On the day my mother was killed by a drunk driver, Deborah was somewhere in Mexico. We were more than six months into a separation. There was no way to tell her or lean on her or share this devastation. There was so much to do that I put it out of my mind. I was subletting a farmhouse on a country road between Cotati and Santa Rosa, California. My neighbors, good circus people whom I haven’t seen since, agreed to take my cat, and I left that night to get my brother in L.A. and make our way to St. Louis to bury Mom.
My mother had been traveling in California when it happened and because of state laws in these situations and Jewish laws forbidding burials on the Sabbath, the funeral would be three days after her death.
Hours after the crash, Deborah lay sleepless in bed. Eventually, she got up and tried to calm herself by cleaning her room and organizing her belongings, waiting for daylight. She felt an urgency to call me after months of no contact. When day broke, she walked to the little town’s post office and waited for it to open. There was a phone there and she tried to reach me.
The farmhouse was empty of course and her rings echoed against the thin wooden walls and the funky collection of furnishings in the vacant, cluttered two rooms and loft. But a mammoth coincidence occurred. The boyfriend of the woman I sublet from came by to pick up her mail and found out the news from the neighbors. He heard the phone ringing on and on, entered the house and picked it up – telling Deborah what he’d learned.
These were pre-cell-phone days and there was no way for Deborah to reach me. My Mom’s apartment in St. Louis was also empty as my two brothers and I stayed with family friends there. Deborah caught the first bus to Mexico City and waited most of a pressing day in the airport.
On our end, we’d made the funeral arrangements and spent the Sabbath at friends. My Mom lived in an Orthodox Jewish community and there would be seven days of “sitting shiva” following the funeral. I didn’t know if I’d stay the whole week, but also felt an overwhelming urge to be close with my brothers. I couldn’t stop touching their faces and rubbing their backs as though channeling Mom. The Sabbath table was awash with tears, memories, and shock. We were not only sleepless and drained because of Mom’s death, but our attention was glued to the outcomes of the three dear friends in the car, still in a California hospital, and one of whom we found out was brain-dead.
Occasionally, I thought of Deborah’s absence. We’d been together a little more than three years at that point in a relationship that burned white hot and sometimes scorched itself. We were in our twenties and it was the 1970’s. We were infused and inspired by peak experiences on LSD, and by heroes of the counterculture who fought injustice, hit the road, found brujos in Mexico, made mythical piercing music and “flew over cuckoos’ nests.” We were victims of our own expectations, burdened by our vision of the glowing New Age Couple.
Deborah reached St. Louis while my brothers and I waited for the hearse to pick us up for the final car ride with Mom – with her inappropriately riding in the back. There was still no way to connect. Like a homing pigeon, Deborah found the funeral home and with movie-script timing she arrived and was escorted to the room where my brothers and I stood alongside the coffin crying – alternately stroking the wood and holding each other.
Deborah and I embraced. There was no way to make sense of anything amidst the storm of death, loss, and connection, let alone sentences. I said simply, “We lost our Mom”, and she said, “I know.” At the cemetery, Mike, Josh, and I tossed dirt onto the coffin, oblivious to every face and physical detail except the hole in the earth, the blonde pine box, the universe’s saddest, most shocking sound of the soil hitting the box with our Mother inside. Overtaken by unbridled sobs and tears, it was awhile before I felt Deborah’s hand on my back.
Now, 32 years later, I am preparing for Deborah’s 61st birthday. Somehow three decades have whooshed by like lush fields, orchards, ponds, and hills outside a train-car’s picture window. Our sweet, handsome twin sons will be 30 in April. Our heads are sheathed in gray. No. We didn’t endure as a couple. Our marriage dissolved before the boys turned four, leaving the mark of thick scar tissue in the long body of our relationship. But somehow the additional space between us put everything into focus, like when you move your head back from the page and all the words look sharp. Finally we could see the hero in each other again, un-obscured by disappointment in ourselves. We savored co-parenting the boys. We became best friends, heart to heart. The doors to our respective houses - a mile apart - were always open to each other.
We found other partners but kept expanding our extended family with frequent group dinners, holidays, and vacations together. We still speak or email several times a week even though she and her partner moved an hour away and the boys have turned into men and live hundreds of miles away.
When you find someone who moves mountains to show up; who knows your inner terrain as well as she knows her own backyard garden; and who sees your blossoms even when they are dormant, then you are blessed with a soul-mate. You make every effort to pay it back and live it out. I have no doubt at all, we will sing this harmony until the heartrending moment that one of us will toss a handful of dirt upon the other.