“I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.”
Jacob wrestles with the angel; Genesis 32:26
We met when I was seventeen, in the cavernous cafeteria of the downtown YWCA, all the tables shoved to the sides. The dance was clandestine; all of us were students at a small religious college that viewed dancing as worldly decadence. He and a group of enterprising sophomores had risked sanctions from the school, rented the cafeteria, spread the word and blasted the Rolling Stones from the sound system. So there was already an edge to the night when my sister, one year older, introduced me. “This is my sister,” she told him. “She wears black underwear.”
This was Jack: He had the bluest eyes, a sexy little shuffle in his dance step, and the kind of bright magic that shimmered across space.
Months later, our first kiss unfolded me. He was only nineteen, but I thought he held the world and could show me its mysteries. We danced, rode bikes and wrote long letters when we were apart for the summer. I was just shy of twenty-two when we married. And then the world showed me its own mysteries. Four years after the wedding, on a cloudy December day, our divorce was final. No children. One cat.
When he died a dozen years ago, long after the divorce, I felt a bit unmoored; the loss unsettled me in ways I never expected.
He had been sick for some time — hepatitis C, liver transplant, a good year or so and then a quick decline. He had chronicled it all — the hope mixed with humor and despair and euphoria — in a series of witty yet poignant articles he wrote for his local newspaper about the long wait for a transplant and its aftermath. The front-page stories made him an instant celebrity. We had been in touch sporadically through the years, and after the first few articles ran he sent me a packet of clippings.
The stories came with pictures: Jack and his wife at the beach. Jack in a hospital gown. Jack going off to surgery holding a sunflower. Jack slumped at the bottom of a staircase. Jack looking old. His hair, once fistfuls of wild auburn curls, had turned gray and wispy. It was the hair that got to me. All that hair, that vibrant hair, withered. We exchanged several emails: news about our families, gardening tips, updates on his health. Between the chatter about tomatoes and books, we tiptoed up to the memories, touching but not really exploring the pain we had caused and felt.
A year after our last exchange, I was traveling with my husband, Michael, through the heartland of America, stopped overnight in a Country Inn in Salina, Kansas, just off Interstate 135. In the days before free in-room Wi-Fi, I checked my email on a public computer in the sterile-yet-cozy lobby, where overstuffed chairs faced a fireplace and coffee awaited at the check-in counter. It was morning, and in the adjacent dining room parents poured orange juice while children happily doused waffles with syrup. My inbox included a message from a fellow journalism professor linking to an obituary she had seen on a media industry blog. The obit mentioned the small college Jack had attended, which she knew was also my alma mater. “Wondered if you knew him,” she wrote.
On that day in Kansas, my first thought was this: I am still in this world, and you are not. This was not a boast. I was surprised to be the one still standing, startled by the suddenness with which he seemed to fall off the earth. In all those years apart, and despite his failing health, I never quite imagined that he would someday just be…. gone.
I called one of my sisters to share the news. I could hear the question she didn’t ask: Why are you telling me this?
Why? Because I was confused. I wasn’t a widow, but I needed to mark the passing of a man I once thought I would love all my days. I felt a distant sadness, but not a sobbing grief. I felt guilty — why hadn’t I gone to see him before he died? — along with flashes of rancor. Why was I still mad at him?
Every year since then, at the end of March, I remember. I note how many years have passed. Now it is the end of another March, and I am looking for a ritual, a path to understanding, to forgiveness. I am still in this world, and you are not.
In my file cabinet I have kept for years a bright yellow folder marked “JACK.” The folder moved with me from Michigan to Minnesota, to Connecticut and Montana, to Arkansas and Maryland. Inside: a dried rose, journal entries, wedding photos and vows, a few letters, previous attempts to write about him, even some cautious notes we wrote after the divorce (should we try it again?). It’s a messy stack of gauzy memories, laced with layers of resentment and anger. This folder is a blister, a rubbed-raw patch that wants to heal. After all this time, I am steeling myself again to look at the wounds. I am still in this world.
Folder item: newspaper clipping. “…became the bride of…wore an A-line gown of ivory delustered satin….shoulder tip veil….Honor attendants were…”
Folder items: photographs. Purple tie-dyed sheets in a boxy, turquoise Chevy van. Camping in Quebec, hiking topless in Vermont, adopting a kitten, clowning around in Disney World.
Folder item: letter from Jack while I was off at a job interview. “Contrary to what you might believe, I did watch your plane take off. I parked over there along the Bee Line and watched you pass overhead. There I was on the ground, and all I could do was barely realize that you were inside the metal hulk. But what I did know was that my whole life was in there.”
Folder item: “kittens.” Just one word, it lurks throughout this collection – in the unsent letters, the handwritten notes to myself, the scraps of memory.
“Dead kittens.” “Kittens?” “Kittens are here.”
Not quite two years married, we had saved money, bought a Chevy van already outfitted for travel, quit our teaching jobs, and set out on what we called our “spiritual journey” — seeking ourselves as well as a place to settle. But no other landscape spoke to us as much as West Michigan, and so after eight months we returned and rented a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a wood frame house in an older neighborhood.
Even before we returned, I had taken a job at a camp upstate for the summer. Away I drove in mid-June, two and a half hours north through the left-hand mitten that is Michigan, through sweet-smelling pine forests up to where the top of the left pinkie finger nestles in the mitten, up to rustic cabins and blue skies and the happy, sun-dappled lakes I knew from college summer jobs there. No longer the carefree wanderer in a van, I was now responsible for the welfare of 120 girls, ages eight to twelve. Were they homesick? Did they get along with their cabin mates? Were they getting to classes on time? Having fun? Did their socks match? I had hoped Jack might come with me. As director, I had my own little cabin with a lake view; spouses were welcome. But Jack wanted none of it. Too much structure, too many rules. Plus, our cat, Wonder, had recently had kittens. So Jack stayed back, got a summer job, and watched over the new litter. Seven kittens, just weeks old. Almost ready to find new homes.
It’s midsummer, an evening at camp like any other. The flag has been lowered; Taps have sounded. Campers toss on their bunks, counselors write letters home. A hush has fallen on the pines and the lake; darkness is on the way. The phone rings. It’s Jack. Happily, I tell him the highlights of my day: maybe a successful scavenger hunt or solving a laundry mix-up. Schedules and lists fill my head, so I am not ready for what he says next.
“I drowned the kittens.”
I wait for the world to make sense. In Cabin 6, a camper dreams of marshmallows, hugging her pillow. A spider watches from the rafters. At the waterfront, tiny waves kiss the empty dock. Planets move in their orbits. Phone lines buzz and crackle. Somewhere, kittens choke on water. I wait for my voice.
The landlord complained, he says. The kittens were too much work. Too many other things going on.
Because I cannot bear to know, I do not ask: “How? How did you do it? How could you do it?”
What I say instead: “I don’t want to be married to someone who could do that.”
What I mean: I don’t understand who you are.
For the rest of the summer we spoke by phone occasionally, but we avoided the kittens. I was still absorbing the news; his revelation had blasted a hole right through what I believed about him and about our marriage. I dreaded going home, so when camp ended a few weeks later, I slept in my car at a nearby beach for two nights. Finally, I left the sanctuary of the pines and the water and turned south. As I rounded the corner onto our block, I was relieved to see the driveway empty. Inside our rental, Wonder the cat greeted me, but no kittens, no Jack. I remember how empty the apartment was; I don’t recall what happened when he came home.
The two of us had always had an easy rhythm together, but it was lost now. He had enjoyed the freedom of a bachelor summer and wanted more. I came back full of structure and rules from two months of herding young children. Still, I sowed uncertainty and confusion in the household. I insisted that we leave most of our belongings in storage. I told myself that, after a year of traveling, I had learned that less is more. But I think now that I didn’t trust him enough to build a nest with. We slept on a foam mat from the van and stacked wooden apple crates against the wall to store our clothes. With so little in them — neither furniture nor joy — the rooms echoed.
I never did ask how he had drowned the kittens. I dug a little grave in my mind to bury my stunned anger. For four months, we lived in limbo, working a series of odd jobs. I remember that time now as a sort of zombie period, both of us shuffling through the dark, waving our arms ahead of us but failing to find each other through the gloom. Nothing felt solid. He stayed out late. I waited for him to come home. I forgot who I was.
And then we parted. “This is too much work,” he said. Leaving seemed so easy for him. (Just now I reach down for the reassurance of soft white fur; my dog, Mimsy, sleeps at my feet under the desk.)
Folder item: official receipt, Kent County, Michigan. Filing charge. “1 Divorce. $30.” Made out to me.
Folder item: letter. On what would have been our 25th anniversary, I wrote telling him, among other things, that I had sold my gold wedding band years earlier for grocery money during grad school. I never mailed the letter.
Folder item: newspaper story, Jack’s byline, 2003. “I have hepatitis C, a nasty, blood-borne virus that attacks the liver, eventually killing it and the person in whom the liver resides.”
Folder item: emails.
- Jack to Sheri, June 2004: “You would be amazed at how much I remember about you, us and the world we lived in…I dream of you every once in a while, even these days.”
- Sheri to Jack, July 2004: “Your last email sent me through some doors I wasn’t sure I wanted to enter. We would both be surprised at what the other remembers….I’m at a loss to explain the heft of all this. … Most of the memories make me smile and be glad.”
- Jack to Sheri: July 2004. “It’s a relief to hear you say that most of your memories make you glad. I had been carrying around a lot of weight that I was…not the husband I should have been, and smart or wise enough to make things better.”
It wasn’t true that most of the memories made me smile. Many of them made me ache. But here was a man who was dying, and it wasn’t for me to add to his distress. Still, that buried anger — over the kittens, over how easily he had left (“too much work,” he’d said) — was insistent. It was pushy and brassy; it wanted to be heard. Instead of admiring his bravado and humor in the newspaper articles, I was grumpy about the public way he documented his illness. He’s creating his own legend, I told myself. He lived and died in a state near mine, but I never made the effort to see him. I said it wasn’t my place, but I felt peevish, ungenerous.
Folder item: obituary. “ …died Friday… complications of hepatitis C…..He made friends wherever he went…. A friend gave him 100 daffodil bulbs two years ago. [He] planted them all around the house. They are in bloom now.”
A few years ago, I strained a muscle in my right hip during a walking trip in New York City. Even after physical therapy, massage and exercise, that muscle has an extraordinary memory. It contracts spontaneously, and often.
Resentment can be like that, an instinctive reflex that overtakes reason. Bitterness can calcify memory, turn it into a hard muscle that won’t release its toxins.
Because really, he was correct: He wasn’t the husband he should’ve been. But I wasn’t the wife I should’ve been, either. Why didn’t I ever ask him about the kittens?
It’s late; the conversation that started in bed has us both wide awake. You are still in the bedroom, off the kitchen, perhaps sitting on the edge of the bed. In the kitchen, I lean against the stove, hugging myself, nervously lighting cigarettes off the electric burners because I’ve run out of matches.
This might be the time to ask those kitten questions: What made you do it? How much, really, was the landlord complaining? Why didn’t you talk to me about it? And the hardest thing: How did you do it? In the bathtub? Did you stuff them in a bag and take them to a river? How awful was it? Or, was it easy for you?
But I don’t ask, and the talk goes elsewhere. “What do you love about me, anyway?” you say from the bedroom.
The question seems like a challenge; it panics me. I used to love so many things about you. I believed in you. “I love your hands,” is all I can think to say now. Anything else feels too raw. I don’t trust you. I’m afraid you’ll mock me. And then you do.
You snicker. “My hands?”
What I don’t say is that your hands express the free spirit that I have always loved. Remember when your father wanted you to follow him into the shoe business? I was the one who listened to your fears that it would drown you. “Don’t do it,” I said then. “It’ll kill your spirit.” I’ve always loved watching your hands — when you tell a story, play a stand-up bass or just shift gears in the van. But I am too young to even understand why I love your hands, much less be able to tell you. Besides, you are laughing. At me.
And so I shut down, full of hurt and self-righteous anger. I think now that talking about the kittens would have forced me to confront another truth: that I had put Jack in a hard place, that maybe I’d been selfish. I left for the summer, left him alone to deal with rambunctious kittens and an unhappy landlord while I made s’mores and sang campfire songs. So I slammed the gate on empathy. Easier to blame him.
Lately, that hip muscle is acting up more. Sometimes I limp the last few blocks of Mimsy’s daily walk. I ask my acupuncturist, Rebecca, if she can alleviate it. I tell her too about my struggle with resentment, about feeling toxic. I want to forgive but feel profoundly blocked, I say. She nods. Relationship problems, she says, often manifest in the hips. Mind-body practitioners say this is right: hip tightness can mean emotions are stuck in the body. Fear, anxiety, sadness. Yes, yes and yes. And there’s more: tightness in the lower back and glutes can mean an inability to let go of the past.
Rebecca tells me two acupuncture points are speaking to her. As she deftly inserts the needles into my solar plexus area, she tells me their names: Through the Valley. Dark Gate. Later, there’s a third point: Walking on the Verandah, viewing the valley below from a distance. “Let’s take you up to the verandah,” she says.
Anger is exhausting, and it puts me in mind of Jacob, grappling with that angel. In the Genesis story, Jacob is on a journey away from one trouble and heading toward another, a meeting he dreads with the twin brother he has wronged. He has crossed a river and sent his entourage — wives, children, servants and livestock — ahead of him. What awaits him he does not know, but darkness settles and he is alone to struggle with his fears and with the angel all night. They are evenly matched, Jacob and the angel, so that the angel, unable to overpower him, wounds him in the hip and gives him a limp he will carry for the rest of his days. Finally, dawn is coming and the angel asks Jacob to release him. “Not until you bless me,” says Jacob.
As a child, I could not figure out why the angel didn’t win this biblical wrestling match outright. Didn’t angels have superpowers? Weren’t they God surrogates?
I was once asked in a catechism class, “What creature did God make a little lower than the angels?” My literal child’s mind wondered: What animal is so tall that it could reach almost to the angels in heaven? The biggest creature I could think of, the only one I could imagine stretching its trunk to heaven, was an elephant. And so that was my answer, to my classmates’ giggles. (Why not a giraffe? my family would later tease me). Of course, “a little lower than the angels” was figurative; the creature was us, and it meant that we humans were godlike. Jacob was on equal footing with that angel. He fought hard; the angel fought back.
I have never felt equal to my dark angel of anger, that brooding resentment. Whenever I’ve tried to drag it into the light, it has clawed at me, winning round after round. Not this time, I say. No more slipping back underground. This time, I spread out that bright yellow folder and open my eyes to everything in it. Everything: the early sweetness, the kittens, the anger, the blame, the pain.
Folder item: newspaper photograph. Jack is dying. Look: the clear plastic oxygen mask his wife holds tenderly to his face, the white pillowcase with its blue hospital lettering, the white wall, the startling springtime green of his wife’s shirt. Look: you can see one of his eyes; it is open and he stares beyond, at the ceiling. Her eyes are closed. She cradles his head with one hand; her cheek rests on his forehead. His hand wraps gently around her wrist.
I have stood watch at death, and I know the fear, the hope that it won’t happen and the anguish when it does. I study this picture of dying Jack for the longest time, hoping it will unfold me. And there, in the bend of her elbow, the private shadowy space between them, how she protects him, how their fingers alight on the other’s body, I find it. Here is a man who loved and was loved. That is enough.
To my dark angel I say: We have been through the valley; we have passed by that dark gate. Now let us walk together on the veranda. You have blessed me, I say. And I will let you go.