An excerpt from a memoir on grief, addiction, and love
I really was a devoted wife. I was called that in a proclamation about my husband’s life from the City of University Heights, Ohio. I still am, in the biblical sense. My relationship with Lee was as hot as a splash of grease, hotter than that pepper sprout down in Jackson that the late Mr. Cash sang of, and lasted a long time on simmer, through years of secret trysts, until we felt comfortable to break the news to people that yes, we were in love, and yes, by God, despite the 27-year age difference and our on-again-off-again love affair of 20-years, that we were to be married in 2017.
People hated me for my past with him, and many loved me for making him happy. Ying and yang, yippity-yap, that’s the way the cookie crumbled. You can’t please everyone. Nor did we try. I sold all of my belongings in Columbus, Ohio, scooped up my cat, and Lee brought me out to the dusty desert – a prickly place of heat and adobe houses, menacing critters that shoot out blood and vinegar to predators, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and bugling elk.
We got married in a hotel suite in Las Vegas by an off-duty Elvis impersonator (it was 100 bucks extra to have him dress up, but he still couldn’t hide the hair or years of training his voice by singing “Love me Tender.”) My family clapped, and our friends let out whoops of glee, and we danced to Bruno Mars songs and popped a bottle of Dom.
Our marriage was the stuff of contentment, giddiness, and a partnering of kindred souls: when Lee sneezed, I sneezed. When I bent over to tie my shoe during our daily walks, Lee looked over at me as he looped his shoelaces. We agreed on which movies to like and dislike as we watched from our “cuddle corner,” a term used by Furniture Row to market our gigantic sectional couch to loving couples.
Our differences? He snored peacefully; little gulps of air escaped his mouth like a guppy popping out bubbles. I paced the floors at all hours, looked out the windows for elk and wildlife, and once asked him how he slept at night.
“Close your eyes,” he said.
“He unapologetically smoked his Marlboro Reds and told the truth with a swipe of a pen…”
That was the Lee K. Abbott, author, master of the short story, and beloved professor and head of the creative writing program at The Ohio State University, which we knew and loved. His nickname growing up was “Kit,” short for his middle name, “Kittredge,” since he was named after his father (his brother still calls him that). He would admit that he never read To Kill a Mockingbird, although he threatened students not to plagiarize by saying in his syllabus that he had read everything. He unapologetically smoked his Marlboro Reds and told the truth with a swipe of a pen whether it be a “nope, nope, nope” on a poorly-executed plot or a paragraph full of praise with the same forethought and twist of phrases that he used in his stories.
Things were simple yet, in the core, oh so twisted and kinked and deeply rooted to long-gone memories and emotions and a sense of place. When we shopped for home decorations in New Mexico, we agreed we were not the flowery type; instead, we were made of barbed wire, cattle crossings and electric fences.
Lee died of acute myeloid leukemia on April 29, 2019. The long and short of it: he had shrunken to a waif, his body positioned like a question mark, slumped over and no longer able to take the pain of a blood-pressure cuff. The disease took him five months after diagnosis.
The disease still has me by its bony, speckled hands. My own disease, that of addiction, tried to take me down when grief knocked me for a loop.
I returned to our house in Las Cruces, New Mexico, broken and bewildered. I began chain smoking and talking to the bird feathers that floated before me in the air, some landing on me after churning in slow circles.
The multiple pillows on our bed became Lee. I rubbed his back in dreams and even in a haze when I awoke and realized it wasn’t him. Almost each morning for a few months, I woke up unaware of where I was, thinking I was at my parents’ house in Ohio, in their master bedroom since the layout is the same. This made no sense. None of it did.
I was an emboldened caregiver, strong and mighty with the feeling that I would keep him alive. And then I was downing a gallon of Tito’s vodka every other day, with alcoholism hot on my heels. Lee and I had afternoon cocktails every day at three. I broke this cycle and kept a glass beside my bed in case I woke up in the middle of the night, and I definitely had it for the morning when the shakes set in.
I forgot the basics that make us healthy citizens of the world: I threw out food instead of eating (oh, baby food was my go-to for vitamins); I didn’t brush my teeth (I now need expensive dental work); I didn’t update my prescription glasses; I thought my seizures due to drinking or stopping drinking for a bit were just the norm, and who cared what happened because of them? I bathed (a couple times a week, if that) in a partially-filled tub because I didn’t feel like standing up.
The stuff of life gets thrown into your face in the form of, well, forms. Paperwork and bills and settling the estate while your brain is floating somewhere in Mars is not the stuff that sissies can handle. My attorney told me that many people, trapped in grief, give up and leave things unsettled.
“…there are shooting stars in your head and arrows in your back when you can’t remember a password…”
“I wanted to be a widow out of the limelight…”
Grief makes you a grey, big-eyed alien when the mind goes in a million different directions – there are shooting stars in your head and arrows in your back when you can’t remember a password or even think of getting out of your pajamas to go to the bank. There are trillions of what-ifs, and why didn’t we do such-and-such, and how did I let him die? I didn’t – I fought like Shirley McClain did for her daughter in Terms of Endearment, blasting down hospital corridors demanding attention be paid to my husband.
He thought (and I thought) he could keep getting blood transfusions to stay alive. We thought it could be like filling up a car with a tank of gas, with a complete system overhaul once in a while. He would’ve been a vampire coming in for blood, honk, honk! Is a bay open? Time to fill ‘er up.
When someone is dying there is the initial fight and many words. I won’t leave you, he told me.
And then as the body is ravaged, the mind gives up and gives in to fate, the person recoils a bit like a sick animal – their way of preparing you to be ripped apart from them forever.
I knew we had little time together since he was 71, but this diagnosis gave too short of a window. Our laughter together, our synchronicities, him taking care of me, me cooking for him, our trips, our beautiful house, our everything.
These were a few of his final moments: Lee cupped my face; I asked him if he was ready to die; he said yes. My brain zapped and jumped, yet I had to stay calm so he would tell me the truth.
“I will call hospice, okay?”
He muttered a yes and kept his small, bruised hand on my face and said he loved me.
In his final hours, there was one more smoke for Lee. He sat up with a start in bed, took a drag off an imaginary one made of the glowing red oxygen monitor on his index finger. He dragged in slowly and blew out the fake smoke and fell back to sleep.
One more time he told me he loved me. His mouth was dry, and I sponged his lips, his tongue.
In the end, he died 24 hours after entering hospice.
Lee was all about brevity, and while I can blabber on about the cookie, being me, crumbling almost to my own death, I will tell you instead that I sought help. This was only after people began to notice that I traveled with my gallon of vodka, turned quick to yell and throw things and repeat the words: You try this. TRY IT. See how you do.
My family intervened in a loving way. Others dropped me – again, you can’t please everyone, and if they didn’t stay for my ending, it’s still their loss. I wanted to be a widow out of the limelight that Lee (although he didn’t know it) was in. I told people to leave me alone and deleted their phone numbers, all part and parcel of this newly-named cancel culture. It’s easy! Just hit “Block” on Facebook! But first, send them a drunken message of how you won’t be messed with anymore. That’ll show ‘em.
I can tell you that drinking does not numb the pain and you wake up one day free of grief – drinking prolongs it. You will still feel all the things. You will realize that your little missives of hate shot to the world reflect more on your emotional instability. I am in the stage now of understanding the roots of my love for Lee, roots that reach deep into my soul and poke out each day when I turn into our cul-de-sac, thinking of how he told me to recognize our road by looking for the flagpole and the 25 mph signs.
I am still in southern New Mexico, near Spaceport that has promised to shoot rockets to outer space from the desert. Actually, this is Mars. Unencumbered. Untouched. Lost. Left alone for lovers to travel through time and forget the world.
Out here the severe rains, known as “monsoon season,” pound down the landscape into rock / sand formations that could be on another planet. The rains twist and curve the landscape into arroyos to handle the water. When the rains come, cars, trucks, heavy street signs, and even people, float away.
It’s a land of contradictions – friendly folks and jagged edges, sand that hits your face like shards of glass when the wind decides to spit at you.
I’m here in some ways to stay close to Lee, to feel his love and fulfill my own passion for the southwest. This is where the world stops, where junked cars and Texaco signs dot the landscape. It’s here that I found my forever love, losing it soon thereafter, and where I will remain.