Live Forever

Hook In Michigan at the Wachowiak house, 2010.

Hook In Michigan at the Wachowiak house, 2010.

Today I will spread the last of Hook’s ashes.

In the movies when a person does this, it’s made to seem as though ashes are but a cup full maybe two. The reality is that a human body cremated produces more than four liters of ashes.  I only know this because I dropped off four, one liter Kool-aide bottles — one lime-colored, one orange, one red and one blue — to the funeral home for the transport of Hook’s remains over a year ago.  He would have appreciated knowing I hadn’t wasted money buying a fancy urn.  And, the plastic bottles could be and have been recycled which would have pleased him just as much.

The blue bottle was taken to Trinidad where Allan was spread on a collecting trail he frequented in the Caura Valley, and on the grounds of Asa Wright Nature Center, and finally in the rainforest of Brasso Seco.  Hook loved everything about Trinidad especially the people and they had loved him back, appreciated him, understood his “mamaguy.”

The orange bottle was spread in the firefly meadow, where Allan had taken me at the end of our first nature walk and where I began to fall in love with him.

The red bottle was taken to Bastrop and spread in a family cemetery where a grandmother and a great grandfather are buried.  When Allan and I had the ash discussion before he died, we agreed that a portion of his ashes would be spread where mine would eventually be.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “You’ll be the only white guy in the cemetery, you know.”

“That’s how I like it, baby,” he said.

When I took him out there, all I could think to say was, “Hi Grandmother, I know we’ve never met but well, this is my husband, Allan. Please show him around.”

That was exactly one year ago, wicked cold just like today with the only difference that sheets of rain were pouring down. I hadn’t wanted to drive out to Bastrop in the rain but I’d wanted to honor Allan on his birthday.  The rain ended up being my good fortune because after I’d covered my grandmother’s plot multiple times, the white remains looked more than a little conspicuous.

Most of you already know how Allan made it into Australia which was not in one of the Kool-aid bottles. But this morning, I’ll pour from the lime-colored bottle and spread around the Mexican Oak which Hook planted in our backyard to honor the year we were married.  This final release is meant only as a pause and reflection of November 17th.  And on September 3rd of every year, I’ve no doubt I’ll either openly cry or shed a tear and eventually over time, maybe it’ll just be the welling up of water in my eyes.

This Time Last Year

Last week as I was driving down Manchaca in Austin, a memory swooped in and I almost had to pull off the road to catch my breath.  I shivered as I felt for the briefest of seconds that familiar abandonment and aloneness in the world.  2013 and most of 2014 had been a time suspended from living, what some might call the walking dead.  I shake my head now as I recall how unbelievably dark my world had become.  Until Hook had died, I had never felt deserted, rudderless, and such an unwilling participant in my own life.  As I continued to drive, the feeling eventually subsided but it was the perfect reminder of how far I have come in these last 14 months.

Since the anniversary of Allan’s death, my memories ricochet against this time last year not unlike how the entire first year of grief was lived.  Except, in all of those memories, Hook was still alive albeit sick and dying.  It was, quite frankly, a time of near insanity.  Now, my recollections are about how I grieved, how I honored, and what I learned and am still learning.

I wear my rings separated now, the wedding band on the right hand while the engagement diamond is on the left.  I tell myself that I am “emotionally engaged” and therefore unable to remove the ring.  I cannot imagine a time when I would ever stop wearing these rings, but then I could not have imagined a time when I would fall asleep at night without silently crying into my pillow.  Those nights occur less frequently now.

In the last month of Allan’s life, I asked him for a song request every day then I would post a link to the song on my personal Facebook page.  One of his requests was Joe Ely’s version of Live Forever.  I think when someone truly loves you, you live forever, maybe not here but somewhere.

Live Forever

(lyrics by Billy Joe Shaver; sung by Joe Ely)

I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna cross that river
I’m gonna catch tomorrow now
You’re gonna wanna hold me
Just like I’ve always told you
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone

Nobody here will ever find me
But I will always be around
Just like the songs I leave behind me
I’m gonna live forever now

For the rest of 2014, this blog’s name will remain Hooks Down Under.  Beginning in 2015, the name will change to Writings By Rosemary.  Between now and then, I’d like to share some seriously funny memories about Allan so we can laugh together instead of crying together.

Until then …

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In the Land of Oz

Oz_GiveWayFive days ago, I arrived Brisbane’s international airport with Hook’s ashes and managed to avert a personal customs check of my baggage.

Before I left Austin, I purchased one of those face powder makeup containers and emptied it, then filled it up with my dead husband inside.  I was fully prepared to dip the mini powder pillow into his ashes and smooth it onto my face should the scene have called for it.  It’s just make-up, sir.

In Australia customs, a foreboding sign looms over weary travelers and reads:  Do you really want to pay an automatic $200 fine for these?  The sign posts photos of handguns and flammable liquids and other assorted crime paraphernalia.  Because I’d been rushed by other smelly travelers hurrying through to catch their connecting flights, I didn’t see that two of the ten forbidden items were fruit and nuts. Imagine my relief when the drug sniffing dogs passed right by me and did not pick up my scent of a fresh apple, a plastic container of cashews, or Hook’s ashes in the fake make-up kit in my luggage.

In customs, they asked, “Purpose of your visit?”

“My husband died,” I said in a dazed sort of way, my big cow eyes staring and blinking at him like someone with a nervous habit but really just someone who’d popped contact lenses onto bone dry eyeballs after a 14-hour flight.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” said the customs official, “was your husband Australian?”

“Oh no … but we were going to come here?  For a year?  Then he died …?” and I let the rest of my fake British accent drift off.

I’d sat between two of the nicest Australian men on the plane and in our forced time together, their beautiful Aussie accents had rubbed off on me but not to the point that I could duplicate them effectively.  I was opting for the easier route of doing a Madonna-fake-British-accent on the customs guy who was staring at me wondering where I was going with my death revelation.

Then I knew. I knew I needed to stop speaking.  I’d marked the box for ‘holiday’ on the immigration card because there was no box for Spreading Spouse’s Ashes.  If I were to state anything, I should have said “vacation” but I was confused and exhausted and still worried that my period was going to start, which is an emotionally taxing effort all by itself, especially when it involves three flights — Austin to Los Angeles to Brisbane — with one more still to go to get all the way to Perth.

I did not want to be fined anything for anything, but I’d lost an entire day crossing the equator and something about the congenial way of the Australians was going to have me blurting out:  I didn’t mean to sneak in fruit and nuts but there are some human remains in my big suitcase with the broken handle – Please, for the love of God, I need to get to the bathroom.   All, of course, in my new fake British accent … the closest thing to an Australian accent I could muster.

Giving Way in Perth

Yesterday morning I drove on the left side of the road with my rental car, the one with a steering wheel on the right side of the car instead of the left.  Those of you reading who are not from the UK or a former British colony, think about that for awhile.  The words –  stay left, stay left, stay left – played in a continuous loop in my head, and I’m immensely grateful that there are frequent Australian road signs that read, Keep Left. They must have known I was coming.

I’ve successfully fought off the inclination to drive or turn onto the right-hand side of the road or to think that all cars were headed down the wrong way each time they came towards me. Good Lord, either he’s driving the wrong way on a one-way or I am.  Neither of us was of course.

Several times a day, I drive over curbs on my left because I’m unable to estimate the amount of space I need for what feels like a huge passenger side of the car … on the left side of the car.  And when I drive, I continuously glance over my right shoulder as though I’ll need to Give Way for the cars I’m sure will be driving up on my right, from behind, instead of towards me.  Is it confusing to read this?  It’s confusing to write it.  Imagine what it feels like to drive in it.  I keep turning on the wipers every time I need to use the turn signal because those are switched on the steering wheel as well.  Seems my driving in Australia is as bad as my driving in Austin, but my front window is always clear and clean of any debris!

All the travel books talk about how nice Australians are, and all of my face-to-face contact so far has supported this except when it comes to driving.  They honk if you go too slow in what I have finally figured out is the fast lane (right lane instead of the left lane!), and they really honk if you constantly drive over the little lane bumps –  brrdrrpbrrdrrpbrrdrrp – which separate their car from your car.  They’re so picky.

This whole driving fiasco has me feeling like I’m speaking a foreign language, so much so that when I went to the McDonald’s (hey, don’t judge – my Perth apartment doesn’t have wireless internet but trusty Mickey D’s does) and they asked, “Dine in or take away?”

I replied, “Here?” and I wasn’t even trying to sound British.

The young woman stared at me like I was from Mars instead of just Texas as she repeated, “Dine in or take away?”

The first response that popped into my head was, para llevar.  My brain in its misunderstanding of Australian phrases and the thick Australian English has me pulling from the recesses of travel, a phrase in Spanish that I never seemed able to recall in Mexico when I needed it.  But because my brain is muddled and that was a state of being with which I was familiar living in Mexico, my auto-reflexive memory (I just made that up) pulled the response, para llevar, to the forefront.  Interestingly, I am still using this inappropriately as a Spanish response because my intent is not to “take away” but to dine in or drink in as it were since all I was buying was a “flat white coffee” or a coffee with cream or café con leche depending on which part of Texas you live.

“Here … for to dine in … here … I’ll eat here except I’m not really eating just the coffee, the flat-white-coffee-with-cream-or-milk-or-anything-white really.”

I jumble all of this together confusing us both then I lean over the register and whisper in a conspiratorial voice, “It’s okay, I can just have black coffee and I’ll drink it here so I can use your internet.”

I’m sharing too much just like with the customs guy.

Ashes in Australia

Today, I did what I had come thousands of miles to do, and which has been my only real goal since my non-planning for this trip began.  Not even the thought of snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef has held as much importance for me as seeing finally, 43 Hope Street.

Western Australian time is 13 hours ahead of Austin and my Wednesday, September 3rd, started while most of you in the west were still sleeping. This morning, I drove north of Perth onto the Mitchell Freeway which as best as I could tell does not have an actual highway number assigned to it, it’s just called, Mitchell Freeway.  I kept confusing speed signs with highway number signs, and I didn’t know if the speed limits were in metric, too, so I couldn’t figure out if I was going too fast or too slow unless cars were honking at me which they seemed to do quite a bit.

“Give way, damn it, give way!” I kept yelling but of course, the honking continued.

From Mitchell Freeway, I took Reid Highway until it turned into North Beach Road which took me to Waterman’s Bay, a quiet coastal town which was also the home to 43 Hope Street, the address for a house that Hook and I pre-rented for our stay in Perth.  It was going to be our year-long home base while he researched, and we traveled domestically.  After slowly driving by the residence several times and wondering if from the inside of the house I might look like a crazed stalker, I knew that a strange woman dumping white powder on a front lawn would not be cool. Instead, I parked two blocks over which happened to be only one street across from the mammoth Indian Ocean.

Once on foot, I immediately found an entry way with stone steps leading to a secluded rock cove near the water.  I walked down until I came to the base and before my butt even hit the stone step to sit, I started to bawl like I had not done since before the move back into the Hook House.  I howled from my gut not worrying if anyone could hear.  The waves crashing against the rocks hid the sound but not my tears which fell for all that had transpired, for all that would never be, and for Allan still being gone.

When I was done, I looked out to the ocean and said clearly, “I’m here,” as in, I made it, for both of us.

There was nothing else left to say because I was talking to myself only.  Hook was not there.  He has been long gone in spirit for some time.  He waited for me to move forward and he waited for me to get re-settled, but he’s had his own journey to fulfill which does not include me.  And as much as I have wanted otherwise, mine moving forward will not include him.

I looked down at my hand which held the pretend makeup case full of ashes.  Removing the lid, I spread my husband’s remains onto the rocks while the waves of water washed over them and I whispered this poem from our wedding:

Votary of nature even from a child,
he sought her presence in the trackless wild

To him the shell, the insect, and the flower,
were bright and cherished emblems
of her power

In her he saw a spirit all divine,
and worshipped like a pilgrim
at her shrine

When I finished I said only, “Okay.”

I sat for awhile on those steps until my eyes dried completely, and I allowed the peace that was mine for the taking to come. This time, I accepted it.

Allan and I did the best we knew how to do at the time.  Whatever deficiencies I had as a wife, and they were many, I had been there when my husband needed me the most.  I think again about the weeks before he died when every day was a new routine because his body was declining faster and faster.  In those evenings, I’d drain his stomach of fluid then rub him down with Ben Gay to loosen up his back and buttocks.  His sinewy swimmer’s body had been all muscle, perfect even at the age of 59.  Afterward, I set up the oxygen tank for a short 30 minutes, not because he had difficulty breathing, but because fresh oxygen in his lungs and muscles meant a deeper, more comfortable sleep.  With the tank humming, I’d begin to massage the edema out of his feet and in this way, I learned finally what it meant to really love a person.  To love meant to do for them, to give to them.  I learned that love was a verb and not a noun, and I felt closer to my husband than I ever had before.

When I first started massaging Hook, he liked to encourage me to think about massage therapy as an alternative career.  My brother, Dave, owns a massage business in Austin, and Hook thought that after he died, I should consider working for Dave.

“You’re really good, babe,” he’d mumble with his eyes closed.

“I don’t want to massage anyone but you,” I’d say as my fingers pressed into the soles of his feet.

Even as he lie dying, the practical side of Hook couldn’t help worrying about a backup plan for my future.  And as I would rub, he’d say over and over again, “I wouldn’t trade you for 10 nurses, babe.”

Once the oxygen had run its time, I’d stop rubbing his feet so I could turn off the tank, then I’d lean over to give him three quick kisses on the lips.

“You’re so handsome,” I’d say every time because to me he was.  Through all the chemotherapy and the radiation and the debilitating weight loss, through all of it, Hook remained incredibly virile to me.

“I’m a scarecrow,” he said once with a slight catch in his voice. I kissed him again, looking straight into his eyes, “You’re beautiful to me.”  And he knew that I meant it.

For the past two years, I thought that Allan and I had been dealt a crappy hand.  He would never ask Why or say Not Fair so I said it for both of us…screamed it…cried it…bellied it until the muscles in my stomach ached.  When he was still alive, Allan reminded me again and again that dying was a part of living and that his dying was just happening sooner.  He had accepted the circumstances, faced them, walked into his end with grace; but not me.

A few years ago I heard P. J. O’Rourke give a lecture at a Texas Book Festival on the subject of fairness.  He was reprimanding his daughter for something and she yelled out, “That’s not fair!”  He used this as the crux of his talk to list all the unfairness in the world, and how each of us living in a first world country had better hope things don’t start becoming fair any time soon.

I don’t think, Not Fair, anymore because I don’t want to know what would be fair.  I don’t ask Why either. That’s for another lifetime. I say now only, “Okay.”

You will always be beautiful to me:  Allan William Hook, September 3rd 2013

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Here But Not Here

And think not, you can direct the course of love; for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.”  – Kahlil Gibran 



Rosemary and Allan Hook, 2009.

–    –     –

It started with the light bulbs and ended with the cockroach.  Two light bulbs blew out.  The first was in the master bathroom which went dark about a month after Hook died.  Instead of changing the bulb, I stopped using that bathroom and started using the guest bathroom.  Then the light in the guest bathroom blew out a week later – in the exact spot as in the master.  It was just a screw-in bulb, so easy to replace but to do so seemed a herculean effort.  I was never going to hear, “I’ll take care of it, babe.”  I stood at that vanity in the dark sobbing then walked out, leaving the bulb for another day.

After the light bulbs, the weed edger string ran out as I was halfway through edging the lawn.  That I was doing the lawn in the first place was not by choice, but the kid next door had not shown up to mow and the yard was looking suspiciously unkempt.  There I was squatting on the front lawn with the machine turned upside down, staring at the black spool as though doing so long enough would make the little blue string reappear.  I put the edger down, threw it down actually, and placed my hand over my eyes as my shoulders started to heave forward with the gulps of crying that were starting to form in my chest.  I didn’t have to worry that my neighbors might see me because I’d started the mowing and edging just before dusk so that even if the weeder had still worked, I wouldn’t have been able to see clearly enough to finish the front lawn. 

After the edger stopped working, the newspaper stopped showing up in the mornings.  Every week since Hook passed away, there would be at least one morning that the paper just wasn’t there.  The man of the house, the paper’s dedicated reader, was no longer alive and there was no one who was going to read the paper front to back or dive into the sports section at the crack of dawn.  I might skim over the syndicated columns or read the business section, but I was barely keeping up with reading snail mail.  If you peeked inside the house, you would have seen a couple of papers still in their original plastic sleeves.  If I were the local newspaper, I wouldn’t bother showing up either.   

My breaking point came when the Texas tree roach made his appearance in the living room next to the fireplace.  When I think back now, it was as though a bug memo had gone out:  Hook is gone, she is alone; invade.  I didn’t mind the enormous snail that plastered itself on the sliding glass door or the Texas longhorn beetles that kept landing on top of the BBQ grill or even the geckos (had there been babies?) that were running in and out every time I opened the door.  But even Hook had said that the house roach served no purpose and could be decimated upon sight.   

I returned home one afternoon and stopped still in my tracks when I saw the roach.  If Hook had been here, I would have called for him and he would have grabbed it with his bare hands.  Instead, I had to wait for my immobilizing fear to wear off.  Once it did, I ran to the garage for the roach shoe — the special shoe I use to defend myself from cockroaches that somehow managed to get past the external pest control service.  Shoe in hand, I ran back into the living room, took a deep breath and screamed as I whacked the roach to death leaving the shoe on top of him.  I dropped down onto the sofa and bawled, falling over to my side, eventually curling up so I could hold myself as I wailed. Light bulbs and lawns and newspapers and bugs fell under ‘stuff Hook took care of’ and they were just more reminders of my everyday reality that no matter how many times I wished him back, Hook was not going to magically appear and make this house a home again.

–     –     –

I’ve spread his ashes and I tell myself I’ve accepted his death, but he’s the only person I think of when I want to share something I’ve read or heard or seen.  Hook is here but not here.  His body is gone but he’s everywhere in this house, the rental house where we lived, where he lived and died, where I live today, and where I face time and space without him.  When I walk into the closet, I press my face into his clothes to catch any remaining scent of him before even that disappears, too.  I stare at photos, willing him to return and make himself whole again.

Two weeks after Hook’s memorial, I flew to New Jersey to spend time with his step-family.  I needed to see again where Hook had grown up, to walk the Sandy Hook beach where he’d been a lifeguard in the summers of his youth.  Two of his step-sisters drove me by his high school and then down the street to his childhood home.  I reminisced on his behalf the tale he once told about a party he threw as a teenager one weekend when his parents were out of town.

Almost a month after the New Jersey trip, I flew to Trinidad with some of his ashes. Hook wanted a small portion of his remains to be spread in the rainforests where he’d collected his wasps. I felt I owed it to him, and to the Trinidadian community, to bring the ashes in person. That Caribbean island, that beautiful rain-washed country had harbored Hook for two, 1-year sabbaticals and fifteen summers. I realized that I wasn’t taking Hook’s ashes but bringing him home to a people who treasured him.  In between the New Jersey and Trinidad trips, I made a short trek to San Antonio for a three-day business conference, thinking it was time to start engaging the business world again.  I chose a conference out of town though so I would know fewer people.

After each of these trips, each time I returned to Austin, I found myself forced back to the beginning of the grieving process where the initial loss sits on you like a weight.  I already knew there was a danger in grieving too little, which comes right before the danger of grieving too long. No one can tell you what either of those is.  Each person has to figure it out for themselves which is how I learned that I needed to walk into my grief, to sit with it, to feel the depth of the loss so that Hook’s passing won’t haunt me forever. 

It’s why after a funeral is over, and everyone leaves, and you’re all alone that then and only then do you get a sense of what things will be like from now on. And it’s not anything that can be rushed or helped by the presence of another. Sometimes being around people actually makes it worse, because you don’t openly grieve, not like how you would if you were alone. Instead you hold it all in. When I’m with others I feel normal, like before, and I think, This is all going to be okay. But then I’m alone and I fall apart, taken by surprise at Hook’s absence because he is still gone. He is gone and he is never coming back.

–     –     –

When people ask how I’ve been, I say “Fine; hanging in there; good.”

I’ve felt each of these things at one time or another, but I’ve no idea how I am really and I won’t know for some time.  I think about how it would be so much easier to live during a time when retreating from society for a year was the norm after the death of a spouse. And I think, it’s still not too late for me to do that except sometimes I need the interaction of other people but not in the quantity I did before.  So I tread lightly into public, refusing to go at anyone’s pace but my own and learning the hard way that even if I were dressed in all black with a veil covering my face and the words, Be Gentle, written on my forehead that there would still be those who lack emotional intelligence of any kind when it comes to those of us who are mourning.

Certainly that was the case on the plane to Trinidad with the man who moved into the vacant seat next to me once he realized no one was going to be sitting there. He asked why I was going to Trinidad and I told him. About two hours into the five-hour flight, when the attendant handed out the customs forms, this man turned towards me and watched as I started to check off boxes.

“You’re a widow now,” he said as he tapped my form with his pen.  “You’re not married anymore. You’re single now. You have to mark single.”

With every word he spoke, tears welled up in my eyes as I stared down at my form, liquid blurring my vision.  This stupid, stupid man kept saying it over and over again, “You’re a widow now.” 

I wanted to beat him with his own iPad or scream in his face, SHUT! UP!  But I didn’t. I didn’t because Hook wouldn’t have done that, and I didn’t want to do anything Hook wouldn’t have done.

When I was sure my voice would be steady, I asked, “Will you be moving back to your seat?”

“You want me to move?” the man asked, incredulity in his voice. 

“Yes,” I said, “then we can have more room to spread out so we’re not so crowded.”

If there was a Hook test, I’d passed it. 

–    –    –

My friend, Angelica, had a dream about Hook the night before I returned from Trinidad.  In her dream, Hook was flying a plane to ACL. The ride was bumpy with all sorts of alarms going off inside, but Hook still managed to land the plane safely. 

I’d been waiting for Hook to show up in someone’s dreams because he hadn’t shown up in mine.  I’ve fallen asleep night after night with tears on my lashes and whispering, Please talk to me. But he hasn’t come to me in my dreams and that’s both bothered and saddened me. What I mean, what God knows I mean, and what Hook knows I mean is that I’ve been waiting, waiting for some sign, some dream, something that will tell me whatever it is I believe I still need to know. 

He landed safely.  It had been a bumpy ride, but he got there safely.

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