Last Two Years of the 20th Century

Bill Burkett
4 min readOct 6, 2023
Did a lot of firewood splitting under the looming threat of Y2K. Wikimedia Common image

Therapist Notes: 9/3–12/16,98: wife moved back in while pt away Baltimore. Used last his $ for trip. Working to maintain autonomy. Beginning to see reaction to criticism/control as learned from g/mother re “frivolous” spending. Wife assuming parent role. Slowly adjusting to her back in. PR job interview no callback. Pt correlates loss financial independence w loss personal power. Despondency up. Sleep erratic. Still in separate rooms w/o discussion what this means for future or sexual relations.

The last two years of the twentieth century after my wife moved back in are hard to write about. I’d lost every compass-point of reference. Like a sailor, his binnacle sunk full fathoms five beneath the cruel sea. My brain resists recall.

In fourth grade at Episcopal Day School they said I had “photographic” memory. I thought everyone remembered like I did. Just as my 20–10 farsightedness was how everybody saw. I didn’t trust those who pretended not to see clearly — or remember. Only years later, when unaided memory didn’t match old journal entries, did I see memory as malleable.

Nearing 76 years old, trying to conclude my Iliad, my stubborn blankness raised fears from when the matriarch “lost her mind” to Alzheimer’s, more terrifying to me than actual death. Trying to force recall raised my blood pressure. Migraines — long absent during my almost decade as an aging hermit living peacefully alone with my dog — returned. My brain dodged and weaved, and served up ancient trauma instead of what I tried to recall.

One such vivid memory came to mind with headlines about pedophile priests: a respected Episcopal priest “grooming” a teenage acolyte, me. My shameful erotic response to his caresses. The matriarch’s sole betrayal: refusing to believe me about a priest she revered. Taking my switchblade to church thereafter, determined to gut him if he ever cornered me again. As Trader Horn famously remarked to a vulnerable missionary in the eponymous movie: in case God has other business, take the gun. I quit going to church soon as I had my first job.

The SOB died well up in the Episcopal hierarchy, widely honored. I hoped it was an unpleasant death.

All of which amounts to creative avoidance of the last two years of the twentieth century. Psychogenic-amnesia researchers have said emotional trauma is a tsunami flooding the hippocampus. Maybe everything following in-law incest revelations while I was clinically depressed overwhelmed the part of my brain that organizes memory.

When memory fails, go to the record. From my shrink’s notes:

1/5–4/30,99 wife disclosed lump in breast, appropriate concern expressed, softening of tensions. Stress up for wife’s lump,but supportive. Saw the needle inserted in her breast for biopsy which brought pt/wife closer (proved negative.) Helped online friend prepare letter for insurance company/reversed unfavorable decision re husband’s heart attack coverage. Felt good re same.

The only national news I recall is the Y2K flap: pundits predicting power and natural-gas failure when computers got digital indigestion trying to switch centuries. Out behind our deck our son had piled surplus logs from his timber-mill job. Fearing power and natural-gas failure when the computers died, I chainsawed them to wood-stove lengths and split and stacked against Y2K Armageddon.

So out of shape I had to quit soon at first, but I kept at it. Gradually my strength came back. I tarped cord after cord against the rain. After daily ax and maul work I walked uptown to baseball diamonds. Even jogged base-paths. Couldn’t muster a sprint without a fielder trying to throw me out. But the exercise after hard work cleared my mind.

After the breast-cancer scare, my wife would come out to admire my woodpiles. Having read my writing for thirty years, I even showed her chapters of my new novel, and she said it was my best. A brief, poignant interlude of almost normalcy. But it was illusion.

The on-line friend alluded to by my shrink had been one of my seminar cyber-lovers, in her sixties but far younger than her invalid husband. A gifted boutique clothing designer, she made me perfectly fitting warm sweaters for hunting. But I wasn’t a hunter anymore.

The last duck season of the previous century, she attended a Northwest clothing-design convention to meet me in person. Supposedly gone duck-hunting, when she invited me up to her room I wondered what I was doing with this mature well-dressed stranger with perfectly coifed gray hair. I almost balked.

A hotel was a far cry from the virtual beach cabin we had invented for online trysts. I don’t even remember how we broke the ice. But we did. I was secretly astonished when she produced a black-lace crotch-less body stocking as an aid to seduction.

It worked, to my continued bemusement. She was a lonely horny woman trying to make sense of a world gone hostile with the near-death of her spouse. We shared a peaceful sexual weekend while she assured me we were hurting nobody; even her eighty-year-old mother approved of her visit…she could go back to her life as caregiver refreshed and content after her last hurrah.

If my life imploded, as it seemed destined to do, they had a hired-man’s room in their barn they had converted to textile weaving that I was welcome to occupy, no strings attached, no expectations…

Hard to believe that was really me. Almost impossible to recall my thoughts or emotions beyond the overall blankness that felt close to terminal — that my life was over.

A kind of sad gratitude for her compassion and sympathy, and a morose determination to make her last hurrah memorable. My previous conceit that trysts were a medicine for melancholy lodged in my self-mocking brain every time she pointed out something I did that made her feel special and appreciated.

What a piece of work I had become.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.