The River at Night

"A Moonlit Scene with a Winding River" by Samuel Palmer. Watercolor, circa 1827

“A Moonlit Scene with a Winding River” by Samuel Palmer. Watercolor, circa 1827

The river is running high tonight, in such a swirling rush that I can hear it from the deck.  When it gets this swollen, after many days of rain, it can jump the bank and come all the way up to my fence.  It’s no worry to me, way up on this hill, but when the water comes all the way to the fence, it blocks the path of the coyotes who sneak through our backyards.  It blocks the urban deer, too, but they don’t complain.  On a few nights like this, I’ve heard the urgent, confused yipping of the coyotes and it shudders my skin.  A wild thing that had been invisible and hard to imagine so close to my home–and suddenly, it’s right here and it’s always been here.  That’s the kind of thing I think about when the river runs high.  The quiet things that reveal themselves, shaken loose by the ominous roar and rush of the river.

I don’t know if you’ve heard about Tripp Halstead but his mother is on my mind tonight.  Tripp was hit by a falling tree branch back in October and he’s been fighting his way back to life since then.  He’s two.  Like Carlos, who’s asleep in his bed with Boop right now.  Tonight, his mother, Stacy Halstead, posted about how she can’t turn on the news because all they talk about is the rain and the trees that are falling from loosened roots.   She’s been without the internet to distract her while she listens to her only child moan in pain.  She mentioned the claustrophobia of passing the day in an 8 x 8 darkened room–and BAM, I was back there, in the end of February 2005.

I spent a lot of days sitting in a darkened room.  Richard was suffering incapacitating headaches and any amount of light drove him out of his mind.  I honestly can’t remember what was causing them (apart from the cancer); it embarrasses me to admit that I don’t remember that detail, like I wasn’t really doing my best, like I have let down my guard and forgotten something, even something terrible.  But it’s OK to forget some things.

After about a week of the headaches, they started giving him radiation to his brain and it helped some.  But before that, there was the room.  We were staying at the guest house on the campus at Johns Hopkins and I was taking care of him.  I hung blankets over our one window and didn’t turn on the bathroom light until I was inside.  He wore sunglasses in the dark and tried not to move at all.  I couldn’t touch him or sit on the same bed for fear of jarring his brain around.  I sat in the dark around the clock.  I’ve never felt so helpless and now that I’ve typed that I need to stop and cry for a bit.

Because here’s the other thing that shook loose tonight.  My friend, Catie, shared a quote from Jack Kerouac:

the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. 

Those misery-filled days in late February?  When I was sitting so still and helpless in that darkened room?  I was reading On the Road.  I had a tiny book light that I kept pointed down the page and I barely cracked the book open so the light wouldn’t escape to bother Richard.  I read it if he slept.  Sometimes I read it under a towel.  When Richard wasn’t able to sleep but he wanted some oblivion, he would ask me to talk, to keep telling stories to distract him from what was happening.  I just kept talking.  I told him all about the book and Neal Cassady and the road trip and everything I could remember about the Beats and San Francisco and….anything.  I talked about hubcaps and chickens and Irish wolfhounds and sewing.  I recalled adventures we had had on our own travels.  Anything that popped into my head (except food, no talking about food, and no making him laugh).  I was mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of just one impossible thing.

I read to him from the book.  This man, this fearless man who had taught me how to step out into the world and follow my own star.  I sat across from him as he was dying and read On the Road.

These are the things I remember when the river runs high.

11 thoughts on “The River at Night

  1. likemymamasays

    I hate to leave words when yours are perfect as they are and any comment will just be trivial in comparison but I just had to say that your words move me. I never know if I am going to laugh or cry when I open your blog. The one constant is that I know I am going to feel something and that something will be powerful.

  2. Marie Davis

    Okay, now you made me cry. That was beautiful, Ashley. You are such a talented writer. You’re inspiring me to go back to my own blog. I’m sorry that Richard died, but I’m glad that you were there until the end. It speaks of love and devotion. I imagine that he also was glad, underneath all that pain.

  3. Amanda

    The two prior responders already expressed everything I would have except this: keep writing. You’re adding so much to the lives of those you’re sharing this with.

  4. ktmade

    I would echo what Libby said – I’m almost embarrassed to share words here in the same space as your beautiful and touching prose. And yet I must because I am so struck by them and by the beauty and pain living in concert and by your ability to see the connection in so many things. I’m so grateful to have met you and to see your face in my mind as I read these words. You are a beautiful soul.


Want to Leave a Comment? Please Do!