Poem #2 ~

I Watched You Without Blinking

In the twilight of your sinking
I grew calloused to your grief.
I thought I loved you less and less.
I watched you without blinking.

From the lies about your drinking
I conceived the need to leave.
Words were weapons in my telling. Still,
I watched you without blinking.

Once, you lay in bed unthinking,
Slack. You floated toward death’s port.
But the doctors turned the tide back as
I watched you without blinking.

In the aftermath of stinking
Guilt, my shame came to the fore.
I’d cut the line, so fine, between us.
I had watched you without blinking.

When I strove for our relinking,
You were carapaced with hate.
My hands, outstretched, stayed empty, for
I’d watched you without blinking.

My heart curled gray and shrinking
As your world grew small and strait.
You chose the path toward Not to be.
I watched you without blinking.

You handed off your grief to me.
I cannot keep from blinking.
Now I fight to shed the darkness
Of the twilight of your sinking.

This poem is for and about Steve, my second husband. The third stanza, which may be too inscrutable, refers to his failed suicide attempt. By the time he died he was my ex-husband, but for many reasons I felt much more like a widow than a divorcée. My sense is that this may be the last time I write about him. If you’re fairly new to this blog and are interested, see Into the Confessional and Steve.

The title of this poem comes from a 2004 painting by Ikenaga Yasunari called “I Watch You Without Blinking.” As soon as I saw it I knew I wanted to write something using the same title. I was thinking of a short story. Instead, I set out to write a villanelle, but it morphed into the quatrain form above while still using a repeating-line motif. The first and last lines of each stanza rhyme, and the last line of each stanza is the same (with small variations), until the final stanza. The last line of the poem repeats the first line. Every two stanzas have second lines that rhyme, though usually with a slant rhyme. 

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Steve ~

Note: This is a very long post, but for me it is a necessary tribute and a necessary corollary to an earlier post. A handful of Facebook friends will have read parts of this essay on the FB memorial page I set up for Steve.

In my post Into the Confessional I talked about the death of my second husband from alcoholism and my responsibility for his death. But “alcoholic” carries such profoundly negative connotations that it obscures the person who suffers from the disease. I would hate for anyone to think “Steve = alcoholic.” He was smart, funny, creative, nice—and a true original who had more peccadillos than an armadillo (one of our favorite animals). I’ve never known anyone like him.

Steve was the type of person who always stopped for road-crossing turtles and moved them where they were going, no matter how much peril this entailed for our own car. He loved animals, all animals. In his last few years he became a vegetarian, a choice that perplexed his parents and took them about three years to accept. He had a multi-volume animal encyclopedia that he often browsed through, and he’d frequently show me a picture of something like a naked mole rat or a fennec and insist, “I need one!” I liked the animals he showed me too, but I had to tell him no, which made him pout.

Steve, age 32

Steve, age 32

In the early 1980s Steve co-managed a used-record store in St. Louis and then one here in Carbondale. He was an expert on rock, jazz, and avant-garde classical music in particular. As a young man, he worked for a time as a janitor; with a St. Louis friend, he recorded three albums under the name The Janitors. He came to believe that Bach’s cantatas were the most sublime music ever written, but he also loved the Beatles with almost equal passion.

Most people seemed to recognize right away that Steve was a good-hearted person. Here was one act of generosity: Once when he was at the vet’s with our dog Sammy, a young client discovered she had no money to pay her bill. Steve offered to cover the charges. Our vet didn’t let him, but she often speaks of that gesture. On the other hand, Steve was capable of crimes against humanity, or at least music browsers. He was fond of telling me about the time at the St. Louis record store when he played Yoko Ono’s screechiest LP at top volume for 12 hours straight. Apparently not too many people browsed the bins on that day. It’s a wonder the store stayed in business, but it did well with Steve in charge.

Taken together, these two anecdotes epitomize the fact that Steve was a paradox. He was kind to people, yet he generally didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought about his actions. Nor did he mind making people feel uncomfortable or even driving them temporarily insane. In music, he had a tremendous capacity for loudness, dissonance, and the avant-garde. In his personal life, it was just the opposite. The modern world was too “noisy” for him—too many aggravations, impediments, hassles, and impositions for him to easily endure. He frequently said that he was born a few centuries too late.

He could never have been married to a normal, talkative, high-energy person. Whenever I became somewhat animated or enthusiastic in conversation, he accused me of “fizzing and popping.” I’m not sure if I ever pointed out that many of his LPs consisted largely of fizzing and popping, but he knew there were certain ones that he could play at top volume only when I was out of the house. These LPs stressed me out, but Steve enjoyed them and I think they helped him cope with stress.

Steve also used The Weather Channel as a calming agent—this in the days before the endless sensationalistic series it now favors. Often The Weather Channel was on at our house for hours, yet neither of us ever seemed to know the forecast. One morning we blearily watched the “Local on the 8s,” then looked at each other and said in unison, “Did you catch that?”

Steve was not materialistic. He bought used books and used records and little else. Eventually he did start amassing a CD collection, which burgeoned when he began an endeavor to Acquire Every Bach Cantata Ever Recorded (more than 200 are extant). He meticulously kept track of this project on sheets of graph paper. After his death I kept the papers, but let most of the CDs go. The sheer number—more than 80—was just too overwhelming to deal with in the midst of the hundreds of other CDs, LPs, and tapes he owned.

Steve liked the fact that he was born on the same date that Shakespeare was (probably) born. April 23 also is World Book Day, which seems appropriate. Steve loved books. He used to buy arcane, ratty old paperbacks—nonfiction, usually on history, philosophy, or art—for a quarter or so at the library book sales. If he spent more than a quarter, you knew it was something that he really wanted. Kurt Vonnegut was the major exception to this thriftiness. Steve would spring for a hardback when a new Vonnegut book came out, if I hadn’t already given it to him for a present.

Steve, age 48

Steve, age 48

Some other people and things that Steve liked: Bertrand Russell, Douglas Adams, Monty Python, Star Trek, Nick Drake, Eric Dolphy, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Jan Garbarek, Glenn Gould, chopped garlic slathered on thin-crust pizza, Sriracha Rooster hot sauce, desert boots (remember those?), black T-shirts, Asian paintings, African sculpture and masks, found objects used as art objects (I’ve kept a small green sewer lid he found before we were married), “Barney Miller,” “The Andy Griffith Show” (and its theme song, which he recorded onto a tape loop), Woody Allen, independent and foreign films, really bad movies (he called these “Liberty” movies, after the decrepit Liberty Theater in a nearby town, which showed mostly really bad movies for a dollar admission), “High Plains Drifter,” Sophia Loren, Heath Bar Blizzards, pocket watches instead of wristwatches, minimalism in almost every area of life, porches, trees (he couldn’t bear to see a tree cut down), and National Geographic, especially the maps they sometimes included.

A born nature lover, Steve had his happiest times during high school and college when he and his friend Perry hiked all over southeast Missouri and southern Illinois. Certainly Steve and I had our best days during vacation trips. I loved showing him places that were close to my heart from family vacations, but even better was traveling where neither of us had been before—like Craters of the Moon National Park, in Idaho, or New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Scenic Highway in the fall. Steve’s favorite states were Maine and New Mexico, along with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The remoteness was part of their appeal, I think. Had we ever made it to Alaska, I’m not sure I would have gotten him back to southern Illinois.

Fully half of Steve’s utterances to me came from other sources. Many of his favorite expressions were used by a subset of guys his age who were smart, deeply weird, and lovers of Monty Python and early Saturday Night Live. Some expressions were Steve’s own, and some I never have found sources for. Whenever I’m talking with someone, Steve-isms constantly fly out of my mouth, as if I’m channeling him. Here are just a few of the things that I heard a lot:

  • “Well, I can go to bed now, I learned something today.”
  • “I wasn’t expecting a sort of Spanish Inquisition!”
  • “Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!”
  • “Evil, wicked, mean, and nasty.”
  • “42” (said to me with infuriating frequency whenever I asked him a question; Google it if necessary)
  • “Make up your feeble mind.”
  • “My hovercraft is full of eels.”
  • “The wrong side of town” (i.e., anything across the railroad tracks from our house, since that meant he could be caught by a train when running an errand there)
  • “Brrrr cold rays!” (when it was cold outside)
  • “I win!” (the sum total, start to finish, of Steve’s favorite game was simply to say “I win!”)

One original expression of Steve’s that I found hilarious was the time he referred to dog food as “proto-poop.” (Perhaps you had to be there.) Another time our neighborhood association was discussing the party noise coming from a rental house and Steve said to a friend of ours, “Maybe we could burn a boogie deck on their front lawn.” That still makes me laugh.

A quotation often directed at me was “Are you talking Pig Latin? What do all of those words mean?” (from the Dilbert cartoon in which Dogbert is answering the phone at a call center). Any number of circumstances could trigger that one. A saying that I came up with myself (to the best of my knowledge) was “I don’t have to talk to you and I don’t have to not talk to you.” Steve adopted this one immediately and later attempted to claim authorship of it. He was also very much into saying that he was going to copyright the word “the” so that he’d be rich and wouldn’t have to work anymore.

I miss all of this nonsense tremendously. Steve kept his private thoughts just that—private—so to a large extent these and a hundred other like expressions WERE Steve for me.

Academically, Steve was a psychology and philosophy double-major, and he was a special fan of Greek philosophy. This nearly crippled our marriage. One of the most exasperating things about Steve was that I couldn’t get him to discuss problems or to work through fights. Such “conversations” quickly derailed, with Steve heading one way, making intense, incomprehensible statements about Plato, while I headed another, usually trying to persuade him that he needed to take more initiative about things.

Steve’s tragedy was that he didn’t know what to do with his life. He could have been almost anything he wanted to be. Instead, as a master’s student, he racked up what probably still stands as the highest number of incompletes in the history of SIU’s philosophy department. So he worked as a secretary (a high-stress job, as anyone who’s ever been a secretary knows). When he hyperventilated on the way home from work one day, I suggested that he take a year off work and paint, which is what he really liked to do.

He knew a great deal about art, and though few people saw his work, he was an excellent painter of abstract compositions. So he quit work, painted a great deal, and eventually submitted some slides to a top Chicago gallery. Unfortunately, this was equivalent to a writer shooting for publication in The New Yorker right off the bat. He was rejected, but the gallery owner wrote him a note saying that he found the paintings interesting and to let him know if Steve was going to be showing his work in the Chicago area.

This outcome was kind of like winning second prize in the lottery: not what you’d hoped for, but pretty damn good. I knew this from my days of sending out poetry manuscripts to little journals (not The New Yorker), and I told Steve he had netted quite a compliment. But Steve never sent slides to a gallery again. When I began entering photographs in juried art shows in the region, I encouraged him to do the same. You need to build up a résumé to approach major galleries, I told him. No dice. Rejection, I think, just felt too risky to Steve, and it was easy for him to get his back up—especially when he knew his work was good.

And it was good. I still have two big Hollinger boxes full of Steve’s paintings (his medium was undiluted watercolor on paper). His parents took what I call the Rorschach approach to abstract art. Confronted with one of Steve’s paintings, they complimented it but would try their hardest to find something in it that resembled a real-world scene or object. In her mid-70s, Steve’s mom took a watercolor class and quickly showed a lot of talent at representational painting. So a few years after Steve and his dad died (both in 2008), I hauled the Hollinger boxes down to her and let her choose any paintings she wanted to keep. She may not like abstract art very much, but on some level she gets it. Damned if she didn’t pick some of the very best ones.

Steve, age 49

Steve, age 49

A much better cook than I was, Steve made great omelets and an excellent chunky marinara sauce with green peppers, mushrooms, and onions. But some things eluded him. He made several attempts at homemade pizza, but the crust never came out right. One Christmas his parents gave him a bread machine, which led to a couple of near-disasters, which led to the giving-away of the bread machine. And as many times as he tried, his homemade hummus never tasted like the kind in restaurants. But most of what he made was delicious.

Steve was less attentive to his appearance than just about anyone I’ve ever met. When his parents expressed their disapproval (“Why don’t you take some pride in how you look?”), he reminded them of what the Bible had to say about pride. (He was an atheist, but couldn’t bring himself to tell his Southern Baptist parents.) Steve felt he was unattractive—I never could convince him otherwise—and I think he just trained himself not to care. In the profile picture I posted on his Facebook memorial page (see above), his beard is neatly trimmed, but in the early years of our marriage it was long, skimpy, and scraggly, so that he looked a bit like an underfed Scots-Amish farmer.

The profile picture also shows Steve’s beloved hemp hat. He found these hats at the Neighborhood Co-op, and I bought one too. He loved this hat so much, he would have slept in it if he could have. He wore his winter and summer, outdoors and indoors, day and night, virtually 24/7, for years, until the sweat stains made it look as if he’d spit tobacco juice over the whole thing. Then holes developed where the brim attached. Finally even I couldn’t stand it, and I gave him my own hat, which I seldom used (too warm). He wore it sometimes but frequently reverted back to the Hat From Hell. The hat made Steve instantly recognizable on campus and in Carbondale generally.

On the rare occasions nowadays when I see a tall, thin guy wearing a similar kind of hat, my heart stops momentarily. I’m thinking it always will.

Into the confessional ~

Caveat: I’m abandoning my principles in making this post. There is nothing humorous here at all, and the few readers I have might usefully be advised to skip it. This post is principally for me to get the refrain of the past six years set down in writing. My friends have heard this ad nauseam, and they’re tired of hearing it. They needn’t read this. They’ve told me I’m not to blame, but I reject that judgment. One can’t absolve oneself of a great wrong because it is emotionally convenient. It doesn’t work that way.

____________________________________________________
Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice…
—Robert Frost

There was more than one nightmare on Elm Street. I lived on the street by that name in our town for 15 years, and the experience was bracketed at either end by deaths. One I had nothing to do with. The other I caused. There were accomplices, including the victim, but I dealt the killing blow.

The night before my second husband and I closed on the first and only house we bought together, a young man—a kid, really—raced his car up our portion of Elm Street, lost control, briefly went airborne, and struck the big sweet-gum tree in what would soon be our front yard. He died on the spot.

That’s what we learned when we arrived at the house the next day for the last walk-through before closing. The police had been so thorough in removing signs of the wreck that it took a moment to realize something very bad had happened. Tire tracks cut across the neighbor’s yard and her flower bed and disappeared into our front yard. On this balmy spring day, thousands of small pieces of glass glinted like ice over the lawn. An elderly woman from the apartment building next door told us what had happened the previous night. “If that tree hadn’t been there,” she said more than once, “I would have been killed in my bedroom.”

I felt sick for the boy and sick about this ominous development. Although my rationalism rejects superstition, my emotional side remains vulnerable. We’d looked a long time for a house, but now I wasn’t sure I wanted this one. I’d been afraid of death most of my life and I didn’t need my own front lawn serving as a perpetual memento mori. Everything seemed marred and wrong. I was prepared to forgo the earnest money and walk away, but when I brought up this possibility, the real estate agent said dismissively, “Well, it’s not as if someone killed himself in the house. I could see that bothering a person.”

We signed. Not having witnessed the accident made it easier to put out of mind. Still, I often thought about it when I looked out the living room windows. Fifteen years later, we were still picking up stray pieces of glass from the front lawn.

In my mind, that boy’s life ended in ice. My husband’s ended in fire.

We had a rocky marriage. I didn’t realize it until almost the end, but he was an alcoholic, and I fear that certain problems of my own caused his alcoholism to become worse. He lied about his drinking, as alcoholics do, and the lying was what really bothered me. Steve—I can write his first name instead of using initials, because what I write can’t hurt him now—wasn’t a mean drunk. Most of the time I didn’t even realize he was drunk. He went to bed early and I went to bed late. I didn’t know he was drinking in the mornings. I didn’t know he went home at lunch so that he could drink; he said it was to walk the dogs. I didn’t know much of anything. After his DUI he stopped drinking at the bars but found creative ways to hide his drinking at home.

Three times I told him if he lied again about drinking, I’d leave. Three times I went back on my word.

The fourth time I said I was leaving, I pushed Steve to call C., a friend of his who had gone through hell and successfully quit drinking with the help of AA. After the conversation he came into the living room, sat by me and cried and said I’d been right about calling C. The next morning he went to work drunk, clung to his boss and told her she was his family now, and was suspended for three weeks.

He begged me not to leave. I knew he probably wouldn’t make it without me; he had no friends in town and was completely emotionally reliant on me. Still, I bought another house and I went to San Diego to move my disabled sister back to live with me—both decisions proving to be additional disasters in the making.

Meanwhile, Steve was reassigned to another job, which he lost after a little more than a week. This time there was no appeal, although I met with the university authorities and did my best to advocate for him. My sister lived with us for two months while I had repairs done to the new house. In retrospect I can’t believe I was cruel enough to subject Steve to that, and even to ask him for help in doing things.

At some point shortly after he lost his job there came a morning when I couldn’t wake Steve up. He was barely conscious. After my sister and I followed the ambulance to the hospital, I realized I hadn’t brought his wallet. When I returned home I went into the basement, Steve’s locus of operations. All of his pill bottles stood empty, along with an empty whiskey bottle. I estimated that he’d taken 200 pills of various types. He hadn’t left a note. He was unconscious for three days and in the hospital for nine. Only then did I really start trying to help him, but it was too little too late. Why not earlier? I don’t know the answer to that question. To say that I was stupid and naive seems insufficient.

The insurance company refused to fund an inpatient rehab program, saying that Steve needed to have failed at an outpatient program first. On his first day at an outpatient program, such a violent fight broke out between two participants that the police had to be called. Terribly frightened, Steve had an accident—he only told me this much later—and never returned to the program.

Not long after that I drove him five hours to an inpatient program that said they had an open bed. When we got there, however, the bed had been taken and the program had been told that insurance wouldn’t cover Steve’s stay anyway. I argued with the insurance company; the program argued with the insurance company. Nothing.

I scheduled him with a self-pay inpatient program locally, but the program required that the patient call to confirm that he’d attend. He never called. Two months later I tried again. He never called.

The day before Thanksgiving, he told me he needed help. After several hours at the local ER, a hospital two hours away accepted him into short-term rehab. Nobody mentioned an ambulance. I drove him up there in darkness; by the time we arrived he was vomiting. The day after Thanksgiving he called to say he was being released. Less than 48 hours in detox? I made the drive again. He said he would never go back to a locked ward. They had confiscated his belt, without which his jeans wouldn’t stay up, and his shoelaces, without which his shoes wouldn’t stay on. He was afraid of the other people on the ward. The next time he had to detox, he refused to go to the ER, so I persuaded him to detox at my house. All I knew to do for him was to make sure he kept drinking water. I had already begun suggesting that he move in with me and my sister, but he refused.

I proceeded with a divorce. The lawyer had said that assets from my parents’ estate, which were earmarked for my sister, could be jeopardized if Steve had a DUI and killed somebody. Much later I found out this was almost certainly untrue. Steve wanted to put off signing the papers, but I wouldn’t let him. When he finished signing, he gave me a look of rebuke and hatred. I deserved that.

I took him to doctor’s appointments, the ones he didn’t cancel or refuse to go to. Once you try to kill yourself, we discovered, many helpful medications are off-limits. Nothing allayed his anxiety. Finally his psychiatrist put him on Seroquel. I thought he was sleeping so much and missing AA meetings because he was drinking. He was, but he also was knocked out by Seroquel. One morning he called at 4 a.m., thinking it was afternoon.

I went to Al-Anon meetings, which I found useless. I called complete strangers from these meetings and blurted out every sordid detail of my behavior and his problem, but there was no consolation. Steve was dying in front of me. It was like watching a disaster unfold in slow motion. C. flew in from the East Coast to see if he could help Steve. When I called him later, he was pessimistic. Steve wouldn’t talk to him seriously, he said. Steve was in denial.

Filled with anxiety, I lay on my couch or in my bed day after day and tried to get warm. My bones were cold, a feeling I’d never experienced before, and I couldn’t stop shaking. Nor could I get to work very often. The roof, which I’d had inspected before I bought the house, leaked every time it rained. Then came a major ice storm, which caused a tree limb to drop straight through the roof and attic and impale itself in the ceiling of my spare bedroom. The sun came out then, blindingly, glaring off all the ice-covered surfaces.

When the end came, it was on a day we had argued. Two days later the coroner called me at work, at my ex-father-in-law’s request. Alerted by neighbors, the police had broken into the house on Elm Street and found Steve’s body. It wasn’t hard for them to reconstruct what had happened. Steve had run out of matches and tried to light a cigarette from the stove burner. When the fire caught, it caught him too—alcohol was on his shirt and his beard. He inhaled fire. The police said he could not have suffered more than a couple of seconds. They were soft-pedaling it for me, I believe. Steve had time to stagger into the dining room, grope at a chair, and overturn it as he fell. There were burn marks on the floor. There were burn marks on the buffet. His pocket watch, which the police retrieved, was burned; his wallet was not. At the hospital we weren’t allowed to see his body.

I knew I might be killing him by leaving him, and I left anyway. I didn’t have to do it. There was nothing I had to save myself from. My guilt and grief threw me into a severe depression that eventually forced my retirement and caused physical debilitation. It’s something I’m struggling to fight my way back from. Steve exasperated me with his unwillingness to converse or to plan for the future, yet I have missed him greatly over the past years. He will never leave me. One of the few things I’ve learned in life is that the people you’ve loved never do leave you entirely, even as you go on to love others.

The last time I saw Steve was at our local grocery store. He was wearing his ratty old suede jacket. I threw my arms around him and began crying. His face was impassive. As far as I can remember, he didn’t say a word.