Grasslands

By Joshua B. Kay

“We stood silently at the edge of the great expanse,
hushed by the grass as it bowed and twisted.”

I learned firsthand that grasslands can dance when I was sixteen or seventeen. Sure, I had heard as much, and probably had read it, too. Yet growing up in Southern California, such things seemed mysterious and distant, evocative of vast plains and wagon trains. I was hiking with Lee in the Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles. We had puffed our way up the Chumash Trail, a dusty climb without switchbacks from the sea into the coastal hills. A We are in the midst of a quiet revolution, creeping from the secret places of our souls into the light of daily life: the desire to create, to build, to invent, to explore the world using our hands and our senses, and to do it in community. While sprouting everywhere, in Ann Arbor this “Maker Revolution” has the possibility to grow in bigger ways. fter pausing at the top amongst the prickly pear and yucca to admire the blue-green Pacific, we set off inland across rolling terrain. I remember cresting a hill some time later and being met with an undulating spread of grass that appeared endless. The grass shimmered and roiled in the breeze, alternating green and flashy silver in the high sunlight. The air was filled with a rasping, steady “shhhhhh” that was both lulling and invigorating. The grass appeared to be a single, churning unit. We stood silently at the edge of the great expanse, hushed by the grass as it bowed and twisted.

When we were ready, we plunged ahead, following a narrow trail. There were no signs of civilization, and the route was not marked despite numerous junctions. Still, we had a book, Hiking Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains by Milt McAuley, and we tried as hard as we could to follow its instructions exactly. At every intersection, we checked the book, turning this way and that, taking our direction from the sun, trying to gain our bearings. Eventually, reddish sandstone outcroppings loomed nearby, their rust color especially striking against the deep blue sky. The magnificent grasslands gave way to scrub. 

It was a long time before Lee and I realized that something wasn’t right. We had taken a wrong turn at some point, maybe in the grasslands, maybe amongst the rocks. There was no telling now. We paused, shook the book, and cried out to the heavens as we often had before, “Damn you, Milt McAuley!” Then, as usual, we cracked up. Truly, it was a delicious feeling to be a little bit lost together in nature, so different from the traffic and buildings and ready landmarks of the city.

Lee and I met in seventh grade. He was quiet and shy, but we connected somehow. I remember that it was in his sharp, clear eyes that I would see the first sign of whatever was coming next, a smile or laugh or insight, and seeing the initial spark, I would wait for whatever was in store. Lee’s ideas were worth waiting for. He was careful with his words. Each one counted. 

Lee was the most well read peer I had ever met. His parents had converted a bedroom of their house into a library, and sometimes I thought that he must have read every one of their thousands of books. He was well versed in cinema, too. His family had a VCR and cable TV long before mine did, and bulky tapes full of screen gems lined several shelves in their small den. That’s where Lee introduced me to Monty Python’s Flying Circus and classic movies and horror films. He understood storytelling, whether written or visual, and we would talk late into the night about what we had watched and whether and why it had worked. His appreciation fostered my own.

We shared a love of the outdoors, especially hiking. As middle-schoolers, we regularly walked the arid hills above his house. Later, when we got our drivers’ licenses and could set up car shuttles, our local scrambles matured into frequent treks farther afield, especially in the Santa Monica Mountains. It was not unusual for us to ramble ten miles or more. My memories of those hikes are among my most cherished — cacti in frenzied bloom, worn sandstone cliffs, a rock wall littered with fossils that we stumbled upon when happily lost (“Damn you, Milt McAuley!”). 

My parents had divorced two years before I met Lee, and as high school wore on, I struggled with anger and anxiety. Lee, in contrast, seemed unflappable, calm, even serene. He had two parents and no siblings at home, a home where he and I became like brothers. I think, looking back, that I grew jealous of his intact family and apparent inner peace. And so, like a brother, I occasionally took my feelings out on him. I wanted to see if he, too, could get angry. The answer was yes, but it took a lot of effort on my part, and it meant that sometimes I was a total jerk. Mostly, though, he responded gently, and through it all, he stood by me. I recognize now that Lee was wiser than his years. He did not allow my troubles to define me in his eyes, and he was patient and forgiving. Perhaps I was worth waiting for, too.

Neither of us is a particularly good correspondent. When we attended different colleges across the country, months sometimes passed with little contact. But during school breaks, we would pick up right where we had left off. That ease of connection, while wonderful, probably contributed to both of us feeling too comfortable with the lack of contact during the school year. Why worry when we could reconnect effortlessly? 

After college, I moved to Michigan to attend graduate school. Lee headed back to California and promptly moved to San Francisco. We saw each other from time to time and spoke sporadically, but our bond remained solid. For me, our friendship was a steady reminder that there was someone out there, besides family, who knew me nearly as well as I knew myself. 

It was during a period of sporadic contact that Lee met Rebecca. She was joyfully exuberant; he remained quiet and deliberative, yet their connection was undeniable. She fell hard for him, and while he took longer to commit than she liked, after several years they got married. I was Lee’s best man. During their courtship, I gradually came not just to like, but to love Rebecca. Her devotion to Lee was clear, and she embraced his friends, including me. Her generosity was remarkable, and she enjoyed nothing more than welcoming and sharing with others. She brought Lee a degree of happiness that I had never seen in him. They both had an artist’s eye and enjoyed creating beautiful homes together. Rebecca became an award-winning nature photographer, and they traveled all over the world. One of my great pleasures was to get them both on the phone to be regaled with tales of adventures to places like Antarctica, Midway Atoll, and Ethiopia. Through their stories, and through Rebecca’s photographs, I, too, got to travel.

One evening nearly three years ago, I was in my kitchen when the phone rang. The caller ID displayed Lee and Rebecca’s number. It had been some time since we’d last talked. Slouching happily against the counter, I answered, “Well, hello there!” 

They were both on the other end, which wasn’t unusual. But when they replied, I heard a careful neutrality in their voices. After their hellos, Lee fell quiet, and Rebecca asked, “Are you sitting down?” 

“No,” I said slowly. I didn’t sit down. “What is it?”

Rebecca told me in a matter-of-fact tone that she had colon cancer, and that it had metastasized all over her abdomen. The doctor said that she had two years. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. All of us were in our early forties. 

“There’s no treatment?” I asked feebly.

Rebecca’s voice softened as she said, “The two years is with treatment.” She sounded sad, almost apologetic. Standing in the dark kitchen, I started to say how sorry I was, and then my voice broke. Rebecca and Lee consoled me, and when I confessed my shame about their having to do that, they reassured me that they had had some days to reckon with the news. 

I flew west for visits several times over the course of Rebecca’s illness. One of those visits happened around twenty months after that first phone call. A couple of days into the trip, Lee and I stayed up into the wee hours drinking fine Scotch that Rebecca had given him to share. She didn’t have a lot of time left, and the conversation was direct yet surreal. I’d never thought that a friend and I would talk so soon about the impending death of a spouse. I was particularly struck by the myriad hard decisions that Lee told me they had made during her illness, decisions about complex treatments and risky clinical trials and how to honor her after her death. Overcome by a wish to undo all of it, to spare my friends their pain, I shook my head, stared into my Scotch, and said, “We’re not twelve anymore, are we?”

Lee barked out a single, harsh laugh. “No,” he said. “No, we’re not.” 

When I visited again nearly three months later, Rebecca was in the hospital. Cancer riddled her lungs. A wracking, gagging cough sometimes gripped her, some spells so bad that she required medication to recover from them. Other times, she rested easy, and she measured her words so as not to lose her breath. When Lee stepped out of the room now and then, Rebecca, concerned more for him than for herself, would ask quickly, “How is he?” In a way, I also was worried more for him than for her. She faced death with remarkable grace. He faced grief and long loneliness.

During a phone conversation a few weeks later, I could hear the hiss of oxygen in the background, but I’d caught Rebecca on a good day. She said she had more energy than usual, and her pain was under control. I noticed that her voice was strong, though she still had to measure her words. I asked where she was. “Propped up in bed,” she replied cheerfully, and I pictured her in their bedroom with its creamy plaster walls and restored wood trim aglow, the sunlight through the French doors complementing her red hair and fair, pink cheeks. She was surrounded by some of her favorite photos, including one of a fluffy albatross chick on Midway Atoll and others of penguins and polar bears. Several days later, I spoke to Lee. He said that she was doing better, and they were hopeful that they could get her downstairs. I thought that maybe she could even get outside to the garden they had designed, the one that smells of sage and flowers and lemons. 

But then Rebecca’s condition declined rapidly, and she was admitted to the palliative care unit of the hospital. Lee sent a short email that the end was drawing near, and he would be by her side and unavailable by phone. And so I waited. Sometimes, I looked at the pictures on her website, finding comfort by immersing myself in her beautiful vision. For the most part, though, the last days of her life were marked by a dreadful, expectant silence, as if I were awaiting a terrible noise that I knew would come but could not know when. 

In the end, despite the length of her illness, Rebecca’s death felt sudden. Perhaps it was the swiftness of her decline after the hopeful signs that she’d shown so recently. Or maybe it always feels this way to lose someone close, because the end is a sharp, singular moment. 

My sadness for Lee is like a sickness that has burrowed deep into my bones. My brilliant, quiet friend, with whom I’ve shared so much, and from whom I’ve learned so much, found an unlikely soul mate. And now he has lost her. His eyes, expressive as always, are filled with sorrow. Seeing that triggers in me a yearning to turn back time. Despite all of the joys in my adult life, there is a part of me that wishes that Lee and I were in high school again, unknowing of this pain, learning firsthand that grasslands can dance.

Joshua Kay teaches in the clinical program at the University of Michigan Law School. He previously taught and practiced psychology at U of M’s Mott Children’s Hospital. Josh blogs at www.thehoppingmind.com and he can be reached at kay.joshua@gmail.com.

Posted on April 29, 2016 .