© Christopher Earls Brennen


``Somewhere in the depths of solitude, beyond wildness and freedom, lay the trap of madness.''

From ``The Monkey Wrench Gang'' (1975) by Edward Abbey.

In the weeks following Doreen's death, friends came by to ensure that I ate. I went to stay with each of my daughters. I tried to busy myself with matters pertaining to Doreen, making sure all her family and friends knew of the circumstances and her wishes. Trying to decide what to do with all her belongings. Learning how to operate the washing machines. Dismantling the structure that contained several of her cats while she lived. And then, when I made the effort to get away from the house and walk in the mountains, I would scream her name across the canyon walls just to hear it echo back to me as if from the grave. But through all this it was too hard to face my own pain; there seemd no way to rebuild myself for it was almost impossible to imagine any constructive future.

Twilight was the worst of time. Lying alone on our bed as the sun set I could see little in the room in the fading light. Yet some things were clearer than ever before. It was as though all the pretensions had been torn away, leaving only my naked emotions, leaving only the truth. Yet that truth brought almost unbearable pain with crystal visions of what I should have faced all those years before when they might have saved his life, might have saved her life. I struggled mightily not dwell on what might have been, for there were some things that I did right, that brought both satisfaction and great joy. I tried hard to focus on those illuminated circles. But it was bloody, fucking hard and I barely survived it.

Desperate to get away from the house, I drove distractedly to the Pacific Ocean and along the coast of California, seeking in vain some solace from the waves and the sand. Stopping briefly where the road touches the sea, I wandered to a favorite perch on the rocks. Inevitably my mind drifted back over forty years to events beside another ocean, events that brought Doreen to me and changed my life. At the end of more than forty years of marriage I asked myself whether I really knew anything about love and devotion that I could put into words. It was, perhaps, the wisdom of age that made me doubt that I did. Perhaps I would always have to shoulder that doubt for if I had truly loved her would I not have been able to save her life. But I do know a few things simply because they did not change in over forty years. I do know that love is not some Madison Avenue cliche. Forty years before and halfway around the world on that other rocky shore, I met and fell in love with that beautiful young girl. The memory of those moments now live as brightly for me as they did over forty years ago. I fell in love for a lifetime and never regretted it for a moment. It is just that I always imagined it would be my lifetime and not hers. It was a sensation that grew and metamorphosed in a myriad of ways as the years rolled on. But the magic was always there. As my father wrote in one of his letters to my mother

``I feel when you are here as if
a star had somehow tumbled down the chimney
into an ordinary room''

And that was how I always felt about Doreen.

Of course, there were many twists and turns in our marriage for all relationships are dynamic and constantly changing. There were moments when we could not imagine how our relationship could possibly continue. Perhaps William Butler Yeats best described such moments and their salvation when he wrote

``We sat as silent as a stone
We knew, though she'd not said a word
That even the best of love must die,
And had been savagely undone
Were it not that Love upon the cry
Of a most ridiculous little bird
Tore from the clouds his marvellous moon.''

And those heart-rending moments did pass. I do not say it was easy. It was sometimes very, very hard to understand and truly sympathize with the other's point of view. Now in the twilight such moments have become illusory.

I do believe that I was extraordinarily lucky. Perhaps one of the saddest verses ever penned in the English language are the words of the poet T.S.Eliot who wrote

``Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden''

Twice now I have opened that door and ventured forth on the odyssey of love. With all its hidden rocks and dangerous shoals it is a sea on which I feel fortunate to have sailed. I doubt that I could guide others on that voyage for I think it is one ocean for which there are no accurate and universal charts. I can but hope that those I leave behind have the wisdom to recognize that it is better to understand than to be understood. That it is better to give than to receive. That it is better to love than to be loved. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi, that it is in the giving that we receive and in the pardoning that we are pardoned. I can think of no better compass with which to chart their course.

In those weeks after her death, I felt drawn each day to the hillside where we buried her. I would look up into the sky and invariably would see a red-tailed hawk circling overhead in the afternoon updrafts. Sometimes there would be two and I would sustain myself imagining them to be the spirits of Doreen and Patrick watching to make sure that I tended for those they loved. I sometimes think that was all that kept me alive through those terrible days.

Last updated 7/30/99.
Christopher E. Brennen