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December 21st, 2013 - Debra Gwartney

Once my husband and I lock the door of the seaside cottage where we’ve stayed for the past week, we start off on our hour drive. He pulls onto the highway that will take us to the airport outside Zihuatanejo when a truck of armed military police roars up close to our bumper, then swerves to the adjacent lane. I count eight men—four on each bench seat—with automatic weapons strapped across their chests. My glance at them is furtive, over and back. Barry slows to let the truck get well ahead of us. He and I have been in Mexico for a week and this is our first encounter with the country’s military presence. We were seven days protected, hidden, from danger or even any hint of violence. And yet here it is now, a reminder of the real world and its hard edges. A reminder that we could barricade ourselves for so long in paradise.


The owner of our cottage—owner of the complex of simple thatched-roof beach homes—bid us goodbye the night before, when she and her husband served us dinner on their patio. I don’t remember what we ate except that it was fish and vegetables spiced to perfection. A margarita that sparked in my mouth. Blanca expressed her disappointment that we’d stayed only a brief time. “Next time, two weeks! A month!” she insisted, and I watched my husband’s face wrinkle though he said nothing. I didn’t explain that convincing him to come at all was something of a miracle. In our nearly twenty years together, I’d talked him into vacations only twice. Barry traveled extensively—visiting over 80 countries in his lifetime—and I sometimes traveled with him (Greenland, Brazil, Nunavut, Prague)—but he left his home only if he would be fed, nurtured, informed as a writer, or if he could convene with his readers. To go out and, well, basically sit for a string of days made no sense to him.  


I’d persuaded my husband to venture out on this second of our two vacations after a friend told us that on this secluded beach there would be no disturbances. Indeed, the weather was mild. Every morning we walked for an hour or two in the golden light of a golden coast and saw no other people, communing only with the coconuts that poked out of the sand like hairy skulls. Our simple cottage was located about a half mile from a fishing village, where electricity was turned off at precisely 8 p.m. As twilight descended, Barry and I strolled down the center of the single residential street, deciding which card table to sit at—one set with utensils and napkins and bottles of unopened beer meant that the woman (at least we saw only women) of the house was prepared to cook dinner for a stranger. Plates loaded with fish, and rice, and beans, and more of the spicy, pungent squash and peppers. We ate our fill and then some. We drank warm beer from bottles. We left pesos on the vinyl surface of the table, and walked home in the dark, lured and guided by the sound of ocean waves.


As days passed, I witnessed a kind of melting in Barry. His shoulders let go. He wore flip-flops and shorts. He tipped back in a chair and sipped coffee, staring out at the sea, reading book after book, saying little. We rented kayaks and made our way through thick brush to the mangrove swamps, populated with so many birds their songs made it hard for us to hear each other. Osprey fished alongside our boats and we called to them, certain that these were the osprey of our own river, the McKenzie in western Oregon, and that we would greet them again come April, when we’d awaken one morning to their crisp chirps in our clear blue sky.


What did we talk about during our hours in Mexico? I hardly remember. We had no television, no internet service. I can’t recall a source of music. We found peace in a kind of silence that we, as a couple, had not experienced before. What we didn’t bring up was Barry’s diagnosis. I’d been with him in the urologist’s office a few months before this trip to take in the news of prostate cancer, stage 4, already in his bones and in his lymph nodes. There was no possibility of cure, only a barrage of treatments meant to prevent the invasion from progressing, though of course it would progress. The cancer would, inevitably, beat out attempts to hold it back. But good news, the oncologist said: it could take years.


What could we expect during those promised years? How were we to prepare? These were questions I asked myself as I wandered into the warm water one day, knees wobbling against the pull of the tide. I thought that during our stay here, we’d parse a plan, design an approach to whatever was ahead for us. Though of course what folly to believe that was possible. I had no idea of the plethora of drugs Barry would endure. I couldn’t yet fathom the myriad health complications that would arise once his body was assailed by the poisons meant to keep him alive. The diets we’d try, the books and articles we’d read, the unbidden advice from every corner. Nor could I predict yet my exhaustion and frustration—arguments that wounded and polarized us until, spent, we somehow managed to find our way to each other again.


All of that was in the future. The only thing to do now was to get back on my feet after being flattened by a wave and scramble to shore, waving at my husband who was staying cool on the porch, sliding a sliver of orange papaya into his mouth as if it was a goldfish wriggling in his belly, licking his sticky fingers and reaching for another.


Exactly seven years after we departed from this secluded corner of Mexico—a village whose name I can’t recall though I would have said back then that I could never forget—our family came to say goodbye to Barry. December 21, 2020. Four daughters—his step-daughters—with their spouses and children. He stayed in bed most of the day now, but he got up for a few hours and we nestled him into a comfortable chair in the living room. The children hugged him and kissed him and laughed with him, and when he grew too weak to keep on, they put on their hats and coats and disappeared into the bitter cold. The next morning the daughters would return by themselves, and we would hold vigil until the moment of his death at 7:20 p.m. on Christmas Day.


For some years—2014 and 2015, maybe even longer—Barry and I talked about returning to the fishing village near Zihuatanejo, promising ourselves another stretch of peace and calm. But it never happened, and then he was too sick to travel. On Christmas Eve of 2020, I climbed onto bed with him, a narrow hospital bed so that I had to teeter and cling to the edge. Barry was in a morphine haze, his mouth open to suck in air, his face ashen and smooth. Lying next to him, I remembered an afternoon in Mexico when he’d rolled into the outdoor hammock. The post that held one end of the hammock creak-creaked with the subtle movement of his body. I was reading in a chair nearby and he reached out to take my hand. He squeezed it hard as if to say, Don’t worry. We’ll find our way through this. We’ll figure it out together. It’s all going to be okay.


Debra Gwartney is the author of two book-length memoirs, Live Through This, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and I Am a Stranger Here Myself, winner of the RiverTeeth Nonfiction Prize as well as the Willa Award for Nonfiction. Debra has published in such journals as Granta, The Sun, Tin House, American Scholar, The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, the NYT Modern Love column, and others. She’s the 2018 winner of the Real Simple essay contest. Her work was recognized with Pushcart prizes in 2021 and 2022, and her essays were selected for Best American Essays in 2022 and 2023. Debra is a contributing editor for Poets & Writers, and is co-editor, with her late husband Barry Lopez, of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. She lives in Western Oregon. 

Debra encourages you to learn more about the Northwest Abortion Access Fund.


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