By Jill McCabe Johnson
Happiness such as ours could not last. I knew this in my newlywed heart. Feared our ecstatic newlywed bliss because I feared its sudden end, which is probably why dreams often shifted to nightmares that woke me with a jolt. Like the sound of a door closing that lifted me from sleep with a panicked urgency. Was someone in the house?
My husband, Dennis, left for work hours before I did, and nearly every morning I had these dreams. Domestic dreams but frightening. Sometimes a stranger standing in the doorframe. Sometimes an iron hissing electrified steam. Some mornings I stirred restlessly in a state between consciousness and sleep, the post-slumber ripple of imagery so vivid I couldn’t discern what was dream and what was real. Other mornings a sound, usually a door closing, kicked off adrenal currents that left me wide-eyed. Sometimes the man framed in the bedroom doorway watched me sleep, or a burglar came through the backdoor. I cowered with my eyes shut, and when I finally worked up the courage to look, no one was there.
I married young, but with no shortage of imagination, including a romanticized happily-ever-after that made adjusting to married life awkward. We each had different ways of communicating, different ways of doing things, largely because of our parents. I adored my new in-laws, but didn’t always communicate well with them. My own family never hesitated to show affection in hugs, kisses, and daily affirmations of love. Dennis’ family showed their love in other ways, usually acts of kindness. The first time I was invited to his parents’ home for dinner, for example, Dennis’ mother, Evelyn, asked him what my favorite foods were. “She eats everything,” he told her, “except green beans, which are not her favorite.” Whether it was the phone line or her hearing or just a glitch of her memory later, Evelyn made what she had understood to be my favorite: green beans. Not just for that dinner, but every dinner going forward. Boiled, baked into casseroles, sautéed with onions and bacon, served with pork chops and burgers and macaroni and cheese. I didn’t want to complain the first time. After all, these were my future in-laws. After we got married, I was too young and too shy to say anything. As the years went by—years during which she clued every family member in to the fact that Jill hates every vegetable but green beans—I forced myself to eat them in every hideous form, usually over-cooked, often from a can. By then, I’d let the charade go on too long, for fear it would embarrass poor Evelyn, so I ate the miserable beans. What else could I say to her exceptional (unrelenting) thoughtfulness besides thank you for the delicious dinner?
Another act of kindness that surprised me, but I also said nothing about, was how she would drop into our place while we were at work. She never spoke of it either, but we often came home to the breakfast dishes having been hand-washed and left to dry in the rack, or the afghan folded and put away. Signs of her loving hand, touching our things, moving or sorting through them. Clothes folded from the laundry. The kitchen floor swept clean. At first, it felt like an invasion of privacy, and later a commentary on my housekeeping skills, which were less than stellar. After all, I can’t deny that I did once carefully scrub away the disgusting gooey stuff along the edge of the bathtub that I later learned was caulking—that someone had put it there on purpose to keep water from leaking and rotting the floor beneath the tub. It might also be true that I once used Borax and Brillo pads to scrub the grime off the carefully seasoned cast iron pans. And just because I turned every pair of my new husband’s underwear pink when I washed them with my favorite red sweater (shrinking the sweater, too, by the way) didn’t mean I couldn’t fold my own clothes, even though they often sat in the dryer for a day or two. But seeing how tenderly, and without recrimination, she brought order to our house, I eventually came to see my mother-in-law’s occasional visits as acts of love: an empty nest mom who missed her son, and wanted to do what she could.
Living in a relatively low crime area, we were not in a regular habit of locking our doors, but I made a point to leave the backdoor unlocked for my mother-in-law, so she would know she was always welcome, not just in our home, but in our lives.
One drowsy Saturday morning, Dennis and I both slept in. I’d never had any of those nightmares while Dennis was home, but that morning I woke once again from a dream with the sound of a door closing. I nudged my sleeping husband and, as quietly as I could, asked him to check if there was an intruder in the house, even though there hadn’t been another sound. Without complaining, Dennis crawled out of bed, not bothering to grab a bathrobe, and walked through the small living room to find some woman standing in our kitchen. They both let out a little yelp—Dennis surprised to find an intruder, and the woman probably just as surprised to be confronted by a naked man. “Y-y-you wait right here,” Dennis stammered, but by the time he came back, covered now by his bathrobe, the woman, of course, had left.
She had slipped out the backdoor, and Dennis could see her cutting across our neighbor’s yard, on foot and headed south. He threw on jeans and a t-shirt, then jumped in his Mazda to follow her from a discreet distance. Later he told me how she’d walked to a home about a mile and a half away, a small clapboard house we’d seen many times, on the way to my sister Judy’s house. Next door, the woman’s neighbor looked up from mowing his lawn and waved to her before she went inside. As soon as she did, Dennis pulled into the neighbor’s driveway, got out of his car, and asked about the woman next door.
It turns out, I had met our intruder once before, but didn’t realize it. My sister, Judy, and her toddler son, Robbie, had come over for a visit, when Judy noticed some woman walking down the driveway. She came into the backyard, but didn’t knock on the door right away. When I opened the backdoor and asked if I could help her, she stepped backward, placing her hand on the gate. She wanted to know if Doug was home. The circles under her eyes gave the impression of more than simply an aging woman, but one who seemed profoundly tired. I told her I was sorry, there was no Doug here. Her eyes quickly scanned the small cement porch, the metal garbage can with its ill-fitting lid, the doorway, siding, and kitchen window. But this is his house—she recognized it, she told me. I’m sorry, I apologized again. Had he moved, she wondered aloud. My husband had lived in the house for nearly ten years. If her son had moved, he must have moved a while ago. I suggested perhaps there was another house in the neighborhood that looked like this one. The woman stepped back through the gate, and said she would see. During the next hour, Judy and I noticed the woman coming down the driveway a couple more times, as well as checking out other back porches. Eventually, she wandered away.
“It’s a sad story,” the neighbor told Dennis after shutting off the motor to the lawn mower. The couple next door had lived there a long time. Their son grew up in the house. One day the father and grown son had gone to a Mariner’s game, but didn’t make it back. Both were killed in a car accident.
As Dennis told me of their conversation, I got choked up, not only for the woman and her family, but also for her neighbor and my husband, who I pictured shaking their heads in silence, grieving for the poor woman. “She lost both her husband and her only son?” Dennis had asked. “Yes, she was devastated. At first, she barely left the house, but a few years ago she started roaming the neighborhood, looking for them. That’s probably what she was doing today.” Dennis took one last look at the house, windows sealed and every drape and blind closed.
Before my father died of kidney cancer, he worried about my mother making her way through the grief and loneliness. All of us kids, fully grown and living on our own by that time, said we would be there for Mom, but, of course, no one could take the place of her husband and lifetime companion. Perhaps to comfort him, perhaps because she believed it, my mother assured my father, “I’ll see you in my dreams.”
Psychologists and neuroscientists still don’t know how dreams take place or why. The best theory seems to be that dreams leak into a partially conscious mind as our brains process the day’s experiences, laying down memories, connecting related experiences and ideas as electrical signals jump the synaptic clefts between axon and dendrite to build new, or reinforce existing, neural paths. Whatever anxieties or problems we bring to bed, our brains seem to seek solutions at a fascinating crux of subconscious problem-solving, self-healing, and imagination. And who knows. As new neural pathways form do we increase our lateral thinking, and therefore ignite new ideas or deepen our understanding?
During the second year of studying for my PhD in English, I woke one November morning after an exhaustion-induced, dead sleep. I couldn’t remember what I’d been dreaming, but the words “Diary of the One Swelling Sea” reverberated so clearly in my mind, it felt as though someone had spoken them. Without getting out of bed, I reached for my laptop and wrote for the next several hours. Those six words—Diary of the One Swelling Sea—informed who the speaker of the poems I wrote would be, as well as their poetic form and setting. Written as diary entries, the ongoing creation of those poems sparked an obsessive practice that gave me a welcome distraction from academic pressures. I wondered if the dream had been totally random, a happy coincidence that made a great writing prompt, or if my sleep-state mind had come up with a solution to my problem of being too busy and too exhausted from coursework to find the inspiration to write poetry.
By this time, my first husband and I had long since parted ways, and I had eventually remarried. While I studied English in Nebraska, my new husband ran our bed and breakfast back home. And I missed him. Oh, how I missed him. I missed cooking together, our conversations, the daily walks we took to the beach. He rarely appeared in my dreams, but the sea did, not only giving me inspiration for the poems, but also allowing me to conjure a place where we spent some of our most devoted and memorable times together.
The poet Marvin Bell once wrote a love poem for his wife, Dorothy, entitled simply, “To Dorothy,” in which the speaker speculates what he would do if he lost his wife. The final line states, “I’d have to ask the grass to let me sleep.”
As one might expect, my mother did not sleep well after my father died. She had lost two children and a grandchild before, so she understood a little about the devastation and healing left in the wake of loss. “This, too, shall pass,” became her mantra as she waited for the passage of time to allow her to restabilize her sleeping patterns and settle into a new life. One of the biggest changes I noticed in her was that she began talking to herself. Feathery whispers under her breath. In the car, she tried to hide it by turning her head toward the side window, then almost imperceptibly chatting about the day, the scenery, the beautiful sunlight.
One day I asked her, “Are you talking to Dad?”
She nodded, perhaps embarrassed.
“Tell him I said, ‘Hi.’”
When Dennis and I divorced, it hit his mother hard. She had lost her husband several years prior and now lived alone in a condo a few blocks from her sister’s house. My son Jeff and I lived a bit of a drive south of there, but I saw my mother-in-law at least weekly, joining her and her sister for a walk or shopping excursion. Occasionally, they would make the drive down to our place. We were chummy, but it was her grandson she most wanted to see. At her condo, she stocked up on games and toys, and kept a drawer of goodies for him, including Dennis’ favorites from childhood, and she teased Dennis a little when he ate more cookies and snacks than Jeff did. One of her favorite things to do was to sit on the living room carpet with Jeff and a deck of cards, playing Match. With all the cards spread out face down on the floor, they overturned two cards at a time, looking for pairs. The person with the most matches won, and Jeff almost always won. Evelyn swore she didn’t let him win, and marveled at how he was only a toddler, but could remember where every card was. Despite her obvious adoration of her grandson, when she offered to babysit, I rarely took her up on the offer, worried that it would be an imposition.
In my own defense, I was young, and there were many things I didn’t understand, including just how much she loved Jeff. I mean, I knew she loved him. Of course. I just didn’t understand the full significance he held in her life – that all of us held in her life. Naturally, I felt I needed her, and Dennis and Jeff both needed her, but I didn’t understand how she needed us. And maybe that said more about my own reticence to become a mother—the loss of youth and independence I feared.
The day the indicator had turned blue on the over-the-counter pregnancy test, I bought a baby rattle to give to my husband when he got home from work. He undoubtedly, unquestionably wanted children. I was scared. Maybe it was because of our ten-year age difference, but he was ready, while I couldn’t even imagine myself as a mom. Plus, there had been two prior miscarriages, and I was fearful of going through that again. In case something went wrong, we kept the pregnancy a secret for the first several months, telling only our parents. My parents congratulated us and told us how happy they were, but Dennis’ parents were overjoyed. Bowled over. And I felt bowled over by their excitement—more than I’d ever seen from the ordinarily reserved, practically stoic couple.
So why I invited my mother to be in the birthing room and not my mother-in-law, I don’t know. Maybe because I knew my mom would say no, which she did. Maybe because I was too modest to let my mother-in-law see me, legs open, giving birth. The baby was ten months along when they finally induced, and I still couldn’t believe I was going to be a mother, so maybe, deep down, I feared something was going to go wrong with the birth. Plus, I’d heard that induced labor is far more painful and intense than natural labor where the contractions build slowly. Maybe I felt too vulnerable about having her see me in pain. Maybe the whole thing was overwhelming.
The nurses started the Pitocin drip in my IV at 7:30 that morning. I thought somehow, I could meditate through the pain, but every contraction tore through my belly like a knife. By mid-afternoon, I was in a state of quasi-awareness, not because I’d been successful meditating, but because the pain had me partway out of my mind.
They say menstrual cramps are the uterus’ way of exercising—a kind of training for childbirth—and that women with difficult monthly cramps are often better equipped for labor. My cycles had always been a piece of cake. Only a few days with minimal cramping. I’d always thought I was lucky to have such an easy time of things. That is, until I gave birth.
So, in that desperate, perspiration-soaked state of concentrated pain, building and subsiding every one-and-a-half minutes, when the nurse announced my mother-in-law was there to see me, I was in no mood to entertain visitors. “What’s she doing here?” I remember saying, and asked the nurse to tell her I wasn’t up to seeing anyone.
If there’s one thing I wish I could redo in my life, it’s that moment, with Evelyn, who turned out to be right on the other side of the door, and me refusing entry, refusing to let her be present for the birth of her grandson. It would have been so simple. “Open the door,” was all I needed to say. “Let her in.”
She and my father-in-law came to see the baby and me the next day, but it wasn’t the same. It was too late for her to join me in the birthing room, possibly holding my hand, which I suspect she would have done. And it was too late for her to hear the birthing nurse shouting, “Push! Push!” More importantly, it was too late for her to hear her grandson’s first cries.
My mother received a diagnosis of liver cancer within a year of me marrying my husband today. We had already invited her to live with us, but this gave urgency to the move. Fortunately, Mom had good doctors who turned her six-month diagnosis into three and a half years. Despite increasing pain and discomfort from the cancer, they were three and a half good years, and we grew very close. One morning she told me about a dream with her mother. They, too, had been very close, and she missed her.
“Do you ever talk to Dad in your dreams?” Of course, I already knew she still talked with him regularly during waking hours. Just the day before I had moved some shutters to shade the chair where she was sitting, and heard her say to Dad as I left the room, “I guess she did it for me.” Maybe their conversations continued in her sleeping hours, too, but, she told me, much as she wanted to, she hadn’t once dreamt of Dad since his death.
I wondered if her mind protected her. Whenever I dreamed of my late brother or grandmother or sister or father or niece, I always woke with a deep and inconsolable pining. An aching that didn’t let up, even as much as the short intervals during childbirth, as though the grief were fresh and had to be relived all over again.
When we lose the people we love most, as a way of coping with the grief, do we create a way—like the woman who went looking for her husband and son—that they can still be with us? And do we sometimes create a protective barrier, so they can’t be with us, too? Is this the negative capability Keats wrote about, the capability “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason?” Or is it simply that the mind will cope in whatever way it can?
Not long ago, my husband and I went to Shaw Island to hear Marvin Bell read. One of the things I most look forward to in Marvin’s readings is the moment—and he always does this—when he reads his poem, “To Dorothy.” At this reading, Dorothy happened to be seated next to me, and I wondered if she ever tired of the poem, or if she received a similar thrill as I did to hear such beautiful expressions of love.
After the reading, a member of the audience asked Marvin where he found inspiration for his poetry, and he responded that, unlike people who have a rich dream life, he looked elsewhere, letting his own wonder and imagination find inspiration. There was one time, though, he said, when a line came to him in a dream, so, half asleep, he stumbled out of bed to find a pen and capture the gem.
To poets, the line is a crucial component—a building block, if you will—of the poetic DNA strand. The line adds to a poem, but it also must stand on its own, with its own meaning or image or other moment worth contemplating. First lines open the life of the poem, not dissimilar to a baby’s cry, letting everyone know the child is alive and healthy enough to call out with a voice of his own. For many poets, and prose writers, too, last lines are the hardest. With the exception, perhaps, of John Irving who once said he knows the last line of a story before he begins writing. I envy him. I can’t even remember punchlines. As a very young child, I would ask my dad knock, knock jokes, and after he’d respond, “who’s there?” I would burst into a fit of embarrassed giggles, not sure how the rest of the joke should go. Finally, one day I said knock, knock, and Dad declared, “An owl!”
“What?” Had he forgotten how to play knock-knock?
“Hoo-hoo is there!” he said, and we both giggled.
The doctors were right about my father’s prognosis of a month. The day before he died, I spent hours by his bedside. July heat filled the house, and I wiped his brow with a cool washcloth. He was too sick to sit up in the hospital bed we’d installed in the dining room. Too sick to speak. Too sick to eat. The hospice nurses had visited earlier in the day, a Friday, and told my mother he probably wouldn’t make it through the weekend.
I asked my mother if she wanted me to spend the night, but she said she wanted the time alone with my father. So, I patted his hand one more time, kissed him on his cheek, and said, “I love you.” He mumbled something back, which my mother said was “I love you, too.”
He died peacefully the next morning, my mother by his side. She told me he hadn’t said a word since I left, and we both took comfort that his last utterances were those of love.
When my mother-in-law got so sick from emphysema that the home oxygen no longer worked, she didn’t tell anyone. She checked herself into the hospital and refused visitors until she died. Dennis and I had been divorced for a while, but we still talked. And I had stayed in touch with his sister and aunt, too. All three had been turned away at the hospital. Even so, I went to see Evelyn. The door to her room was closed, and the woman at the nursing station asked me who I had come to visit. I gestured to the name on the door and said my mother-in-law. The nurse explained that she wasn’t accepting visitors. “Would you please tell her I’m here, anyway? Just in case?”
The nurse opened the hospital room door just enough to pass through, blocking any view into the room, then shut the door behind her. I could hear her muffled voice and a weaker, equally muffled response. Though I couldn’t make out the words, the answer was clear.
“She doesn’t want to see anyone,” the nurse said directly but not without kindness, when she reemerged. She wore hospital scrubs with cartoonish zoo animals in cheery pastels. She went on to explain that Evelyn had refused food for several days. “She’s given up,” the nurse told me, perhaps to help me prepare for the inevitable.
In a voice too loud for the hospital corridor, but perhaps loud enough to penetrate a closed door, I said, “Okay, I understand. Will you please tell her that I love her?”
Driving home I couldn’t help but think about the time I’d refused Evelyn entry to the birthing room, and though my guilt seemed greater than ever, I knew I had to respect her decision, much as I wanted to push my way past that hospital door and into the chamber of her final moments, her final goodbyes.
But the thing I had to remember was that Evelyn had chosen not to say goodbye. She’d chosen to slip from this life without her family at her bedside. In an insecure and self-centered moment, I worried that her refusal to let me in was a kind of retaliation—for hiding behind a hospital door once myself, for divorcing her son, for bringing her grandson up in two different households, behind two sets of doors that formed an unspoken barrier between her and Jeff. Of course, I knew this wasn’t true. Didn’t I? I knew Evelyn was a kind-hearted, understanding woman. If she’d chosen not to see her family, it was for their sake. Perhaps so they wouldn’t have to carry the memory of seeing her suffer, struggling for air and unable to speak, unable to give her last words of love and goodbye.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if we need last goodbyes. That is, if we’ve lived our lives telling one another I love you every chance we get, whether in words or in deed, isn’t that the best last goodbye? Are we not always repeating our last words already through our daily acts of kindness and love? Not necessarily. Not in my case with my mother-in-law.
My parents had a month to say their last goodbyes. Hearing my mother talk about her final moments with my father comforted me. She’d played a CD of love songs, talked softly to him, and held his hand. His breathing had become so shallow, she said, she wasn’t sure when he died, but eventually it was clear. He was gone.
What is the liminal space between waking life and death? I remember asking my father once if he believed in an afterlife, and he said he’d had a near-death experience that convinced him there was something after this life. Whatever that in-between state might be, if there even is one, except in the case of near-death experiences, it seems to be one-directional. That border of time, that path between life and death with the light beckoning at the end of the tunnel might very well be the nervous system or our consciousness playing tricks on us. Or it might be a doorway from which, once crossed, we can never turn back.
In a poetry workshop one time with Marvin Bell, he said the last line of a poem does not have to give closure. Some of the best last lines feel more like an opening.
The woman who lost her husband and son never got to know their last words. My mother convinced herself, and I guess me, too, that my father’s last words were “I love you, too.” Maybe, when she spoke to him after his death, she hoped to hear even more last words. Or not last words, but an ongoing conversation. A continuation of the relationship that had sustained her. Or maybe if she never said her own last words to him, he would always be alive, the connection never severed, the door never closed.
I want to believe my mother-in-law’s last words were not “Don’t let anyone in.” And I hope the last words she was aware of before dying were caring words that held the tenderness she deserved.
Not long before my mother passed, my son Jeff left Orcas Island to live in Seattle. He kissed me goodbye, then kissed his grandmother goodbye, for what we all knew would be the last time. She stood at the top of the stairs, watching him descend and go out the back door. After he closed the door behind him, she said in a voice even more quiet than when she spoke to my father, “Have a good life.”
Death is a mapless place. I have hiked on trails with no chart or markers. I have found myself lost in the woods without a compass or even the directional shadows of the sun. But even in those situations, I knew the familiar earth, rock, tree, and sky.
There are signposts that tell us when we’re close to death. The skin’s pallor. The loss of hunger. The shutting down of the body. But what can we possibly know of the terrain that waits for us after death. Again, if there is an after. Regardless of whether we have souls, the energy that animates our physical bodies and powers the brain’s electrical charges eventually passes into other functions outside our personal existence, into other organisms, other beings. I like the idea of it. My body giving of itself. Not birth, but life.
On my mother’s last day, when she lay in bed, unable to speak, I read letters and emails family members had sent. Letters of goodbye. I don’t know how much she understood, but she opened her eyes and looked at me as I read them.
She died in the room where I sleep now. It’s a different bed, but I lie down each night in the same space in the same room where she died. Sometimes I think nodding off to sleep in the space of my mother’s death should haunt me. Instead, I feel closer to her, as though I was a part of her life and now a part of her most vulnerable moment, her death. Sometimes as I slip into the space between waking life and sleep, I imagine my mother slipping from us into whatever post-life world accepts the mass and energy and consciousness and love she had to give. I wonder, if she could have spoken, what would she have said. But I know. She said it to me every day, and put the words into my father’s last mumbled statement.
Please let my last words to my husband, son, family, and friends, and even to you, dear reader, be, “I love you.” But who knows. If time and space are an illusion, if life continues after death, if our last lines are only as good as the memories and imagination of the people we love… then who knows?
After Marvin wrote his brilliant, inspired line that came to him in his dreams like a gift from the gods, he went back to sleep, content that had written it down. In the morning, when he woke, he rushed over to read the line and was disappointed.
And yet, when he told the line to the mesmerized audience at his reading on Shaw Island, one of the islanders commented, “Maybe that’s the best possible line. The ultimate line.”
I’ll let you be the judge:
The door is open.
JILL MCCABE JOHNSON is the author of two books of poetry, Revolutions We’d Hoped We’d Outgrown and Diary of the One Swelling Sea, winner of the Nautilus Book Award, plus the nonfiction chapbook Borderlines, and two edited anthologies. Honors include an Academy of American Poets award, Prairie Schooner ‘s Mari Sandoz Prize in Fiction, plus fellowships from Playa, Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, the Deborah Tall Memorial Fellowship from Pacific Lutheran University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing, and the Louise Van Sickle Fellowship from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she earned her PhD in English. Jill teaches writing at Skagit Valley College and is the founding director of Artsmith, a non-profit to support the arts.