“I’ll probably never come back,” she said.
We were standing in the city park in Washington, a crisp wind rising in the north and the sky glazing into a seamless white field. The day before had been in the seventies under windless conditions, ideal for a widow pilgrimaging to a place where her husband had taken his life. I nodded and looked away; there was nothing more to add.
I almost hadn’t come. In the week leading up to Judy Burkett’s visit I’d let days pass before responding to her e-mails, days spent in nameless anxiety. Months before, when I was researching Robert Glenn Bennett’s life and final hours, we spent hours together on the phone discussing their short life together, how they’d met and fallen in love, their search for a perfect house, his talent as a photographer and contra dancer and the depression that would ultimately destroy him. Together we wrote his story, and now she was coming to see for herself the ill-fated tree and had asked to meet, and I was having a meltdown. It made no sense.
I’m certainly no stranger to inexplicable emotional surges but I can usually decipher their deeper causes. This had me stumped. Believing in many ways that we’d taken a sad and painful journey together, I was eager to meet her in person for a final culmination. And yet in stories such as ours a separation had existed, a distance both safe and perhaps even necessary, and her coming would change the complexity of our relationship. Maybe she wouldn’t even like me, finding me someone different than she had imagined. Maybe I would find her a stranger. Maybe this was a mistake.
If not for that voice I’d heard when leaving town a few days earlier, I might have found an excuse that worked. I couldn’t. Taking it as a summons I went and arriving early paced restlessly until a small blue car pulled up. Judy got out and I walked over and folded her in my arms. It was the unambiguously proper thing to do and with it something hard broke loose within me.
She and her sister had visited the tree twice, once the day before and again that morning, when she left a small memento. She told me of the memorial service in Atlanta where a clearing had been made in the center of the dance floor except for a single small table piled with letters people had written of their times with Bob, a kind of scrivened history of one man’s legacy, and when the assemblage asked Judy to dance solo once around those accounts she did, and at the finale swept in like mantling wings and gathered her into a collective embrace. The writings then burned to ashes to meld and fuse and become one chronicle placed at the base of a tree 1,000 miles away on a crisp April morning.
Her eyes were brown and clouded with too much sorrow.
We spoke of healing and its incremental pace, of memory and loss and deliverance, and asking questions for which there were no answers concluded that suicide is an inherently selfish act that leaves too many victims, too many puzzles and not nearly enough defenses. That we who remain can only accept the unacceptable and carry on, for such is our burden and our salvation.
After a while words bled away into raw emotion. She said that meeting was somehow necessary, by which I understood the curative power of shared experience and empathy, and the necessity of firsthand knowledge. In darkness only do our fears flourish, and here was light and warmth and the dawning of a new day.
After watching them drive away, I drove to the base of the knoll and parked. Any attempt at gauging my emotional state ended in a contented emptiness, an absence that left me distrustful. Wild turkeys scrabbled before me as I walked along the fenceline and a pair of red-tailed hawks swooped and dived overhead in an aerial mating display. A phoebe called, then a cardinal. The trees blocked and filtered the wind so that a breathless hush descended, and I moved on straining to hear a familiar voice and hearing nothing but birdsong and my own plodding footsteps swishing the grass came at last to the tree where Robert Glenn Bennett had died.
I didn’t know what to expect and so expected nothing. Sorrow perhaps, as I’d felt before, or loneliness. I placed a hand on the bark and blanked my mind and when nothing came opened my eyes and caught the movement of a little brown bird. It flew into a clump of broken branches and I turned to follow. The bird flushed into a deeper thicket and went to ground. Circling the thicket brought no movement but a strange sort of dawning that I had neglected my reason for coming. With a pang of remorse I glanced back at the tree and found it a tree only and no more, surrounded by others similar to its shape and form like mirror images or protectors and beyond it the ascendant slopes of a squat knoll crowned by two stately pines. Had its shape not been burned into my soul I could easily have mistaken it for any other there. But its shadow was gone and had been before my arrival. A smile crept across my face. “Goodbye, Bob,” I said.
I was halfway back when I heard a car door slam. One of my biggest fears in writing Bob’s story was that the tree would become a destination for thrill-seekers or worse, though I also knew that others might come simply to pay their respects to a stranger who had become one of us. And though I had wanted to visit the tree one final time alone and in solitude, it was with altogether lighter steps I was leaving, and the farther I walked the lighter I felt with an unconstrained joy overwhelming me. If I met pilgrims on the way as we are all pilgrims I would not shy away but tell them the news: “He is not here.” And passing on to the base of the knoll I would drive away and not look back, I would never again look back, for the tree was just a tree and my friend Bob was not there.