The Widower’s Lament

After the death of the poet Wendy Barker, her grieving husband turns to the literature of loss

Joanna Malinowska/Unsplash
Joanna Malinowska/Unsplash

Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
—Emily Dickinson

I had been asleep for a few hours when the policeman arrived at my front door. “They have been trying to reach you,” he said. “Call this number.” It was 12:30 a.m., so I knew. I had left the hospital earlier in the evening confident that my wife, Wendy, who was being treated for a bleeding ulcer, would soon be released. “I love you very much,” I told her, departing. When I returned, I saw Wendy’s body on the hospital bed, but she was no longer Wendy. A heart attack had put an end to her suffering. Mine was only beginning.

Wendy Barker was a virtuoso poet and a beloved teacher to several generations of creative writing students. She held an endowed chair at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Although she was 80, she seemed to be on the threshold of an exciting new phase. Her book Weave: New and Selected Poems—her 14th collection of verse—had recently been published, and a new chapbook, Those Roads, These Moons, was forthcoming. She had readings lined up from San Antonio to New York and was eager to continue our explorations together of Texas wilderness parks. Wendy had just returned, exhausted but ecstatic, from a two-day stint as an honored guest of Arizona State University, her alma mater. She had grown up in Phoenix and Tucson, so this was a homecoming and, as it turned out, a final sealing of the circle.

After her death, I found a postcard in her university mailbox. Postmarked “Phoenix,” it lacked any return address.

Dear Wendy,

I’m grateful that you’re the first poet I’ve ever met. Your readings, imbued with passion and excitement and life, moved me. Thank you for the chance encounter with your art and spirit. I’ll keep at it!

The fact that Wendy never got to read this postcard overwhelms me with spasms of regret.

In their 2005 book, On Grief and Grieving, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and grief expert David Kessler outline five stages of loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. A precocious fellow who skipped two grades of schooling, I jumped immediately into depression. Acceptance is inconceivable. I cannot imagine ever acquiescing to a scheme of things in which Wendy and I are wrenched apart. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s young Goodman Brown returning from the forest, I have been permanently infected by the toxin of gloom.

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Steven G. Kellman’s books include Rambling Prose, Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, and The Translingual Imagination.


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