. Others have deep, loving relationships which are never long enough with people one can “never explain why” about.

    I have the former… there are times when I would have preferred the latter.

  6. Yep, around 3:17 — 3:25 … meee-ow. Meee-ow.

    It’s hard to understand … the complexity of a life that was simultaneously a tragedy and a miracle. I suppose all lives are like that, at bottom, on a strictly philosophical level … some far more obviously than others, though.

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