Next…surviving the loss of love, buying a house, and digging in the dirt to feel alive again

By Neva Knott

Dirty dishes are piled in the sink, one cup atop one plate, atop one bowl and flanked by one knife, one fork, one spoon. There’s a pan for each day’s meal: the saucepan for Monday’s soup, the skillet for Tuesday’s packaged potstickers, and the baking dish for Wednesday’s and Thursday’s pre-seasoned packaged fresh fish. The wire rack in the adjacent sunroom holds paper plates, a coffeemaker and filters, paper napkins, and a box of extra wine glasses. All are remnants of gathering for meals after the long days at the hospital, and after. The cupboards are bare, and the refrigerator holds mostly condiments and those are from summer at best. The dog hair is piled in the corners, the floor has gone dull from dust and note enough cleaning, though there is a brighter pathway from door to sink, sink to fridge, fridge to counter, counter to stove. The espresso maker looks well-used. The wall near it is spattered with coffee drips.

***

I bought the house after I returned from living on Maui for a year with my partner, Adam. I had chosen to return to my teaching job in Portland, having taken a leave of absence for our adventure, but he wanted to stay another year–he wanted to be by himself for a year. That’s all the explanation I got.

StewardStHouse

The first time I saw this house the porch was falling off. I had looked at seventy or so houses in this transitional–affordable–quadrant of Portland. Dump after smelly dump. I was ready to give up when my realtor called, “Neva, I think you should see the house I just listed. It’s a lot of house for the money and the seller is going to do most of the work it needs. If the neighborhood isn’t too sketchy for you…” So I drove by on my way home from work. I arrived to find the porch unhinged, a 70s van jacked up in the drive way, siding the color of rancid butter and dull flat dark brown trim. Dump. I didn’t go in. A day later, motivated by weariness and on the brink of desperation, I called my realtor, “I think I should look at that house.”

I navigated the rickety porch and stepped inside the 1920s bungalow, very traditional Portland in style, imagined it painted in a warm color. I stepped into the living room and saw the original nail-top hardwood floors and built-in shelves. I fell in love with the way the light came into the living room through the clearstory windows above the bookshelves. The living room proper extended into a dining area. I love to cook for people, and room to throw a dinner party was on my list of must-haves. I continued to walk through. I fell in love with the huge kitchen. I fell in love with the attic. Never mind the holes punched in the bedroom walls. Never mind the layers of do-it-yourself projects executed with ineptitude over the lifespan of the house. I walked out the back door, into the big back yard, and saw potential. Never mind the decrepit shed. Never mind the viney, tangled, creeping mess that was the back yard.

I fell in love with the house.

I bought it. I went back, and then I signed the mortgage papers, and moved in. It was the first time I’d seen my name in such official print.

MauiAnniversary1

Adam and I on our Anniversary in Hana, Maui, 2003.

Adam called. I shared the news of my triumph. Home ownership was a goal we had in common, so I thought he’d be excited for me. He wasn’t enthused about the house at all. It seems he’d decided he didn’t really want “a year.” Rather, he missed me and wanted me to come back to Maui, right then. He insisted that, no, he hadn’t ended our relationship–he’d just said he needed some time to himself. There was no rationality in his scenario–I had just bought a house. The school year had just begun. I’d quit my job on Maui. He’d left me sitting alone on a beach to figure out my next move, separate of our relationship, our life.

The previous owner did most of the work to mitigate the damage to the house, but there was much left to do to really bring the house back to its potential stature. I began with the yard. Blackberry bramble impeded walking and took chemicals and my brute strength to remove. Cherries dropped from the 40-year-old untrimmed trees, onto everything, everywhere. Two branches were reachable, and the cherries sweet, but the fruit was mainly for the birds. Large-leafed weeds grew waist-high, though toppled easily with rain. The shed stood, built from scrap and adorned with a black spray-paint skull and crossbones. The squirrels grew fat with random filberts from the tree intertwined with the wire fence.

I quit the gym, bought a book entitled Plant and a shovel, and took a gift of a push mower from a friend. At night I read about gardening, and on weekends and evenings I wrestled the unwanted scraggle from the earth. I jumped on the shovel with full body weight to turn the earth. I discovered that I couldn’t rototill because of all the trash that’d been thrown in the yard for who knows how long. I found a one-inch drill bit, a hanger with a decayed cotton and synthetic blouse still on it, plastic toys, broken bathroom tiles, bottle caps, bottle glass, duct tape, tin foil, wire, spark plugs, batteries, plastic bags, pencils. I jumped, dug in, and turned.

The work ethic of my grandparents glistened in the sweat on my brow. My neighbors leaned over the fence to chat, glad that someone who cared had moved in. Some time in May, I got the vegetable seeds into a patch of soil under the old clothes-line. Some of them grew.

While I worked, I thought about my life, about what I wanted out of life, about what was next, and about all the “nexts” that had come before. I am detrimentally, to a staggering degree, afraid that my life, in the end when accounts are totaled, will be a waste. Because of this fear, I am always planning the next thing.

While I worked, I remembered what it was like to live with Adam…

The counter was laden with fresh tomatoes, limes, and garlic. The floor was swept clean of dog hair, dishes were done, and there was no dust atop the refrigerator. The counter had been cleared to make a work surface. A knife ready next to the cutting board, a skillet warming on the stove, and a fresh piece of halibut draining in the sink. Soft Brazilian music played on the stereo, and the soft glow of the summer light faded outside. The air was fragrant with the scent of fresh limes mingled with garlic. Cooking began to happen in tandem, a ritual of our daily life.

I met Adam while waiting tables at Alameda Brewhouse in Portland. During summers after graduate school, I worked to pay off my student loans. He was the brewer there. A co-worker talked me into going out with Adam. I did, and fell in love with his tall, thin frame and goofy smile. After we’d been together for a couple of years, we moved to Maui. I got us there by getting a teaching job at King Kekaulike High School.

I remember our conversation about leaving Portland. Adam and I were sitting at the Lucky Lab pub. We were at an outside picnic table, and I was leaning my back against the cold cinder block wall. We were having a beer and chit-chatting, as couples do on Saturday afternoons. I looked up and out at the sky. I was looking up and away from Adam in the way I do when I want to avoid what I have to say or don’t like what I’m thinking. I look up sometimes to escape my mind. I felt like I was going to cry, and Adam said, “What?” My voice shuddered and I replied, “I don’t know. I really fucking hate this place.” My eyes descended from the clouds and met his, “I don’t want to live here anymore.”

I don’t remember why I so badly wanted out of Portland–Portland had always been safe for me. Home. The other times I’d left, for college or work, I’d happily snapped right back to that city by the rivers.

The tone of his reply was apprehensive underneath, in the bass note, but his words and voice were encouraging. We’d always, from the day we started dating, talked about living abroad. I’d travelled extensively as a child and had wanderlust. Adam hadn’t travelled; he’s made it from the mid-West, Indiana, to Portland. The most expansive place he’d been was the Pacific coast.

Before we moved to Maui, I was having some health problems and was often emotional. Adam had had it with my crying and freaking out about not feeling well, but wouldn’t talk to me about it, wouldn’t listen, either. And we were having some problems in our relationship I still don’t understand. Add to the mix that, for as laid back and happy-go-lucky as Adam was on the outside and to the world, he was a very moody and depressive person inside. We never really talked about the mess we were in. Instead, we took our problems with us to Maui.

Adam really came alive living the island life, and when he began diving he found his calling. I joined a traditional outrigger canoe team. Living on Maui cured my illness and brought me strength. Together, we swam in the warm cerulean blue ocean, learned to body-board, hiked in the jungle, jogged in the pineapple fields, and made our home the gathering place for our new friends.

Adam learning to body-board at Big Beach, Maui.

Adam learning to body-board at Big Beach, Maui.

Somehow, though, things got tangled–professionally for me, and for us as a couple.

I was unwilling to keep teaching there. I taught Senior English and had students who’d never been issued a textbook, assigned reading, or written an essay. I had students who couldn’t write a sentence, yet I was expected to graduate them all. The ethics of the situation flummoxed me. I couldn’t foresee spending my career and my professional energy in that setting. I had to make a decision–stay on Maui or return to Lincoln.

On the beach one evening, after a swim on the way to the grocery, Adam asked me, “So what are you going to do?” I told him I didn’t know yet. Getting out of Portland in general, and living on an island, had been my dream. But, I was invested in my profession. He told me that, no matter what I decided, he was staying on Maui. He never said what he wanted from me. He never tried to help me sort out my dilemma. When I asked for his thoughts, he said he wanted to be by himself for a year. “A year,” he specified.

I moved back to Portland, bought my house, and returned to teaching at Lincoln. Adam visited for Thanksgiving and we made a plan: he’d come to Portland in the spring so I could finish the school year and sell the house. Then, we’d return to Maui together, for good, to make it our home. Adam stayed on Maui until summer, until the day before our mutual friends, Bryan and Theresa, got married. He returned to Portland, very unwillingly, to serve as best man.

Adam and me at the wedding, July 2004.

Adam and me at the wedding, July 2004.

Adam came home in July and we knocked down the shed. We pulled up blackberry roots that spanned the width and length of the yard. We planted grass and put in a mini-patio made of pavers. We sat outside to eat dinner or for cocktails.

The grass seed blew or rolled downhill and made a wispy patch where no lawn was intended. The cherry leaves blew in the wind, and there were seeds sprouting everywhere in the dirt from last year’s crop.

Adam said he hated the house, hated how much work it needed.

We lay in bed and talked about going back to Maui.

***

Adam didn’t make it home from work on Sunday.

He kissed me on the forehead and left for his shift as the beer buyer at Whole Foods. Late, in the middle of the night, I awoke and he wasn’t home. I was pissed, thinking he’d gone to a co-worker’s house after work and had not called to let me know. Around 5 AM, I got a call from the hospital, explaining he’d been in an accident, and asking how quickly I could get there. I called Bryan and Theresa, and Bryan said he’d seen the wreck on the news. Theresa came and drove me to the hospital. Bryan met us there, and we walked into hell. It seems it was really foggy that night. It seems Adam had stopped at a bar where one of his friends worked, but didn’t seem to have had that much to drink, according to his friend and his blood alcohol level. Somehow, he drove a mile past our house, going 88 MPH, hit a bridge railing, and was thrown from the car. Three days later, he died.

The last picture of Adam alive...on the MAX with our friends's kids, the Saturday before his accident, January 2005.

The last picture of Adam alive…on the MAX with our friends’s kids, the Saturday before his accident, January 2005.

Friends came and took charge of my house. They sat with me until I could fall asleep at night. They kept my wine glass full. They helped me deal with the cremation and plan the memorial. Whole Foods sent food. Lincoln sent flowers and cards and chocolate. I drank tea and sorted through photographs, the only way I could keep from losing my mind. I drank tea and sat, wrapped in Adam’s old college-bed quilt, and stared at the wall. When they finally left each night, I cried into a shirt of Adam’s that I held onto as I fell asleep.

 

Bryan, Theresa and I, Adam’s brother, and the Indiana friends, wrote these words for the memorial:

 “Adam loved people. He loved the ocean, and beer, and good food, and to laugh. Whether eating a fine meal with close friends or drinking a beer with a total stranger, Adam loved giving his time and attention to others, and he made sure to never leave anyone out of a celebration. He shared his joys in life through mastery of the brewer’s craft and by becoming a dive master. His kind and gentle spirit gave him a magnetism that drew people to him. When we think of Adam, we will always remember his smile.”

After the memorial, I stayed home for a month. There really was no escape. I lived in the now-empty house just as I lived in my skin. There was an echo of Adam around every corner. I sat on the couch, forever wondering what was in between feeling trapped and that my life was totally out of control. I told myself that the future was all about my goals, my interaction with the world. I could sell and move–back to Maui, or across town closer to friends and farther away from the site of Adam’s car wreck. I could move on without accomplishing anything, with all my time here tallied as a waste, an endeavor of longevity pre-empted because of situation, circumstance.

In May, Adam’s family, our close friends, and I took his ashes to Maui and put them in the ocean. We did it the Hawaiian way, we wore leis, and each of us, after throwing in a handful of his remains, dove in to take one last swim with him.

Me on the boat to put Adam's ashes in the sea.

Me on the boat to put Adam’s ashes in the ocean on Maui.

A while later, one of my oldest friends asked, “So kid, what’s next?”

I replied, “That’s the question, isn’t it? Until I find the answer I guess I just go to work and pay my mortgage, just like everyone else.”

***

It’s been three months since Adam died. This weekend friends came for a visit, the same friends that spent the weekend of his accident with us. Friday night I cooked goat cheese and black bean enchiladas, messed up the whole kitchen, and we ate together at the dining table. On Saturday we built two raised garden-bed frames and laid black landscape plastic over the clay and stubborn weeds in the side yard. We hauled 24 bags of dirt from Home Depot. We planted seeds: bush beans, snap peas, carrots, radishes, lettuce. We made flowerbeds around the porch. I took the potted herbs outside. It rained the whole time we worked. In the evening we all piled onto my bed and watched a movie. The next morning, while I was making the bed, my friends’ four-year-old daughter said, “Adam didn’t die.”

How I wish her statement was true.

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