This Will Be the Last Time

The very last time I saw Jimmy—the one who held on and whom I let go—he was not himself.

I had taken Winston, our dog, on his and my bedtime walk. We were living in Coolidge Corner, almost two years after I sold our family home and escaped a long decline, which included Jimmy’s increasing disappointment with his career and his life, and our struggle with a marriage that had worn out both its love and usefulness. At the time that Jimmy and I separated, I had thought a divorce would lead to the typical division of property and uneasy peace along with occasional interactions around our children.

But I was wrong. The before-and-after moment of my life was a rupture, a piece of cloth forcefully ripped, beginning the afternoon a police detective arrived at our house on Puddingstone Road and gently said, “Ma’am, I have some bad news. I’m sorry to have to tell you that your husband has been found, deceased.”

Were there signs of crime? I wanted to know.

The detective shook his head and winced. Wearing a Red Sox team shirt that he had inexplicably thrown over his dark uniform when he got out of his dark car, he explained that all signs pointed to suicide.

The truth bloomed in my mind, instantly logical, a conclusion clicking into place after days of suspense, jolts of hope, and bits of clues as to the whereabouts of a husband and father who had vanished. I didn’t cry then—the news and its certainty were, at first, a relief.

In the long year that followed, I created a new home for our family of four in a roomy condominium I rented from an older couple who had raised their children in it and then moved back to Israel. I felt safe in the neighborhood, even walking Winston at night. Winter or summer, plenty of people were always out on the sidewalk, store and apartment windows lit, and the local bookstore opened until late.

That summer night, the dog and I had turned off of Harvard Street, the busy thoroughfare, and onto ours, which was filled with two- and three-family houses. Suddenly Winston paused, a dead stop with his feet planted. My eyes followed the direction his head was turned and his nose pointed. What was he peering at? A skunk?

Behind us, I heard the rumble of the 66-bus zooming down Harvard. The street lights on Stedman created patches of light that eased the darkness. Winston perceived something that I still did not. We waited.

I saw a white T-shirt and dark shorts, alone, no dog, come into view under a streetlamp, perhaps seven or eight houses off. Winston was on hyper-alert, only his nose twitching. The figure walked toward us, though still so far off it had no identity, no feature recognizable. Any gender, any age. Winston was transfixed.

The person kept walking toward us, from patch of light to patch of light. At first I felt like prey; the figure seemed to be male, and my fear told me to retreat quickly to our building. Go inside. But, inexplicably, I stayed, rooted to the sidewalk. I had a sense that Winston was gathering all of his energy as though he would spring running toward that person if invited.

Something in the person’s gait reminded me of Jimmy, a manner of walking I would never forget. The legs were proportionally shorter than the body and bowed, and the ankles and feet had a delicate jaunty way of touching down as though the ground could not be trusted as solid. My awareness slowly crystalized. It was a man, possibly him, possibly not him, because what could this apparition that walked like Jimmy, who had the belly and chest like Jimmy, who wore the nondescript white T-shirt like Jimmy, what else could it be but his ghost?

Silent, I wanted to turn to Winston and ask: Hey, buddy. Do you think that’s Jimmy?

I was frightened and I wasn’t. In movies, people seem afraid of ghosts. I had never believed in them, perhaps because of my Roman Catholic upbringing. A good student, I learned the dogma well. There was only one spirit, the Holy Ghost. This being was so mystical that only a few mortals—“maybe the Pope, maybe a few Cardinals,” explained my mother—could grasp its existence. When humans died, I learned, their bodies were buried and their spirits rose to heaven or, in rare instances, sunk into hell. They didn’t live among us, and there was nothing we were permitted to do to encourage it. Though in my adulthood I had drifted away from my childhood religion, the lesson stuck.

In the first months after Jimmy’s death, I had read a lot about grief. Somewhere I picked up the idea that a sudden death is almost like an amputation, and the deceased person lives on vividly in our minds—a phantom limb. We see them in peripheral vision, and we hear their voices in rooms. We say their names out loud, forgetting.

That night on Stedman Street, the shadowy figure walked closer and closer to Winston and me. I could see, finally, that the face was not Jimmy’s face. Under the nearest streetlamp, his eyes were visible and dark, not light blue like Jimmy’s. The eyebrows were full, not sparse. The mouth was broader and more horizontal.

Winston still stood in place, paws planted, waiting. He seemed resolute, though perhaps with the same residue of combined hope and fear that I felt.

The man kept walking, and we kept staring. Step, heartbeat, step, heartbeat, step. He passed by us, avoiding eye contact like the living do.

We have no peace. Our minds are restless. If it had been Jimmy, Winston would have bolted down the street, leaping to be picked up and embraced by his old master. I would have stood there in front of our apartment building, a place Jimmy never lived, and waited for him to walk up to me. I don’t know if I would have invited him in. It would have been better and more fitting to simply point up to the third-floor living room window, lit up from the life inside, and say, “This is where we live now.” I would not add, “without you,” because he would know.

* * *

The last time I saw him in the flesh, he was dead.

There had been a lot of back-and-forth trips between the funeral home in Coolidge Corner (an area where my children and I would move only seven months later) and our family home a few miles away. There had been the walk-through, arrangements to make, and checks to write. Either my sister Sally or my father were with me every step, and often they led the way. When Sally heard from Tony, the undertaker at Levine Chapel who had been assigned to us, that it was possible to view the body, the two of them went, believing it was right. Mad at Jimmy for dying, I was undecided, so I stayed home.

An hour later Sally called, “Jane, you should come. It’s not scary.”

They drove home, and we went back.

Tony met us outside the chapel where the body lay, and he explained what I would see, step by step, as though breaking down a scene he had memorized.

“Take your time,” he said, and left us.

With my sister reassuring me and my father holding open the door, I saw Jimmy the moment we entered. Though this was not the first dead body I had ever seen, the moment was stunning.

There he was on stage, a place he had always wanted to be and never wanted to be. It’s only him, my inner voice said. His body was wrapped—shrouded—in that white sheet that Tony had explained is the way Jewish bodies are prepared for death, leaving this life in the way they entered, naked. Of course, I imagined him naked; it’s hard not to. Though our physical life had not been deep and knowing, it was familiar. I knew where the freckles were, the accessory nipple, where there was hair and where not, size of penis and testicles, length and shape of limbs.

I walked: step, step, step. My father, on my left, had his arm around me. Time stretched out; fear disappeared. The body, close enough to touch, had been made small by death.

The inert face was not covered, and I saw the recognizable, prominent nose with flared nostrils, his slanted forehead. I saw the full lips with the divet between the nose and upper lip. Jimmy’s eyes were closed, sewn or glued shut by the mortician, so I could not see the beautiful, striking blue I first noticed on the moment of our meeting, when I stopped by his newsroom desk, where I worked too, and he looked up right into my eyes. A blue like no other—gone now.

My grief and guilt overwhelmed me. Dead, Jimmy was powerless, while I was still full of capacity to both love and harm. I sobbed out all my pity over the losses he had recently gone through: a job, an income, a place to live and people to live with. With a feeling akin to swallowing gravel, my chest heaved over what I had done: shut down my love, treated his depression as though I were a nurse not wife, and turned away and away from him. There had been times, in the worst moments of our marriage, I had wished for Jimmy to just go, to disappear into some alternate universe where he would have his life and I would have mine. At this terrible moment, I believed that my thoughts had been action. I had gotten, finally, what I wanted. It was agony.

With my father’s arm around me, I wailed, “Jimmy, I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” I couldn’t touch him. His body under the white, wrapped muslin looked solid, as though carved from wood. His face looked like cool clay. The analytical part  of my brain still worked: I peered at mottling around the nostrils and maybe some thinning, and I thought of maggots and rot. How long had he been dead in that hotel room before his body had been found?

We left Levine Chapel, and Sally drove us home. I sat in the back of her minivan and prepared to talk to the children and convince them to do what they feared: visit their father’s body. For days and days, since Jimmy had turned off all his social media accounts and started ignoring texts to his phone, fashioning his own digital disappearance, I had been swept up in the advice of parents, siblings, friends, and police and doing what I could to aid the search for our missing person.

Sally parked in my driveway, and we got out. I was ready to talk to the kids. My inner voice whispered, They need a leader. There was only me.

“Dad’s not missing anymore,” I said. “He has been found.” I talked and wept at the same time, my voice thin and hoarse. Though we all knew he had died, the feeling that he had only run away still lingered powerfully, our emotional ground truth.

“I don’t know if I want to see him,” said Eli, maybe, or Grace. Along with Lydia, the three of them were sitting together in the living room, as we all did in those first days. Perhaps they had been watching reruns of The Office, which kept us company during our grief and exhaustion, or sitting in the backyard with my mother and other siblings.

“It’s not scary,” I said, repeating what my sister had said to me. “And it’s our only chance.” While I knew it would be painful for them to see their deceased father, I wanted them to see he was no longer on the run, out of our reach.

They put their shoes on. We got in the car. Sally drove. My father kept talking to fill up the space; Sally snapped at him, “Stop talking.” I tried to restore peace. The children were silent, watching through the window as familiar places in our town rolled by—an elementary school, two sets of train tracks, the bookstore, the deli, sidewalks and benches, and all the trees along the way. “Goodbye,” I said for Jimmy, as though he rode along with us.

Unlike my children, I had seen other dead bodies. In my Catholic girlhood, I had seen my elderly relatives in open caskets at their wakes. Their cheeks were touched up with blush, as though blood and not embalming fluid was resting in the circulatory system. The skin on the hands, folded across the chest, was white and waxy. The pleated lines over the lips, sewed shut, were visible. If a woman, the hair was fluffed around her scalp and face, as in life.

Raised Jewish, Jimmy told me when we were first married that he thought the Catholic open-casket custom was strange. I had once asked him if he had seen the dead body of his father, who died of a heart attack when Jimmy was thirteen. He hadn’t.

The loss of his father, and the trauma of the memory, was the signature story of Jimmy’s life. Throughout our marriage, he told it to me over and over—a mortal wound never healed. When the children were old enough, he told the story to them.

Jimmy was 53 when he died by suicide; our children were 24, 20, and 16. And I had become something I had never imagined, a widow like my mother-in-law. As I walked and talked through the long list of things to do in the days following Jimmy’s death, I kept to myself a private grief—that this trauma would become my children’s future, an event that would haunt and shape them and interfere with ordinary happiness.

Back at Levine Chapel, Tony gave some preparatory guidance to the children and slipped away. Lydia and Eli shuffled in first, sitting in the second-to-last row of the chapel. Grace, the youngest at 16, clung to my hand and nudged me to the back row. No one cried. Much later, the kids explained to me that they had been worrying about and grieving their dad for a very long time, while he still lived, aware of his depression yet so accustomed to it that they hadn’t sensed its depth. They had the composure of people who had been sad for a long time and learned to shoulder it.

Minutes passed. We were stuck. It was Lydia who made the move, walking to the front of the room, not looking at Jimmy but going in his direction. Eli was a step or two behind her. I sat in the back with Grace, her fingers painfully squeezing my knuckles. A few feet from Jimmy, Lydia looked back at us and asked, “What should we do?”

My father looked around. “Pray?”

Lydia—middle child, most sensitive to the feelings and moods of others—had an idea. “Let’s play a song. One of Dad’s favorites.” She took out her phone. After a few finger taps and some thought, the opening bars of William Onyeabor’s “Fantastic Man” began. “Dad’s favorite song,” she explained to my father and Sally, who didn’t know.

+++Now I want you try to tell me how I look
+++Tell me, please tell me how I look
+++You look so good…
+++Fantastic man

Gently, as she stood at the front of the room, she started twisting and swaying, her arms swinging gently. Our singer, with a beautiful alto voice, Lydia sang along. Eli stood up, and danced and swayed in the manner of Lydia, singing too. A musician and composer, Eli seemed sweet and awkward without a stringed instrument in their hands.

“Any requests?” Lydia had her phone in her hand again.

“‘Perfect Kiss’,” I said, remembering the first time Jimmy showed me Jonathan Demme’s video of New Order’s studio performance: three men and one woman, closeups of faces and instruments, electronic sound, and Sumner’s earnest voice.

+++I know, you know, you believe in a land of love
+++I know, you know, we believe in a land of love

Did I even have a right to make a request? It was the four of them—father and children—who shared a deep love for music. He was a music journalist, they performers; all were fans and connoisseurs of their favorite bands. Something tangled up in their DNA and lived experience united them.

“Next?” Lydia looked around.

“Play something by Springsteen,” said Eli, invoking Jimmy’s favorite musician, his muse. “How about ‘Philadelphia’?” Without dancing, we listened. I pictured a sleepless man, bruised and battered, walking a thousand miles, not recognizing himself. At night I could hear the blood in my veins.

I pictured a man alone, longing for comfort and doubting it. Will we leave each other alone like this?

Love and guilt spiraled through me, and I wept.

Grace, though a singer and guitarist, remained silent through the musical tribute. She had been closest to her father. Because Eli had already finished school and moved to Queens while Lydia was midway through college, it was Grace, the youngest, who lived at home and functioned, in a way, as the family glue. She and her father had been buddies.

Lydia’s turn again: “Losing You.” She explained, “This was the Solange song that Dad and I agreed on.” We were too tired to laugh, but I had a sense that Lydia’s long irritation with her father had been softened by loss. Lydia pressed play on one more song, “Buffalo Stance” by Neneh Cherry, the song we ritualistically played as a family as we set off on one of our driving vacations. We always left the rap part to Neneh, but as a family we would sing the refrain:

+++No moneyman can win my love
+++It’s sweetness that I’m thinking of
+++We always hang in a Buffalo Stance
+++We do the dive every time we dance

Grace stood up, pulling me. Slowly, she and I walked to the front of the room. Without looking at the body we came around so that we were on stage. Eli and Lydia moved toward the body from their side, joining us. The four of us circled him, looking.

Not knowing what to say or do next, I started to narrate what was in front of me. “That’s his forehead. The nose, very Jimmy. His curly hair.” I touched it to show them it was okay to touch. It felt like the hair of a doll or a wig on a stand, not warmed by the scalp of a human.

They touched their father then, over the sheet. His legs. His chest. Did anyone touch his hands? They were under the shroud, a lump on his chest. I touched his hard, bony small knee through the sheet.

“Remember the wolf pack?” asked Eli, putting one hand out to hover over Jimmy’s chest.

We nodded and looked across the body at each other, remembering that time in a dark-paneled and stuffy TGI Fridays in Niagara Falls, on the rain-soaked first night of our summer vacation. Tired from a long car ride, we longed for hospitality, not our cramped hotel room or the awful food in front of us. To break a rotten, collective mood and restore family togetherness Eli had declared, “Wolf pack of five,” and led us through the stacked-hand gesture.

Ten years later, in Levine Chapel, Lydia put an outstretched hand on top of Eli’s. I put my hand on Lydia’s, and then Grace topped my hand with hers. With our hands making a sandwich and hovering over their father’s body, Eli commanded, “Wolf pack, last time.” Our hands released, fluttered up like birds, and then dropped back to our sides.

There was a lightness in the air; we were relieved. Jimmy, estranged husband and troubled father, on the run and missing for days, had been found. We walked out of the room, and he was gone.

* * *

The last time I really saw Jimmy, the living breathing man, was when he stood in our driveway, looking into the trunk of his rental car, as he dropped off Grace after a day of art camp. It was an ordinary task on an ordinary summer day, except for the fact that he had packed up his belongings and, by mutual agreement, moved out. He was still between addresses, staying with friends while he waited for the apartment he had rented to open up.

Only now am I able to fill in the timeline and understand the moment’s significance.

I wonder now if he knew he would die, if he was already planning it. In the grim weeks that followed Jimmy’s death, I learned from others who had planned to take their own lives about the logistics-driven thoughts of the suicidal. “It’s like packing, buying your ticket, and checking the timetable in preparation for a long train trip,” wrote one of them in an email to me. “You’re not even thinking of people who love you,” said the other, over dinner. “It has nothing to do with them.”

On that day, a sunny, hot one in mid-July, Jimmy had pulled into the driveway and opened the trunk for Grace to retrieve her backpack, damp bathing suit, and towel. She came in through the kitchen, and I walked out. He was standing behind the car, the trunk open.

He was familiar, of course: the slight hunch in his shoulders, as though his neck ached, and the brown hair, once splendid, that kept curling even though it receded. Never a lover of sunlight, he squinted.

“Hi, Jane.” It was unusual for Jimmy to call me by my first name. In our life together, it was either “Honey” or, if we were in the company of our children, “Mom.”

I had come out to the driveway (our driveway) with Winston (still our dog) on his leash.

“Hi.” In the previous two weeks I learned to say as little as I could to get by.

His lips tightened. His hands were in the trunk, rooting for something. I kept my eyes on his face, as though all the important information would be there. I was accustomed to studying Jimmy for the smallest clue: a lift in the shoulders, a raised brow, a smile or frown.

“I finished packing,” he said, pointing his nose, a directional signal, toward the garage. He sighed. “I’ll try to come next week and get the boxes.”

I wanted to say again, “I’m sorry,” but he had forbidden it. When he told me, “Never say that again,” I had perceived an icy determination in his voice. Now I wondered if his layers of self-defense, which were justifiably protecting a broken heart, had turned inner sorrow into suppressed anger.

I wanted to ask, “Are you okay?” and give him a hug, but the last time I embraced him, he kept his arms to his side, wooden, not yielding to the comfort I offered. It had also been me who had made the decision to separate, end our marriage, and live apart.

Most of our lives together, I frequently had believed he was mad at me, suppressing nasty words or feelings behind a frozen smile. When challenged, he had been indignant, “I’m not mad at you. I love you.” These short exchanges had usually ended with confused apologies (mine) and heightened cheerfulness (his). Just two months earlier, when we were still making attempts to talk meaningfully to each other, I had asked if he was okay, and he replied, “I don’t know.”

My heart hurt too, and I guarded my own pain. Would responsibility for my husband’s well-being and happiness ever lift? Even once he was my ex-husband? And what more could I say to him now, the wife who gave up on him? Like slapping my hands on my shorts after working in the garden, I had brushed him and his life off mine, finally.

I took two steps away, toward the sidewalk.

“Uh, the dog,” I said, looking down. “Gotta walk him.” Winston’s snout was pointed up and his glance flitted to me, to Jimmy, to me, toJimmy again. Animals can’t ask questions, but they seem to.

I turned and I walked away. I had the dog as an excuse. I recall rounding the corner from Puddingstone Road to South Street and feeling as thought here was something I couldn’t quite shake, like a spectre on my shoulder, a soft almost weightless weight, like a thin fabric draped there that didn’t belong though could not be lifted. I don’t think I knew what would happen, in any conscious way. I was tired of Jimmy, that I knew.

When I returned to the house with Winston, the rental car had disappeared. I was relieved. What I didn’t—couldn’t—know at the time was that, less than two weeks later, Jimmy would have disappeared, too.

* * *

“One of the tragedies of death is that it interrupts a lifelong dialogue, rendering it a monologue,” writes Edwidge Danticat in her book, The Art of Death, which centers on her beloved mother’s death and the months leading up to it, filled with conversations in English and sometimes Creole that took place during walks, on the phone, and around visits to her mother’s doctor. Describing the final hospitalization, Danticat writes, “I was talking to my mother when she died.”

In the weeks and months after Jimmy died, everyone who knew Jimmy, and especially the kids and I, went back over our final conversations with him, looking for clues to either implicate ourselves in neglecting his fatal despair or free ourselves from the same burden. Grief counselors from the Samaritans told the kids and me: “Everyone becomes a detective when someone dies by suicide.”

Later, when the desire to solve the emotional cause of Jimmy’s death subsided, more and more we started to tell our own stories. Eli composed songs; Grace cut into linoleum and made collage-like prints in her art studio; and Lydia wrote an essay about how the plot of her father’s life had concluded while her own continued.

In all of them, Jimmy appeared as a motif, an image, a character.

The first time I saw Jimmy, more than 30 years ago, he was sitting at his desk in the newsroom at the Boston Phoenix. He was a music writer and I an editorial intern, in my last semester of college and evaluating the attractions of two career paths: journalist or teacher.

Here’s the twist: as a reader of the Phoenix, I had already “met” Jimmy Guterman—by skimming his numerous record reviews and coverage of live concerts and other arts events. Our conversation had already begun, in a way. I loved an essay he had written about Flannery O’Connor, an author I had studied in my literature courses. About her graceless, gothic characters, he had written a line that went something like, “In writing her stories, she was perhaps trying to find a way to love them.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but I wanted to find out more and talk to him. So I asked my boss, Eric, where I could find the arts writers, and he pointed to a long alley-like room off the main newsroom. Excited to meet someone whose words on the page conveyed both brilliance and wisdom, I peeked around the corner first.

Later, when Jimmy would tell the story to new acquaintances about how we had met, my boyfriend and eventual husband would characterize me as “a hot young intern from Wellesley College who had a crush.” And I, drily, would counter, “I was hoping to make a professional connection.” We were both right.

Our lifelong dialogue ranged over many topics, from the quotidian details of a household and life with three children—school lunches, roof repairs, homework and bed times, laundry, and grocery lists—to weightier themes that, in comparison, could seem abstract. And of course there were our fraught conversations, and the periods of chilly silence between them got longer and longer over the years.

Though Jimmy has been dead more than five years, some part of my mind still flickers when one of our common interests arises: the kids, literature, the music he introduced me to (Richard Thompson, Prince, Sinead, The Band, Lucinda, Onyeabor, Neil, and John Doe and Exene), frustrations at work, or even the challenges and pleasures of writing. Time softens rage, and death outstrips resentment.

Every day my mind turns to Jimmy. I wonder: what would he think? There are grooves of thought devoted only to him, the needle stuck, the old vinyl turning round and round.

What began without foresight or intention became the longest, fullest conversation of my adult life. The first two lines we ever spoke were questions.

“Hi. Are you Jimmy Guterman?” I stood at his desk, looking down at a curly head bent over an open newspaper.

He looked up, revealing those blue, blue eyes. “I am. Who’s asking?”

I told him my name, and the conversation—which continues like a dream from which I will never awaken—began.

 

 

Image: “When I was a child… I listened to vinyl records” by Pasi Mämmelä, licensed under CC 2.0.

Jane Kokernak
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4 COMMENTS

  1. Jane, I was in tears as I read this. I am so sorry you had to go through such a painful time. I am so thankful you have such a loving family to support you at such a difficult time.

  2. This is one of the most powerful essays I’ve ever read; it will stay with me for a very long time.

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