by Mark Liebenow
Light flows down the mountains and fills the photographs of Yosemite I took a few weeks ago. October’s sunlight crinkles and flashes off the cascades that rush toward Happy Isles, and when the river enters the green shade under the trees, on the left side of the island where Evelyn liked to sit, it evens out to a powerful black surge. The memory of sitting here with her last year radiates through the glen. It was her last trip. Six months later she would die of an unknown heart problem in her forties, and my journey through grief began.
In one photo of the far side of the river, I notice the reflection of a face, and it looks like Evelyn’s. Kind of. The water is still, and the image doesn’t look like the reflection of the trees, bushes, or anything else that could naturally be there, no matter how the photo is turned. So it must be her face. But not quite. I mention this to Barbara when she calls a day later. She says her psychic friend was talking to her recently about other matters when he mentioned that Ev was interrupting him, wanting to know what Barbara was looking at. Barbara said it was a picture of Evelyn. Ev laughed. She had forgotten what she looked like.
But the reason that Barbara was calling was to tell me that when I was in Yosemite and asked Ev to do something to let me know if she was still around, that Ev had responded. “That must have been,” I say slowly, realizing that I hadn’t told Barbara about this yet, “when the yellow sunset turned red.” I had been sitting in Leidig Meadow and on a whim asked Evelyn to give me a sign. At that moment the clouds changed colors and I was speechless. I wrote it off as a coincidence, even though a friend who lives in the valley had never seen anything like it. Now it takes a step closer to being real.
I was in Yosemite for a number of reasons—to hike through the mountains in its fall colors, but also to honor last year when Evelyn and I helped our friends Francesco and Molly celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. Molly had been struggling with brain cancer for most of their marriage. Surgery and chemotherapy had halted the disease, but we wondered if Molly sensed her remission was ending. That evening the four of us thought of nothing but love and good friends at an elegant, candlelight dinner at the posh Ahwahnee Hotel.
The next morning, Ev spotted a Native American craft item that she knew would be perfect for Francesco and Molly and bought it for them. Recently they wrote about this in a card of support, “We have an image stuck in our heads of Evelyn coming from the native museum, impishly grinning, and holding a bag with the Indian corn maiden angel inside it for us. It was something we had just been looking at and decided we couldn’t afford.”
I weave these threads of memories together to keep me connected to the past and to the people I’ve loved. It turned out that Molly’s cancer was returning, and they moved from the Bay Area to Southern California to be closer to her doctors. Their journey together is now measured by time.
Closing my eyes, I still see Francesco and Molly standing in their wedding clothes by the flat rock in the woods where the Ahwahnechees ground acorns into food, sharing their promises to be there for each other, no matter what happened. Evelyn and I still walk in the warm sunlight that seems shaded in eclipse, a half light careful not to shine too bright and overwhelm the valley. Immersed in light, we make our way through the golden grass of the meadow down to the Merced River, the River of Mercy.
Moments of eternity like this do not come often, nor the grace I felt sitting next to Evelyn in the hospital. Although she never woke up, I sensed that she waited for me to arrive so that I could share the grace of being with her when death came. During those long, quiet hours, in the space of ordinary time, life and death quietly exchanged places, and darkness whispered its secret that this was the completion of light.
Mark Liebenow is the author of four books, most recently Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite, published by the Univ. of Nebraska Press and winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Prize. This essay is from his unpublished grief memoir. His essays, poems, and critical reviews have appeared in journals like the Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. His nonfiction work has won the Chautauqua and Ames Essay Awards, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2012. For more information about his writing, please go to www.markliebenow.com.