For over two decades, we had an ongoing contest, my husband and I, over which of us would present the other with the best birthday, anniversary, Valentine, and Christmas cards. I won. Hands down. Every time. Even after he thought he was on to something when he discovered a Papyrus store at the Biltmore Fashion Park.
Naturally, some of our years shone brighter than others – they sparkle still – and browsing through dates and sentiments scrawled on cards saved in a drawer along with drawings by our girl, old polaroid pictures and postcards, business cards from my different jobs, I see our story unfold from beginning to end. Stranger than fiction, it shimmers with all you would expect from a page-turner. I’ll maybe write a story for you one day.
So when the anniversary card I had the hotel mail for me arrived from Ireland in my Arizona mailbox yesterday – too late in spite of my good intentions – I had to open it. Turning it over in my hands, the post-mark – 11.11.13 – brought to mind another anniversary – the second since my cancer diagnosis. There is no doubt that November is the cruelest month in this house.
Had I remembered what it was I’d written to my husband a week before, I might have left the card sealed in its envelope and put it in the pocket of the shirt on his dead body. But I had forgotten. When I scanned my handwriting on the inside of the card, I knew that, yes, I would have won again. He would have smiled, deadpan, at the last words he never got to read from me:
“See you 18th & I hope our next anniversary is without cancer, aneurysms, & dog shit.”
After our last dog, an over-anxious greyhound, Molly, my husband was adamant that we revert to being strictly “cat people,” but when our daughter rescued that tiny dog on a busy street a few weeks ago and immediately named him Edgar, he somehow relented.
How you feel after the death of a loved one is difficult to articulate. Is it too soon to say that I am still alive, that life is for the living and for finding new rituals? Maybe. Then again nobody knows what to say or do. There are no rules. It is a complicated business, and it is neither private nor simple. It is painful.
A good night’s sleep eludes me, and it feels a bit like I swallowed a sharp stone that has lodged in my very center. How I wish it would go away. But it’s early days. They tell me I am in a state of shock and to take one day at a time.
They tell me he is in a far better place now. Really? How could any place be better than in our dining room next month to light sixteen candles on my daughter’s birthday cake or in the audience to cheer our girl as she walks across the stage to receive her high school diploma less than two years from now?
How could any place be better than a ringside seat at all those milestones that bring pure and simple pleasure?
I have always been slow to stir on Sundays, in spite of the predictable sunshine breaking and entering through slats of closed window blinds and the sounds of my husband making a pot of coffee.
He always tried to do it quietly, but I was always awake and listening, enjoying the distinct sounds of newspaper pages turning, tiny showers of cereal falling in a bowl, slices of bread popping from the toaster, and tell-tale stifled chuckles from our daughter if she had successfully snagged the Sunday comics from the newspaper her dad had strategically arranged for reading.
Propped up against my pillows, I liked the outside interference too – the random arpeggios up and down, ringing gently from California wind-chimes that hang heavy and lower today from a Chilean mesquite tree that dominates our backyard; the distant rumble of a truck on an otherwise abandoned freeway; the plaintive coo of mourning doves, and the soft woof of a neighbor’s dog. Altogether it is a Sunday morning spell, cast just for me, selfish me, so I have to let it linger into the afternoon.
Workday mornings are different and will be different still when they resume. A little more hurried and harried by stupid thoughts of what and what not to wear, what needs to be turned in, last minute signatures on a permission slip, money for lunch, reminders to take vitamins and cancer medicine and maybe something to take the edge off and to have a great day. Just one more cup of coffee, a goodbye hug, a kiss, and a rushed and perhaps perfunctory “I-love-you-I-love-you-too-see-you-tonight-call-me.”
Before going to work for the past twenty-two years, I have counted on three things: 1. My husband blows me a kiss. 2. He flashes a peace sign. 3. He watches from the window until I disappear from view. These tiny, ordinary rituals made the perfect farewell. Fare well. Every day. So at the mortuary yesterday, my daughter and I gently unfolded his cold hands and created a sort of ‘V’ with two elegant fingers of his right hand.