What My Husband Said Before He Died
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“I’m a mangy gray dog with its ribs showing named van Gogh,” my husband told me not long before he died. “I have soulful brown eyes.” In real life, his name was Kevin, and he had blue eyes. But my husband was always a writer. Words were his tool, employed skillfully to explain, to invent, even to protect. Many years ago, defusing a self-loathing comment I made, he told me, “No, you’re a silk undershirt named Simone.”
There was a lot of living between the silky Simone and the mangy mutt. It was mostly delicious, beaches and beds, reading out loud, laughter unspooling through the days. Even a shared stint of unemployment we spent traveling through Italy, slowing down in Florence so we could cook from the markets. Fava beans were in season. When we met, on a junket for journalists in the Bahamas, we were magazine editors living a continent apart. Kevin had read a feature I had written quoting one of his favorite Berkeley professors. He thought I was smart. So we began our relationship via email, Los Angeles to Vermont. It was always built on words. It wasn’t until he sent me a poem, the one about eating the plums, that I understood he was at least flirting with flirting.
It was a lot of living, not a lot of time. On Jan. 14, 2008, Kevin began his first blog post: “I am writing this from a warm place in a small town in a cold state. It is a little bit more than 16 months after I was diagnosed with a rare cancer that will more than likely kill me.” He doesn’t mention that the disease was so off the radar — epithelioid sarcoma, with its absurdity of vowels and senseless destruction — that it took more than a year of increased suffering before anyone guessed it might be cancer. But he finally opened up that day to cope as he counted down the hours to a crucial scan, a post that made him feel exposed, wit and irreverence being more his style. His anxiety was merited: A lung had collapsed and his cancer had spread.
Yet Kevin went on with this blog, weaving data from obscure sarcoma studies with tips for the ultimate chocolate chip cookies, punctuating it with the stark day-to-day realities of living with cancer. Near the end he described his pain: “I imagined that I was carrying a dagger suspended by filaments in my lower belly.” He also stepped back to reflect on his life, recalling vivid moments from brief, now burnished times. “I think about stories a lot these days,” he wrote. “They may be the only thing that can save us.”
“I am hoping to throw away a pair of boots tomorrow,” one post began. “They are sitting in the playroom under a chair; neither toe nor heel sit evenly on the ground, and what was a rich cordovan leather is now murky with filth and dust. I haven’t worn them for years, and still the boots span some of the biggest happenings of my adult life: ‘Testing’ products for a national magazine; hiking with my now-wife in New Mexico, the red cliffs of Sedona, around the Grand Canyon. Walking with her another time up a steep pitch in Vermont and being surprised and delighted when she threw off her clothes and plunged into a mountain pond, truly, that wasn’t very remote at all.”
We scratched the itch, more surely being more, until there was a toddler and a newborn. But at least we had a common enemy, these chortling little crazy people who whittled us bare at times as we longed for sleep and dinners communing with uninterrupted sentences. Still, we had hope then, a muted vision of ourselves once again in an Italian wine bar or even a coffee shop downtown without a miniature mouth suctioned to my nipple. Meanwhile we kept our Newfie from upending the highchair as she dove for spills, met kindred spirits doing the daycare dance, bought an old farmhouse with a beautiful new kitchen, not for show but for braised short ribs and birthday cakes.