It was our ritual here on the farm in Appalachia, and for years back in Chicago, to meet before the sunset to share our day’s events and play with our puppy, Kayo. For Paul these events were his new poems. You see, James Joyce had taken Paul by the hand to lead him forward to a celebrated life as a poet and the principal actor in a fight against literary censorship. Our long-standing routine would now be changed to accommodate his new role as Scheherazade, nightly telling his history: a role I dearly hoped would last at least a full year.
When we lived in Chicago, when Paul wasn’t teaching he would sail out on his bike, leaving behind the noise and grime of our Ada Street loft, heading for Lincoln Park to write his poetry. It was because of this exercise, sometimes biking twenty miles a day, that Paul had Lance Armstrong legs and seemed fit despite his smoking and drinking.
Before meeting Paul, I had bought half a warehouse for the unbelievable price of fourteen thousand dollars, enabling me to live in the city while working on my sculpture. What a miracle! Only three miles from the John Hancock Center on North Michigan Avenue, the Ada Street loft was set in a triangle of abandoned manufacturing plants bordered by the Chicago River and Elston Avenue (one of those few arteries to cut diagonally across the grid of Chicago’s streets). U.S. Steel had left. Proctor and Gamble would soon follow.
My half of the warehouse had previously held loose charcoal. It took three days to hose it out. The other owner, my partner John Henry, had offices in the front area with dozens of phone connections. It had probably been a bookie joint at one time. A two-minute walk would take me to Sax’s restaurant, The Hideout, where breakfast and lunch were served to businessmen who drove ten minutes from the Loop to escape their offices. I can remember eating lunch, watching a ball game, when the phone would ring. Sax would pick it up, listen to the caller, and then ask, “Is Winkler here?” Winkler, sitting two seats away, would shake his head no and Sax would mutter “NO” into the receiver.
Three years after I bought my portion of the building, Paul and I met by chance at an African art exhibition at the Richard Gray Gallery. Within two months we were married in a ceremony conducted by one of his former students, Paul Hoover, who had a ministerial degree. In his youth Paul had been used to high-toned luxury living. When he moved in with me, in 1977,
When the weather is kind, Paul and I love to move out from the house to sit under the Chinese chestnut trees framing the creek to sip our wine and talk. He says the creek sometimes sounds like jazzman Bix Beiderbecke’s cornet.
Tonight the early evening sky is soft and clear. Paul can easily walk this far, so I go by the creek and set up our chairs, spread a cloth over the table, and bring out a tray with wine and glasses. He slowly lowers his 178 pounds into a wicker seat, sighing with relief and reaching down to pet Kayo.
“Posie, I don’t have my usual energy,” he admits.
“I know you don’t, honey.” Neither of us says cancer like a silent thief in the night is stealing it away.
Sipping from his wine, Paul leans backward in his seat, gazes around, then turns and looks at me with an intense, almost fierce focus while he asks, “Will I ever see you, or touch your soft face again, when death hauls me out of this world? Just the thought of leaving you stabs – at my heart – stops it beating. You have propped me up, over and over. I feel like a traitor leaving you behind.”
“Oh honey, I don’t want to lose you either, but, Paul, this isn’t anything we can fix.”
Paul’s doctor had told us that over many years smoking had deposited arsenic in his bladder. As a result, he now has cancer, which has spread to the nearby lymph nodes. Dr. DeVirgilis said there isn’t a damned thing we can do to save his life. Whatever we could try, chemotherapy, radiation, surgery – would only cause grief. His final diagnosis was that Paul had about one year to live.
I touch his shoulder and tell him softly, “Paul, you are not a traitor. We will continue to love each other spending our time on what we can do in this year. You have to tell me everything, including the history you always resist – Big Table censorship.”
Since he has fallen silent, I begin to think to myself; are we now free-falling toward death? What is death? Do I have any recollection? If I ever died before, I certainly don’t remember it. Is there an afterlife, one outside space and time where he will eternally abide? Will Paul fly there with his satchel full of bright little nuggets of truth and passion, enduring all trials, and once there, merge with the consciousness of other spirits locked in a dance of love? Perhaps he will exist in the interstices between living and dead matter, sitting as an observer, or does he simply pass through the last sleep to an eternal void? Is it possible that there is nothing, instead of an eternal life? No matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine that.
At least providence is giving him a year to ponder what his final words will be, whether these are chiseled in stone, or simply whispered in my ear, the wife who has lovingly shared his dreams, poems, and daily rituals for the last twenty years.
Suddenly he sits upright, breaking his silence. With renewed spirit he announces, “What I would like most to do this last year is make endless love with you.