“When your husband is dying and your child is on the cusp of forming actual memories, nothing in the world makes sense.”
There is a marsh just beyond the woods behind my house, inaccessible by foot three seasons of the year. A short path winds through the trees, and as I get closer to the water, there are ferns as high as my shoulder, a brief verdant jungle in summer. The sure footing ends in cattails and tall grass, hummocks and shallow water framed by alder, then water reaching my knees, hips, chest. Much of the year, I pause at the edge where wood ends and water begins, watch the red-winged blackbirds and think about dragging a canoe out there in early spring, when the water is deepest and the insects have yet to descend—but I never do.
Sometimes I am alone, and I breathe in the moss and the slowly rotting cedar and observe the light that filters down through the mostly evergreen canopy. Sometimes my daughter is with me, and we stop to explore a vernal pool or the striped protrusion of a jack-in-the-pulpit. Sometimes we sit and build a fairy house or uncover the startling flame of a red eft, wriggling its spots and little limbs away across the forest floor. Come winter, the marsh transforms: As the ice firms, except in certain spots where springs bubble and flow to the surface even in the heart of a cold Maine winter, I watch the temperatures and wait.
I have lived on this land for nearly a decade, and the marsh is interwoven in my history here. When my husband and I were in our early twenties and newly married, we stood at the edge of the marsh together and wondered. It was late winter, with spring coming on hard and fast. We didn’t yet trust the ice or know this marsh or this land; we didn’t yet know what it would bring, and how much it would come to mean to us. The two of us had met nearly four years prior while working on a backcountry trail crew in the Maine wilderness. We had bonded over riprap and the construction of granite staircases, living in tents and hiking up the mountain to work each day. There was a lot of mud and spruce pitch, innumerable black flies, and, eventually, many months after our stint in the woods had ended, we would admit there was love. Two years after we met, we would marry on that same mountain.
Land was important to us, more so than the house we would eventually buy, which was small and oddly shaped, in need of significant repair, all of the rooms painted in garish colors. We could afford it precisely because it was small and needed work and part of the land was wooded and wet. We had time to make the needed repairs, and the land, just shy of six acres, held so much promise in our minds. We poured our hearts and bodies into it, planting apple trees, an asparagus bed, a sprawling vegetable garden, highbush blueberries, rhubarb, various flowering bulbs. We cleaned up decades of trash, opened the path through the woods, got chickens, split firewood.
We found the marsh to be a magnificent place of leisure in the midst of all those sore muscles and chores. It also offered some promise that our land would remain tranquil: No one could build on or develop where the water spread. Spring evenings, the peepers’ song was a both deafening and lyrical symphony and, later, each year’s coyote pups practiced their howls from the far bank. Deer, owls, and other wildlife abounded. Turtles came to the yard to lay their eggs.
And in winter, there was so much wonder. We explored the expanse for hours upon hours, traipsing around with the dogs and losing whole afternoons to windburn, walking, and games of fetch with the sticks our dogs stole from beaver lodges rising from the snow and ice. Even then, in our early bliss, we could not entirely imagine or understand all we’d experience: walking through the woods along the path each December to cut down a spindly and fragrant fir tree to tuck in the corner of the living room for Christmas; discovering bog cranberries, tiny stunted spruces, and pitcher plants hundreds of feet from shore; my comical attempts to traverse the marsh in winter boots and pajama pants at nearly forty weeks pregnant.
When our daughter was little, I carried her out to the marsh on my chest, her first trip made just two weeks after she was born. As she grew, we towed her behind us on a sled, then watched as she made her own way in tiny boots and snowshoes, occasionally begging for a ride on someone’s shoulders or hip. There were many tears when it was time to head back to the house to warm up, for cocoa and a snack, or as the light began to fade from the short winter days. One January when she was a toddler, there was an enormous mid-season thaw, and when everything froze again it seemed like we could see forever through the resulting ice. We lay sprawled as a family, examining the lily pads and suspended particles; the little fish, frozen where they swam, their gills and fins seemingly paused mid-swish; the bubbles, stalled in cascades on their journey to the surface.
When we learned my husband was dying the following winter, we were told there was nothing left to be done near the end of December. Until that fall, there had still been hope and the end had seemed distant and intangible, coming but uncertain. We were still able to embrace our beautiful denial: He was so young; there was a chance that he could make it, that he would make it.
He was homebound for the last few months of his life, particularly cruel for someone who loved so dearly to be outside. Eventually, at the suggestion of our social worker, we signed up for a hospice volunteer. She was a sweet lady who lived in our town and planned to come once a week for an hour to give me a little relief. In our rural area, though, an hour was only enough time to get to a bigger town and back with a few minutes to spare—nothing leftover for errands, or stillness, or coffee seated at a table somewhere where no one knew and thus could not tell me over and over again how sorry they were. So when the hospice volunteer came that first afternoon, I decided to spend that interval and each one after on the marsh, if I could.
When your husband is dying and he is barely in his thirties, and you are still in your twenties, and your child is hovering on the cusp of forming actual memories, of comprehension, of understanding the loss, nothing in the world makes sense. When you spend every waking moment taking care of someone you love and preparing for their death, self-care falls to the side no matter how often you are reminded to do it. When you realize with piercing clarity that the language of hope meant nothing; that there will be no more children, no more conversations or Saturday morning pancakes as a family, no more nights spent in the same bed, the weight of that knowledge is suffocating.
When your toddler’s father is dying and you are doing your best to explain and include and shelter and comfort her, you nearly always feel like you are failing—like there is no way to get it right and there is never enough time or the right balance of words and truth and touch and love. It feels like everything in your life is escaping down a drain, and no matter how much you claw and cry and press your own flesh to stop the water’s flow, the level drops and drops until it is evident that soon there will be nothing left. You carry on, if you can, and keep trying, because there is absolutely nothing else you can do.
But a walk on the marsh was something I felt I could do. I took the dogs with me and the sharp winter air stung my face and lungs. On clear days the sun was blinding. It was too cold to sit or stop, so I had to keep moving and covering ground. I sometimes hoped for a soft spot in the ice, for the piercing shock of cold water seeping into my boot and stealing my breath, to remind me that I was not completely numb.
The volunteer only came a handful of times before things got bad and I all but stopped leaving the house for fear that my husband would die in my absence, but I am grateful for the time she did give me. I needed the bitter cold and some of the quiet and stillness the marsh had to offer, as the rest of my life roared around me in a firestorm of unrelenting grief. My husband died on the second day of spring.
Our daughter is tall now, just like her father, her head already nearly reaching my chest. When we go out to the marsh, she does not need my help. After our requisite visit to an abandoned blue boat hidden on the opposite shore, she often spends her hours creating a magical world all her own. The cattails become swords, she collects wild cranberries to leave in little piles for the birds, and where the ice is clear, she presses her nose and peers down as far as she can see.
We talk about her father and how he loved the woods and the marsh, how he built trails through the mountains and down by the sea, and how he loved to teach others how to do the same. We talk about his life and his death and his love. We talk about his strength and his kindness. We talk about the things we did together as a family in those few short years: hikes, trips to the lake, adventures at the ocean’s edge, time out on the marsh, exploring.
We walk to the marsh and, hand in hand, we try to remember.
Only one of the dogs is still living now. She is getting older, but she bounds across the ice and snow like a puppy every time we set foot on that frozen world just past the forest’s edge. I am older now, too. I can feel it in my knees, hips, and chest, and sometimes I feel far too old for my years, but every mid-winter walk on the marsh quiets my heart just enough.
Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury advocate, and homemade-caramel aficionado. She lives in Maine and you can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.