Russ

Dear Russ:

Only a week has passed since your death. Seven endless days of hell, punctuated with spells of numbness. Grief slows time, turns weeks into interminable months.

We almost lasted two decades together. December would have marked twenty years since we first met on Match.com. I spotted your photo, interspersed between all the pictures of shallow yuppies. At once, I felt intrigued by your wild hair and sweet expression. You knew how to stand out in a crowd, even online.

Seventeen years, later, your devastating diagnosis came out of the blue like a terrible car wreck. August 28, 2019 will be ingrained in my brain forever, along with May 3, 2021. Stage four colorectal cancer with numerous mets to liver. The doctor said maybe two years with chemo. We desperately wanted those two years, but you only made it through twenty hellish months.

After the two of us fled the Pacific Northwest and moved to Bisbee, AZ in March 2020, we settled into a routine. Twice a month, we drove to Tucson for your chemo infusions. The rest of the time, I cooked elaborate vegan meals, and we took long walks together.

Our favorite trek was along the San Pedro trail, near Sierra Vista. Its partially dry riverbed was such a contrast to Washington’s green, dripping flora. We learned to love the harsh desert environment, with its spiny plants and treacherous insects.

At first, we took three-mile hikes, and I had a hard time matching your speed. Then the walks dwindled to two miles, and finally one. I remember the day when you first told me to slow down because you couldn’t keep up. Eventually, you advised me to walk ahead by myself. You sat on a bench and waited. I disappeared for fifteen or twenty minutes and then returned, feeling anxious and guilty.

The last time we went to San Pedro, you made it about a quarter mile and collapsed onto a bench at one of the trail forks. Already exhausted, you stared into space. A couple of weeks beforehand, someone had arranged a nearby pile of rocks into the shape of a heart, but since then, another person had scattered the design. It seemed like a bad omen.

I walked to our usual turnaround point beneath a highway overpass. The water flowed freely there. Half a dozen eggplants were arranged at the river’s edge, along with an upended vase of roses and a plate of half-eaten food. 

Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out the symbolism. I felt oddly frightened and knew I had to rejoin you on the bench. “That was much faster than I expected,” you said.

Once your health declined, you went downhill fast. Walking became impossible. You started to fall inside the house, and hospice nurses brought a hospital bed into our living room. Next, the oxygen machine, catheter, and disposable diapers. You wanted to die at home, and I stayed with you until the end, playing John Coltrane and John Prine on YouTube until you took your last breaths.

Today I finally went back to the San Pedro trail. I passed the bench where you rested, then walked to the overpass. I felt relieved to discover that the eggplants and roses and food plate were gone. I wondered if someone had retrieved them, or if they had washed away in the current.

I guess we all wash away in the current. I sat on your bench for a while before returning to the car and tried to imagine what you thought when you perched there, unable to go any further. I miss you so much. I don’t know how to continue. Somehow, I’ll put one foot in front of the other like you always did. The ultimate destination is always the same. You just got there before I did. 

I wish I were religious and as certain about life after death as everyone else seems to be. Perhaps we’ll always be together, walking and laughing. I hope that’s not too much to ask, but I’m not sure if anyone can hear my request.

Rest well, my sweetheart.

                                                        Love, 

                                                            Leah

Leah Mueller is an indie writer and spoken word performer from Bisbee, Arizona.  Her most recent books, “Misguided Behavior, Tales of Poor Life Choices” (Czykmate Press), “Death and Heartbreak” (Weasel Press), and “Cocktails at Denny’s” (Alien Buddha) were released in 2019. Leah’s work appears in Midway Journal, Citron Review, The Spectacle, Miracle Monocle, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review, Your Impossible Voice, and elsewhere. Visit her website at www.leahmueller.org.

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