An excerpt from A Pause in the Rain published in Verb Sap; May 2005
The Channel Islands are a few miles off California’s Central Coast, but they’re sufficiently remote that they might as well be on another planet. My husband, Grammy Award-winning musician Chuck Greenberg, passed Santa Cruz Island––the largest and most visible of the chain––often during his frequent trips from our home in San Luis Obispo County to Los Angeles, where the rest of the members of his band, Shadowfax, lived. The shortcut San Marcos Pass through the Santa Barbara Mountains yields a spectacular view of Santa Cruz, along with the other Channel Islands––a shimmering chain of peaks jutting from the teal blue Pacific.
The Nature Conservancy, which owns most of Santa Cruz Island, had used the Shadowfax tune “Ritual” in a soundtrack for one of its conservation videos. In return for the favor, the Conservancy invited our family to stay at any one of its holdings across the country. Chuck chose the island. We had a great time. The caretakers of the main property, which includes a well-preserved ranch, were consummate hosts, showing us all over the island by Jeep, and cooking delicious meals for us. We fell in love with the peace and magic of the place. Chuck relaxed as never before on vacation. He had needed a break from the otherwise ubiquitous telephone.
In his inimitable way, Chuck managed to charm our hosts so much that they invited us to return to the island over Labor Day weekend in 1995. We jumped at the chance. We were both feeling stressed out––I from finishing up requirements for a teaching credential, and he from the production of his second solo project. The day before we left, Chuck complained that he didn’t feel well, and that shoulder and arm were sore, but he’d been looking forward to the trip and insisted on making it. I assumed that the soreness was from spending days sitting at the consoles of our in-home studio as he composed music for his album.
Chuck drove us to Ventura, where we spent Friday night with some long-time friends. Our nine-year-old twins, Gian and Greg, came with us. Our eldest son, Maceo, stayed behind because he didn’t want to miss the first day of school. Chuck seemed to feel better Saturday morning and was upbeat and excited as we watched supplies being lifted by crane onto the Navy boat that would take us from Oxnard to Santa Cruz Island.
The seas became rough as we headed through the deep channel, but the ride was exhilarating. The wind hammered our faces and pods of dolphins raced alongside us, jumping in the wake of the boat. Soon the peaks of Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands loomed.
Before long we had docked at Prisoner’s Harbor and by early afternoon we were ensconced at the ranch, watching with amusement as the twins played with the resident island fox, Josie. Josie had been orphaned as a baby and rescued by the ranch staff. The twins would take turns chasing her around the ranch and then she would chase them, nipping at their heels if they were too slow. They finally figured out how to outsmart her by splitting up. Poor Josie was so confused at having two kids to keep track of she finally crawled off and curled up under a bush, exhausted.
I was raring to explore––in particular to return to Cascada, a waterfall two miles away that had been turned into a private swimming hole. Chuck, however, was feeling tired and wanted to rest. So we spent the afternoon lounging by the pool and visiting with the caretakers, Dave and Debbie.
The next morning, Chuck had perked up and we headed out with Dave in his patrol boat, checking the harbors to make sure that all visitors had the required permits. In the afternoon, Dave navigated us through coastal arches and caves––stygian in their damp darkness––while we explored the eastern coastline of the island. Cormorant-clad islets, whitened with guano, greeted us at each turn of the coast, and brown pelicans shared shore patrol. I took a long, deep breath of the clean, salt air, then smiled as I watched a V-wedge of these avian B-52s sail past our boat, rising and falling in synchronized flight to match the rolling of the sea. At one point, Chuck commandeered the steering wheel, his trademark grin radiating like a beacon. Then, he gave each twin a lesson in piloting. I have pictures of the moment.
On Labor Day it was too windy to go out in the boat, so we hung around the ranch playing with Josie and reading some of the books in our room. We had one of the cowboy bunkrooms with twin beds—which we found funny because we had never slept in separate beds the fifteen years we had known each other. Chuck kept making jokes about how it was like the old Dick Van Dyke sitcom from the ’60s.
Early in the afternoon we had Dave drop us off from the jeep at Cascada. Chuck played with the twins while they hung off him like human sandbags. I climbed over the cliffs trying to find a good vantage point for picture-taking and came upon live-forevers sprouting incongruously from the cracks in the rock wall. Live-forevers, stonecrops or chalk lettuce––common names for the genus dudleya––were a favorite plant of mine, being one of the few succulents that I can successfully grow at home in Paradise Valley.
Not feeling himself, Chuck decided to return to the ranch ahead of us to begin a berry-picking and jam-making session with our hostess Debbie. He had brought her samples of his plum jam, which had just been awarded two blue ribbons at the Mid-State Fair. When returned, we found Chuck in his element. Part of jam-making is creating a big mess, something ever appealing to him. By the time the twins and I arrived, he looked like a giant blackberry, covered head to toe in purple ooze.
Debbie proceeded to prepare a wonderful gourmet dinner, with Chuck providing the perfect complement: a bottle of wine brought with us in celebration.
Afterward, Chuck went back to our room, complaining of indigestion. I took the twins to their room and read them to sleep.
When I got back to our room Chuck was reading a book he’d found there called Freaks about the most notorious physically deformed people of the past century. He got me reading it too. Eventually he began working on me to join him in his little twin bed. At first I demurred.
“No way! Not enough room! Besides, you’re not feeling well and I don’t want to get sick, ” I told him.
But, as usual, I couldn’t resist Chuck’s persuasive tactics. I hopped into his bed and we made love. I let him choose one of his favorite positions, doggy style. Chuck climaxed and giggled, which was what he always did after sex.
Then, suddenly, he gasped—a deep, sucking, extended gasp––collapsed on me and lay still. I tried turning my head to see his face, but I couldn’t.
At first I thought he was joking.
“Come on, Chuck. Cut it out! This isn’t funny,” I said.
I was pinned under him and tried wiggling to see his face and to move him off me. He was limp as I slid from underneath him. I tried to grab him to keep him from falling off the bed, but he was too heavy for me. He tumbled to the floor.
His eyes were open and I looked into them, trying to figure out what was going on. I realized with terror that he had stopped breathing. I tried to take his pulse but I couldn’t find one. I rolled him onto his back, trying not to panic and to remember my CPR training. I knew I had to blow into his mouth, but how long did I have to wait for him to exhale? And wasn’t I supposed to check his air passage? But what could be blocking it when he hadn’t had anything in his mouth? Should I be pushing on his chest instead?
I don’t know how long I worked on him––everything went into slow-motion warp and I lost all sense of time. When I failed to get a response to the CPR, a complete and paralyzing panic set in. I didn’t want to leave him, but I knew I had to get help. Somehow I got myself over to Dave and Debbie’s apartment and began banging on their door.
“Help––come quickly, Chuck’s not breathing and I can’t get his pulse!” I must have screamed, although I’m not how sure how much I conveyed aside from hysteria.
Debbie called the Coast Guard while Dave ran to our room to continue CPR. He worked on Chuck for an excruciating hour, taking turns with one of the ranch hands, all of us exhorting Chuck, “Come back! Don’t leave us!”
During what seemed like eons, reality began dawning on me. Chuck wasn’t coming back. All I could do was sit there in helpless agony watching Dave attempt the impossible.
Finally, the Coast Guard arrived. As they loaded Chuck onto the gurney, then into the helicopter, I stood dazed, hoping desperately to be wrong yet dreading the obvious, that I would never see him alive again. They wouldn’t let me on the helicopter and I never had another moment alone with him.
Tears streaming, I managed only to mouth goodbye, Chuck as the chopper lifted, hovered for a moment and slowly spiraled up into the inky blackness. I stared into the dark until I could no longer hear it.
The coroner who performed the autopsy said that Chuck would have been a candidate for quadruple bypass surgery, so clogged were his arteries. Chuck’s heart, so large in life, had failed him.
“Didn’t you know all those symptoms––the soreness in his arm, tiredness, indigestion, cold feet—are classic for a heart attack?” the coroner asked, as if I weren’t feeling guilty enough already.
In one instant my life changed irrevocably. I was a widow. I rolled the word around in my mouth, trying it on for size, despising it. The sense of personal annihilation defied verbalization. I’d heard it likened to losing a limb: a psychic limb. If only my psyche could grow back, like a lizard’s tail.
If there was one crumb of comfort in losing Chuck, it was in knowing that in death he did not suffer, and that he left our world doing what, after making music, he loved best. You could say he came and went simultaneously. And if, as the Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches, a man’s last thoughts influence the condition of his reincarnation, Chuck must be on Cloud Ten.