Apr/May 2015 Nonfiction

When I Knew

by Jill Stegman

I've been waiting for you all morning. We'd planned on seeing the movie, which you chose: Robert Redford in All is Lost. But it has been hours since you drove off, not saying where you were going. You've done this before when on high doses of prednisone, your "bargain with the devil," as you refer to how the drug saves your life when your disease flares up, yet makes you emotionally volatile.

This time was the worst. I'd been afraid of you. You called me a "Fucking bitch" and left me with my suitcase in the McDonald's parking lot to find my way home after I said your road rage scared me, that you needed therapy. I'd hated you when you told me on our 42nd anniversary that we should have split up years ago.

Thankfully, the doctors are tapering you off prednisone, and I know that the demon who took over was not you. But neither is the silent and withdrawn man you have become. You've admitted to feeling terribly guilty. No matter how many times I say I don't blame you, you shake your head. Yesterday you admitted that "I'm afraid of my feelings," and you agreed to seek help. I was calling doctors this morning when you ran out the door and drove away as if in a hurry to get somewhere.

Now I'm in the theater hoping you'll join me after all, that my anxiety is groundless. I want to be like the other couples who are murmuring, laughing, and sharing their popcorn. I want to pretend that this is just a normal day in my uneventful life. I want desperately to be writing someone else's story, not actually living it. I never pray, but I'm doing that now, a generic "Help!" directed to any deity. Anything to compete with the darkness and the dread that coils tighter with every moment you don't show up. I leave the cellphone on; screw the message on the movie screen. You might call. You'd never stand me up−unless... you couldn't get to me.

I check the lobby for you one last time and miss the beginning of the movie. Robert Redford is somewhere in the Indian Ocean. It appears that a shipping container fallen from a cargo ship has collided with his small yacht, and he's repairing the damage by gluing pieces of fabric over a gaping hole and calking around the edges. Clever and self-reliant, he reminds me of you when you had to climb up on our steeply sloped roof to repair a leak. How confidently you walked across the slippery tiles to find the source, a skylight that needed resealing.

The movie is a never-ending chain of calamities, and Redford calmly handles each one. His yacht is swamped by a wave and overturned, but he swims underneath and times his movements just right to hop back on as the boat rights itself with the next wave. When we were just married you talked me into floating on inner-tubes down the Merced. I got swept against a fallen tree and couldn't pull myself out or away, the current was too strong. I was panicking. You swam under the tree to break away any limbs that might have trapped me and told me to allow the current to pull me under, and I'd emerge on the other side just like you had. I let go of my inner-tube and when it popped up you grabbed it, and then I followed.

I see why you chose this movie. It's life-affirming. Now Redford's yacht has sunk, and he's adrift in a life raft. He learns how to use a sextant to chart his course to the shipping lanes. He discovers how to desalinate seawater. "Most would not have survived what you went through," said your doctor after the bone marrow transplant, graft-versus-host disease and skin cancer.

Disaster! Redford has used all his flares and can't alert the colossal cargo ships in his path so he's started a fire and his whole raft is in flames. He's forced to jump into the ocean. I can't believe he's not going to survive. He floats under the water holding his breath for what seems an impossible amount of time. Then the screen goes black. But no, it can't be over. This is a Hollywood movie. A light appears above from a small boat and a hand reaches down through yellowish, filtered light. Redford lifts his hand like Michelangelo's Adam reaching for the touch of God, for the spark of life. What does it matter that Adam represents youth and Redford is in his seventies? They're both being offered life. I'm carried away by the image of the outstretched hands reaching through the refracted rays. The scene is rendered to perfectly fit my own situation. I feel an inkling of hope, a slight relaxing of my twisting gut.

As the credits roll, my cell phone buzzes, your name flashes as the caller. Divine intervention after all!

"Hello," I shout. I stumble around knees and stomp on feet to get to the aisle, and then run toward the exit with the phone to my ear.

"Mom?" It's our daughter.

I'm nauseated by the double jolt of relief and disappointment. "Why are you calling on Dad's phone?"

"I lost mine." She sounds hurt at my tone, my lack of greeting. "I just wanted to let you know I got back from Santa Barbara."

"Is Dad there?"

"Why would I be calling you if he was here?" She sounds surly now, but I'm too overwhelmed to care about hurting her feelings.

"Shit. Fucking shit," I say at the cruel joke played on me. What a fool I am to think I'd seen hope in a movie. The hand reaching down was not there to rescue Redford. The movie really ended with him floating just out of reach of help. His strength of character and survival skills have not saved him. He'd drowned, and the reaching hand was reminiscent not of creation, but acceptance−of death. What else could All is Lost mean but the literal truth?

" Mama?" Our daughter hasn't called me that since seventh grade. She's never heard me swear. She sounds alarmed, scared.

Maternal instinct seeps through. I try to disguise my fear and muster a calm tone. There's something I have to know. "Honey, can you do something for me?" I say this in what sounds like an overly sweet, phony tone. "You know Grandpa's old rifles? They're under the front porch wrapped in a green blanket. Can you go check and tell me if you find them?"

"Why don't you look when you get home," she says in a cagey way, wary of me now and what I'm not saying.

"It'll be dark then, and I just want to be sure they're still there." I don't tell her I've hidden them from you because of the way you'd been during the violent phase. Then, I'd worried that you'd use them impulsively on someone else.

She's back. "There's only one."

"Which one is it?"

"I don't know the difference. It's the one with the scope. What's going on? Where's Dad?"

She's found the twenty-two, which means you have the shotgun. The right gun for the job.

"I'm not sure where Dad is, but I'm coming home. I'll talk to you soon." I want so much to add, "It's OK," like I always have before in times of crisis, but I can't lie to her. For ten years the two guns have been casually stashed in the closet with the vacuum cleaner, unloaded and unused, until I moved them. But now there's only one.

I'm outside the theater surrounded by people, but I feel ungrounded among them. They're on their way somewhere, but I'm directionless, spinning in space. Home is the last place I want to be. It means more waiting and admitting that I have to call the police. You're out there somewhere with a shotgun, and I could have been searching for you, might have saved you. Instead, I spent two hours watching an actor's performance while you performed your last act−your final deed. I missed the clues. If I had concentrated I'd have seen the same look in your eyes as the man at sea: the progression of confidence, resolution, frustration, and the lost look of resignation at the end. I see with sickening clarity that the drive to survive could also be turned into a different resolve. Make you turn on yourself.

On the way home I pull off the 101 to look at the full moon. Instead of its appearance giving me the usual solace of being a part of the larger world, I see the face of a joker with big thick lips spread in a jack-o-lantern leer jeering at my Sunday school inspirations, my missed observations, and my faulty intuitions. For now I push that face away. I have a long night before me until the knock at the door and the news that's not news about you. I already know you're gone.


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