I’m in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, one of my favorite places in the world. It’s a glacial inland sea surrounded by a two-foot-wide hiking path. The path marches through the back yards of those who live on the lakefront. Each owner, whether Titan of Industry or Lucky Inheritance, must maintain his or her portion so any Tom, Dick or Harriet can loop around Geneva Lake from The Lake-Aire Diner to, well, The Lake-Aire Diner. (Part of my joy of hiking comes from eating afterwards at town diners.)
So I park downtown and start the path. The day is chilly and overcast. The skies are overstuffed with cast-iron clouds so plump they look like they’ll urinate any moment. They manage to hold it, bless them.
The path winds between hundreds of homes, docks, and yards on its 26-mile meander. I can see across the lake, but just barely, making its surface big enough that clouds and sun paint its lapping waves from whatever palette they choose. Today’s hues are blacks, grays, and muddy whites. The trees here are nude, as it’s deep autumn in Wisconsin. The path is muddy from last night’s storms. The wind puffs and swirls. I hear lonely bagpipes in the distance, startling me till I realize those haunting Hymns to the Fallen are solely in my head. I round one boggy corner, watch the rust-scabbed clouds scud along like so many ore freighters . . .
And that’s when she broke me.
My darling wife Jerrle died of metastatic breast cancer on August 31. It was a long, ugly illness that never got better, only worse. It scared her out of her mind, not just for herself, but for how I would fare without Us. Because of that, I stayed strong and reassuring—albeit deeply, deeply sad—until she took her last snorting breath. I’ve held it together since her departure, which was at 6 a.m. in the hospice adjustable next the marriage bed in which we slept for more than thirty years, but at the end she physically couldn’t so this was the best alternative. When she died, I kissed her face and neck and held her hands. I didn’t sniffle. I didn’t weep. I didn’t mourn. I didn’t cry. I wrote off my moistened cheeks to allergies . . .
Until now, alone, on a muddy walking path in Lake Geneva, I begin to cry. Until now, with the wind whipping, the clouds preening, and the sun peeking out with as little strength as Cream of Wheat, then scurrying back to the safety of its cast-iron blocking line. The work in which I’ve immersed myself since the day Jerrle died—home renovation, endless insurance and financial paperwork, exercise, social engagements—cannot protect me from Those Thoughts any more.
I spy a huge fallen tree, its rough-bark trunk half on land and half in the lake. I sit in its wide crotch, facing away from any humans watching from their fancy homes snug up the hill. Tears become a firehose, than Niagara. I cried harder than I thought humanly possibly, choking on snot and memories, gasping for oxygen. It went on till my abdomen cramped. It went on till tears and lake merged into one giant waterfront. It went on and on and on.
And then it passed.
Exhausted and shaking, I wipe my face with the sweat-drenched crook of my arm and rejoin the muddy path, the energy reserves that would have carried me five more miles gone with the unexpected thunderstorm. I push one boot in front of the other, then do it again. I straighten my back and let my pack ride high and proud. I don’t feel better, not one damn little bit. But I feel, strangely, more serene.
As I walk back to town, two middle-aged women totter my way, chattering about this and pointing at that. They wave. I wave back. I don’t want anyone to intrude on my dead wife, so I lengthen my stride to Jolly Green Giant . . .
“We parked at a meter but we didn’t pay,” one said, the mild naughtiness of her act giving her a chirpy breathlessness. “Do you think the police will be vigilant this time of day?”
I look like I give a fuck, lady??? my mind screamed. But my mouth said:
“Well, there’s hundreds of parking slots and very few tourists,” I replied. “I’d say you’re good if you’re not out here all day.” I mean, why take it out on them? They aren’t the cancer that ate my honey’s insides then asked if it wanted fries with that.
The ladies smile. The older one pats my arm. We part. I stop at The Lake-Aire Diner for Denver and coffee—accidental mourners still need to eat, and I want to get these thoughts down while they’re still fresh—then climb back in my Honda and start toward Milwaukee. Tomorrow, I will attend “Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee,” a delightful one-day conference of crime-novel readers and the authors (like me) who love them. Because of Jerrle’s devastating, year-long shuffle from this mortal coil, I haven’t seen my author friends since 2014, having cancelled everything this year to take care of my beloved. Tomorrow is my first toe-dip back into normalcy, and these authors and readers are, truly, my friends. It will be good to see everyone tomorrow. I am just in the audience, not on any panels, as I decided relatively last-minute to attend, but the Jordans, Ruth and Jon, who run Crimespree Magazine and organized this conference, graciously invited me to the private dinner reserved for the authors on the panels. I appreciated that inclusion more than I can possibly say, and look forward to catching up with everyone over beer and whatever food Jon and Ruth have in store for us tomorrow.
But today, under cast-iron skies in rough tree crotches on muddy hiking paths near a cold, magnificent lake, I started the agonizing process of separating Us from Me. It’s necessary to resume whatever my new life is going to be. But it hurts like the horns of Hell.
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