Two years after becoming suddenly and unexpectedly widowed, one dog dead now too, my daughter 18 and about to leave home, I’ve closed the Ericka Inn, I’ve changed the rules. I want only beautiful things around me, only things I love, only my things. So I declutter the dead: Bill’s things, his father’s things, his mother’s things. I declutter the living: my things, Annie’s things. Each departing item frees me. Maybe this is a part of grieving, this reassessment, actively ridding and shedding. And sometimes I worry, superstitious: am I preparing myself to die? Well, if I do die, at least nobody will have to do this for me.
I’ve been thinking about life after death. I’m not a believer, and I was raised without the idea of an Afterlife. But if there was one, my perfect Afterlife would provide the chance to rehash the experience with everybody who’s meant anything to me in this lifetime. A postmortem, pun intended.
It’s January 2000, and Bill, Annie, and I are on an island in Thailand, at the very spot where, almost five years from now, a tsunami will engulf and destroy thousands. I don’t know this, of course. Yet I am afraid, filled with a sense of dread and doom unlike anything I have ever felt.
A couple of years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico, I met a widow in her mid-seventies who was traveling the world with her husband’s ashes, leaving bits of them in all the places they’d been together. I wondered what that was like for her. Her quest seemed like a good excuse for a bunch of travel. She seemed fine; after all, he’d died well over a year before. I did notice that the day she brought his ashes to Monte Alban, she returned to the casa smiling, full of stories. Lighter.
I sit in my garden. It’s late spring, and here in Northern California the baby roses are still in bloom but so is the lavender. My daughter Annie is off at work, the birds twitter, the old dog lies in the shade on the redwood deck. The young dog chases a squirrel running along the fence. I am high. High on my life.
Traveling alone for the first time since Bill died, I arrive in Budapest, Hungary to teach a one-week seminar at the technical university. I’d planned to fly to Paris after the seminar, and then, four days later, home. But the day after my arrival in Hungary, the Icelandic glacial volcano Eyjafjallajokull erupts. I’m stuck.
You’ve gotta be kidding. A volcano? Of all the things I don’t worry about, this is one of them.
You never expect it to happen. People say this as cameras zoom into their shocked faces: “In an instant, my life changed.” The earthquake, the car accident, the drive-by, the overdose, the proverbial hit-by-a-truck. We say “live for now, it could all end tomorrow.” Yet life goes on, decades pass, and you never expect it to happen to you.