Fire and Ice | Debra Gwartney | Granta

Fire and Ice

Debra Gwartney

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.

The book had arrived by mail a few days earlier, when Barry was still able to sit on the sofa for an hour or so, and he’d turned its pages with the slightest pressure of thumb and finger so as not to mar the saturated colors of the photos. Our son-in-law was over with the rest of the family for a subdued holiday visit. The two men spoke in calm, low voices about a region of the planet once intimately familiar to my husband, second only to his knowledge of the thirty-six acres of western Oregon rainforest where he’d lived for fifty years and where I’d lived with him for nearly two decades until a wildfire booted us out one late-summer night. Barry moved closer to Pete and pointed to streaks of blue in Horvath’s images of a vast icescape, the humps of polar bears, the eerie glow of human light piercing the darkness. The peeling noses and cheeks of scientists too long in the cold. I remember how he laughed with a whistle of nostalgia, missing days when he must have felt fully alive.

But now in the living room, he whipped through the pages until I heard an edge tear, a fluttering as if he’d startled a bird. When I said his name, he didn’t answer. When I touched his shoulder, he jerked in my direction and insisted I start packing the car, though first he wanted me to find his suitcase and the down jacket he’d worn for forty years of polar travel. He returned to the book frantic, a man who’d dropped a key into a well’s murky bottom and was crazy with the loss.

I was certain my husband was about to insist I bundle him up and drive him through the rain to our fire-damaged house, an hour away. I steeled myself for it. He’d say he had to die on his own land, near the remains of ten cords of combusted wood and his melted truck, on the smoke-saturated bed in our bedroom whose windows were still smeared orange with fire retardant. He’d check to make sure the essay he’d been working on was secure in his typewriter, waiting. Then he would rest. He’d watch through the window over the bed for flashes of kingfisher and fat rain clouds, for the sky arcs of an overwintering eagle. What nonsense it was to come to the end instead in this stranger’s house with a stranger’s furniture and its strange cast of light. I was sure Barry would rather use any last bursts of energy to pace the perimeter of his scorched archive, as he had most days since the fire. He’d become the lone sentry at the gates of that phantom building, which once held the history of his fifty-year writing life. For months, I’d watched him rake through the mound of ash, releasing shiny particles of the past into the smoke-stilled air. He churned up chunks of paper – cremated books that disintegrated with the slightest touch – and bent metal that he held up to the faint light in the withered forest. What were you, then?

Except that noise was inside my head. In fact, Barry hadn’t mentioned home for over a week. What I finally put together on this Saturday night, from his various mutters and fragmented speech, was that his destination was an archipelago called Svalbard. An Arctic expedition had lost its leader, so he’d been called in to take over. He had mere hours to get there. He slammed the Horvath book shut and clambered into the spare bedroom, where he yanked out a duffel bag I’d recently emptied and stored away in my effort to make this place feel something like a home. He tossed in a broken alarm clock, a pillow, a packet of picture hangers. Where are my gloves? My Gore-Tex pants? My expedition sunglasses? Where have you put my things? Why won’t you give me my things? He flailed his arms so I couldn’t come close. As if the only person preventing him from the most important launch of his adventurous life was me.

And then he fell.

Barry was running – no, there was no run left in him, more an agitated hobble – back to our bedroom. He skidded on the wood floor and went flying. His hip slammed down, then his shoulder, his head bouncing against a doorframe. I cried out, and half dragged him to the bed where I wedged him under the covers. I squeezed a vial of liquid morphine into the pale ditch of his gums and sat next to him, his chest heaving, until he was asleep.

Horvath’s book is about a German icebreaker called the Polarstern, which was allowed to become locked into sea ice off the coast of Siberia. This happened in the autumn of 2019, when the ship’s engines were shut down and the vessel, lit up like an all-night casino, was left to drift, driven only by hidden ocean currents and ‘at the mercy of the wind’. The ship, with more than one hundred expedition members on board at any given time, groaned through dark days and nights, destination wherever natural forces led it, mile after uncharted nautical mile into utterly undiscovered territory: ‘no ship has ever ventured so far north into the central Arctic’, the prologue tells us. The Polarstern churned through ice and storms for an entire year while an international team of scientists did what they could to record the effects of climate change.

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.

Barry had been ill for a long time, but his death swooped down on us like a hawk, talons first. Startlingly fast. Everything that gave me stability and safety – our long marriage, our house, the surrounding woods, the river – was unreachable now, in dodgy shadow, and this was probably the source of my irritation toward the book in my lap. It dared to tap into what terrified me most: a reminder that there’d be no clear answers for a good long stretch; that I would have to swim in bewilderment and confusion before I could emerge on some distant shore. Solutions would roll out in front of me in their own time and at their own pace, in their own shape. In the meantime, I would have to learn to drift.



A few months earlier, on 8 September just after midnight, I found a young man on our porch holding a brick he’d been using to batter our front door. I was already awake and out of bed when I heard his pounding, his shouts to open up. A friend had called me minutes before, waking me from a fitful sleep. She told me to rouse my husband and get the hell out of there. I pulled on long pants, though the temperature was sweltering and the house already choked with smoke and grit. Barry was sleeping in our guest cottage that night, a few hundred feet away. I was headed there to wake him when the young man appeared on our porch hollering words my friend had already said: Get out now.

How odd to remember that crystallized moment, to recall how my mind slipped into the uncanny human tendency to minimize any emergency you’re smack in the middle of. This could not possibly be happening to me, could it? This couldn’t be how our story went. How was I to take this boy seriously with his lace-up boots and flannel shirt, red suspenders holding up canvas pants? I let myself imagine someone was just around the corner filming this non-crisis, this rumor of terror and destruction. Otherwise, what was with the klieg lights over-illuminating the woods around our home with a pumpkin-tinted hue as if we’d all been transported into a Wes Anderson movie?

You need to go now, the young firefighter said. You need to hurry.


Barry and I had argued some hours before the phone call from our friend, before the brick-wielding man on the porch, a spat between us that gnaws at me still. I think of it, our last argument on our last night in our own home, as one of those bullhorn warnings that sound at certain points in a marriage. As in: it’s time to take account of where you’re at, as individuals and as a couple. Seven years post cancer diagnosis, my husband’s stamina and drive were still remarkable, the mainstay of his character, and yet there was no missing the increasing pain in his spine and ribs, his body’s insistence on deep, long naps, his papery skin now drained of color. He had fewer hours of focus and attention and he meant to give those to an essay he’d begun, and after that to other pieces he’d sketched out to prove (mostly to himself ) that in the wake of the latest book, published a year earlier to vibrant acclaim, he would continue on with his legendary verve and purpose. Barry was quite fixed on the idea that a writer is writing today, not dozing in the soft nest of what he (in this case) wrote yesterday. As for me, I had published a book in the same month as Barry’s Horizon, though mine pretty much landed with a thud and garnered little notice. I’d composed hardly a paragraph since, and was plunged into doubt, plagued with a truth I didn’t want to face about my late-in-life prospects. I begged Barry to escape with me, to run away. We’d fly to Barcelona, Costa Rica, the two of us alone in a new land where I didn’t have to stare at my desk with its yank of defeat. But even as he was unfurling a map of Spain, spreading it wide on our table, running a light pencil line from Madrid to Lisbon across the border, I knew we wouldn’t go.

Here was an ongoing tension in our marriage: I often wanted us to slip off together, just us. No obligations, no university speeches or community gatherings, no award ceremonies. But Barry found it nearly impossible to disrupt the rhythm of his writing life for reasons of rest and relaxation, and rarely did so. This often led to stiffness between us, harsh words. But this time I surprised myself. As he rolled up the map while saying something about how we’d go as soon as I finish . . . I waited for the disappointment that usually thrummed in me when plans were put off. But it wasn’t there. I saw that he was past traveling now, no matter what part of the world called to him as a writer, and no matter how adamant I was about days together away from the hubbub. Now he needed to be home. Home is what fed him. He fit hand in glove at his small desk overlooking the river, tight in his narrow chair, fingers on his typewriter keys, his pile of research books at the ready and pencils sharpened to fine, dustless points.

The evening of our argument I was grilling our dinner. I had returned two days earlier from Idaho, where I’d sat with my mother in her final hours and stayed for a week to arrange, with my siblings, a small family burial service under the beating sun, since Covid-19 dictated we stay strictly outdoors. At home on this evening, it was too early for dusk, but smoke from a nearby wildfire dimmed and dulled the summer light. Barry stood at the far end of our deck, double-masked, refusing to step closer to me in case I’d been infected by the niece I’d hugged, the daughter who drove with me, a gas station attendant, the man who took my mother’s burial clothes from me at the mortuary. Barry and I had both agreed that it was too risky for him to go to Idaho, but now that I was back, I was aching to be held, aching to spool out my version of the disorientation one feels after losing a parent. I wanted my husband to ignore the coronavirus rules, this once, but he wasn’t ready to take the chance.

He proposed that we instead talk out on the deck with six feet between us. I hated the idea and fumed at him for bringing it up. For one thing, we had to raise our voices over the roar of an unusual wind, an unbidden wind, that whipped the 150-foot trees around us as if they were blades of grass. Dense smoke pillowed in the sky, and, when my phone beeped, I read Barry a text from various authorities instructing us not to panic, but to stay indoors – indoors! – with windows closed and to stop calling 911. The smoke was from a distant conflagration, that message explained. A fire that poses no danger to you.

Later, I’d bring it up with neighbors – those of us who’d escaped our burning river valley that September night – this curse of technology, the way we’d all been tripped by miscommunications and the confusion that reigned about what to do and when to do it. But that was still to come. For now, without a notion of what was racing toward us, our standoff on the deck continued, neither Barry nor I willing to give in to the other. Come here, go away. Months after he’d died, in anguish over that final night at our house, I would try to parse our code, our meaning. What it was we were trying to say to each other. Some version of: I don’t want to go on without you. You must figure out how to go on without me. Neither of us admitting that we were running out of time.

I dished up fish and vegetables, my spoon cracking against his plate and then against mine. He picked up his food, his fork and his knife. He said, ‘Please. Give me a few days,’ and I watched him walk to our guest cottage and snap the door closed.


When I jumped down the back stairs, rushing to the cottage to wake Barry, I was smacked by the light I’d noticed a minute earlier behind the boy on the porch. I turned around into the sucking exhale of a hillside fully on fire, hoodoo flames leaping from the ridges, an orange glow washing over trees and sky. Over me. The crackle, the roar of it. The snowy ash. I shouted my husband’s name, I pounded on the locked door. He opened up, startled and wide-eyed. ‘We have to go,’ I said.

Within five minutes, we did go, with two firefighters now ushering us into the car. I threw our hissing cat – Barry had dragged her from under the bed – onto the back seat. I had my purse slung over a shoulder, but that was it. He had nothing but the clothes he was wearing, not his wallet, not his cancer drugs, not the manuscript he’d been writing over the days I was away. But of course there was no going back, even after we thought of things we were desperate for. Or even when, a half-mile from our house, we were stopped by a cedar tree toppled in the road, flames sparking from its branches. Two men in the car in front of us hopped out – one already revving a chainsaw. They also knew our only choice was to push on. Barry unclicked his seat belt and made moves to join them. I grabbed his arm. ‘Don’t,’ I said to the man who for fifty years was the first to arrive at every such dilemma, ready to act, to solve. ‘This once, please don’t.’

For me, he stayed.

We drove ahead in a procession of maybe 200 cars. The cat in the back seat yowled without ceasing so we didn’t have to. Within a few miles we were beyond the fire – but it would catch up, soon. It would burn for weeks. It would consume 173,000 acres and 500 structures. None of us would be allowed back in for over a week, and only then with a police escort, to stand on our respective properties and witness for ourselves the transformative power of fire. Barry and I stepped out of a sheriff’s car that day to find our house intact – one of the few on the river that firefighters managed to save. It looked as if it had been picked up by a claw and flung onto a pile of rubble. It looked broken and stunned. Still, we wept with relief.


We’d done little but sit in a hotel room those first few days after evacuation, answering a barrage of phone calls and emails. It was one of those pet hotels – we were consigned to such a place because of our cat, though it was dogs that barked in the hallways and left puddles of pee on the lobby floor and caused our kitty to press into the far reaches of a closet, where we’d sprinkle her favorite treats and set a bowl of fresh water. Over and over we were warned not to go outdoors. The air in this town now registered as the most toxic in the world, worse than any industrialized city in China or India, worse than the notorious bad air of Mexico City. On the day I write this, the worst air quality index in the world was measured in Dhaka, Bangladesh: 313. In those first days in the hotel, the AQI was over 500, and one morning it reached 800. We were breathing our cars, our refrigerators, our metal roofs and generators. Dead birds and bobcat and bear and elk. And of course, we were breathing our trees.

Did we have a home? We didn’t know then, couldn’t know, for the first ten-day stretch, and this is what Barry explained to his oncologist, a woman he trusted and loved, when she appeared on the screen of my laptop for a Zoom appointment. She had come to deliver her own bitter news: the drugs that had for years kept Barry’s cancer from growing, that prevented new metastatic lesions beyond those cemented in his pelvic region and ribs, were no longer working. The cancer had found new purchase in his bones and in his blood. Beyond clinical trials and palliative medications, she had no treatment to offer.

We hung up with her. I put the computer away and went down to the hotel restaurant to order the same mediocre sandwiches we’d eaten the day before. We watched the election news. Barry sprinkled cat treats in the closet. I stuffed towels around the windows. We read our books, got into our bed. We drifted.


It took me several months to locate a rental house that we both felt was right. On three acres, sun-drenched, clean and welcoming. We could settle here and make decisions – that’s what we both believed; this was the mini-relief we gave in to. But on the third morning here, while I was cooking oatmeal, I heard a crash in the spare bedroom. When I rounded the corner, I saw Barry on the floor, tangled in the drawers of a bureau that had fallen with him. The side of his head was gushing blood. I followed the ambulance I’d called to the hospital, but was told at the door that coronavirus protocol prevented me from entering the emergency room. ‘Go home,’ a nurse told me. ‘We’ll phone you as soon as we know something.’

I was nearly at the rental house when my phone rang. It was the ER doctor. He told me that Barry’s heart had failed, a total block, and that he’d been shocked five times with the defibrillator to bring him back. ‘If he codes again,’ this doctor asked me, ‘do you want us to resuscitate him?’

I instantly convinced myself that the doctor had reached the wrong person, dialed the wrong number. My husband had taken a fall and likely had suffered a concussion, that was all. Right? This other thing about hearts and shocks couldn’t be happening to us. Hadn’t we endured enough? But then a few days later the hospital released Barry into my care. It was clear he had nearly reached the end. I drove him back to the house where we met with a hospice nurse. She’d brought a box of drugs. This one for pain, this one for worse pain, this for hallucinations, this for panic. We’ll use none of them, I told myself, she doesn’t know how strong he is (we used them all). The nurse also told us Barry would likely not survive a trip to our home on the river. The rental house is where he would die.

The morning after Barry’s near escape to Svalbard, I woke early. I’d been up every few hours to give him his pain drugs, to check his breathing, to wash the crust from his lips. I rose in the fluid winter light to slip into the kitchen so I could call our same nurse. I’d tell her that something had changed, a shift in him, a shift in me, and it was time, as she’d told me it soon would be, to bring in a hospital bed to set up in the living room. That way we could all – the four daughters and I – take turns keeping him company, making him comfortable. I’d resisted the finality of the hospital bed, as some part of me believed my husband would rally one last time. He was famous for it. Crisis after crisis with his health over the past year, until doctors were sure he was done for. But my husband would gather up that Barry Lopez resolve and determination and mighty bone strength, and he’d stand on his feet. I almost expected it again today: Barry sauntering around the corner in the same flannel shirt and sweatpants he’d worn the day before, thick wool socks on his feet, asking about a cup of coffee, asking about the New York Times headlines while the cat rubbed against his legs in her bid for breakfast.

But I was alone and I leaned against the counter in this strange house and took in the first of the lasts. The last night we would sleep in a bed together, the last time we’d choose a movie to watch, the last meal I’d make for him, the last music he’d put on to well through the living room. I’d overheard a conversation between Barry and his young friend John the day before about that last essay still rolled in the typewriter at home – there was an exuberance in my husband’s voice I hadn’t heard for a long while. The talk between the two men had sprung open a clarity of mind Barry was known for, the next revision cooking on high in him now. When they hung up, Barry wrote down three simple lines, or maybe a series of words. I don’t remember, though I do recall a pinch of envy in my own rib cage. His rush of happiness, this lifting of a burden, was in reference to the final piece Barry intended to write and not the chance to spend diminishing hours with me. We hadn’t said much about the inevitable parting from each other; I was waiting for him to begin the conversation, whatever words we still had to say. He finished his note and asked me to put the scrap of paper on the desk, which I did. Weeks down the road, I’d think of it, but in the hubbub of moving furniture and candles and loved ones in and out of the room, the paper had been lost. The shape of an essay that died with its author.

I went back to the bedroom now and saw that Barry was beginning to stir. I pulled away the covers and got into bed with this man I’d loved for twenty-some years, who helped me raise daughters, and who was cracked open by grandchildren in a way he couldn’t imagine he was capable of. I could feel his heat, hear his breath, but I made myself accept that he might already be gone, that I had let him leave without a proper farewell, without speaking in the language of our long intimacy. Maybe Barry was on the ice now, leading his ideal expedition. With sled dogs straining at the bit, fat mittens on his hands and goggles protecting his eyes, his exhalations frosting the air around his mouth. He was journeying across the wide sweep of the Arctic and, like the scientists aboard the Polarstern, eager to take in whatever the land and sea deigned to offer him. Barry was not one to invest in answers. It was the questions that pulsed in his body and propelled him forward no matter where he traveled in the world.

But me – I had questions and I did want answers. How was I to make peace with my husband’s disappearance before he had actually disappeared? How was I to give up on a last chance to express what we meant to each other? I rolled toward him, careful to stay clear of ribs that exploded in pain with the slightest brush. He opened his eyes. He turned to look at me.

‘Barry, do you know who I am?’ I said.

He reached over to put his palm on my face. He said my name. He said, ‘Debra,’ and an ease filled me like honey. In the middle of lonely nights now, I try to remember the warmth of it in my arms and legs, the way it opened up in my belly. He wouldn’t say my name again; I wasn’t sure he would recognize me again. It was the last time we’d be alone. I would learn to live with that, because I had this memory now. For a beat of a few seconds there was no one but us, the two of us undisturbed in our marriage bed, floating on our distant sea.



Photographs courtesy of the author

Debra Gwartney

Debra Gwartney is the author of two memoirs, Live Through This and I Am a Stranger Here Myself. Her essay ‘Suffer Me to Pass’ was selected for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in western Oregon.

Photograph © John Clarke

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