Present Absence

My wife, Barbara, died of metastatic breast cancer on August 23rd, 2021. We got married in 1995, right after I’d been hired full-time at The Great Satan, to get her onto my health insurance as soon as possible, as she had just been diagnosed, with the ceremonial wedding coming a year later. We’d been seeing each other since the late 1980s, having been introduced by one of her Glacier friends. She got into a great clinical trial, but in 2019 her lymph nodes started acting up again, while I was in Germany on my first (3-month) Visiting Scientist gig. The void left by her absence is so palpable I feel that I know metaphorically some of what an amputee feels. Fortunately, most of my friends and family know that I am an introvert and touch averse, and so do not overdo “supporting” me. Here are some anecdotes.

“Is that Mrs. Dean you’re talkin’ to?” asked Ross, late one sunny warm highish-latitude German summer evening at his (Lynch’s) Irish Pub. Since Mrs. Dean and I had regularly patronized the place during the prior year’s warm (and even cooler) months, she and Ross were well-acquainted. But Mrs. Dean was back in Baltimore; Ross’s query arrived during our daily Phone Time, late for me but comfortable for her. As usual, I was sitting at one of his patio’s RUGPB tables (Rickety Ubiquitous German Pub Bench) with my doodlebook and a Kilkenny pint. I had given Ross the nod a few minutes previous, and as the goodbyes approached, he arrived with another one and his cheerily lilting question. A natural publican, Ross is an overgrown leprechaun, speaking both German and English with an adorable Irish accent. Barbara, overhearing him, was instantly fond of her new nickname.

“There is no landscape that cannot be improved by the presence of a horse”. A colleague quoted that to me once during a pause in a bike ride through German farmland, as we enjoyed the view of some horses in a landscape. That night, I began reciting this quote to Barbara during our Phone Time, but she interrupted, completing it. I haven’t been able to identify the source of the quote, but perhaps it is an Obvious Truth known to Horse People, who simply generate it automatically. Icelandic ponies had set the tone for our (geez, two decades ago!) barge/bicycle tour of the Netherlands, as our very first overnight stop on the barge Noorderzon (schipper Bart Wijn) was adjacent to a field of them. Horse-drawn carriage rides. Horse shows. Horse art prints, horse postcards, horse sculptures. Dick Francis novels. Several thousand dollars for a charming gicleé horse painting from a gallery in Coeur D’Alene. I myself am not especially interested in horses, but if I don’t mind hot salt water cluttering up my vision while I bark out helpless sobs, all I need to do is to espy or picture a horse, and think of her love for them.

Daisy, the Original Mountain Poodle, was a Barbara project when we lived in our tiny Seattle cottage. Toby Brownie Sunflower Noodle Poodle came next, from Virginia, after Daisy died and there was an earthquake as the gods evidently objected. Both miniatures, both nicknamed “Noodlius” or “Poodlius” or “Pood”. I would never have gotten a dog on my own, being lazy and irresponsible, but was of course smitten. Some of our friends became Dog People in honor of Daisy. We, and especially Barbara, indulged them greatly (and of course I continue to indulge Toby), not by giving them treats (note: there was and is no treat shortage) but by sharing experiences. Daisy hiked everywhere she was allowed (and probably sometimes where she wasn’t), and loved learning tricks. “Go around!”. “Find it!”. “Hop on pop!”. Toby, another doughty hiker, is more focused on snuggling, snuffling and sneaking, but never hesitates in the plunging ahead department. I am so proud of her. She can learn tricks, but thinks it’s kind of stupid. She may be immortalized throughout Japan, after several days hiking in the Swiss Alps beset by gaggles of squee Japanese tourist girls begging to take selfies with her. If horses or visions of horses cannot be conjured, I can ask Toby, stretched out on my beer belly for a Daddy Scratch, if she knows how much we love her, if I’m happy staining my shoulders and pillows with chlorine bleach coming out of my eyes.

If, as often happened, she and I were driving country roads and came upon a field of Belted Galloways, we’d stop by the fence and encourage the cows to join us for a scratch on the nose and a chew of the greener grass. The Dipper (Water Ouzel or Bul-bul) was “our bird”; we saw them nearly everywhere we hiked, perhaps through witting confirmation bias. Spring lambs provoked especial exclamations. If you need to get some soldering done, just follow me around and wait until a beautiful or lovely cute or darling beastie appears, then jam your goddamned wires into the corners of my fucking smelter sockets.

One story that didn’t make it into Jacques’ obituary was from Barbara’s youth (she may not have quite been in high school). After some family shopping she found a quarter in the parking lot, and took it back to turn it in to their lost-and-found. This is the way she was about everything. She never turned down an opportunity to go hiking or dining with friends, or to a concert, or just hang out, and in fact was probably herself responsible for instigating most of those opportunities. She packed as many people as possible, and sometimes more, into any event, lest anybody feel left out. She had some superstitions, such as never leaving a house save by the door you came in by, knocking on wood, saying “bunnies” three times on the first day of the month. Our deck was party central during the warm parts of the year and occasionally the cold. I am nowhere near as gregarious and so suspect that I will simply decay into a lonely old guy with no friends. Boiling lava scars my cheeks and gouges tunnels in my heart: thank goodness this post was written on computer; zero tons of paper were stained, dissolved, or torched during the months it has taken to compose it.

Vacuity: “it is a thing that happened”. There is no afterlife, except for the fact that none of us is only ourselves – we’re partly our reflection in the minds of others, who comprise our extended nervous system. That spark inside her cranium, the part that mattered most, is gone for good; the only resurrection possible is the wholly inadequate spark of memory inside those crania that remain and recall. Friends and friends and friends and family. The Glacier friends, the Ivar’s friends, the Genesis friends. Joellenbecks, Abeles, Holtgrewes, Scholls, Calahans, the Baloneys. Dapper horses, dashing dogs, curious cows, frolicking lambs. We who experience or remember these and millions of other sights and times, briefly flick a flame of Barbara’s essence, a glow that before would have reverberated with her, enlarging herself and us. Mere embers now reflect but briefly in mirrored rooms. To barge laughing through prickly brambles or nimbly hop from rock to flooded rock, is to summon her enjoyment of every moment. The night that Pavarotti died we happened to be driving through the Redwoods. The local classical stations were playing endless foot stompers, and we sang along with his Nessun Dorma, his Funiculí Funiculá, his La donna é mobile. Even though we had never even seen him live, somehow we were recapitulating his spirit. Whenever you gather, drive, hike, listen, I enjoin you to sing, to laugh, to love, to think of Barbara, and make her so.

7 thoughts on “Present Absence”

  1. Thanks for posting Dean. Bringing her joviality and need for community, her desire to include all and exude kindness, are all immediately brought forward. Your loss is palpable, so I appreciate your vulnerability in sharing. It’s good for the soul reconnecting us to her and to you on this first anniversary of her death. Sending love my friend.

  2. Dean Beautifully written to evoke wonderful memories. Thank you for creating such a richly detailed portrait of your time together.

  3. Dean,
    This is so lovely, and difficult. I especially love this sentence: “We who experience or remember these and millions of other sights and times, briefly flick a flame of Barbara’s essence, a glow that before would have reverberated with her, enlarging herself and us.” Barbara was definitely a “larger than life” human — who also made the world a more joyful and engaging place for each of us who were lucky enough to call her friend. I am glad that I have so many other wonderful friends (many through her) — but her spirit was something unique and irreplaceable. I do think of her often.

  4. So beautiful.
    Though I know this is likely the hardest thing you have ever experienced, the post did not make me feel sad or sympathetic. Quite the opposite. I am filled with warmth and gratitude for the amazing gift she was and continues to be for you. It reminds me of the kind of connections that are possible and how important they are.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

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