Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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In “Siri Tells a Joke,” Debra Gwartney writes about her grief following the death of her husband, the writer Barry Lopez, in late 2020. Lopez was a renowned author of nearly twenty books of nonfiction and fiction, who traveled to eighty countries and often wrote about remote and exotic places. His work was grounded in a deep reverence for nature. Margaret Atwood writes that he spoke “the language of our inseparable connection with the natural world,” and Bill McKibben says, “No one has worked harder to make sense of our present civilization.”
Lopez and Gwartney lived in the McKenzie River Valley of Western Oregon, about forty miles from Eugene. Three months before he died, the Holiday Farm wildfire swept through the area, destroying more than seven hundred homes and buildings and burning more than 173,000 acres. Though their home was spared, the couple lost an archive building that contained decades of Lopez’s work. The area was so devastated, they were forced to move to a house in Eugene, where Lopez died on Christmas Day. The family washed his body with water from the McKenzie River.
Lopez’s final nonfiction book, a collection of essays titled Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, was published in May of this year by Random House. Two Sun interviews with Lopez are available in our archives: “Against the Current” by Michael Shapiro [June 2006] and “The World We Still Have” by Fred Bahnson [December 2019].
One day when I was driving around, I asked Siri to tell me a joke. She gave me this:
Three men are stranded on a desert island when one finds a bottle, and out of that bottle a genie emerges to grant each man a single wish. The first begs to go home and is dispatched. The second, too, wishes for home and disappears. The third hesitates for a moment, then says, “I miss my friends. I wish they were here.”
After my husband died on Christmas Day, I walked the streets near our rental house and wished him back. He needed to come back. I wanted him to return here, to the house where we’d set up camp after a forest fire had rendered our own home uninhabitable. I missed his presence, his malty smell and whiskery face, his grouchy edge. His ability to recognize my edge. I walked up and down the rain-soaked hills looking for him, wherever he’d landed above the Oregon clouds that sagged like old pillows. I reminded him that I couldn’t manage what he’d left for me. Didn’t he know that? The glaring absence of the man I’d shared my life with. Our property largely done in by wildfire. Attorneys and adjusters and morticians asking mind-bending questions. Even this body of mine that seemed compelled to remain in motion, as if I’d been charged with wearing a hole in the neighborhood rug.
My agitation had to do with what felt unfinished. I still had things to work out with him: the last tensions between us, the ones that tend to collect and congregate in a long relationship like a few sour droplets clinging to a bowl. If he showed up again, we could find peace with each other, I was sure of it, and I might cook one more meal for him. We might make a last visit to the river, where he would point out the dorsal fin of a salmon just under the surface or spot a heron tucked into the brush. But mostly, on these post-death walks, I sent out the apologies that hadn’t been issued before he was gone: My irritation over the cat-food cans he left in the sink. I’m sorry. The way I fidgeted in the passenger seat when he drove like an old man on the freeway. How I shut myself off after our arguments. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It turned out the only person who could soothe me through the death of my husband was my husband, and if he’d only boomerang in again, I could show I was a kinder woman than the one he’d left. Look how nice I am now! The pettiness of my quotidian complaints fuzzed in me like rotting fruit.
Up the hills, down the hills, until I at last stepped into an overheated house that was not mine, not ours, to tuck myself into a bed that was bereft of him.
My husband had been sick long enough, a string of years, that I’d begun to think of his diagnosis as a rumor. He was interminably terminally ill. Until he wasn’t. Until he was on a hospital bed with skin as pale as the sheets, except for a few age spots floating on the surface of his forehead like smooth boulders. His jaws were unlocked to suck in air, and I stared into the cave of that mouth: The tinge of decomposition. The trembling tongue. And underneath it, the gone-black lingual frenulum, as if it were designated first to die.
I was with my husband, holding his hand, when he took his last breath. Two days later I stood by while the mortician nailed the lid onto his coffin and our daughters shoved it into the furnace. And yet I still managed to believe — for half a second — that he could return. I awoke on winter mornings and rolled to the right, away from his side, as was my habit. I didn’t move — no shudder or flinch. I stared at the wall so I could let myself believe he was on the other side of me, his back to mine. If my faith was mighty enough, he would soon reach out to put his hand on my shoulder, pulling me toward him. A man made whole.
I once discovered a brochure from the 1840s that advertised lush agricultural land in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, distributed free by the government, forty acres at a time. A bounty beyond imagination, the ad promised, while also claiming that a man who’d fallen dead in the dirt had stood up again in minutes, restored by the nutrients in the soil.
Shortly before his death, my husband knelt into a mound of ash at our property in the mountains above the Willamette Valley. He stood up again to rake through the devastation of the wildfire that had raged down the corridor where we lived together, where he’d lived for fifty years, a fire that miraculously had not reached our house and yet had burned nearly everything around it for miles. Our region’s long drought had made perfect, crisp-dry conditions for fire, and yet the smoke and flames had seemed to come out of nowhere, jarring us from bed in the middle of the night to run for our lives.
The author’s husband, Barry Lopez, sifts through the ashes of his burned archive.© Debra Gwartney
The author’s husband, Barry Lopez, sifts through the ashes of his burned archive.
The day I’m remembering was weeks after that, when we were finally let back in to discover what was left and what was gone for good. The air was thick with smoke that lodged in my throat. Trees I had considered our sentries, well over a hundred years old, were reduced to black pillars that would peel from the ground in the season’s first windstorm, crashing into splinters. My husband’s gloved hands were wrapped around the handle of a rake, his boots powdered gray, his pants, face, and hair spiky with particulates. He was sifting through the remains of the building where he’d stored five decades of his work, hunting for anything recognizable, a remnant of what had been decimated in a single night of howling wind and flame. I noticed his body jolt, a slight whip of the shoulders and a quiet gasp from his mouth. A few minutes later it happened again. That’s when I realized his metal tool had hit a live wire snaking through the ash. “Put it down,” I said. He ignored me. Another jolt, and I stood up to take the rake. “Stop,” I said. “That’s enough.”
I thought of those small shocks two months later as I rubbed ointment on his back, burned by defibrillator shocks administered in the ER. One dull and cold Sunday morning at the rental house, my husband’s heart had decided not to beat on. An ambulance had transported him to a hospital, where doctors had startled his heart into continued service. I remember thinking of Mary Shelley’s dead frog, its legs reanimated with pricks of electricity for purposes of entertainment and curiosity, not to give the frog a chance to jump, to safely land again. After a few days we returned to our temporary home, my reawakened husband and I. There I spent the next few weeks watching the life drain out of him.
By the time Siri told me her joke, it was late spring, maybe summer, and my husband had been gone for half a year. Still, I hadn’t given up. In my own interior I conjured a genie’s bottle made of the thinnest glass, which I rubbed once a day, twice if my mood was indulgent. I kept on making wishes for his return, imagining them swirling through the air like maple-tree samaras, landing on his shoulder or in the tangle of his hair. I waited for his response. A red-tailed hawk parked in the highest branches of a poplar tree. Is that you? The wad of twenty-dollar bills I found in the pocket of his jeans — a reassurance that I’d be OK? A wineglass that shattered in my hand. A folded note in his handwriting in the bottom of my purse. A sudden, familiar creak of his desk chair upstairs.
I might stand outside studying the hawk until the rain drove me in, or allow the blood to drip from my palm into the sink in the shape of a cuneiform inscription, but in the end I couldn’t decipher these tidbits, these crumbs. Genie, was my wish not clear? I asked for the whole man to come home, as he was before, free of the illness that overtook him and the fire that crippled his spirit. A man, I hoped, who’d be glad to be reunited with me.
I guess we laugh at Siri’s joke because the first two men have no choice: they’re about to be snatched away from their dearest places and redeposited on the sand. They’re helpless to do otherwise because another man has opted for himself. Does the third man believe the others will be the same people who left him? That’s impossible. All three will be altered, whatever relationship they’d once had now in shambles.
I decided, a few weeks after hearing it, that Siri’s joke was a retelling of the Lazarus story, in that the dead man from the Bible was returned to life because others willed it to happen. Lazarus had no say in the matter. I picture the stunned Lazarus, suddenly not dead, hobbling into his small house. Here the familiar sweat-soaked blankets on his bed, there the half-eaten broth congealing on the table, his spine tingling with confusion while new blood pushes out the dried-to-dust blood in his veins. The Book of John describes the stink as Lazarus blinked his way out of the tomb four days after he’d been laid away, yanking off the strips of cloth he’d been wrapped in, onlookers folding into the shadows to avoid the stench of death.
I wondered how the sisters, Mary and Martha, had whipped up the temerity to ask Jesus to bring their brother back: a big request. But then a friend — a pastor, steeped in Scripture — told me that Martha went out and met Jesus on the road not to ask for a miracle but to complain. Jesus had failed to answer their urgent message of a day or two earlier, insisting that he rush to his old friend’s side and save him before it was too late, and Martha meant to give him what for about it. She might have wished, as I do, for her loved one to be alive again, but she wouldn’t have asked Jesus for such a thing. Would she? At most she might have raised her voice in a frustration: Where were you?
“Jesus wept.” It’s the celebrated shortest sentence in the Bible, and Jesus’s reaction to the news of his friend’s passing. He wept, and then he went to the sealed tomb and, surprising everyone, called to Lazarus to rise again. And Lazarus did.
The risen man has stuck like a burr in the human psyche, explored in songs and poems and films, a story of particular interest to those of us left behind when a loved one dies. What would it take, exactly, to get them back? Whatever it is, we’d like to be let in on the deal.
The sisters had to be overjoyed at their brother’s return, if bewildered and somewhat undone. But what about Lazarus? What did he get out of it? He suddenly had time — thirty years, says the Bible — if time is what he longed for. Except that he had slipped inside the ultimate mystery, a gauntlet he must have pondered every day for three decades, aching for or else dreading its final tap.
Jesus returned to the village a few weeks after Lazarus’s rebirth and sat with his friend for a meal. What passed between them? Did Lazarus thank Jesus for the gift of another shot at life, or did he lean in with a reproach? How dare you — you who claim to love me — rob me of my peace.
At least a year before my husband’s death, before the fire, he flew to Alaska to attend a memorial service for a longtime friend, and he returned with a mug. It was a simple green mug with an image of a raven on one side. My husband had asked the dead friend’s family if he could take it as a memento, a clean and unchipped remnant from a life that had become progressively more worrisome and disheveled.
When he went upstairs to take a nap, I set the mug in the sink along with a couple of bowls and various cutlery. I turned on the water, dribbled in soap, and was preparing to wash when I smacked the edge of a dish, and a perfect wedge popped clean from the mug. Just like that, the vessel my husband had carried home in his hands from Fairbanks to Western Oregon was broken.
I didn’t admit what I’d done right away. He found the cup and its wedge sitting by the sink. For a second I hoped he would decide that a settling of the house or a wind through the window had caused the break, but he knew it was me. He picked up the pieces and held them out. Not toward me, exactly, but toward any force that might stanch the confusion rising in his guts.
It sounds simple now (though, for reasons I’m still sorting out, it was not simple then): I’d step up and apologize, steeling myself against his disappointment, and we’d soon put the episode to rest. But I didn’t do that. I decided his disappointment was more than I could bear. I said instead that I’d make the cup right again. Good as new! I talked too much and too fast about how I’d find a person capable of fixing it. I didn’t give my husband a chance to growl and spout, to eventually cool off, to reach the point where he could say, It was just a cup, and learn to live without it.
If he did say those words, I suppose I refused to hear him.
The ceramicist I found in Portland turned the mug over in his hands, then pointed out that it was likely a cheap souvenir from a gas station or cafe. If the mug was as important as I’d claimed, he suggested the Japanese technique of kintsugi: a delicate line of gold, riverine and subtle, acting as seam between the broken pieces. “Embrace the flaw,” this man told me. “Make it into art.”
But when I returned to retrieve the cup, I found the opposite of art. It looked as if a child with a glitter-glue gun had stuck the pieces back together with zero finesse. I paid the $150 and rushed outside, holding the mug and its bejeweled globs above the wet pavement, tempted to throw it down and smash it into shards that I could then cart home: Here you go, Husband: evidence of my folly. But I put it in the passenger seat and drove the three hours to our house, disgusted by my habit of dragging things out. At home my husband pressed the mug, remembrance of a beloved friend, into the far corner of a cupboard. We never spoke of it again.
The three-men-on-a-desert-island joke is the only one I’ve heard from Siri. My request that day was random, a whim. Still, I can’t help but believe it was meant to be: that particular one laid on my doorstep as if it had been waiting to land there, a brown-paper package that I have unwrapped and rewrapped, a gift that arrived overloaded with expectation. It’s the joke that prompted me to read up on Lazarus; the Sylvia Plath poem (“Ash, ash— / You poke and stir”) and, better yet, Anne Sexton’s “Lazarus was likely in heaven, / as dead as a pear / and the very same light green color.” The joke reignited the memory of the broken cup, unfinished business that rattles like a loose window in the middle of the night. All that reading and thinking over a period of months: I figure now that I was shaping one of those juicy life lessons about moving on, about release and liberation. Or maybe I was writing a fable for myself about cup shards spun into false gold, a story whose last line insisted that accepting brokenness is the only way to peace.
Except no wisdom of this sort emerged to serve me on the last day I spent on our property. I was alone that afternoon. The contractors who’d repaired the damaged house were finished, their trucks packed up and gone. A logger had carted off the charred and fallen trees, while the remaining forest detritus had been bulldozed into a massive pile to be dealt with later. It was early November, a year and two months after the fire and more than ten months since my husband’s death. A time without time, though I recall details of that day: How I packed a final box, mopped the kitchen floor, inhaled the pungent air of our home (which had a smell like no other dwelling), locked the front door, and left the key for the new owners. How I tied on my boots and walked into our dark woods.
Once, when we were far into the Oregon wilderness, my husband taught me the word preternatural. That’s what this final afternoon in the woods dished up: A preternatural ending. A preternatural quiet. The deeper I went in — climbing over burned trunks and limbs until my shoes and pants and hands were covered in soot, stepping over tendrils of green ferns and tangled blackberry vines, taking care with this fresh growth — the more the quiet fell over me. Not even a soft breeze through the trees that had survived: the Douglas fir, the cedar and hemlock, the alder and maple, missing their disappeared companions, which were part of the sky and the soil now.
The path was one I’d walked most days before the fire, when ospreys had circled overhead and pileated woodpeckers had drummed on cedar trunks, but on this day all signs of the former trail were burned up, the old way hardly recognizable. No birds. No raptor calls or songs from a Swainson’s thrush. No elk droppings or faint scent of cat musk. I made my way to the creek, which babbled at the lowest decibel, as if adhering to the day’s code of silence. The log I sat on gave way under me, so that I was suddenly slung in a hammock of rotting wood. I stayed there for a good beat, waiting for what might unfold on this final afternoon at my home. The moment teetered on the verge of unbearable.
And though I knew better, though I was clear that it could not possibly happen, and clear on the disturbance it would cause if it did — that is, if I convinced Jesus or the universe or whoever was in charge to bend time and space — and though I’d read the part about how Lazarus never smiled again after this savior pulled him from the tomb, I couldn’t help myself. I sent out yet another wish. This one as fervent as all the ones before, as if I’d learned nothing.
Husband, please return. Not for thirty years, not even for one year, but for this day. For this one hour. Land here beside me and give me a single, silent hour together in our woods. No one will see you, and I promise I will never tell.
This was my invocation, which sailed into the remaining canopy of our once-lush forest, into the green and gold of autumn, into the hillsides slashed by fire, into the tumbling river that ran through the life we’d once made in this very place. I miss my friend. I wish he would come back.