After twenty years in San Francisco, I’m moving to Alaska, where I’ll be living in the Bush. Until now my career has been paramount, and in that sense I did all the right things: graduated from UC Santa Cruz, got a masters from Loyola in Chicago and an MBA from Kellogg, and found two amazing mentors along the way. All that culminated in a great job as CFO of an employee-owned company that wins awards both for its work and as an outstanding place to work.
But I’m leaving it for love.
I met Gary in Alaska. My aunt Vee speaks so fondly of him as her adoptive son that it was years before I knew he actually had parents and hadn’t had some sort of break with them. Vee and my uncle Keith lived in Alaska, and as a kid growing up in L.A. (OK, Long Beach really), I used to beg my parents to send me there for the summer. It never did happen, but if it had I would have met Gary much sooner. He was one of nine children, and the way he tells it his mother “lent him out” to a childless couple who happened to be friends of Vee and Keith. The husband of that couple died when Gary was 14, but had suggested to Aunt Vee and Uncle Keith that they take him on. So he spent summers and more with them and my cousins for many years, and his (our) Alaska cabin is very near their summer place, which my cousin Glenn still uses.
It was only after my parents died that I sought out Vee and Keith in Oregon, where they had moved. They still drove to Alaska every summer, and in 2004, when I had earned my sabbatical, I knew I wanted to spend it there. My first morning, Uncle Keith set off a clangorous triangle on the porch as the call to breakfast. Gary came in from his cabin nearby, hat, rifle and beard, looking not at all like the men I was used to in San Francisco. My aunt and uncle were no longer young, so Gary served as tourist wrangler. We spent several days together, riding ponies and picking blueberries, as I took in the dramatic new landscape. I found him to be amazingly well-read, unselfconsciously competent in a frontier existence that insists on strength and self-reliance, gentle, patient, and with a quiet sense of humor. We corresponded over the years that followed—in Gary’s case, posting letters by flagging down the local train.
Then one day he called me. Cancer. I can’t even guess what misguided words I mumbled in my attempt at empathy. But I wrote him afterwards offering help and frequent flyer miles if he needed to come “outside” for care. When this supposedly slow-growing cancer came back a third time in four months, I found specialists and booked flights for us both to Portland.
He had two more surgeries in Portland. I remember sitting there together the morning of my final departure, our hands clasped around warm mugs at the hotel restaurant, watching the morning pink dissipate over the water. Gary wore a knit cap to cover the wound on his scalp. His doctor had told me a number of things I would need to tell him. For some reason what seemed foremost was the news that Gary’s hair would never grow back. I glanced his way, wondering whether he was ready to hear this. He spoke before I could, and he spoke of love.
I was surprised, confused. I had no idea of his feelings. Still wrestling with my own feelings about leaving my marriage of thirty-some years, I felt I’d developed an immunity to men generally, having suffered so long an exposure to one. I looked away and found myself mumbling again.
“In another world and time,” I ventured, and changed the subject.
We headed out for a final round of doctors’ appointments before my flight. The radiologist asked the nature of our relationship.
“We’re friends!” I nearly shouted.
It didn’t take me long to acknowledge what was just below the surface, but by the time I did we had turned back to our separate lives. When we could, we phoned. Usually we wrote.
And he was none too happy about the hair.
In one letter Gary recommended Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, mentioning the chapter about tulips. Of course I had to read it. As I did, I came across Pollan’s assessment of my favorite flower: “cool, scentless and aloof.”
I had to say tulip? What about sweet peas? I love sweet peas! Lilies of the Valley?
Gary called while I was driving. It was one of those horrible calls where every word seemed to be bubbling up from under the sea. I fretted aloud about the whole tulip thing. I said the words “ice queen.” He heard “ice cream.” We settled on maple walnut.
But back to the tulip. It is extraordinary. Though cut from its roots the tulip keeps growing and lasts beyond expectation. It bows with age, elegant as a ballerina, drying, dying, ever lovely.
If you’re lucky. Otherwise the petals just drop. Worn by the burdens of my failed marriage and my great job, I had accepted this as the more apt analogy for my fate.
At last I have a chance to change the ending.
A year ago, not long after completing radiation therapy—the last step in what seems to have been the successful eradication of his cancer—Gary left Alaska for the wilderness of San Francisco, trading the rhythm of the seasons for the cadence of traffic behind our Vermont Street rental. Now I will inhabit his world with him. The creek brings our water, the wood our heat, solar and wind our electricity. The vast expanse of nature is our playground. There is no cell service, but there is one miracle to keep us connected to the outer world: satellite Internet.
I look forward to staying in touch.