Levente Szabo for Reader's Digest
I was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and I was really sick. Nine months earlier, John, my husband of 35 years, had died. We had two grown children and a new granddaughter.
What was I doing down there? My sister Kathryn, who had seen me through his death, loves the Grand Canyon, and she arranged the trip.
She said, “Come on, Neshama. It’s the trip of a lifetime. You weren’t able to go down with John, because it was too far from medical help [for him]. So come.”
I said, “Do you think I’ll be ready?”
She said, “Well, it’s a gestational period, nine months.”
So then I was on a plane to Arizona, and my voice had dropped to a baritone. I thought it was a cold, but in the canyon, it became acute bronchitis. My sister, who’s a nurse, was worried. She tried but couldn’t rustle up some antibiotics. Instead, she came to me and opened her palm. On it were some peeled garlic cloves.
She said, “Italian penicillin,” and I swallowed them.
I was not the person you want next to you on the raft. I was hawking and spitting and reeking of garlic.
Everybody else went through the rapids with terrified, screaming joy. I went through just terrified, holding on for dear life. When we came to the shore, I’d wobble off and lie down, letting the activity of the camp swirl around me.
I felt weak and alone. Usually I’d be the person handing stuff from boat to shore, looking for the perfect campsite, and helping with the food. But I just lay there.
I felt especially alone when the group went off on side hikes. I was staying under the shade when I realized what was really going on with me. In this deep crack in the earth, under the pitiless blue sky, I could finally feel what had happened. I thought I had done my grieving, but I had gone on with my life, and I needed to feel the weight of presence and the weight of absence.
John died of a lung disease, and there I was, struggling for breath. It was as if he were right inside me. There were no distractions. It was silent except for crows and the gurgle of the river. I couldn’t even read, which is my solace, because I was so sick. So I lay there, and I felt it.
And soon I got better. Let’s hear it for Italian penicillin.
Then it was time.
Nobody knew that my sister and I had brought John down on the river with us. I was planning to scatter his ashes. We decided the place he’d love most was the Little Colorado, a playful side stream. While the group was shooting down this little carnival ride, Kathryn and I sloshed upstream. We found a quiet glen, and I got ready.
I imagined the ashes would swirl and mix and go down the Colorado. But anyone who knows anything about ashes knows this doesn’t happen, especially when there’s a wind.
So I dumped out the bag … and the ashes blew back and coated me.
I was covered with John! All I could do was dunk and weep and dunk and weep. You should know I do not cry readily.
When I had washed him off to the best of my ability, I hiked back to where they were going down the Little Colorado. I put on my life jacket upside down like a diaper (that’s how you protect your rump from rocks on the bottom). I stuck my feet out, and I floated down the Little Colorado three times.
And when I crawled out of the stream the last time, a guide looked at me and said, “Neshama, what’s going on? I never saw such a beatific expression on anyone going down the Little Colorado.”
“I was traveling with my husband, John,” I said, “and I was learning to let him go.”
*Told live at a Moth show at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, CA.