By MELISSA BURGER | Published: April 23, 2010
Only our spirit, not our lives.
“On every page, you will know how much I love you. In every line, you will see how much I care.
“Writing it down, Uncle Kracker” “
Sometimes I wondered if I had only loved him enough, maybe he wouldn’t have died. I guess everyone who’s lost someone to cancer feels that way. The responsibility of the ones left behind. I hadn’t talked to anyone about what I’d been thinking and feeling in the months since his death. That was partly what brought me here to the mountains of West Texas. I needed to be with people who knew us both, and who loved me unconditionally. Standing at the paddock, watching the horses run, I found myself counting my blessings, in spite of the nearly half a year of hell I had endured, in self imposed exile.
Hearing footsteps behind me, I half turned to see who was coming. Grace and Madison were walking toward me, Mattie with her riding helmet on.
“What are you doin’, Miss. ‘Lizabeth?” Grace asked, stopping to adjust Mattie’s helmet.
“Just watching the horses run.” I smiled “Goin' riding, Mattie?”
She nodded with a huge grin, still a little shy around me.
“Do you want to come,” Grace asked, shielding her eyes from the sun.
I really did want to, but I’m not a small person. I couldn’t see my fat butt on a horse, let alone getting up there, so I said, “No, I think I’ll just watch.”
Grace gazed at me, a puzzled look on her face. She knows how I love horses, and knows with that love comes the desire to ride them. But she’s not a pusher. She just looked at me and said, doubtfully, “Ok, well, come with us to the barn, you can help saddle us up.”
“I don’t know how much help I’ll be, but I’ll try.” I took the hand Mattie was holding up, and turned towards the barn.
“Well, the most important thing to remember is to not stand behind them. As you’re walking around them, keep one hand on the horse, so he’ll know where you’re at, that way he won’t spook, and kick you.”
“No kicking is a good thing!”
Letting go of Mattie’s hand, I followed Grace into the tack room, and picked up the saddle she pointed to. “Mattie, you grab the saddle blanket sweetie.”
I inhaled the sweet scent of hay and horse, honestly feeling at home here.
“Elizabeth, I know you just got here, and we haven’t really had a chance to talk, but, why the sudden visit?”
“It’s not sudden. I’ve wanted to visit since the day you left.” I said, walking over to Jumpers stall.
“You know what I mean. We haven’t heard from you since, well since the funeral and then you call out of the blue wanting to come visit. Listen, you know you’re always welcome here, and I love having you, and you can stay as long as you need, but it seems kind of spur of the moment to me. What gives?”
Feeling uncomfortable, but knowing an explanation was in order, I took the easy way out, “We’ll talk later. Let’s get these horses ready, Mattie wants to ride!” My voice tilted up near the end, as I looked down at Mattie and hefted the saddle to make my point.
She got that look on her face, but she let it go for the moment.
How could I explain that I was running from my life?
Later that evening, as I was giving Mattie her bath, Grace popped her head in to see how we were doing.
“’Lizabeth gave me a shampoo hat Momma!” Mattie exclaimed excitedly, almost causing the tub to overflow in her excitement.
“Miss. ‘Lizabeth knows lots of tricks huh?” she turned to me and said, “When you’re done, let’s go out and talk, ok?”
My stomach sunk at the thought, at the things I didn’t even want to admit to myself.
“NO! Story first!” Mattie demanded, grabbing my face and turning me towards her.
“Yes Mattie, story first.” I looked up at Grace, “Let me do this ok? Then we can talk.”
After finally settling Mattie in for the night, I knew I had to face the music so to speak, and try and explain why I hadn’t been in touch, and why I suddenly needed it more then almost anything.
“So what’s up baby doll?” Grace asked, settling into the couch with a cup of coffee.
Taking a seat next to her, I kept my eyes on my hands, and began.
“Well, after Jake,” I stumbled over the words. It was amazing that even after 6 months, I still couldn’t say “my husband has died.” “After Jake got so sick, and the funeral was over and everyone had gone home, I thought I really had it all together ya know? I thought that I could handle everything, and I know you and Dave offered to help, I’m not saying that. I thought I should handle everything, that it was all my responsibility and no one else’s.” I swallowed hard against the tears that threatened to come. “And for awhile I did. But then I thought well, it’s been 5 months, I need to pack his stuff up; I can’t keep looking at all his things lying around. Do you know I can still smell him on his pillow? I get confused sometimes, and think when I wake up that it was all a dream, and none of it ever happened. Like that movie with Sandra Bullock, only it is real.” I hadn’t realized that I was crying until I felt Grace’s hand on my face, wiping at my tears. I pulled away slightly, “Please don’t, just let me finish first ok? I kept thinking I could hear him in the next room, and I’d rush in there, mad as hell, what kind of joke has he been playing because it’s not funny, only no ones there. So I went to see my doctor, but all he offered were sleeping pills and a therapist. I didn’t want to sleep away my pain and I sure didn’t want to share it with someone who didn’t know either of us. And so, here I am.” I finally looked at her, fearing the pity I knew would be there. But there wasn’t any. Only sadness and compassion.
“Can I touch you now?” she asked, already moving to pull me into her arms. “I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me, why you let yourself be all alone in this.”
“ I was ashamed,” I whispered, “I was ashamed that I’m not as strong as you, that I couldn’t do it alone.”
“Oh Liz, oh honey don’t you ever feel like that! You and I are different people, different experiences, of course we won’t handle things the same, but that doesn’t mean how you handle it is wrong!” We pulled apart, but I still held onto her, afraid if I let go, I’d be lost forever.
“Gracie, I don’t know how to go on from here,” I reached for Kleenex, tears flowing freely now. “Getting here took about everything I have.”
She stood and offered me her hand. “Well, first, let’s go outside for a smoke. Whatever happens, you aren’t doing it alone anymore. We’ll just take it one day at time. And I’ll be with you every step of the way, ok?”
We both heard a noise and turned, seeing Mattie standing outside her room, her face solemn, sucking her thumb. Grace went to her, bending to pick her up and asking “Whatcha doin' up love bug? You’re supposed to be asleep!”
Never taking her eyes from me, or removing her thumb from her mouth she said “Why is ‘Lizabeth crying Momma?”
Grace looked at me and said, “She’s just sad sweetie. I’m sorry we woke you up! Let’s get you back to bed.”
“No Momma.” She leaned in to whisper in Graces ear, “May I give ‘Lizabeth a hug? I think she misses Jakey.” Grace met my eyes, asking with a look if it was ok.
“Well Miss. Mattie, I think that would feel very good right now,” I answered, walking up to them and taking Mattie from Graces arms. “And you’re right sugar butt, I do miss Jakey.”
The next morning I woke with a killer headache, the result of too many tears, but somehow feeling as if I’d slept for a week. I guess it’s true that sharing your burden with others does help. I lay in bed, feeling around inside for the pain I knew was there, like poking at a sore tooth with your tongue. I didn’t want the pain, but feeling it had become habit. I rolled over towards the window and lay watching the sky, vaguely wondering what time it was but not really caring. I could hear voices from another part of the house, and knew Grace and Mattie were up, probably making breakfast. I didn’t hear Dave, and figured he had already left to see to the cattle. I was glad I wouldn’t have to see him this morning. He had come out last night, wondering where his wife was, and I was embarrassed to be seen in that state. It’s funny how everyone tells us grief is normal, but we still feel shame when we express it. Like we should all handle it quickly and privately and not be a burden to others.
Lost in these thoughts, I didn’t hear the knock on the door, and only became aware that I wasn’t alone when I felt the bed shift slightly as a small person climbed up.
“Are you ‘wake, ‘Lizabeth?” whispered Mattie.
I rolled over towards her and lifted the blanket so she could climb in. As she snuggled down for a temporary cuddle, I pushed my nose against the back of her neck and inhaled her little girl smell, Johnsons baby shampoo and syrup. “Does your momma know you’re in here?” I asked, adjusting my pillow slightly.
She shook her head, “Momma said’ ’Lizabeth is tired, now don’t you go in there and wake her up.’ But I knew you wouldn’t be mad. Are you ever getting up today? We’ve got things to do!”
I smiled at the attempt at chastisement, and assured her I would be getting up. Knowing how last night worried Gracie, I said to Mattie, “Please go tell your momma I’m up, and would like my coffee in bed, two sweet n low’s, lots of milk, and a donut would be great.”
I smiled slightly at the reaction I knew I would get as Mattie scrambled out of the room, full of importance at delivering the message. As I stretched and reached for my glasses, I heard “Are you kidding me?” and the sound of footsteps heading towards my room. I sat up as she stormed in, the look on her face saying she was ready for a fight. I couldn’t help laughing out loud for the first time in months, as her expression turned from incredulous outrage, to grudging amusement. “Very funny. Get your butt out of bed and get your own coffee.”
“You know,” I said, swinging my feet to the floor, “in some countries, it’s considered rude to order your guests around.”
Grace turned in the doorway and, still pretending to be mad, said “Not in this country. And you’re no guest. Get up,” and closed the door behind her.
After breakfast, which consisted of grape jelly and toast, my question of “where’s the donuts” having been pointedly ignored, and with Mattie driving us crazy with pleas to go outside, we loaded up in the pick-up and headed out to water the cattle. I’d learned the hard way that, although everyone else in the free world called them “trucks”, in Texas, they were pick-ups. Trucks have more then four wheels.
“What if I have to, you know, go, while we’re out there?” I asked; my city living kicking in, despite attempts at hiding it.
Grace laughed and said “You’re bush broke, aren’t ya? Just go behind something. The cows won’t care.”
Mattie patted my arm, “Don’t worry, ‘Lizbeth, I’ll show you how.”
I knew what the point of all this was, to get me out of my head and my thoughts on something else, but I wasn’t entirely sure this was the way to do it. It shouldn’t have surprised me though, Grace isn’t one to hold your hand and say “there, there”; she was a woman of action. I had a feeling she thought my butt needed kicking and her boots were all shined up.
As we pulled up to the first water barrel, it occurred to me that there wasn’t exactly running water out here, and then I noticed the container of water in the bed of the pick-up.
“Gracie?” I asked, almost afraid of the answer.
She put the gear in park and reached for the handle, “Yeah?”
“How exactly are we getting the water where it needs to go?” I opened my door and stepped out, offering my hand to Mattie as she jumped down.
Walking around to the back, Grace reached in and picked up a hose, “With this. We have to suck to get the water started and then it will drain out.” She laughed at the expression on my face and said, “You’ll be an old pro at it.”
I put aside my insecurities and reached for the hose. “I’ve been told I could suck a golf ball through one of these. Water’s nothing.”
“That’s the spirit! I knew you’d loosen up. You wanted to see what it’s really like, and it isn’t always pretty sunsets and clean boots.”
After several tries, I gave up, handing the hose back and gasping for breath, my hands on my knees. "I really need to stop smoking. I don't know how you do it. You don't let anything stop you, do you?"
"Don't have time. It has to be done. If the cows don't drink, they don't eat. And if they don't eat, they don't gain weight and what’s the point of having them then?"
“Got a point there,” I said, thinking about the philosophy behind that statement. “That kind of thinking applies to everything we do in life, ya know? You do the things you need to do because you have to. It might not be something pleasant, but most of life isn’t.” I dug the toe of my shoe in the ground, hesitating to bring up a subject I’d been thinking about. “Grace, I’ve been thinking and I don’t know what you’re going to say about it, but, what do I have waiting for me back home? No family, a job I can take anywhere. What would you think if I moved here?”
She looked at me with relief on her face and said, “I’ve been thinking the same thing. I didn’t know how to bring it up without sounding callous. We’d love it if you moved here. As soon as we’re done here, lets head back to the house and talk about it.”
When we arrived back home a few hours later, Grace got Mattie some lunch and settled her in front of a children’s show so we could talk.
Munching on homemade burritos, Grace said, “You know when we bought this place, it had a guest house, you saw it when we drove in.” I nodded as she swallowed and continued, “It needs a little fixing up, and it’s small, but it has a full kitchen, a bedroom and full bath. All it needs is cleaning and some curtains. You can live there. I talked to Dave about it, and he agreed we wouldn’t charge you any rent, but have you share the utilities.”
I took a large bite to give myself time to think as I chewed. It was true that I would have a hard time finding a place to rent, as the town was very small, and any place available would have been snatched up quickly. Rentals were few and far between. My only other choice would be to go to the next town over, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to be that alone, and the nearest town was quite a distance away. And too, I thought I could use the solitude while still having contact with people.
“You wouldn’t get sick of me being around all the time?” I asked, a little nervous about committing but knowing it really was the best choice for me right now.
“Are you kidding me? I love living here, but it’s been a bit lonely for me. You’d be doing me a favor, really.”
“Well, I guess that’s settled then. Now I just have to figure out how to get my stuff here. I really don’t think I could go back right now, not alone anyway, and I know this is your busy time of the year.”
“Liz, they have whole companies who will pack and move you. When you’re stuff gets here, then you can decide what you want and what you can do without. Are you really going to do this?” The look on her face told me she was scared to hope.
I hesitated, and then grinned. “Yes. I’ve never been surer of anything in my life.”
“Well hot damn!”
Mattie walked in looking for a drink and asked, “What are you so happy about Momma?”
Grace picked her up and said, “What do you think of Miss Elizabeth moving here?”
Mattie looked at me and said, “Forever?”
I nodded and she jumped down and said “We can play princess every day!”
“I guess that’s a yes,” I laughed. It was good to be home.
It wasn’t until later that night, sitting on the back stoop sipping on a beer, that everything hit me. I wondered if everyone felt like this, like maybe you’re getting back to normal, or as normal as you can be, and then suddenly be right back where you started from. Suddenly, moving here didn’t seem such a great idea. I could feel a panic attack coming, and tried to concentrate on breathing slowly. I didn’t want to wake Grace or Dave up simply because I was having a nervous breakdown, so to distract myself, I swung my flashlight around, keeping an eye out for javelina and coyote. Grace had said they’ll come right up to the house at night if you’re not careful. The way she described them I figured I’d smell a javelina before I ever saw one. They resemble wild boar, but apparently stink to high heaven. Testing the air I took a deep breath, and let my head fall back to look at the stars, blinking away the tears that seemed to be in limitless supply these days. After so many years of living in the city, I’d forgotten how beautiful the night sky is. I could even see the Milky Way, something I hadn’t seen since I was a child. I could faintly hear the horses moving around down at the barn, settling themselves down for the night.
The screen door behind me creaked. I turned around to see Grace coming out with a drink in one hand and smokes in the other. “You okay?” she asked, sitting down beside me and putting lighter to cigarette.
I shifted over slightly to give her room. “Just…. everything catching up with me,” I said. “What are you still doing up? I thought you and Dave were out for the night.” I kept my face pointed out at the night, not willing to let her see that I’d been crying once again.
“Can’t sleep. You know how you get those times where the bodies tired but the mind just will not shut off?” She took a sip of her drink and looked at me over the rim.
I nodded and went back to looking at the stars. I was tired of being this crying mushy mess.
Grace nudged me and asked, “Having second thoughts?” I nodded and lowered my head, my arms folded over my bent knees.
“Well,” she said, “I think that’s pretty normal. You’ve gone through a lot these last 6 months.” She hesitated and then continued, “Death is a huge change to deal with, I don’t have to tell you that, it’s a major stressor, then moving on top of it? I don’t know, I wouldn’t blame you or be mad if you decided not to do it, but I hope you will. We really want you here.” She nudged me again with her shoulder. I nudged her back and took another swallow of beer, the taste bitter but cold on my tongue. I really didn’t like beer; I didn’t even know why I was drinking it, except maybe to help me sleep. “You don’t have to decide now,” she said. “You’ve got plenty of time. Do you think you’re going to be able to sleep tonight?”
“One more beer ought to do it,” I said, swallowing what was left and rising to go in and get another. “You staying up?”
She nodded, and, as I was opening the door, said “Hey, grab that bag of chips and bring them out here would you? I’ve got the munchies.”
The next morning, Grace had stuff to take care of, so I opted to stay around the house and take care of setting up the move and checking out my new home. I did an internet search, and found a company that would do exactly as Grace said; pack up my belongings and ship them to me. It was one of those new pod companies; they’d just ship it here like a container, and then leave it till I was done with it. A neighbor I had exchanged keys with when Jake and I first bought the house would let them in, and, if I knew her, watch every move they made. Sometimes it was good to have nosey neighbors. I didn’t particularly want her to see all our belongings on display, but in a way it made me feel better to know someone would be there to witness it. I had also asked her to take my computer and printer to one of those off site mail box companies and have them ship that separately.
I grabbed the key to the guest house and my jacket. It was November, and a little chilly, especially with the West Texas wind blowing down from the mountains. It was quite a hike to the guest house, but the fresh air and exercise would do me good. Blow the cobwebs out of my brain, as my mother used to say. Reaching the house, I opened the door and got my first look at my new digs. It was as small as advertised, but I felt it would fit me perfectly. I didn’t need a lot of room, just a place for books and a place to set up my computer. Which reminded me, I needed to call my editor and let him know of my move, and to reassure him I would be submitting columns again soon. For the time being they were doing a “best of” series.
I walked around, opening cupboard doors and the fridge, checking things out. The bedroom was small, but room enough for a double bed and dresser. All the bedding I had back home were Queen size, so it looked like I’d be internet shopping for linens and pillows. Or having Grace do it for me. Standing in the middle of the living area, I sighed and put my hands in the pockets of my jacket, wishing everything didn’t have to seem like such an undertaking. I walked over to the open door and looked out at the day, the sky gray and the clouds looking so close you could touch them. I closed my eyes and felt the wind on my face, and just let myself breath. I didn’t have to do everything at once. It would be a week before my things arrived. I turned and shut the door behind me, and made my way back to the main house. Grace and Mattie would be hungry when they got back. I’d make lunch for all of us.