Here is one odd thing I have done. For six and a half years now, I have kept alive my late wife’s Yahoo account. This was her personal email account, one that she tried not to access while she was at work, though if you were a particularly promising student of hers you might be given the address after graduation. As far back as grad school, I would mock her adamancy that work life and personal life be kept separate. In truth, she had an ability to compartmentalize, to prioritize, that I lacked and that I envied. About once a month, I log in to this account and clean it up, sending to the trash all the automatic updates from Target, Babies-R-Us, and Patagonia. In the beginning, I thought I might come across a friend from her childhood or adolescence who had not heard the news of her illness and death, but the news must have reached everyone because the only new personal emails sent to her account after her death were from me. Even after I married my second wife, Jennifer, I would send Emily messages, marking the milestones of our children, Langston and Virginia, or acknowledging dates that had been important to us: wedding anniversaries, the birthdays of family members, or what Virginia and Langston and I had done to commemorate Emily’s own birthday. I sent her messages on the anniversary of our first date, which occurred before we admitted to ourselves that we were dating, when one spring Sunday after our morning shift at the bookstore, we impetuously decided to roam our deserted downtown and ended up eating Subway sandwiches on the steps that led up to UNC-Greensboro’s old music building on Tate Street.
As time passed, it seemed acting as steward to this account might be another way I might preserve for our children something of Emily’s voice in the emails sent to classmates from high school, college, and graduate school. Actually, it has been good for me as well. Reading through these saved messages has made me realize just how much of her voice I miss. As her health worsened over those four and a half months between diagnosis and death, as even the implied promise of additional months seemed in jeopardy, Emily moved increasingly toward silence. At the time, I thought this might be a consequence of having to adapt to our new, unfamiliar roles as patient and caregiver, which was, if anything, a reversal of our ten years together when every change of season seemed to wreck me for a week. Just what she thought about her illness, its roller coaster progression, and all that seemed to leer inexorably at us no matter what treatment we might try, what fresh attitude we adopted, she kept to herself. Perhaps our new roles and the busyness of those months forced us into a new kind of intimacy, an intimacy that seemed to move beyond the need for speech. And it didn’t trouble me then, this strange inwardness of Emily’s, but I confess it has in the years after her death. It troubles me still.
After all, our relationship had little room for shared silence. Sometimes, it seemed, we fell in love across a countertop, hanging on each other’s words, discussing everything. Part of the reason I loved her so was because from almost the beginning of our relationship I felt she knew me better than I knew myself, where I was coming from, what I was trying to say. Even before we started dating, our shifts at the bookstore were filled with talk. Although we didn’t know it, the bookstore was in its last years and was losing business steadily, so we had significant amounts of empty time to fill. It seemed we would never run out of things to share with one another. She had moved back home to apply to grad school. I was finishing up my last year of college. Both of our lives were in exuberant transition and we could almost see our futures opening up before us.
Conversation continued to ground us throughout our marriage. In graduate school, evening and late night talks replaced our Sunday mornings and we tried to meld our studies whenever we could. Emily decided to study Hebrew and German, and so we began translating psalms from the Dead Sea Scrolls and then set to work on Goethe’s Faust. After Virginia was born, we struggled to give up the late night kitchen table chats and would exhaust ourselves swearing we wouldn’t say another word as we lay beside each other in absolute darkness, anticipating any moment a stirring in the crib beside the bed. So I was perplexed by Emily’s silence, and tried hard to remember how terribly unfair it would be if I were to let myself feel hurt.
Certainly, I kept things from her those months. I did not tell her that even before her diagnosis, the shadow thoughts of all that might be going wrong with Emily and the pregnancy emerged in my quiet hours. I did not share with her the stories from the message boards dedicated to stage IV breast cancer patients that I discovered as Emily began treatment and could not stop myself from visiting. I did not always answer her when she asked what had happened to the patient in a neighboring room and, for her part, she stopped asking. I did not tell her of how hard I tried to purge from my memory the scene I witnessed one evening early on during Emily’s longest hospital stay. In the room catty-corner from us, a middle-aged Indian woman in traditional dress (petticoat and sari) sat for hours in a hospital chair staring straight ahead. A boy and girl, both under ten, sat unmoving and solemn-eyed on her lap. No one spoke. When I went to get my evening coffee, I saw at what she was staring. The man I presumed to be father and husband lay above the rumpled sheets and white blanket on the bed. He looked to be in agony. A plastic, disposable oxygen mask covered his nose and mouth, but the room had been emptied of all other equipment. He was conscious, his eyes fixed on the open door, though no nurse had entered or exited the room for quite some time. He was obviously hours, perhaps minutes, from death. The art of medicine had been reduced to trying to ensure his comfort and wait patiently, passively, to clean and prep the room.
Against my will, I recoiled from, but remained transfixed by this scene. Part of me resisted it as premonition; part of me took it as divine intervention: tread carefully or this will come to pass for her as well. That it did come to pass, that the scene around my wife’s deathbed also seemed ritualistic and symbolic to those who witnessed my six days of lying in with Emily, so much so that two members of my family expressed a desire to paint the scene as tribute and testimony, still makes me wonder what good advice I failed to heed. And what god am I honoring by preserving my late wife’s emails? It feels like a spiritual act, this stewardship, but to whom am I bringing pleasure? Clio, one of the nine muses, whose emblem is the scroll? Or Thoth, the self-begotten, who served as scribe to the Egyptian gods and was believed to be the author of every work ever written in every field of knowledge, human and divine? Or perhaps the scene I saw was sent by Sarasvita, who instills in pious Hindus a respect for all written works, so much so that should your toe stub itself on a cast down book, you owe the text an apology? Or am I worshipping some new goddess, our goddess of hypertext, whose presence is felt by the lightning flash firing of the occipital nerve in heads bent too long over illuminated screens?
In October of 2006, Emily wrote to a new acquaintance that she had volunteered to go to the pumpkin patch with Virginia’s 4K class, and so wouldn’t be able to get “more than a utilitarian coffee” with her that day. Then, she had to reschedule again because I was out of town for a reading, and she had to wait for the heating maintenance guy to check the unit in our apartment. That same month, two students who had been particularly attached to her at Converse College, the school she’d taught at before Georgetown, wrote long emails, catching her up on all that had happened in their lives since last May. One was looking at law schools in the northeast and the other had moved to New York to work for a publishing house. Both made it clear that their lives would not have taken them in these directions had they not encountered Emily. Their exuberance, their desire to impress her and to let her know just how much she had meant to them seemed to embolden the fonts as I read. “It’s completely fascinating, and it’s exactly something I can picture learning about in one of your classes,” one writes. “You were so right to encourage me to bigger and better things than Spartanburg. I’m so unbelievably happy here, both in New York and at this place in my life. I sort of feel like the entire world is at my fingertips, MUCH closer than it would have been from a desk in admissions at Converse.”
Emily’s response was her all over. “I love to hear about it all,” she writes after lamenting that her response at the moment cannot be more “newsy” because she is completely swamped. She wants them to know, though, that she is “… well, proud is not the word as it is your effort and not mine, but I am happy about your choices and your future.” Then, she obviously finds the time to make it newsier than she expected. “I think of you often, too … am planning a class and writing project about women, religion, and memoir in a year or two, and I will always associate you with that work because of all our time at Converse.” What must have gone through Emily’s mind was just how similarly she and I had been feeling since moving to DC three months before. Substitute DC for New York, and the email from her student might be one that Emily herself composed to her mentor. After all, only nine months had passed since we had made the trip back to South Bend in December so that Emily might defend her dissertation.
Many of the emails from that first semester, though, revolve around Virginia and me, our little family discoveries, the explorations of our new city, the nights out at Kavanagh’s pizza and Max’s Ice Cream, where Virginia bravely tried a scoop of pumpkin-spice for the first time and fell in love with it. There’s a huge gap in the record of sent emails from December to April. These would have been difficult months, physically, for Emily, but also busy ones, and I imagine most of her correspondence was conducted on her work email. After she’d been put on bed rest in March, she preferred to communicate with students and colleagues by phone. On April 8, 2007, Easter Sunday, Emily broke her silence to write a long message to her friend, Janice, a fellow theologian from graduate school. Janice’s husband had, with Emily, constituted their year’s class in ethics, and the four of us had all gotten pretty close during their two shared years of coursework. Later, when Emily was pregnant with Virginia, Janice became her go-to person for help with negotiating the demands of pregnancy and childbirth with the strain of teaching for the first time. In fact, it was Janice who recommended we take classes teaching the Bradley method of natural childbirth, which had helped make Virginia’s birth so magically hard.
Busy is the nature of these days of our lives, isn’t it? I hope yours has been a mostly happy busy—that the boys, and you and Bill are all healthy and doing well. Catch me up when you have some “spare” time. We are doing pretty good here…very busy and all that. Our biggest news is that I am pregnant again…our BOY is due the first of August. So far, so good. Some pains and other small problems so I am staying off my feet as much as possible (as you must know this is easier said than done). And some very small worries from the ultrasound but we are trying to trust all will be resolved and turn out wonderfully. He is very active and responsive to everything already.
It’s hard to read and reread this one particularly, in light of what happened, and I cannot help but compose shadow texts as palimpsest beneath Emily’s words. Already Emily had been on bed rest for almost a month and her phrase “the pains and other small problems” was too brave a way of referencing the agony and deep worry of the last five months. Two and a half months later, as Emily and I were being transported by ambulance from Sibley hospital, where she had been slated to give birth, to Georgetown because it was more equipped to handle an emergency inducement, I remember wondering how they could expect her to go through a natural delivery when she was so clearly exhausted. We’d written an intricate birth plan five years before, even specifying that Bach’s Cello Suites be played during the first stage. But we had not foreseen the forty-plus hours of labor Emily had endured before Virginia arrived. Although most of the thirty-six hours that elapsed between the time we had been notified of the urgency of the situation to Langston’s actual birth wasn’t spent in active labor, it was passed suffering the low-grade discomforts of assessment and monitoring. I remember thinking, also, as we arranged care for Virginia and rushed to Sibley, that I would have to make it up to Emily after Langston arrived. She’d suffered so much for our family and my temper had been getting shorter and shorter with her. Even today, my stomach sinks when I remember joking to a friend (can I really have said this?) that I wanted my next partner to be a more practiced stoic.
On April 10th, Emily wrote to my sister-in-law about her newfound commitment to live in the present. I remember discussing this with her one night around this time. Virginia had just fallen, finally, to sleep and we’d opened the window in the kitchen. Emily and I were sitting at our dining room table, luxuriating in the cool spring air and watching our dog, Jane, respond to the evening noises. I mentioned seeing the mother raccoon who had made her home in one of the tall oaks of the courtyard scamper to the gutter that evening, then quoted a line from a poem Emily had helped me with, “… Animal drift of the eternal present.” This self-quoting was a mildly annoying habit of mine that I’ve since purged from my personality, and Emily stopped it gently with one of her sly smiles. This is the last night I remember in which we were something like our old selves together.
I am a little starved, stuck in my apt with only Michael and Virginia (and then Anne) to talk to. Think I am a little crazy (and I think a little angry and not very honest with myself about that). Anyway, maybe we (read: I) will be able to talk about other things next time…I can’t wait until next summer when we will be able to visit you guys up there. I can’t believe I haven’t seen your pretty place yet!
My new strategy (I’ll let you know how it works out) is to try to see things more long-term. Not looking to the future for happiness (I am trying to live in the moment MORE) but to realize there will be plenty of time for lots of good things…that this period (mommy days) will last awhile and there will be other summers…