February 2024
Leaves from My Notebook
Elaine Greensmith Jordan

The Photographer

John and I drove toward home from Doctor Caccavale’s office, the Arizona sun of late February glaring in our eyes. Leukemia had made my husband’s pale complexion transparent, but he chose to do the driving. I squinted at the San Francisco Peaks in the distance, noticing a sunlit dusting of snow on the two points.

The doctor told us that John had only a short time left.

“I can’t imagine what you must be feeling,” I said. The rattling of our old Chrysler annoyed me; the car should have respected the gravity of the news we’d been given.

“I’m not surprised, just stunned, I guess,” John said. “I’ve had a year to get used to this, and it begins to become sort of ... real. It doesn’t scare me most of the time.” We didn’t speak for a while, and the car clattered along. “Caccavale said it would be painless if it’s a hemorrhage,” he added, his blue eyes hidden behind his aviator sunglasses.

“I know. I think we should get Hospice right away.”

“Yeah, but I get to interview them.” John’s deep voice sounded firm now. “Can’t stand those bleeding-heart types. Better get this car checked.”

When we arrived home, I followed my husband up the stairs from the garage, aware of the effort for him. His khaki pants hung loosely from his belt, and I noticed the heavy cords at the back of his neck.

Later, sitting on the couch in front of the muted television, John frowned at the tumbler of green vegetable juice in his hand, a celery-smelling concoction developed by a scientist at Yale. While the Gulf War sparked and streaked across the screen, my husband drank part of the mixture, then headed for the bathroom, where he vomited the formula. He went to bed and seemed to have lost all energy. I called Hospice, and they reached Charlotte, a neighborhood Hospice volunteer and member of our church, who came immediately.

Arrangements were made for a protracted confinement, but in three days Charlotte awakened me from a nap. “He’s going,” she said. His breathing slowed, and he stared upward as if trying to see something. Then I felt he’d gone, even before he moved slightly and sighed into a gentle death.

I seldom felt loneliness after John’s death. Maybe it was the attentive church members, or the restoring landscape of Arizona’s north country, its mountains, multicolored canyons and electrical storms. I had his photographs, too, on our walls — as if he’d left them as messages for me, the sporting events, the faces, his visions of experience. We especially delighted in one of a very young Elvis Presley taken at an early concert.

I had been serving as minister of a small Dewey church for four years by that time, and I ended my ministry a year after John’s death. By then, the members of our little church had changed me. They had undermined my snobbery, cleared my theological head, and listened to me. I wish I’d done a better job as their minister. If I had another chance, I hope I’d give up my biases — against annoying talkers, conservative believers, self-righteous ideologues — that emerged in me during my ministry. I like to think that next time I’d have more courage to challenge the bigotry against clerical women that I’d experienced in Yavapai County.

My choice to leave my life as a high-school teacher and go to Berkeley to prepare for ministry astounds me. That I sought to offer leadership in a Christian church is an example of how we stumble into things and then figure out later what got us there. I do know I had a need to enter into holy places and learn about the religious spirit. After five years in ministry, I have a new understanding of how difficult leadership is and how many times our bumbling is the best we can offer. I’ve a bit of empathy for George W. Bush, who made awful choices that must, I hope, cause him to shudder.

John had been an enthusiastic member of our little church. He supported our efforts to help at the junior high nearby. He played the grandmother in our melodrama for Habitat for Humanity. I’ll not forget him in his old-lady costume, rocking in a chair and forgetting his lines. He cheered on our Crop Walk around Prescott too, and he helped with the cleanup on the highway.

At his memorial service, church members mourned alongside me, and their presence was enormously comforting. Being with them dissipated my grief, transforming the water of my days into the wine of recovery.

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.