a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
Until in our own despair,
Against our will,
Through the awful grace of God.”
I park our Honda next to a weathered, rough-hewn sign reading “Emmons’ Pond Bog” and hurry to gather up my binoculars, pencils and sketchbook. I start down the trail leading across an old hayfield grown over with milkweed, hardhack and nannyberries. The ground is surprisingly dry considering the rain we had over the past week.
It’s early evening. Sun streams in buttery rays beneath a dark flat-bottomed cloud low on the horizon. Birds are chirping and singing. Many I can’t identify, but I hear several common yellowthroats calling, “Witchitywhitchitywitchitywitch…”
I cross a spring run trickling between rocks. It is too dry to wet my feet. I pass clusters of dark green bulrushes and Carex crinita, sedges with three dangling green female and one slender male inflorescence. As I approach the bog I find that since last week, beavers felled three poplars across the trail. Their leaves are still green and quiver in the breeze.
On Christmas Eve, 1999, I came to the bog to marry Claudia. I was forty years old. I had never been married before. She was six years older and had a twenty-year-old daughter, Shelly, from an earlier marriage. Claudia and I had met in college and by the time of our wedding, I had known her for sixteen years.
It was bitter cold and there was at least two feet of snow on the ground, but the trail across the meadow down to the bog was packed down from previous hikers. Our few guests made the trek behind us. A Presbyterian pastor led the ceremony. It was simple and quick. My brother-in-law Walt fumbled in the cold and dropped our rings in the snow. We all got on our hands and knees brushing snow away and found them. Everyone laughed.
When Claudia and I moved to our first home together I was unpacking my books. I took a drawing out of the box that Shelly had made. Claudia and I were Psychology majors at SUNY Oneonta then. Shelly was little. We had all gone to the bog and walked the trail around it. We stopped at another smaller pond just north of the bog itself. Shelly and I both sketched the bullhead lilies. Her drawing showed three stick figures at the edge of the pond drawn in a black pen. One was smaller than the other two.
“You still have that!” Claudia exclaimed.
“Yeah. I’m not good at letting go of old things.”
A pink lady slipper is in bloom beside a birch log near the beaver dam at the outlet of Emmons’ Pond. I sit on the log with my sketchbook and draw it. In full bloom lady slippers are elegant and seductive, glowing pink lanterns in the shadows. Now though, it is going to seed. Its head is bent. The flower is shrunken and brown. The gloss is fading from its leaves.
Lady slippers are orchids, rare in our part of upstate New York. Their scientific name is Cypripedium acaule. Cypripedium is Greek for “Venus’ slipper.” Lady slippers only grow beneath a mix of pines and hardwoods where the soil pH is just right, about 4 to 4.5. Their seeds sift by thousands on the wind when the seed capsule splits. There is little nutrition in them. When they germinate, they form a bulbo-tuber-like structure and will not develop unless a Rhizoctonia fungus is present in the soil. This may take two years or more. The growing plant forms a symbiotic relationship with the fungus, enabling it to absorb nutrients. It takes years to form a flower.
I was six years old in 1965. It was a year of big change for my family. My grandfather sold his cows and went out of the dairy farming business. My mom, dad, little sister and I moved from the big, Greek Revival farmhouse to a trailer set up on blocks in the pasture. At the lower end of the pasture where the ground was always wet, my grandfather had a pond built. For hours I watched a yellow bulldozer gouge it out of the ground. It was ten feet deep in the middle and its shoreline was nearly perfectly round. Dad drove four posts at the water’s edge. In a short while they sprouted leaves and in a few years would become tall weeping willows. We stocked the pond with little brook trout.
The following spring Dad brought home some round red and white plastic bobbers. We dug earthworms out of the garden and went fishing for the trout. Dad showed me how to run the line of my spinning rod through the spring-loaded hook of the bobber so that the depth of the bait could be adjusted. Soon we both caught one. To my surprise they had grown big. They were fatter than the ones Dad caught in the brooks.
To me the pond was perfection. I would sit in the tall grass at the water’s edge on June evenings. Swallows would skim the water’s surface for insects. As the sun sank and wind died down, the water would become mirror still. As darkness deepened, bats came out, flying low over the water in their tipsy drunken flight. Fireflies would begin flashing blue-green lights. Stars appeared. In the darkness I could catch one trout after another, each one about a foot long, fat, brightly colored and beautiful. I would never catch more than we would eat though. It was a rule we didn’t talk about much. Killing anything unnecessarily was wrong.
Other than the fish, I loved the frogs the most. They had appeared as if they fell from the sky soon after the pond was built. Sometimes I would catch one in the shallow water at the edge. It would spring out of my hands when I let it go, landing in the water again.
They were green frogs and they thrummed like rubber bands or loose banjo strings constantly from dusk into the night. Long after I had gone to bed I would lie awake listening to them through my open window.
The summer when I was twelve, the Cape Cod house across the road that had been my great-grandmother’s was sold. A new family moved in. They were from Long Island and had two older teenaged boys, Bobby and Eddy. I was anxious to get to know them. Until then, other boys near my age lived miles away.
“Can I ask Bobby and Eddy over to fish in the pond?” I asked Dad.
He thought about it for a moment, “If they take a lot of fish out of the pond, you won’t have any.”
“I’ll tell them they can only take a couple,” I said.
Dad thought again. “Well, all right.”
I ran to tell Bobby and Eddy. I was excited. It looked like a perfect evening for fishing. It was cool, but not cold. Swallows were swooping low over the water. Trout dimpled the surface, rising for insects as shadows spread across the pond. We baited our hooks and began to cast. Soon each of us had a beautiful red-finned brook trout lying in the grass. Their old black and tan hound, Blue was sniffing the ground nearby. Suddenly Eddy reached down, picked up his fish and threw it out into the field.
“Fetch!” he shouted. Blue ran and retrieved the fish, bringing it to him with her tail wagging.
“I’ve got to catch another one!” he yelled. “The dog got mine!”
Bobby laughed, then picked up his and did the same. I was mortified. What would I tell Dad?
They both baited their hooks and cast again. The trout were feeding furiously. Within minutes, they both caught another fish, then another. They threw each one to the dog taunting, “Look! The dog got another one!’ I felt tears welling up. They were angry tears. I wanted to hit them, but they were both much bigger than I was.
Then Eddy did something that was even worse. He picked up a frog and threw it as high as he could. It landed with a splash out in the middle of the pond.
“Don’t do that!” I yelled.
“Why?” he yelled back.
“You’ll kill it!”
“Who cares! They’re just frogs!”
“I care!” Now tears were streaming.
“Hah! He’s crying! Let’s kill all the frogs!” Eddy shouted.
“Yeah! Let’s kill them all!” Bobby yelled as he picked up a huge flat rock and dropped it on a frog whose eyes protruded above the water at his feet. Eddy caught another and smashed it with a rock
“Come one John! Kill the frogs!” Bobby taunted. I ran for the trailer.
“Crybaby!” they yelled after me.
I was too ashamed to tell Dad what had happened. I went to my room, closed the door and cried. I heard them slaughtering frogs until it was too dark to see. Later, I lay awake listening for the frogs. Only silence came through the window. We had put the fish in the pond. The frogs were a gift.
“I form the light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe:
I the Lord do all these things.”
Some nights I wake with nightmares. I dream I’m back in the Intensive Care Unit at night beside Claudia’s bed. The monitors are flashing and alarms are ringing. Sometimes I dream I’m falling. Sometimes I’m in a long white corridor with no way out.
In the spring of 2007 Claudia was taken by ambulance to Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown. Later that night I arrived and found her room. The walls were eggshell white. There were white tiles on the floor. Claudia looked as pale as the room. I stayed late, well after visiting hours were over. When I left I gave her nurse numbers for my cell phone, home and work. I was worried about Claudia. I had never seen her so pale. Outside it was dark. I called Claudia’s sister Shanna to let her know how Claudia was.
Shanna lived nearby. She said, “Spend the night here. You must be exhausted.”
So instead of going home which was an hour and a half away, I drove the short way up a narrow back road to her house. I slept hard. I didn’t have my phone charger with me and during the night my cell phone battery went dead. I got up early and went back to the hospital. I took the elevator and walked down the hallway to her room.
Her bed was empty. I could still see her indentation on the sheets.
“She had trouble during the night. I think you had better go find a nurse,” her roommate said.
I stood there shocked.
Suddenly a short wiry male nurse ran in and put his arm around my shoulders. My heart raced. I was nauseous. I was dizzy…
“We have to go upstairs!” he said.
I didn’t know what he meant. I was confused and frightened. We ran down the white hallway. We passed through locked doors to intensive care.
A doctor in pale blue scrubs was leaning over her bed. Claudia was as white as the sheets.
“Mr. Jacobson! I’m Dr. Kramer. I have to intubate her. She can’t breathe. Say something quick. I don’t know when she will be able to talk again.”
I hugged her. “I love you.”
“I love you. I don’t want to die!” Claudia gasped.
“Wait outside in the waiting room. I’ll tell you when I’m done,” Dr. Kramer said.
I stared through the window at clouds. I really don’t know if anyone else was there too. I felt alone. I went numb.
After what seemed forever, a nurse came out and called my name. I followed her through the double doors to Claudia’s room. Corrugated blue tubing was threaded into her mouth from a puffing ventilator. I knew our lives had changed.
The next day I was sitting next to Claudia’s bed in the ICU. A nurse with a somber face and short blond hair came in. She wore a blue uniform.
“I’m Judy. I worked with Claudia in this unit years ago.” She stood looking down at Claudia. “Its so sad to see her like this.”
Dr. Kramer came in. He watched the monitors for a moment then looked at Claudia.
“She’s drenched in sweat. Is there a thermostat in here?” he asked.
“Yes,” Judy said.
“Turn it down! Get some air conditioning going. Her temperature regulation seems to be all haywire.”
He began pushing equipment around.
“Why is she facing this way?”
“Someone probably thought it was easier,” Judy said.
“I want her facing the window. At least she can see something green,” Dr. Kramer said.
He turned to me. “Do you have any music she likes? She needs something to occupy her mind. Bring in a CD player and some CDs. We’ll play them for her.
He unlocked the bed and started pushing it toward the window.
“Let me help,’ Judy said.
“No. I’ve got it. You have other patients.”
He adjusted Claudia’s pillows and sheets.
One evening before Claudia was sick, I stood, elbows resting on the pointed slats of the unpainted picket fence at the edge of our back yard. The sun had set. It was late summer. Water in the Tremperskill was low. Deadly nightshade twined around one of the slats. Bright yellow coneflowers, golden rod and purple asters were in bloom at the water’s edge.
Shadows of a maple and a Norway spruce with branches drooping low over the stream on the opposite bank darkened the water. Light colored mayflies ascending slowly from the surface glowed like tiny pale lanterns.
Seven little brook trout finned in the shallows. One by one they rose, dimpling the water as they sipped hatching mayflies off the surface. A kingfisher perched on a telephone wire upstream sounded his rattling call. The trout, oblivious, continued to sip the mayflies.
Suddenly the kingfisher dove off the wire and swooped low toward the vulnerable trout. Not until the shadow of the diving kingfisher was upon them did the trout react. In an instant they all darted into an undercut shelter beneath the roots of the Norway spruce. The kingfisher flew on.
As darkness came, the trout returned to the vulnerable shallows and began rising for mayflies again. Trout can’t live by cowering in shadows. They would starve there. So they live with the chance of a swooping predator and don’t flinch until the shadow of suffering and destruction is upon them.
Claudia was transferred to Albany Medical Center from Bassett Hospital. She was taken directly to intensive care. She was on a respirator and had a feeding tube threaded through her nose. She was completely paralyzed and couldn’t move.
I arrived some time later bringing a few clothes and my toothbrush in a backpack. Her room was filled with monitors that lit and flashed. Alarms rang when her pulse or breathing slowed. Nurses and doctors came and went at all hours in a kaleidoscopic whirl. The TV was turned to soothing New Age music. It played constantly, as if designed to anesthetize our minds. For weeks my backpack lay in the corner and I stayed at her bedside holding her hand, kissing her forehead and praying with my head on her bedrail. It was a mysterious illness, diagnosed as “Bad MS.”
She did not respond to the usual course of Solu Medrol. The doctors told me they had called the Mayo Clinic. One of them said, “Don’t go anywhere.”
Someone asked if Claudia would like to see a Chaplain. I said yes and filled out a form checking her religious preference as Presbyterian. A while later a serious-looking dark-haired man wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a black velvet yarmulke was putting on a yellow gown and gloves outside the sliding glass door of her room. He carried a small prayer book and extended a gloved hand.
“Mr. Jacobson? My name is Mark, I’m the Chaplain.”
“Hi Mark, I’m John.”
“May I come in?”
Though my family never spoke of our Jewish heritage, it seemed entirely natural to me that a Rabbi would come and pray for my wife. I bowed my head against Claudia’s bedrail and held her hand that was curled helplessly around a rolled towel.
He prayed first in Hebrew, then in English the traditional prayer for healing, “Mi’ Shebeirach.”
“May the One who blessed our ancestors
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca,
Rachel and Leah; bless and heal Claudia.
May the Holy One, the fount of blessings,
Shower abundant mercies upon her,
Fulfilling her dreams of healing,
Strengthening her with the power of life.
Merciful One, restore her, enliven her,
Send her a complete healing,
From the Heavenly Realm, a healing of body and
A healing of soul,
Together with all who are ill soon, speedily
And let us all say Amen.”
Tears pooled in my glasses and just kept flowing. Mark touched my shoulder. “It’s all right. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Sounds of a puffing ventilator and beeping electronic alarms surrounded Claudia and I. I never left her side for long. I slept on a white vinyl recliner chair beside her bed. I heard footsteps of nurses and doctors and their muffled conversations in the hallway outside her room. In the distance beneath these sounds the hospital ventilation system faintly hummed.
Before her illness I read poetry to Claudia and had deep discussions with her about editorials in The New York Times over Sunday breakfast. We were part of a community theater group and discussed books with friends. At my job I negotiated construction costs and had meetings with contractors, engineers and scientists that demanded vocabulary and technical understanding. I was used to a world of words. Now Claudia was unable to talk. We lived in a world of soft white noise. Words seemed to have vanished.
Every morning a team of doctors gathered at the foot of Claudia’s bed. They talked among themselves as if neither Claudia nor I were there. One would shine a light into her eyes. He would take one of her hands and uncurl it from a rolled towel.
“Squeeze my hand,” he would say.
I watched intently, hoping to see movement. There was none. The doctor would replace the towel.
If they talked to me at all, our conversations were perfunctory. Sometimes one would ask, “Have you seen any changes?”
They would file out the door. I would buy The New York Times at the hospital gift shop and go down to the cafeteria for breakfast. It would be early. There were not many visitors there yet. I would get coffee, some fruit and cereal or a muffin. One morning I was in line at the check out. I slid my tray to the cashier.
“Do you have your ID?” she asked.
“Yes, so I can give you your employee discount.”
“I’m not an employee.”
“Oh. But I see you here all the time.”
“I know. My wife is in the ICU.”
I thought I should be keeping a journal. At the hospital gift shop I bought a pen and a small spiral bound notebook. I didn’t know what to write though. I made lists of Claudia’s medications. I wrote down names of her nurses and doctors.
I couldn’t say how I felt. I didn’t even know how I felt. I was numb. I knew I had lost something dear to me. I didn’t know the extent of my loss yet though. I was in a featureless emotional void.
Then I lost the notebook.
My life was contained in my backpack. I kept it in the corner of Claudia’s room. Inside it were a couple changes of clothes, soap, shampoo, razor, shaving cream, a toothbrush, floss and toothpaste. Late at night when the other visitors were gone I would wash in the men’s room outside the ICU. Every few days I went to a Laundromat. I would hurry back to Claudia’s room as soon as I was done. I bought another notebook.
I lost that one too.
Weeks passed. One day Claudia’s nurse said, “It’s a beautiful day outside. Why don’t you take a walk? Take a break. I’ll take good care of Claudia.”
Outside the sounds of traffic and smell of car exhaust were overwhelming. A siren wailed as an ambulance passed. People hurried along the sidewalk. I walked without looking at anyone. I was lost in my fog of numbness.
Leaves of crabapples between the sidewalk and the brick wall of the hospital were lush green. The branches were bare the last time I had seen them. Chirping calls sounded faintly above the roar of traffic. Several house sparrows flew between branches disappearing into the leaves. A couple of them landed on the sidewalk and hopped ahead of me.
I was suddenly aware I was missing both the worlds of words and nature. I had missed new leaves coming out, quacking wood frogs and shrill piping of spring peepers. I missed calls of red-winged blackbirds and the ethereal fluting of a hermit thrush before rain.
Numbness fell away like a breaking dam.
I started to cry.
Once back inside, I bought another notebook.
Emmons’ Pond is still now, forming a nearly perfect mirror. A great blue heron lifts off from the shallows near the beaver dam. I can hear its wing beats as it rises like a smoky blue-gray apparition. The ethereal evening flute of a hermit thrush with its mournful long notes at its beginning slurring into a more hopeful trill sounds from the woods.
The voices of frogs, though, speak to me most. Hundreds are calling out in the gathering darkness. They are male green frogs, Rana clamitans. They have chosen their territories among clumps of bur-reed and woolgrass along the water’s edge. They are sounding mating calls in hope of attracting a female ready to lay eggs. They are everyday creatures here in the wetlands of upstate New York, but I know that each in its own way is a miracle.
In their lifetimes they have been sustained by an abundance of diatoms, zooplankton and insects found in this pond. Without all of them, there would be no frogs. Each has also survived predation all of its life. As eggs, then tadpoles, many are eaten by leeches, dragonfly larvae, other aquatic insects, fish, turtles and herons. As adults more are eaten by larger frogs, turtles, snakes, herons, raccoons and minks. Every voice I hear has survived against the odds.
Good, evil, suffering, beauty and wonder exist entwined together in this bewildering world. I struggle to make some meaning out of it. I remember seeing a blue church bus once with bright yellow lettering that read, “God is love.” If only it was so simple. If God is omnipotent and all-knowing like I was taught in Sunday School then He created both Claudia who I love and the disease that is destroying her. Or does God just allow suffering? What about Bobby and Eddy and the frogs? Who is the God Rabbi Mark prayed to?
The bog has been a difficult place to return to since Claudia’s sickness, but tonight among the voices of frogs, I am finding some peace. I don’t know how long it will last. I sit on the log next to the fading lady slipper and listen. The frogs seem to speak of loneliness and desire. More importantly though, I believe they speak of hope.
John Jacobson lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York. His writing has appeared in many publications including About Place Journal, Aji Magazine, The Curlew, Intima Journal of Narrative Medicine, Longridge Review and Remembered Arts Journal. His essay “Fly” was nominated for the “Best of the Net, 2018” anthology. For the past twelve years he has been a caregiver for his wife Claudia. He is working on a memoir about that experience.