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Memoir of love, depression in New England raises haunting issues

EAST CORINTH, Vt. -- In February 2000, at age 67, Guy Waterman reached the grim goal he and his wife spent more than a year preparing for: He committed suicide by freezing to death in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

His death, like all suicides do, raised agonizing questions. In her new memoir, ''Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage," Laura Waterman looks to love for answers.

''In my life with Guy I had loved blindly, plunging wholeheartedly into this irrational, joyous, painful, perplexing territory we call love," she writes. ''I had taken love to extremes."

The two met climbing in 1969. Laura, in her late 20s, worked at a New York City publishing house. Seven years older, Guy had a résumé that included stints as a jazz pianist and political aide in Washington. Recently separated from his wife, he was living in New York and working as a speechwriter at General Electric.

The two were married in 1972. About a year later, they moved to a homestead they were building on a secluded spot just outside the village of East Corinth. Liberated from the grit and noise of city life, the couple lived simply, at a place without plumbing or electricity.

Laura Waterman fell deeply into his orbit. ''Immediately . . . I held Guy in some unspoken place beyond my ability to articulate," she writes.

Her depth of feeling helps explain how she was able to live for such a long time with the knowledge her husband was going to kill himself. In 1998, Guy Waterman tried to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff in the White Mountains. He pulled back in the final moments, but vowed to try again.

When he told his wife, she was shaken. ''It's as though a kitchen knife has slipped, the blade drawing itself across your fingers," she writes.

Rather than seek help or urge him to do so, Laura Waterman respected his wishes.

''If he really feels this way, we should plan for it," she wrote in her journal at the time. ''This is awful. Guy feels totally uninterested in life."

His detachment had earlier roots, but it worsened in 1981, when one of his sons, Johnny, disappeared while climbing in Alaska. Waterman came to understand that Johnny had set off with the intention of not coming back.

Thoughts of Johnny grew more painful when Waterman realized that another son, Bill, may also have died.

Laura Waterman writes that in 1981 a chasm opened in her marriage that she could not traverse.

Neither he nor his wife put a name to it, but Guy Waterman was lapsing into a deep depression. His penchant for minutiae was his way of keeping his inner demons at bay. Everything at the homestead where the two lived for almost 30 years was carefully planned, down to the number of blueberries he and his wife picked in the annual harvest.

While she recognized his turmoil, Laura Waterman stood on the sidelines, afraid to push her husband. ''I told myself that I could help him most by not adding to his pain," she writes.

Thoughts of the end loomed constantly in Waterman's mind in those final months with her husband, with each seasonal ritual -- sugaring, planting, chopping wood -- assuming a dark urgency.

But a new lucidity also accompanied this period of transition, she writes.

''He had been marked in this way for a long time," she said. ''But because he was so near the end now, and I knew how it was going to end, I could see more clearly how he had wrapped himself in an invisible cloak of isolation, pulling it tighter year by year."

''Losing the Garden" throws light on some unsettling questions, which Waterman addresses with admirable honesty.

''Through the journey of writing this book, I was at last able to answer for myself that burning question: How could I have supported my husband in his plan to commit suicide?"' she writes.

But instead of answering that directly, she asks more questions. ''If I had known then what I know now, could I have helped Guy? Could I have made a difference in the outcome?"

She goes on to describe a letter a friend wrote after Guy's death. The letter outlines qualities that made Waterman ''a tragic figure": a deep sense of personal responsibility and an inability to communicate with those closest to him.

Those words, Laura Waterman said, reassured her ''that some of us had come a long distance toward understanding this complex and intriguing man who had kept so much of himself beyond our reach."

On a voyage as personal as Laura Waterman's, perhaps this is all that matters. For the reader, however, the journey is far from over. ''Losing the Garden" raises uncomfortable questions about love, depression, growing old, and dying.

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