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a short story by Mark Kolke
November 7, 2011
Impossible to carry on now, too much weight of loss to carry, days are dreary dusty windswept terrain of my life - matched my country drive this Sunday morning.
I had time, and opportunity and I was hungry.
I should have gone for pancakes.
But my mind chose a different path.
Putting life back together, like re-assembling Humpty Dumpty, is more than gluing pieces together, more complex than re-organizing facts and things, disposing of her things and rearranging the furniture.
Ache of loss can be numbed but not cured, diverted and channeled into other activities that dissipate the incredible volume of energy and pace of thought, but they cannot make way for the future of someone new. I knew this.I work with clients all the time, coping with grief and loss. I help them. I know, because they tell me they feel helped but I feel so impotent giving them advice and ideas when I know how completely unsuccessful I’ve been in dealing with my own loss.
I suffer, from prolonged grief. This is a clinical term which seems so perverse to me – since Marlene is the one who suffered, and death is as prolonged as you can get. I’m just here, left behind, unscathed, unscratched, incomplete in every stage of grief and exaggerated and dysfunctional in every way my clinical training has taught me.
Oddly, this has not affected my practice. I seem to be able to help others, but abysmally poor at helping myself.
Unresolved grief of a much earlier loss as the culprit is the latest hypothesis of Dr. Ralph Colton.
He means well, but gawd, he hasn’t a clue how I feel.
To explain this angst, you need to know how we came to be – me, and she . . .
The audience, 400 strong, sat riveted in their seats as they had for more than an hour – spellbound by the presentation, or the presenter’s charm and humour – perhaps both.
Our keynote speaker Dr. Marlene Brighton concluded her presentation, exhorting us to live more fully, urging us all attending the 2001 American Psychological Association Conference in Phoenix to pause – to reflect on why we were there, ending with:
"Live with intention. Walk to the edge. Listen hard. Practice wellness. Play with abandon. Laugh. Choose with no regret. Appreciate your friends. Continue to learn. Do what you love. Live as if this is all there is. Everyone’s perception of reality is different.If you seriously think about it, is has to have a great impact in the way you relate to external stimuli. I have reflected on this long and hard, I have stopped at many incidents – trivial and important and changed my viewpoint. This has helped me to become more tolerant, to be more understanding and empathetic, it really puts things into perspective. All and all it is a good thing.”
She was slightly built, smartly coiffed and dressed.She strode confidently off stage only to stumble on the last stair leading to the corridor. While her lapel microphone was still live as she fell, her high-pitched “oh-fuckkkkkkkk” exclamation was heard clearly by the still applauding crowd who erupted with howling laughter.
I’m not sure which inspired me most to want to meet her. Was it her striking looks and the way she firmly filled her tight fitting tailored suit, Marlene’s frank remarks or her human-ness exhibited in her blurt-out while falling, or was it the slenderness of her fingers tipped with clear varnished beautifully shaped nails that I observed as she took my hand to help her up from that pratfall?
That was my first encounter, ten years ago, with Dr. Marlene Brighton, Professor of Counseling Psychology.
“Thank you, so much Dr. Colin Ackerman”, she acknowledged as her tiny frame came back to full height.I was startled, and then realized she’d read my name tag while I was helping her up.
I continued to hold her hand, apparently to hold her steady while she regained her equilibrium, but actually I just enjoyed the warm softness of her tiny hand cradled in mine as I told her, “You’re welcome. Are you OK?”
“Yes, but I think I snapped a heel on that stair”.
We laughed a while as she got used to walking on one flat and one heel.In what must have been nearly an hour, but in my memory it is just a blur, we made our way to the side entrance of the convention center, into a cab and back to her hotel a short drive away.Why I felt I should tag along or how I negotiated that I don’t remember. I remember helping her get all of her presentation gear out of the cab and up to her hotel room, tipping the bellman and waiting for her to return from the washroom to figure out what was going to happen next.
The door opened, and I could hear the shower running as she said, “Colin, I want to relax under a hot shower” as she stepped out of the bathroom wearing nothing but a heavy gold chain around her neck that followed the undulations of her delicious breasts, as she asked me, “would you care to join me?”
The nine years that followed that hot shower contained a lifetime of love and no shortage of joy.We laughed, loved, travelled, worked, laughed and loved more and more.We’d each worn out our rose-tinted glasses in previous marriages and live-ins, seven in all between us, before we’d met. What we had was open, raw and ravenous, every day until it ended.
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t as ravenous physically over time, but it was emotionally and intellectually.
Until it ended.
Sure, plane crashes happen – but they are so rare we travel with less concern about a crash than we do about driving to the grocery store.Roads are full of risk and the skies are so free of it we get on planes and completely ignore the obligatory instructions on air-masks, exit locations and floatation devices.Even when we consider the terrorist risk, who thinks twice about getting on a plane?
I was in Winnipeg on business when I heard the news.I was driving my rental car back to the airport to catch my flight – it was on the car radio - crash of a commuter plane in suburban Vancouver, all aboard were killed.Marlene was out there doing some consulting work.I knew.I didn’t know her itinerary, but the moment I heard that story I knew in my guts that she was gone, my belly felt empty like I’d been starving for days even though I’d just had lunch.That flight back to Calgary was the longest flight I ever remember taking. It was only three hours but it felt like thirty, because I knew what news would await me when I got home.
As I left the airport, I turned on my cell phone.There were two messages, one from the airline, the other from the Richmond police.The plane crashed just short of the runway. Everyone aboard was killed instantly.
How could I come back from that?
At first I drank a lot.
Then there were women, gambling, more drinking, more women.
My life feels like those tin signs nailed to fence rails with messages of ‘Private Property’, ‘No Exit’, ‘No Hunting’ and ‘No Trespassing’.I’ve erected so many of those in my behaviour since Marlene died, it is a wonder to me that anyone wants to meet me at all. I don’t slam the door – it’s more like I never open it more than a crack.Lately I’ve been trying to follow my therapist’s advice.I know, a therapist seeing a therapist, but Ralph Colton is helping me.
The therapy has been helping, most days, feeling like progress but today I know I am backsliding.
Besides, is there time anymore for love in life?
Or is it just that life doesn’t mean much without time for love in it?
Two one (1) hour units.
I had it scheduled . . . two hours to be spent doing something else, outside my routine, an effort to re-start dating – and as much as I was drooling for blueberry pancakes, those will wait for another day when some comely company is available – so, for that moment, a drive in the country seemed such a better use of time and calories as well as a better place for my mind.
The restaurant would be grateful too, because they could seat two hungry patrons in a hurry which would be preferable to me, just a single, lingering over free coffee refills while reading my paper.Better for me not to go.
The she, a new she, she was, and was to be, my breakfast date.
We’d never met you see, but after some telephone communication we had agreed to meet and today was the day.
I can scarcely remember her name. The first was Wendy I think, but I can’t remember the last. Polish sounding, or Czech.Or Russian. It doesn’t matter now. I have it written down – it was in my notes in fact, but now it has escaped from any portion of my mind which might have wanted to remember it because she will not be meeting me today, or likely ever, because I didn’t believe her excuse of feeling under the weather.
Who does that, really?
Five minutes before it is time to go, a call to say you don’t feel up to it!As if she hadn’t felt that way an hour before?
I’ve learned to distinguish the difference between chicken and chicken-shit, and this had an equal measure of both.It’s not the reluctance I despise, but the lack of integrity.
I could consider, perhaps, that she really was telling the truth and only called at the last minute because she was hoping to keep her tummy settled (or whatever part was malfunctioning) but no matter. It didn’t matter if it was stomach flu, a hangover or a frontal lobotomy – I was done with her.Disposed, discarded, set aside, ditched.
I don’t sleep much. Or well, or deeply, anymore. Every now and then, like this morning, my brain and body seem equally rested and ready for action.This was such a day, my balance of work and play planned for – allotted in advance so there would be ample time for each, so as to make time for her.
The wind blew.
That’s what winds do.
It was a lightly overcast morning, this morning, when my car ventured east at the first turn on the road as if it had a mind of its own.I was bound for that breakfast meeting, cancelled by a phone call, just moments before I was ready to leave.
I thought, at first, that I would take my paper and head off just the same to Nellie’s for blueberry pancakes. Just saying that thought brings blueberry taste to my throat, but that was not to be for me, not today, because the Olds wanted to skip breakfast and hit the open road east of town.
With black markings.
Making its way down the ditch through tall uncut hay as gingerly as a soldier walking through a mine-field. In search of mice I suppose, or maybe in search of another ditch cat to make more cats. Not sure. This one appeared solitary, wandering around familiar landscape like a tentative stepping stranger from another county.
I could relate, feeling much that way myself.
How could I be here?
And why must Marlene be gone?
The worst part of entering a new relationship is the fear of the pain you will feel when life takes him or her from you. I know this. I’ve read about it and heard otherwise sane people describe it as their principal reason for not committing, not involving themselves in love again.It hurts too much to imagine reaching the point where it will hurt so much that you cannot bear it, but then you do and wonder how you possibly managed. It is so selfish.
Maybe I hadn’t suffered enough yet, or maybe it was just too clear that Marlene had suffered too much and I couldn’t live with it any longer.Guilt – worse than the Catholic kind, worse than the Jewish variety, riddled my bones.
This morning a spider web of gravel roads crossed this autumn landscape I had been driving for the past hour. Coyotes scrambled from the field where they were hunting rabbits as a white-tailed doe chased them – and I sat spellbound at the wheel of my car, in that intersection. I must have sat there, motionless for fifteen or twenty minutes before I realized I should get off to the side of the road.The wind was howling, but otherwise there wasn’t a sound until a shrieking hawk came down to rest atop fencepost less than twenty feet from my open window.
My memory was gone – remembering her, and realizing I’d had no closure. She was gone, but not forgot, gone to ashes and dust but memories of lust live on, and on, and on.
But I can’t relive my life at the crossroads, every time I see these images.
Along came a tractor down the middle of the road – a front-end loader sporting two of those monster round bales of hay that rode so high I couldn’t imagine how the driver could see over that load, or see me parked in their path.
For a moment I thought about staying put, sitting there, to let it all end.
Memories of Marlene flowed into me like intermittent electrical current but there was no plug or switch to turn it off. I can control my actions, but I have no control over my thoughts. They arrive unannounced, most often unwelcomed, and I cannot control when they show up or manage their impact.
Tractor and load loomed closer, not slowing, I imagined the collision and expected it would not kill me, so what’s the point of being maimed by a hay bale if I have to vegetate in a home for idiot drivers the rest of my life.
I put the car in gear and guided it to the side allowing the farmer to pass. I might have expected a thank-you wave as she cruised by. I was surprised to see a slight farm-girl behind the wheel.Completely zoned out . . . a teenager, if that, with headphones dripping from her ears, barely able to see over that load in front.
If I want an innocent looking opportunity to end it all without having my insurance voided because of a suicidal action, I best look for a better alternative.
I proceeded down the road, loose gravel flying behind me as I accelerated in a cloud of dust.I didn’t see the signs until it was too late to stop.What I thought was a through road was in fact a T intersection. The last thing I saw was those damn tin signs nailed to the fence rail ‘Private Property’, ‘No Exit’, ‘No Hunting’ and ‘No Trespassing’ as I plowed through that fence, continued on through that stubble field coming to rest in the bottom of an irrigation ditch.
Air bag popped, nearly knocked my head off.
I broke my nose, wrecked the car and barely scratched the ditch.
I should have gone for pancakes.
I hurt everywhere, but nothing felt broken.
Just then I heard a tractor chugging across the field.As I was pushing the door open to step into the ditch, I could see it came to rest above me, almost falling into the ditch because it had two large bales loaded on the front.
Damn it, nearly killed twice in the same morning by the same tractor.
The driver, she must have been no more than ten or eleven years old, hollered down at me in her juvenile voice, “hey there mister, are you okay?”