Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bittersweet Harvest

Justin, Ben, and Harry in Mexico.  I met them shortly after this trip.

The house in Las Vegas, New Mexico that I moved into after I split up with my husband was next to a compound inhabited by three men:  Harry, Ben, and Justin, and I became very close to all of them.  In fact, Justin eventually became my partner and the father of my fourth child.  Harry was in his mid-sixties when I met him, but had the health and energy level of someone much younger.  He was a forest firefighter and a pilot, and had lived in many places and done many things.  At one point in his life he was a successful stock broker.  He was wise, funny, strong, and a great cook, famous for his amazing pots of beans. 

Two days before Eliana was born, he got up that morning, and something wasn't right.  We all thought he was drunk at first, but soon realized he had had a stroke.  We brought him to the hospital where he stayed for several days.  He and I were in there at the same time, I giving birth, and he beginning a slow process of death.

When he was released, he wasn't much better than when he went in.  The stroke had completely transformed him, he had turned into an old man overnight.  He was disoriented and couldn't do simple things for himself.  I would go visit him, and he'd have his glasses on upside down, or his shirt on inside out.  A few days after his return home, he reached into his woodstove and grabbed a smouldering log with his bare hand, severely burning it.  I became the tender of that wound, changing the dressing twice a day.  I was simultaneously caring for a newborn and a wounded old man, and it was hard.

Harry eventually got a little better in terms of greater clarity and ability to do for himself, but never again returned to the man he had been.  

I eventually left Las Vegas and did so with great relief to be ending a dark period of my life.  I had gone through a couple of years in which I suffered a major identity crisis, and allowed myself to be drawn into a downward spiral of reckless behavior.  This resulted in the loss of several friends, and even after I began rebuilding my life in a healthier direction, the views of certain people about me were set, so that I found myself trapped in the mirror, so to speak.  So after I left Las Vegas, I never looked back, I blocked it out of my consciousness as much as possible, and didn't go back to visit Harry or anyone else.

Last Wednesday, Harry killed himself with a rifle.  It had gotten to the point where there was discussion about putting him in a home.  That just wasn't going to happen.  I don't blame him, but it doesn't make it any easier.  It didn't make it easier to go to Las Vegas, or to walk in the room where it happened.  It didn't make it easier to clean brains off the wall, or to deal with the flood of memories that overtook me when I saw the white electric heater he had in there, that used to be my daughter's and was covered in exuberantly adolescent graffiti-like phrases she had written in black Sharpie.

Going to Las Vegas the other day was an intense opening to many things that I have been so closed to, so numb against.  Things related to my relationship with Justin, things that happened with my children while I was there, all the good and bad memories of living there, of who I was then.  And I realized to my shame that after Harry had his stroke, I detached from him because it was too hard to see how he'd changed, to suffer the loss of the amazing man he was.  I was always afraid I would betray the dismay I felt around him.  And honestly, after I left, it was as though I'd already written him off.  I kept expecting to hear that he'd died and I'm surprised he lasted as long as he did.  For a man like Harry, living in dependency on friends, doctors, pills, was no life at all.

I want to remember him as he was before the stroke, his gruff voice with that slight Texas drawl, the way he'd call you darlin'.  I see him driving down the road in his big black and red rescue Jeep, wearing one of those crisp white shirts he loved.  I remember how despite his ability to lead a team of firefighters, he was afraid of bugs.  How he mentored June Amber, my oldest daughter, during a difficult time for her.  But I also want to remember who he was after the stroke, and honor that person too.  Because he hung in there, he fought the good fight until the end. 

Today is Lammas, the pagan celebration of the first harvest, the harvest of the grain.  According to, it is a festival of regrets and farewells, and this is very fitting for me today, because I am experiencing a true regret, that I let my emotional difficulties  prevent me from staying in relationship with someone who was very dear to me and is now gone.

And yet, my overriding feeling is one of gratitude, that Harry lived and that he's free, that I have been brought full-circle to face and integrate my Las Vegas life and its people, to soften my heart and open to love in a place that has been cold and dark within me for several years.  To forgive myself and others.  To say a fond farewell - to Harry, to my regret, to past mistakes, both mine and others.'

One of the traditions associated with Lammas is baking bread, making good use of that which has been harvested.  So today, as I consider all that I am now reaping from my relationship with Harry, from my life in Las Vegas and all that I did there, all that I can now make good use of instead of regret, I will bake a loaf of bread in honor of Harry's life, and bring it to Las Vegas when I go for his memorial next weekend, to share with others who were connected to his life, and to mine.

Harry, Eliana, Justin, me, and June Amber in California, Summer '08


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