Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Debra Gwartney, “Fire and Ice” (non-fiction) from Granta #156

Three days before he died, my husband got out of bed. Somehow he propelled himself down the hall and into the living room, where I found him bent over a volume of Esther Horvath photographs called Into the Arctic Ice: The Largest Polar Expedition of All Time. Barry’s white hair was sprung wild and his feet were bare though it was late at night in December, sleety rain driving against the windows. How had he pulled sweatpants over his bony hips? He’d hardly stirred all day, lifting his head only to sip on bone broth made by one of our daughters, leaning against me to get to the bathroom because he was bleary from pain drugs. Yet he’d managed to transport himself to the center of this rental house to dig out a book that now held his rapt attention.

Pushcart often includes memorial pieces like this one; I’m always uncomfortable writing about them. They’re personal expressions of intense grief, love, and loss, not necessarily artistic expression, though of course art  manage to shape everything, including pain, into art.

Gwartney’s account is particularly harrowing as it includes a period of tragedies surrounding the death of her husband, writer Barry Lopez. The Labor Day 2020 wildfire chased them out of their home in the Oregon forest in the middle of the night; their house was saved via firefighting techniques, but was inaccessible due to surrounding devastation. Lopez’ cancer, under control via medication, burst into renewed activity; he was hospitalized for a time, and due to COVID restrictions she was unable to be with him. Her mother died, and COVID restrictions made the funeral particularly lonely. To add insult to injury, on her return Lopez insisted on continued distancing through the quarantine period, an essential precaution but a trying one.

On a thin January afternoon about a month after his death, I pulled the Horvath book from the drawer where I’d hidden it to study the photos that had so ignited my husband. I discovered in the text a mission obviously steeped in scientific logic and methodology, yet also not that far from the koans of my weekly yoga class: embrace the moment. Trust the wind to push you where you need to go. Be prepared to find your way back to center through the densest of fog. The only authentic discoveries are those that aren’t forced. Stop trying to control that which is beyond your control.

I’m often uncomfortable with these pieces for another reason: many involve people I’m unfamiliar with, though they are of great stature in the literary community. This piece is different. I’ve read both Gwartney and Lopez before, both via Pushcart nonfiction: her “Suffer Me To Pass” last year, and his “The Invitation” several years earlier. My discomfort isn’t noticeably lessened, however.

Therefore I merely present the piece as part of the anthology. Someone’s sacrament is not fodder for analysis, but rather can be a vehicle for communion.

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  • This piece can be read online at Granta.

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