Sunday, June 2, 2019 • Short Stories
After She Was Gone
I paused from reading to watch her lying next to me. She lay on her side facing the open bedside window, outside another pleasant July evening turning down. She was wrapped in a thick duvet; her hair, once brown now gray, spread across the pillow. The shape of her snug under covers had not changed in 30 years—her small shoulders, the dip of her waist, the rise of her hips, and the long gentle descent to the foot of the bed. Our first son, if he woke from naps before her, would roll his toy cars up and down these slopes—the Tickle Mountains of Mommy, he called them. She’d wake up giggling.
I rested my hand upon her shoulder and felt the familiar warmth, the warmth she’d always had. She turned over, grimacing. “I’m sorry, dear. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“I wasn’t sleeping,” she said. After many years I’d learned her voice was smaller when coming from a pillow, but recently it had changed, become more tender. Her voice seemed to have fallen someplace I could not reach, like a coin fallen behind a dresser. Her eyes were the same, the color of cocoa powder, only now a thousand crinkles crowded them, the consequence of a thousand smiles given to a lifetime, some of which I’d been fortunate enough to receive.
“Should I get your medicine?” I moved to get out of bed, but she reached and touched my arm.
“No, please don’t. I’m fine. What are you reading?”
I lifted the paperback. “Travels with Charlie, by Mr. Steinbeck.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Would you read to me please?”
She moved closer and placed her head upon my chest; could feel her breath, slow and staggered, her slight frame counting to an uneven time.
Travels with Charlie was John Steinbeck’s road memoir. In 1960 the great novelist bought a camper truck and set out across America attempting to reconnect with the country he had spent his entire life writing about. He mostly found disappointment—times had changed and he was either too old, too stubborn, or both—and maybe he would have fallen into sentimental bitterness if not for his one companion, a blue poodle named Charlie.
We’d had three dogs over the span of our lives together. The last, a labrador named Benjamin who enjoyed chasing squirrels and breaking screen doors, left us seven years ago. He died older than the others and his loss was hard, perhaps most for our youngest daughter Pella. She had chosen him and raised him during her final years of primary school. When he passed, she took a 10-hour flight from Paris and buried him atop a mountain cliff in the Shawangunks. She went alone, and I remember thinking how alike her mother she was, having the strength to face tears in solitude. Once upon a time I had mistaken this trait for pride and strong will. Only later, after my own trials, did I recognize the immense beauty in crying alone. We never replaced Benjamin; now we had run out of time. Yes, she had always loved dogs.
So I read to her, while she lay on my chest and breathed. I read her the part about Steinbeck and Charlie entering Yellowstone National Park; about how Charlie, cheerfully sitting on the front seat as any respectable passenger would, spotted a grizzly bear alongside the road and suddenly went berserk, forgetting his good doggy manners. As the story unfolded she laughed. I cupped the sound of it, held it, wished it would leave a lasting imprint. This would someday end, I knew, and my memories of her laughter would rise like balloons into a fluffy sky, and I’d be left standing on my toes, grasping at their dangling strings. Why must all things float away?
Her arm twitched, a spasm before sleep, and I asked if we should stop. It was a moment before she responded.
“What will you do when I’m gone?” Her question came from the place of half dreams; hers or mine, one couldn’t be sure. Insects buzzed in the garden, and faintly, there was the sound of Brooklyn behind. Someone was playing an Etta James record. I didn’t speak for a long while; I supposed she was sleeping now.
“When you are gone, I will miss you. And then I will miss you some more. I’ll walk in our garden in the spring and see you in every flower that blooms. Butterflies will come, and the honey bees, and I’ll see you as they tumble through the air. At night in the summer I ‘ll sip chamomile tea at our little table under the cherry tree, listening for the crickets, looking for you in the moon. In the autumn I’ll take long walks in the woods and see you in the red and yellow leaves falling, and my hand will search for yours. And in the winter, when our children and grandchildren visit, I will see you in everything they do.
When you are gone, it will just be me and my memories. You won’t be there. There will be no more memories to make. I will miss you in every way and every place.”
Her hair smelled of lavender and lilac. I closed my eyes, tied another balloon. “Don’t go, dear. Please. Don’t go.”
She died on a Saturday. It’s Saturday and I love you, that’s what we used to say.
Friends surrounded our family. Many people came to the funeral, a cold wet morning in January. They filled the house. The entrance way was crowded with shoes; laces emptied their rain onto the rug. People ate food and smiled and spoke about good memories. They gave hugs. They tried. I am forever thankful. And then they went too.
My friends visited often in the following weeks. We sat in the living room in the afternoon. We talked about her. I should take a trip, they suggested. Do something fun. We watched football games on a television turned low. It was the playoffs. Something big was happening.
I lay in bed at night, waiting for the bathroom door to open, her freshly showered and her big goofy grin to appear. I slept with an arm over her pillow. In the morning I listened for her soft footfalls in the kitchen, and then hated myself for being so desperate, disgusted by my weakness. I walked in circles and looked out windows, but couldn’t find her. She was gone. Never again would I see her, and this thought was cruel. Unbearably unmercifully cruel.
The days went by and they were hard. But time began to soften some edges in me. So that one day I found myself sitting on a bench in the garden. The sun was so bright the shadows seemed green. Mint and thyme and daffodils and marigolds and daisies and hummingbirds and the soil black and all of it bursting. When had spring come? I plucked a dandelion and rolled it in my old wrinkled hands. There was me and the memory of her.
I quietly closed the book, placing Mr. Steinbeck and his puppy on the bedside table, and turned off the light. She snored softly against my chest, her slight weight rising and falling. She felt beautiful. As if a mountain could dream itself into a whisper. I was crying, I think.
“When you are gone, my world will vanish, and I’ll choke upon what I wanted it all to be. My every foundation will be torn up, leaving great chunks of life cast about. Everything will fall away and it will feel as if I’m out on some high bare precipice with no shelter, forgotten and lost and exposed. I’ll want to hide. I’ll feel my world ending. I’ll doubt who I am. I’ll lose who I thought I was. I’ll look for you everywhere, and find you nowhere. And one day, one day maybe I’ll stop. Something deeper will be set vibrating and I won’t know what it is. Later I might see that it comes from me.
When you are gone, I will learn to love you without you knowing. I will learn to cherish our time without getting lost back there. And, maybe, I will learn how to forget you. Oh, my beautiful love, please forgive me if I do. Because maybe in some way I must. With tears in my eyes, god, with tears in my eyes I’ll let you go…
I don’t know how long these things will take, just long enough. Maybe it will be like how winter fades to spring, how one day you’re walking in the park and are surprised to see new buds on the trees. And you catch yourself smiling, though you don’t know when the smile started? Maybe. Maybe, when you’re gone, it will be my joy that remembers you.
She shifted and coughed, and for a moment I thought she meant to return to her side of the bed. But she settled back against me. I could feel her smiling.
“You’re so dramatic,” she said. “I love you.”
And then I forgot what I was saying. When sleep finally took me, we were both smiling.