In Blackwater Woods
By: Mary Oliver
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
We decided to get married one winter. We were miserable spending the holidays separately, she back with her parents to save money for school, and me in a crummy apartment haunted by ghosts. I remember waking up at three in the morning on Christmas day, the black and cold of winter firmly locked in place, and hearing a neighbor pleading with his wife through his apartment door, he on the outside, she silent within: “Please, please, let me come home. I have nowhere to go. I am sorry. I am sorry.” His words so plaintive, so helpless, so mired in loneliness. I could not stand it.
The next day I told her, “Life’s too short to be alone. We can have the Christmases we want, we are in love, let’s make a go of it.” We had talked about marriage so often, but we were waiting for school to finish, for our lives to be in order, for financial stability.
Well, turns out, school has never been over, our lives are always changing, and there is never enough money. But we are still married, still in love.
That first Christmas, in our first home, that was magic. It erased the years of pain and struggle and emptiness when we lived apart. We stood out on the street, looking up at our apartment, the six foot pine glistening with white lights in the floor-to-ceiling window. I balanced the camera on the roof of our car and snapped a picture, grainy and out of focus, but brilliantly illuminated. Our first tree, our first Christmas, our new life. I loved it all, even as I knew it would never last, that heavenly things are fleeting, fragmentary, often lost. There would be more Christmases, but none like that first. Christmas is a holiday that never lives up to its promises. That is what I would come to know. But that Christmas, that moment, that was an epiphany. Maybe this year, I can find that moment again.
Flash back to another moment.
A cold November Friday night, and I am six years old. My father parks in a vacant lot, and I jump out of his truck to land in mud. We traipse across the night to the brightly lit football field. This is his high school, and will, eight years from now, be my high school. He packed us a dinner of bologna and cheese sandwiches, and stopped off at the corner store to buy us bags of potato chips and my favorite candy: Peppermint Patties. He carries the ice chest up into the impossibly high bleachers. I am in awe of the intensely green field, the players, the blue and gold uniforms, the marching band.
We eat our dinner, and nothing ever tasted so good. Cold Coca-Cola on an even colder night. I had never been to such a spectacle before—my first football game. As the teams face off with the boot of the ball down field, my father hands me my bag of Peppermint Patties.
And I dropped them.
I watched them fall through the bleachers and into the darkness below.
My father and I rarely found common ground. We were never close. I was not the kind of son he wanted or understood. I liked books and music; he liked working with his hands and sports. We passed each other in our lives like planets in a distant universe.
We have not spoken in a few years now.
But I remember, like my life depends on it, dropping the candy in the bleachers at my first high school football game with my father. He told me then that it didn’t matter. He would buy me more candy another time. But I felt then, as I do now, that I somehow dropped the gift of his attempt to connect with me, that in the arena of our relationship, I had failed him even as he has failed me. In the end, we failed each other.
My students ask me, “How do you remember so clearly?”
I remember because memory is everything, and long after we are dead and gone, there will be echoes in the memory of those who loved us once, and who live on with our faces, our smiles, our gestures. It is my duty to remember because I am a storyteller. I am my father’s oldest son.
I remember and I dream.
The other night, I dreamed of Stone.
In the dream, I am taking him for a walk on a wide boulevard with a grassy median strip running down the middle. Traffic clogs both sides, drivers honking, noise and confusion. But on the grass oasis in the center of the boulevard, we are safe. The road stretches off to the horizon, limitless as roads are in your dreams. Stone wants to run. No, he finds it imperative: he must run. His legs are not crippled and paralyzed anymore, and his coat is silver and glistening. He pulls me along. “Come on, come on,” his thoughts echo in my mind. “We need to run, we need to run.” He drags me along and I cannot keep up. I reach down, use all my strength to hold him for a second. I release his leash and he streaks away from me down the grassy strip. I want to tell him to be careful, to watch the traffic, to wait for me. He is gone like a streak of fire in the brilliant light of day.
I let him go.
I let him go.
I bend over to rest my hands on my knees, and my breath heaves in and out of my chest. I stand up and look for Stone, but to no avail. He has disappeared. I begin to panic, to fear he has been injured or killed by a car. From somewhere far away, like a message in a bottle, I hear him.
“I want to run this way forever.”
I awake to my life and the coming of winter.
The nights are long. I walk through the early evening darkness on the route I used to walk with my dog, observing the yellow light from the homes lining the street. People inside share their days, the “guess who I saw today” stories. Or, they watch TV in separate rooms, eat alone, play games on the computer, do homework. Some are desperate, some are surviving. I wonder if anyone is truly happy.
As we move through these November days, I know the fires that burn within us and the black river of loss. But, I must keep the faith that against impossible odds, we will find salvation.