This past week I had occasion to drive up 206 from Princeton to Somerville and back, twice a day. Shouldn’t have been a noteworthy journey, other than to notice all the new housing developments in place of the farm fields and woods I remembered, and the new strip commercial, despite the vacancies in many of the older stores.
Just north of the intersection of 206 and Amwell Road in Hillsborough, the Dunkin’ Donuts is still there. During the year after Laura died, I used to wait there while Anne Mei studied at the Sylvan Center in the same little shopping complex. Sylvan is still there, too. For some reason the first time I saw it last week I almost had a “vortex moment.” Then, every time I went by again, I felt the same punch in the stomach and welling of tears. Though as the week went on and I figured out what was going on, the emotions dissipated bit by bit.
It’s not as though living in Princeton carries no memories of Laura and her dying years. Every time I walk down Hulfish Street and cross Hinds Plaza, I remember standing with her by the doors of the library one summer morning in 2009 after we’d dropped Anne Mei off at the Princeton Art Council for a camp. We were waiting for Louise Lutz to pick Laura up so they could spend time together while I went off to work. I remember, but it doesn’t bother me. It’s not like it was five years ago when I was seeing visions of Laura in the library. Particularly as new memories of Hinds Plaza push against the old. The weekly farmers’ markets every Thursday morning as I’m going into the library. Demonstrating in support of DACA this winter. The huge turnout of 5,000 people for the rally last month organized by high schoolers to end gun violence.
I go through the intersection of Route 1 and Harrison Street at least four times a week on my way back and forth to taiji classes. Every time I remember Laura’s call in terror that she’d hit the curb on this jughandle causing her tire to go flat. But the grief over that incident has long ago turned into memory.
That’s why I was surprised by my reaction to driving through the 206-Amwell Road intersection and past that Dunkin’ Donuts. Yes, I’d spent many hours in that place working on the memorial book for Laura that I gave to people on the first anniversary of her death. Yes, the intersection itself was the site of an extreme vortex moment about six months after Laura died. Here’s what I wrote in my journal at that time.
08.08.10 Photos, even imagination, don’t work, but can distinctly remember the face of some stranger. (Grief Observed 15). C.S. Lewis says too many memories make a blur, but the memory of her voice remains clear. Why, then, won’t I erase her message on the cell phone? Felt close to a panic attack & total meltdown this evening as I was driving Anne Mei home from Sylvan. Something about the shopping center at the corner of Amwell & 206 in Hillsborough triggered the strongest, saddest memory of Laura, of her in the car while I ran into a store to get something. I told Anne Mei what was going on, a sudden wave of missing Mommy. Asked if she ever had feelings like that. She said no—firmly. But I could see in her face that the question had given her pause. I tried to reassure her by saying that each person is different. How true! “From the way I’ve been talking anyone would think that H.’s death mattered chiefly for its effect on myself.” (Grief Observed 17)
Until last week, however, I’d never really asked myself what Laura and I were doing up that way. It must have been in the Fall of 2009 when she was on her last “Hail Mary” course of Avastin. She was spending much of her day in bed, looking at the woods outside our bedroom window. She had begun to prepare for dying. For her that meant leaving things in order for Anne Mei and me. Beginning with the house. Since chemo, radiation, and surgery had not slowed down the tumor, they had upped her steroids to control the swelling in her skull. In addition to cleaning and straightening every drawer and closet inside the house, Laura scrubbed the mold off the sides of our two story house–by hand, with a brush on the end of a long pole. All 100 lbs. of her.
From our bedroom window she could see that the split rail fence between our yard and the woods had begun to rot. Some slats had fallen out. Others were sagging or broken. Fixing that fence became one of her goals for me to get done before she died. We must have been in Hillsborough driving around to various landscape, fence, and farm supply stores looking for split rails for our fence. That’s why we were up there. And that’s why she was too sick to get out of the car to come in to the drug store with me.
The new rails sat in our garage for a week or two after I finally got them at Belle Mead Co-op, just off 206 in Montgomery, just south of Hillsborough. Then, when I was off work on Election Day, I finally installed the new rails. Laura even got out of bed to inspect my work. I remember it was a sunny afternoon, but November cold. She stayed out there until I finished. The next day we went into Philadelphia to be told that the latest MRI showed that the tumor continued to spread. The oncologist stopped the Avastin and told us to find a clinical trial for some experimental drug that might work where everything else had failed. To me, that was the fourth kiss-off. Here’s a website. Find a clinical trial that might keep your wife alive a little longer. On your own.
It’s no wonder that intersection carries many emotions for me, not just because of these associations, but also because I never really worked through these associations. One reason I don’t feel panic while driving through the Route 1-Harrison St. jughandle is that in writing my post on that incident I really had to parse all the bits of evidence about what happened in order to try to fix a date on it.
Yet, last week it was more driving through this crossroads and the sight of the Dunkin’ Donuts that hit me. That, I think, had more to do with the memory of Anne Mei and me moving along with life in the year after Laura died. If I’m honest, last week I was remembering the future, again. Anne Mei has been in South Africa for the last four months. This has been a preparatory period for when she graduates college and leaves home next year. Looking at that Dunkin’ Donuts I could see myself in there again, but with no Anne Mei next door in Sylvan.
As I was writing this piece I had to resist the urge to engage in what Laura called “grief porn,” dwelling on the details of a sad story in order to wallow in self-pity. The point here is not to remember the future, but to recognize that that’s what I’m doing. And to remember those bits of the past that have not been examined so they can’t sneak up on you again. As George Bonnano said, we “don’t grieve the facts.” We grieve the memories, however accurate, because “how we grieve … is determined by what we do with our memories, how we experience them, and what we take from them during bereavement.”
I nearly fainted at my father’s funeral. I don’t have such vortex moments with him any more, but I remember him fondly almost every day. More than twenty-five years ago I left three grown children behind in Texas. I miss them every day, but I’ve learned that doing my job as a parent means moving through the crossroads where they follow their paths and I continue on mine. I may look back with nostalgia, but I get more comfort looking over with pride at where they’re moving on.