It is summer, 1996. Bernice and I are driving her stuffed-to-the-gills Taurus on our way to our new life in Phoenix. After an interminable drive through flat-ass, farm-riddled Kansas we had holed up at the Tucumcari Holiday Inn. We arrived there after dark and set our alarm for four bells next morning. It was still dark when we drank our first coffee on the road. Since we are both from the Midwest we were still feeling like we had been driving forever without getting anywhere. That was about to change.
As the dawn broke slowly we peered out at some pretty eerie structures. Nothing new about that, cornfields and barns and silos can look pretty eerie in the pre-dawn. But as the dark gave way to light and color we found ourselves driving straight into sunrise on the Sonoran Desert. The world had changed before our eyes. At first we could only marvel at the outrageous bolder configurations, the red desert clay and the “Wow, would you look at those monster (Saguaro) Cactus.” It was serendipitous that Bernice was driving because suddenly I was hit with a jolt from the past. Suddenly I am seven years old the summer before my dad died. He is telling me probably the last story about his time out west as a young man. As I listen to him I’m daydreaming about being a cowboy just like he was. The boy is now a fifty-four years old man who has harbored the dream of moving west forty-seven of those years. “Baby,” I said through tears, “this may sound strange, but we are out west and I feel like I’m finally home.”
My life partner, Bernice Betty Wagner, died on February 17, 2011. I am in my thirteenth month of grieving. In my journey I have not yet become whole, but I have changed. I recently attempted to describe this change through a letter to a woman I met in one of my grief counseling sessions. She had recently lost her mother. Through talking to each other about our losses, we became friends. I have her permission, as well as that of my two good friends Paul and Deanna, to share this letter with you.
Just got home from my jeep ride through the Tonto National Park with Paul and Deanna. Thought you’d like to hear the story.
As the jeep rambles over daunting terrain, Paul and Deanna are like the kids in Jurassic Park when they saw their first prehistoric creatures. They, P & D, marveled at the dense desert foliage and the other-worldly rock formations. They kept asking, didn’t I think it was striking, awe-inspiring. Later we sat outside their camper and watched the sunset. Again the questions, didn’t I think it was spectacular, could there be anything more beautiful than the sun disappearing behind a pristine desert horizon. I responded with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. But my mind was elsewhere.
It was just last summer (2011) and I had driven up to Flagstaff to spend a couple of days hanging with my writer friend Dan who had found means to escape the valley heat, a cheap hotel with a hell of a view of the San Francisco Peaks. I mention this because Dan was doing a lot of self-congratulatory expository's on his cleverness, beating the heat, getting a steal on the motel rooms, landing us a view that would rival any in the state.
First chance I got I wandered off alone, surveyed the mighty mountains, the more immediate pine forest, and the quaintness of Flagstaff from the edge. It all looked like the set of an old “B” western movie gaudily dressed in technicolor. For fifteen years, Bernice and I roamed the state in a mad love affair with its mountains and deserts. Standing in the motel parking lot in Flagstaff, I simply could not remember what all the fuss was about. I wasn’t jaded. I was grieving. Love of a person, love of a place-when one is gone the other follows leaving hurt and apathy in the wake.
Not that I didn’t appreciate Paul and Deanna’s enthusiasm for the Park. It was the type of reaction that Bernice and I always expected when showing our guests the grandeur that we lived in. It just that I was hearing them and not hearing them. Feeling them and not feeling them. Sharing and not sharing. My emotions were coming from the same source and not the same source. They reveled in the finding of this world, I reveled in returning to it. It has been so long since I could appreciate my land, my state, my home.
I stayed for dinner and we talked the evening away, telling of our struggles, laughing at our foibles. Paul is every bit as irreverent as I am. Deanna keeps him in line, more or less. They compliment each other. I love them and cherish the time I spend in their company.
As always, thanks for listening
The Bard of Appanoose