Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Stories We Need to Tell

This week I heard storyteller and writer Regi Carpenter speak about her craft & upcoming memoir at a Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators meeting in Ithaca. The most powerful moment for me came when she described how her bother died and she realized many of his stories could never be known.

Then she asked, "What story are you not telling?"

It pierced me in two ways. While I've been writing down events in my life I used to be unable to even think about, other topics still make me hesitate, though I know that's one characteristic of interesting writing. To meet the hardest, most personal stuff head-on is to share elements commonly hidden at our core.

The other part is that I've been grieving the unknown stories of my boyfriend, best friend, lover and partner, Perry, who died last August 9 after a week on life support. It still seems impossible he's gone. 

I helped write his obituary, which seemed ludicrous, impossible that I was doing it, even as I did. I never used to understand why you would write, "passed away after a brief illness." But that was the line I used. Everything around his death was impossible. I included the basics (grew up in Blauvelt NY, educated at New England College & came to manage a rock back in Ithaca in the early 1970's, before managing a grounds crew at Cornell Plantations until his retirement) but I had to leave out the details that made him so complicated, funny, resilient and fair. How he married a millionaire, flew planes, drove race cars and traveled the world, but eventually divorced her. His heroin addiction in his late twenties and the arrest that probably saved his life. How he and I drove around various Finger Lakes in his '62 Corvette or his Porche, discussing families, love and breakups, depression, religion and atheism. On weekends, at his house twenty miles from mine, he grilled steaks or salmon, steamed vegetables and baked potatoes, and we watched NASCAR, golf and horse racing. With our gang at a pub called The Rose, we watched American Pharoah win the triple crown. Now every memory is a push-pin in my map of our last months, designating a decreasing distance to the end of my time with him. 

We were fixed up by a mutual friend the summer after my amputation in 2007. We hit it off, and spent weekends together for eighteen months. Perry called me almost  every single night, though I told him I knew he'd start slacking off the routine...but he didn't. After a year and a half, I was struggling with our age difference (he was 60 then, I was 46) and what I felt was a class difference. I was very aware he was semi-retired, and divorced from the millionaire; it struck me as a different world from my starving-artist/homesteader scramble of a life. I knew his background involved chainsaws and backhoes, rural as mine. I just couldn't quite see it.

I broke up with him. I call this my Three Year Brain-fart. But we still exchanged birthday cards. (He was a Gemini, like my horse.) I turned fifty in January of 2012. Got over myself. Got Perry's  birthday card, and decided to take up his offer of having coffee.

The last three and a half-plus years were wonderful. Solid, dependable. The kind of adult partnership I've never had. Even if conflicts twitched me off balance, I reveled in it; it was part of the relationship. I kidded him he might be too young for me. We talked about traveling to Scotland someday. We joked about trying to see if we could live together. We were happy. I feel like I let my guard down. Me, of all people, usually expecting disaster. I was content.

Perry hadn't felt well in a long time. Yeah, he was a lifelong smoker. He'd been seeing doctors for various symptoms, awaiting test dates for CT scans, MRIs. He kept playing golf, but we never did rent a houseboat in the Thousand Islands like we planned. It was impossible that his shortness of breath worsened so suddenly that I drove him to the ER, where he was put in the ICU, then on a ventilator by midnight. A "spot" on his lung x-ray two weeks before had massed into a hurricane filling the picture. Perry stayed on the ventilator for a week. This is what they mean by "life-support," by "medically-induced coma." Then it was removed. They gave Perry morphine. He was too weak to speak, semi-conscious. He died the day after. He was 67.

Going through his belongings with his relatives, we found a stash of photographs, the ones Perry had told me about, assumed lost in various moves.  My puzzle picture of Perry had been filling in gradually, with big empty hollows. Some  gaps filled in when his family arrived at the hospital where I'd camped out all week. Then a flood of photos in the hidden boxes... Some matched stories I'd heard from him in detail. Other offered questions and incidents. Except I can't find out now. I can't ask him.

 Death is still new to me. Rindle, the pony I raised, owned, loved and eventually put down, described on this blog, has been my only preparation. She taught me to grieve. It helps now.

I've deactivated my facebook account for now. I'm trying to sort things out in my head as I work on my fences, give some smart-lessons to my new mini-cayuse, write another novel in verse, pursue publication. And sort things out in print right here. It's been a strange lesson, losing Perry after I'd finally relaxed into a relationship with no more restlessness. When I took him to the hospital, I was sure there would be time to discuss and approach the events, good or bad. When they were about to put Perry on the ventilator, I was afraid of being over-dramatic, but I was also just plain afraid. I said, "Wait--" and slipped his oxygen mask down so I could kiss him and tell him I love him. 

I'm so glad I did. I miss him so much. It's hard when the phone doesn't ring each night at ten.     

Perry's obit is here, if you're interested. Perry Huested

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