(On October 14th, 2009, Emma Segal, my former wife and lasting friend, took her own life after suffering a suicidal depression. I post this essay in her memory.)
We had no formula for mourning. For two months we’d all but lived in the cancer ward waiting room, dulled by the corner TV with too much orange in the newscasters’ tan faces, distracted by fresh magazines that dropped perfume cards into our laps, heartened by visiting cousins and friends, transported into another dimension, really, by visits to her father’s bedside down the hall. As he’d deteriorated, his brown eyes, when they’d opened like moist copies of the originals, no longer seemed to see anything of our world. He’d stopped responding to our voices, though we’d kept on talking, as if to a spy of his true self still listening inside his collapsing brain. We’d held his soft hands. We’d gazed lovingly at his face, which though harshly bony, still had his endearing weight-of-the-world baggy eyes under the great dome of his forehead that once held a library of knowledge befitting an Upper West Sider who’d begun his career by writing Washington Post editorials and finished by publishing his first book in retirement. His wife, who’d spent more time at his bedside than anyone, called him by a beloved nickname, his name rendered in Latin, but he lay staring at voids. He was no longer himself, but he was all that we had. Everything else, from our office jobs to our social lives to our futures, seemed far away and of little importance. We’d slipped into an another dimension, one that looked the same as everyone else’s but had been stripped of our own needs and intentions—of our egos in other words. For two months nothing much happened, yet everything seemed terribly poignant, be it the mouse pulse in her father’s neck or the odd word “Kangaroo” on the plastic bag of milky gray fluid that fed him through a nose tube because his mouth had been taped for other purposes. Angels appeared. One afternoon it was a stranger in the doorway who’d come to see the room where months earlier he’d lost much of his throat but had lived. More often, they were the pigeons whom I craned my neck by the window to watch landing up on the rooftop of the neighboring building. They were such powerful, chesty birds, such survivors. Not that I believed in angels. But I’d never believed so much in pigeons. In that hospital dimension everything struck me with rawness and intensity. Then one afternoon her father failed to take his next breath or his next. In moments we were finished with waiting and thrown back into our lives, which like uniforms from a past season no longer seemed suited to what lay ahead.
My wife was Jewish, while I was a WASP, which meant that she told great Jewish jokes, while I told lame WASP ones, but our difference didn’t mean much more, certainly not church or synagogue, for we disliked religion. But the freedom to believe as we liked, or, more accurately, to accept skepticism as our right, left us without a traditional program for mourning. There would be a memorial at her parents’ apartment, a roomy family headquarters with bookcases in every room and views of the Hayden Planetarium across the street. It would be festive the way her family gatherings always were, filled with praise for her father from his fellow economists, journalists, and authors. I’d share praise of my own, for he’d been a great father-in-law, encouraging my own writing career while offering an example of a down-to-earth intellectual who marched to his own drummer. Among my early memories was of him leaving the apartment for work, a balding business man donning a Sony walkman, a new device at the time popular among young disco heads, to listen to classical music on his morning walk across Central Park to his Citibank office on Park Avenue, where he edited economic newsletters and reports. Out in the breeze his long hair grown to comb over his bald spot would lift up like a flag of hippie hair, identifying him as an absent minded professor wandering about with his brilliance, which in his way he was. It promised to be a stirring memorial. But first my wife and I wanted to do something quiet and personal. Though not religious we had spiritual beliefs. She was New Agey, given to astrology, crystals, and a guru, while I was outdoorsy, enthusiastic for Edward Abbey’s devil-may-care wilderness reverence. We decided to go to the mountains to watch the moon rise.
At the time—March, 1994—I’d lived in Hoboken or Manhattan for more than a dozen years since college in California, where I’d basically majored in backpacking the High Sierras when I might have been working harder on my philosophy degree. At first the city had been confining, but by the late 1980s I’d found my way out by bus or train to Harriman State Park or the Hudson Highlands for days hikes in what seemed wild wonderlands less than two hours from Grand Central or the Port Authority. From my adventures I knew where to take us, an old quarry grand as a baseball stadium carved out of Mount Taurus near Cold Spring. It would provide an amphitheater worthy of our ceremony. We stuffed our day pack with enough clothes for winter, since we’d be standing around at dusk, waiting for the full moon.
After the train dropped us in Cold Spring, an old fashioned brick village on the fun side of being touristy nestled among the stony mountains of the Hudson River gorge, I realized that the river ice I’d been watching from the train window was, in fact, flowing upriver, as if the river had reversed time while everything else moved forwards. The floating fractured ice sheets seemed to be returning home to the frozen north. What I was seeing, in fact, was the incoming tide, for the Hudson is an estuary even this far from Manhattan that flows in concert with the ocean. Yet I was also seeing a metaphor, the pull of memories towards her father even though he wasn’t coming back. To see your deepest emotions dramatized on such a scale transforms what can feel isolating into an unspoken bonding with the natural world.
The amphitheater was as I’d remembered, yet more so, taller and larger. On a less solemn occasion, it might be seen as the cave man’s Yankee Stadium. For outfield walls, there were huge cliffs sloped up the hillside in slabs and gullies, a mixture of knuckly rock outcroppings and dirt avalanche chutes. To knock a pitch out of this park would mean hitting one over a mountain. You’d need to be a Neanderthal swinging a tree. What made this setting exotic, however, wasn’t the cliffs so much as the ground smooth as a ball field. That didn’t seem natural. It seemed groomed, landscaped from the quarry waste pit. Yet this harsh history had softened into a field of knee high dried grasses with paths almost like base paths. The outfield had small spindly trees like an orchard. The amphitheater felt welcoming, the right choice for this most elegiac of occasions. All we had to do was figure out what to do next. We had no traditional rituals, no prayers or songs, no ashes or smoke to cast to the elements. What we had was an hour of fading light and extra sweaters and hats. The sun had set with a last blazing wink behind a stony mountain across the river. The temperature had dropped to chilly. At first the sky remained pure and pale with violets and salmons—the light when movies get made—but grayness soon settled in.
What we did, of course, was to get on with our lives. Little more than two years later, I’d leave my urban life and my wife for a Catskills log cabin, pursuing a wild passion that had been stirred by my day hikes. Her father’s death, as it turned out, was the first great disruption among several that blew apart my career and marriage. My wife remained in our midtown apartment, not pleased about losing me but rewarded by her work at a woman’s magazine, the best job of her career. She found a boyfriend, a lawyer, who offered her successes that I hadn’t as a freelance journalist. Yet after our hurts had time to heal, we became, thanks to her loyalty and compassion, the dearest of friends, meeting, say, at the Metropolitan Museum on a Friday evening to drink red wine on the marble balcony while listening to a string quartet, enjoying the idyllic essence of city life. She looked more beautiful than ever with her thick black hair, milky cheeks, quick smile, and tiny gap between her front teeth. She radiated empathy and companionship, a huggability rare in our competitive world. When we’d first met, she’d had the habit at meals of reaching out to touch my arm during conversations, an act she now performed psychically. My God, I’d thought to myself, if she wasn’t my ex, I’d ask her on a date. But by then I understood that our divorce wasn’t a matter of incompatibility but of the different drives in our lives. I’d had Thoreau in my blood since I was a teenage backpacker, a dreamer who wanted to be a writer. It was no surprise that someday I’d land in a cabin. She, on the other hand, was a pure urbanite. To the day she died she never learned how to drive.
It was her mother’s death in the late 1990s that undid her. A year later she was hospitalized with suicidal depression and diagnosed as bipolar. Then the turbulent magazine economy tore apart her career. Her life came to consist of group therapy, medications, and freelance assignments that kept her up all night with worries. For the next decade I watched from a distance, sometimes near, sometimes far, as she struggled, still the same smiling, empathetic, enthusiastic, and bright woman whom I’d known, but now beset by lacerating self-doubts, then personal bankruptcy, then losing her apartment, which sent her into a series of unhappy sublets. She grew obsessive about bed bugs. Yet she’d pulled herself out of this downward spiral, I’d swear to it. She’d found a job working for a wealthy young socialite which though stormy continued from year to year. She’d settled into a room in Queens. She’d been able to afford a vacation with a friend in the Virgin Islands. Though they’d split up, her friend, the lawyer, who’d moved his practice to Denver, had invited her out to sit in the stadium as her beloved Barak Obama addressed the Democratic convention. There were times her life sounded enviable. In September 2009 when she called from a hospital to tell me she’d been admitted for depression, I must have refused to believe that she’d relapsed, because I didn’t take the trouble to drive down to visit. By late November I found myself, instead, back in the quarry amphitheater on an unseasonably warm and sunny afternoon, this time to mourn her death by suicide.
But I prefer to remember her waiting with me for the full moon to rise. In truth, I don’t recall much of what we did to occupy ourselves and stay warm for an hour. We tried sitting back to back on a rock that wasn’t very wide and didn’t hold us for long. She taught me a yoga pose, which got us standing and moving. Maybe she read a Mary Oliver poem, which would later become our practice at funerals. We probably would have benefited from knowing some mourning rituals to practice. What I do remember is that we were still warm when the stars appeared. And then for minutes that were long and thrilling we watched the white moonlight paint the stony mountains across the river until it made the huge leap to touch the tree tops behind us in the quarry. The shadow line was closing fast. I resisted an urge to run back and steal a look, instead standing with my wife on our spot, as we stared up at the high quarry rim lined with bare trees like a tiny tangled fence against the sky. The rim and the trees grew edged with white. Then the first pure drop of the moon appeared, rapidly enlarging into a round white face acned with gray seas. I’d never seen the moon so large as it was for those few minutes angling upwards behind the silhouetted trees. I’d never seen a resurrection before, and may never see one again, but I was certainly watching one then. Her father was joining the sky.
At that age—my late thirties—I was a neophyte poet. Back home, I worked this experience into a poem that I read at the memorial, gazing into my wife’s eyes the whole time. I’d never read a poem in public before, something else that would change dramatically in the ensuing years as I took poetry more seriously. But when I shared this poem with my writers group at the time, they didn’t respond well. It was as if, instead of the narratives I had a knack for, I’d picked a lyric that I now plucked out of tune. But my wife cherished this poem long afterwards and wished I’d written others in this vein. This, then, is for her.
tired of the living,
we took the dusk train
to cold spring
where headless mountains
shoulder against the hudson
and sodden ice floes drifted upriver
in hopeless longing for their lost season
we had no formula for mourning
in the quarry bite in mount taurus
an amphitheater of shattered cliffs,
over an orchard of spindly weed trees
we sat on a rock with a crooked back
waiting for cold under sparse stars
“i’ll try not to think about getting murdered,”
you said, a city woman, a virgin to the big dark
we sang and and did the yoga mountain pose,
tucking our stomachs to protect our spines,
sinking our heels to feel the heart of stone
when moonlight ghosted the nearby grass
we watched white haze on the quarry rim
swarm behind the black filigree of trees
and bubble into the shimmering moon
acned with ancient seas
and we wished your father good speed