My dearest Henry is an enormous man. His chair sags beneath him. The pale roses on the upholstery eroded long ago. During the summer months, he takes his company out on the screened porch overlooking the surf. The wind never stops on this high cliff. I bring him his meals, his tea and his paper. I lead both friend and stranger through the wide throat of this wind battered old home. I lead them to Henry. He keeps his worn books and his glasses close at hand. I think this old house would have blown away decades ago had he not anchored it; me, so beautifully.
Dr. Earl from Brunswick Meeting visits about every six months. Each time he takes me aside and implores me to force Henry to focus more on his health, but Henry never was one to focus on the details of a practical life. I have tried. I have begged him, but he remains beached on his chair. I sometimes wonder if God weighted him for a reason. If perhaps his immense frame is the only way to house his vast mind; the only way to keep him from getting too busy like the rest of us. He sits and listens to hearts breaking and souls wandering from center. He shares his texts, his prayers and his wisdom. His body is like a portal between the physical world and the sacred. The world and I fuss and swirl and do while Henry sits and considers and advises. Dr. Earl fears for Henry’s life. I fear for that and so much more.
Working alone, it has taken me months to pack our household. I started at the top on the widow’s walk where the spirits of wives still search the horizon for whaling ships. The earth and heavens melt together out there, making it impossible to know where to look for the lost. Henry took me up there on our wedding day, 38 years ago. I thought it was wildly romantic in my white gown with the wind lifting me out of my satin slippers. His arms wrapped around my waist and his face nearly glowed, caught in the embers of the sinking sun.
“One flesh, Maggie” he held me tight to his chest and covered me, “one flesh”.
That day, the wind lifted my fear of heights away and my heart followed. I soared and swirled and knew that Henry would always be where I landed.
I couldn’t look down last June when I followed those same steps, a packing box in tow. The railing was chipped and the supporting nails rusted and weak. I yearned to pluck the original weathervane with the simple silhouette of a whale. I fetched a step stool, but as I stretched out, the wind shifted and it swung out of reach. I listed and lost my footing. Clinging to lose roof shingles, I prayed please, God, plant these feet safely on the ground. My toes soon found the stool, allowing my weight to slowly shift from the roof to the step. I have not been back.
I always break from packing to prepare our meals. Every Sunday is the same: roast port, creamed potatoes, sweet carrot casserole, dinner rolls, snow peas and apple tarts for dessert. Dinner is always ready just about the time Chip Pippin gives his nightly sign off on the radio, “and that’s the weather tip from your neighbor, Chip!” As silly as it is, I think it somehow helps my digestion. Henry’s brow is moist and his breathing labored. He finishes his plate and the leftovers waiting on the stove.
“Maggie,” he holds my hand between his; pillowy and soft. “Would you join us tonight? Fran and James are coming by. They think they might be able to help.” His eyes are covered in a pink translucent film, expecting me to believe in miracles.
“Unless they are coming to help us pack, there is nothing they can do. Please prepare yourself for this. No friends of ours have $150,000. I’ll be in the attic. Don’t raise your hopes”. The cost of inaction has caught us, and I can’t climb to the comfort of our attic memories fast enough.
I have heard that dust is made, in part, with human skin cells. If that is true, then this attic wears our skin as we did. The layer of protective cells cover everything from long forgotten school projects to old letters, pictures and unpaid bills. Boxes of family ephemera rest under the dust, waiting to be wiped off, investigated and either thrown away or placed in a moving box. Behind the old two-by-fours in the corner of the attic, the “dress up box” wears a slow grin. Our children, Sadie and Joseph used to come up here, piece together cast off clothes, eye patches and masks held by elastic bands that clung to their heads. Their patchwork characters were source of endless amusement for Henry and me. An old pair of Henry’s overalls lies on top. Every year at Halloween, one of the kids would stick a pillow in the belly, throw on a mask and head out into the night. That costume was a candy magnet and neighbors came to anticipate the arrival of the fat farmer. We took and stored what we needed and, in return, left our dust behind to cover and protect.
I tape up the dress-up-box, shove it towards the stairs and move to the boxes of slides stacked by the dormer. I hold a few slides up to the bare bulb hung from the ceiling and squint to see the children on the beach, suspended in time. Their faces are contorted and they pinch their noses against the acidic, rotting smell. Sadie’s hair is blown into her face and Joseph’s knees are the widest part of his young legs. A blue whale lies washed up on the rocks beside them; tragic, magnificent and stuck in its final act. I remember calling the Coast Guard to remove the beast. They cut him up into hundreds of manageable pieces. The front of our home looked like the scene of a great massacre with scavengers of every sort hovering and picking away at the great carcass. Evening came and great shadows covered his dismembered parts. He was left until daybreak when they carted him away.
Through the open door I can hear the muffled good-byes of our friends. After the door closes I descend to clear away the plates. I can hear Henry’s breathing from the kitchen. With warm tea in hand, I find him perched in his chair, back to the door, looking out to sea. The moon hangs over the water, lazy and swollen, casting a golden film into eternity.
“You shouldn’t sleep out here tonight. It’s getting too cold. Let me bring your chair into the kitchen.”
His voice strains through the layers of his neck. “You were right. We don’t have any more time. Fran and James just left. They had the name of an honest estate salesman. They can’t help beyond that.” I kiss his damp forehead and lick the salt from my lips. “I’m sorry Maggie, I’m so sorry. All you asked was that I take care of the finances and I let you down. I’ll sleep on this porch until we leave. I need to be here; do you understand?”
“No, I don’t understand.” I position myself between Henry and the sea, crossing my arms. “Do you want to add pneumonia to the list of things that can destroy you?” I brush a piece of crust from his collar, perhaps too rough.
His arms reach out for mine, for connection, for comfort and acceptance. Instinctively, I unknot my arms and rest my hands in the warm bed of his. “Look out there. Doesn’t it feel like you’re flying over the sea? Tonight, there is even a shimmering golden path to direct our flight.” His face lifts to mine. He is beaming with the energy, light and hope that I have never had the fortitude to deny. “Fly with me.”
I wrap my sweater tightly around me. “I’m cold,” is the only true statement I dare make. I long to fly with Henry, to see the world as he sees it, to delight in his unquenchable hope, but the weight and sorrow of our home bracing itself for the violation of the estate sale looms behind me. From the linen closet I bring quilts and a comforter to cover him. I kiss him goodnight. Lying in bed, I wonder if all theologians are equally infuriating to their spouses. I blame myself for expecting Henry to manage the finances. He was never wired for the material world and I should have handled the finances just like I handled everything else.
The appraiser’s shoes clop on the wide pine floors. His energy and excitement counter-balance our emotional numbness. He heads into the parlor where we have greeted both friend and family since the day of our wedding. Thirty-eight years of kindness shared and love multiplied. He peers into the fireplace and nods in approval at the owl fire irons forged a century and a half ago. Moving on to the windowsill, he lightly touches the wooden bluebirds carved by Henry’s great-grandfather. They have raised their beaks in silence for seven decades in the same window by which they were carved.
“We won’t be selling the birds,” I tell him.
“You might be surprised what they’re worth. Folk art is white hot this year.”
“You would be astounded at what they’re worth; to us. We won’t be selling them.”
He moves on, eyes to the crown molding, “Suit yourself; I’m just trying to help”. In that moment, the carpet lifts a roll under his feet. He stumbles and moves on without pause.
I leave the room to find Henry. Leaning in, I quietly lay my burden across his great shoulders but his eyes are red and pooled up. “Is he gone yet?” he asks in a broken baritone.
“Soon,” I whisper, leaning in to smell his fresh air and briny cheek.
We sit together in silence until the shoes clop onto the wooden porch. I turn to the little man and ask if he is done. “Yes,” he responds. “And you have some very valuable things. The auction will be held on the second Saturday in October, a perfect weekend to cash in on the leaf peepers.”
The second Saturday in October arrives. I stand exhausted and glassy eyed as hungry bargain hunters cover the accumulation of our lives with their hungry gaze. Their shoes can be heard all over the house. “What an incredible home!”. They ask when the home will be auctioned off.
Pieces of Henry’s family going back seven generations are walking out the front door. Out marches the silver flatware from his mother’s hope chest, the Monroe pottery and the hand-hooked lighthouse in the carved frame. A small woman in a purple knit cap leaves clutching my book of Bartram botanical prints. Henry sits with his back to the whole ordeal and I wonder if he is still able to fly out there on that porch or if the weight of the house has made its way into his soul.
It is as though the Meeting planned it. Every hour brings another Friend; some with sandwiches or homemade soup steaming out of the thermos. They don’t stay long. Their visits are like a condolence not; short and heartfelt.
Sadie arrives at day’s end. She serves us scallops in cream sauce. She pours the wine and places a vase of mums by Henry’s chair. Our daughter does not leave a single detail unconsidered. It is our last night in the house. Chip Pippin’s voice sounds familiar and comforting coming through the transistor radio. He warns that a tropical storm is heading north from New York. The usual precautions are to be heeded for coastal residents.
I stay with Henry on the porch throughout the night. The wind swirls around like the spirits of the dead, howling and prying its way through the smallest openings. The water is black with just the occasional foamy crest catching a light from the house. All night we are silent; aware and listening. Around 3:30 am, Henry turns to me.
“I love you, you know that don’t you, Maggie? I love you.”
With our material possessions either sold off or in the moving van, we huddle together in the emptiness. I rest my head on Henry’s vast chest and his heart drums slow and strong into my ear. I squeeze my eyes shut to see and understand. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Like a small earthquake, each beat sends a tremor through my body, rippling out of me to the floorboards of the house. Henry’s heart sustains us. He is the ballast that keeps us from drifting from center. He is the heart of this home. He is where I want to dwell.
As morning hides behind the storm, Sadie helps us load the last of our things. We shut the door behind us. The rain comes down in waves hurled by the wind. Today is First Day and she is taking us to Meeting to worship with our Friends and thank them. Henry fills the door frame of the old meeting house. Heads nod in silent greeting as we walk down the center aisle to the facing bench. The storm rages all about the little granite building. Soggy hats and umbrellas fill the last pew. In my quiet, I think I understand for the first time what the passage means, the peace that passes all understanding.
Meeting is largely silent except for the occasional cough or sniffle. Everyone seems to be listening to the wind, the violence outside these ancient walls. All about us nature rocks and screams in motions, amplifying the stillness inside. I feel the bench under me lift slightly. Henry rises and the floorboards shudder under his weight.
“Friends,” he speaks between breaths, “Any attempt to express my great love for you all would be doomed from the outset, as there are no words for such a divine gift.” He clears his throat, coughs and continues. “Over the last several years I have cloistered myself in the cavernous rooms of our home. You, my friends, have not forgotten me or my beloved Maggie. I wanted to be here, on this October morning, to thank you. Thank you for your expressions of love, thank you for your counsel, thank you for your blessed fellowship.” Many eyes watch Henry and sink to capture my reaction. I simply nod and form a thank you through my smile.
Three days have passed since we left our home to fend for itself. Sadie has been an angel, giving us a charming room on the first floor that looks out over Camden harbor. Henry’s chair is parked near the kitchen so everyone has to scoot around him. No one gets past without hearing a passage of whatever parched old book he is reading.
It is Wednesday evening and coming in through the garage, holding the weathervane, Sadie has lost her words. Henry and I watch her slowly prop the weathervane up under the window. She pulls a wooden chair up to Henry and takes his hand. “Daddy, it’s gone. I don’t know … how … it was just a storm, but it’s gone. The timbers are bobbing up and down, crashing into the rocks – confused in the surf. The foundation … those old stones – it’s all that’s left except this weathervane. I found it just lying on the granite slab where our front door was.” She is searching Henry’s face for an answer. He is silent, but he frames her face with his hands and smiles. In wonderment, I run my finger over the simple arc of the whale, pointing North.
My prayer returns softly to memory, please God, plant these feet safely on the ground.
In defiance of his size, Henry looks like an ethereal bubble about to take flight. He is brilliant and golden yet moist and salty. I want to knit myself to him so that I, too, can float above the material world and into the soft horizon where earth melts into heaven.
© Bonnie Linder