|Two-pages from my art journal: 6.10.16 (gesso, acrylic and gouache paints, ink, pencil, collage papers)|
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
- William Butler Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree
The first date Rob and I went on was to a poetry festival in northern New Jersey. It was 1988. We met in graduate school--both of us were English majors. I cannot recall which poets we heard that day, but do recall thinking that I had surely met the most fascinating man I would ever know. That day, in between the verses, Rob spoke to me about Joyce and Einstein, Stravinsky and Yeats, Heisenberg and Gödel, Creeley and Olsen. Years later we would name our dog, Maximus, after Olsen's three-volume masterwork. The first time I returned to Ireland so many years after I left that orphanage in Dublin, Rob drove us to Lough Gill in County Sligo so that we could row out to Innisfree and hear the bee-loud glade.
Literature was a backdrop to the lives we made, the love we grew. After Rob and I decided to marry I told him had we had an actual ceremony that required invitations, we could have simply sent out, "yes I said yes I will Yes" à la Molly Bloom. But I am getting ahead of myself, ahead of this narrative that is taking shape.
On that blustery fall day in 1988, it felt unseasonably cool even though there was bright sunshine or at least that's how I remember it.
Memory is fairly faulty, unreliable and I so wonder how it is I will remember Rob in years to come. What is it that will remain as time moves along? What will I recall? Savor? Desire? In The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, George Bonanno explains,
Memories of people and places are not objects in our heads. They are clusters of snakelike neurons, arranged in branching pathways throughout the brain. The strength of a memory has to do with the connections of the neurons, their links to other ideas and other memories. The more elaborated the memory, the easier it is to find its neural address (p. 17).Rob is surely a gorgeous snake living in my mind, as our lives were so entwined. Bonanno explains that calling forth positive memories can be a source of comfort and healing for the bereaved. Living in the home Rob, Devon and I made for the last 14 years, every square foot is a reminder of my husband. His eye glasses remain on his desk. His Walter Benjamin books--the last books he was reading--are stacked now on a shelf in the living room. The comforter he wrapped himself in, sits next to me. I am sitting in a reclining chair as I write this--the same one Rob sat and slept in after he was diagnosed with cancer and could no longer climb the stairs to our bedroom. We did not know then that he would never again see the upstairs of our home after mid October. Washing Rob's hair one Friday morning was the last thing we ever did up upstairs together. And today I am so grateful that it was with such care and tenderness that I washed his hair--as if some part of me knew.
Later that day we would go to see a neurosurgeon who would tell us that Rob did not need spinal surgery at that time. Three months later, his partner would operate on Rob and a month later my husband would come home to die.
I have been sorting through books. For some reason it feels important to gather all the poetry books in our house and put them together--a feat we attempted but never quite got done. And this handling of poetry has me remembering. It's a late winter's day--the last year I will teach high school and Rob came to read to my students. He showed up with his knapsack over a shoulder opened, hair tied back, and a fistful of loose papers--poems he had brought to read. He stood there wearing a leather jacket, a striped shirt he had left untucked, a pair of dark brown corduroy jeans that hugged his ass just so, and a worn pair of work boots and of course, his glasses that made him look a lot like John Lennon. By then we were so in love, so in lust and I recall how beginnings are always so much fun.
After I introduced him to my senior students he promptly climbed on top of a desk and began reciting some poem in the voice of the upper-crust English. About 30 seconds in he abruptly stopped, looked down at the students and told them that poetry need not be so lofty, so foreign. And with that he got off the desk and sat alongside the students and read some of his poems, gesturing with his hands as he read. He read about getting clean and sober. He read about the way faith feels on the streets of the lower West Side. He invited students to read and before long a poetry slam was in the making.
Later that day, as we drove to my home, he would ask me what it was like to be a teacher.
"You always seem to really, really like what you do," he said to me. Rob seemed to marvel at this as if for him enjoyment and work did not occupied similar or adjacent spaces.
"Well, of course I do."When Rob turned 40 he sold the three-generation family business in Hell's Kitchen and we tightened the proverbial belt as he became a teacher. For 20 years he taught: college students, middle and high school students, and teachers. No matter where we would travel, or what restaurant we might be eating in--some student he taught or a parent of a former student would greet him and quickly explain to Devon and me what an amazing teacher Rob had been.
On that fall day as we sat alongside one another, listening to poet after poet, I felt we were fated and it scared me. I had never known an attraction so electric, so present-moment. By that next fall we would live together and a year later we would marry and then become parents to Devon. Throughout all of this that love that felt so palpable that fall day become more complicated as it deepened.
Loving Rob was like hearing a much-loved poem. Each time, regardless of the number of times, the poem still takes you by surprise. You marvel at its
quick beauty and fiery depth. You marvel
at what you most needed
and did not know.
Rob lives in my deep heart's core.