“Just be careful, she’s fragile” I cautioned Austin as he scooped up the tiny bird from inside the cage. Just then I began to cry. They weren’t big crocodile tears or anything like that; they were the soft tears of sadness and loss that come at the most unexpected times. Somehow though, they are comforting. It was good to know that I still had the ability to cry I guess. For some time I’d thought I had lost it forever. I turned my face to the window while Austin, his warm leg pressed up against mine, sat on the floor holding the parakeet his Aunt Jane had brought him.
“Life is fragile” the strangely dressed woman from the funeral home had said as she gave me a strong arm hug that took my breath away. I was so tired that day. Tired of being hugged, tired of people asking me if I was okay, tired of smiling bravely, tired of listening to Austin whine about every little thing. I’d just wanted to go home and lay across our bed. It wasn’t until later as I’d searched the crowd for my wayward child that I’d stopped to wonder who that woman had been. It was only a fleeting thought however because at that very moment I had spotted Austin popping out from underneath the ornate brocade wall hanging directly across from the entrance to the room where we were all gathered. I could see his hands were covered with something, chocolate as I’d learned moments later, so I ran into the entryway and whisked him off to the ladies room to clean him up.
On the way I saw my mother and my sister sitting in chairs outside talking with a young man I recognized as a family member only because he looked like my Uncle Ernest. I remember I had this sudden overwhelming rage come over me, directed at them, but it dispersed just as quickly as it had come upon me. “How can they just sit there, smoking and talking, while my husband is lying there?” I thought as I’d squeezed Austin tightly to stop him from squirming and pushed the heavy wooden door open with my backside.
“Mommy you’re HURTING ME!” Austin cried out as the door closed behind us. I immediately released him and he uncharacteristically headed right for the sink and began to attempt to wash the chocolate off his hands by himself. My head lowered so my chin was resting on my chest and I just sat there taking deep breaths until the anger subsided and I was able to function again.
I’d stood up and helped Austin with his ablutions and we’d walked out together hand in hand to the waiting arms of our friends and family. Someone had taken Austin off to play with his cousins in an anteroom and I had gone back into the room to sit beside my husband, absently brushing my hand over the gorgeous mahogany casket and waiting for the next drove of well-wishers.
“That was the longest day of my life” I thought as I brushed away the tears with a sleeve from the shirt I had been attempting to fold. Looking down at Austin sitting there with the bird gently cradled in his pudgy little hands I felt a sense of peace I hadn’t had since before John’s passing. I gave Austin a two minute warning, reminding him that Aunt Jane had said until his wings are clipped we shouldn’t allow him out of the cage for too long. Austin nodded his head somberly and put his hands up for me to take the bird and put him back in the cage. “She’s tired now Mom” Austin said with a yawn, his eyelids drooping over his warm brown eyes. “I’m sure she is Austin, you have worn her out today!” I said with more bravado than I felt. It seemed forced and shriekingly obvious but Austin was too tired to respond.
I put the parakeet back in the cage and picked Austin up to carry him into the master bath. I had already filled the tub with his plastic toys and put the water just the way he’d liked it. He stood quietly and drowsily while I pulled off his clothing and lowered him into the tub. Bath time was one of our rituals and these rituals helped us through our day. Frankly, I don’t even know if Austin was aware of them but they were a lifeline for me. If I didn’t have him I think I’d probably have just spent the rest of my life in bed eating pizza and staring fixedly at nothing on the TV as I pumped the remote like a video game controller.
I made ambitious lists every night of the things I expected to accomplish the next day. Generally I accomplished about a quarter of them. It wasn’t that the lists were insurmountable, it was just that they required me in some cases to change out of my scruffy t shirt and John’s sweatpants and leave the house and that was just not something I was ready for yet. Three times a week at 10:45 my sister Rachel came to pick up Austin and take him to the Day Care Center where she worked part time. He loved his Aunt Rachel and it gave him something to occupy his time other than spend it with his unexciting mother.
Austin laughed his baby laugh as I distractedly poured a yellow plastic bowl full of water over his little blonde head. The errant curls that he had inherited from John (they were the bane of his existence) flattened out with the water and nearly covered Austin’s eyes. “Time for a trim” I thought for probably the seventh day in a row. It was on the list.
I finished off Austin’s bath, letting him play with his toy boats for a few minutes before wrapping him in the big fluffy blanket he called his “burpee”. He refused to allow me to use a towel so my mother, being the smart woman she is, had made him a huge terrycloth blanket with a picture of a frog on it. Austin’s sound for frogs was “burpee”, hence the name.
We pulled his pajamas on and tucked him into his toddler bed with the usual promises. “Sweet love little man” I crooned as I buried my nose in his Johnson’s Baby Shampoo smelling neck and gave him loud obnoxious kisses that made him giggle and wiggle under his covers. I pulled the burpee out and put it just so at the end of his bed so if he woke up in the middle of the night he could grab it. We sang a made up song about lambs and light bulbs and then we recited our letters all the way to “k” and our numbers all the way to “12”. Austin showed me how he could make a split bubble (oh joy) just like Crandall from his Day Care class and I chuckled and told him that he MUST show that to Grandma Perry the very next time he saw her! Austin laughed right along with me although I doubt he got the joke.
Nighty night ritual over, I turned on the nightlight and turned off the overhead lights, closing the door halfway behind me. All the way down the hall I could hear Austin singing softly to himself, “first little piggy then second little piggy …” as he fought sleep. It’s funny how that works. Austin couldn’t stand going to sleep, afraid that he might miss something. He was always up at the crack of dawn raring to go. “Mom I’m hungry!” he would whisper in my ear as he attempted to pry my eyes open with his chubby little fingers. I, on the other hand, wanted to sleep all day. Where do they get the energy from? Where can I get me some of that? Oh … wait … I don’t want any.
I pulled off my own grungy clothes that I’d been schlubbing around in for two days and stepped into the shower, kicking the plastic toys out of the way. I stood under the warming spray allowing it to hit my face and flow down my body, my eyes closed, my fists clenched, my body full of electrical impulses all telling me to “STOP THAT! Put on your fuzzy jammies and get back into bed this instant!” I fought the urge to sit down on the edge of the tub to finish my shower. On auto pilot now I washed my hair and my body as quickly and efficiently as possible. “I should shave my legs” I thought as I bent to run the loofa of body wash over them. “It’s on the list” I heard John say with a chuckle in my head.
Yes, he spoke to me. Well, mostly he laughed at me but after all that’s what he did when he was physically here so why not? John was a big burly brown eyed handsome man with a beer gut and a five o’clock shadow at eight in the morning. The day I met him I had just walked out of my apartment and was late for an appointment. I had walked under a ladder and, glancing up and back, I had carefully and superstitiously re-traced my steps and walked around the ladder instead. As I moved around it to the front entrance of my building, I heard a huge bellow of a laugh above my head. I looked up startled and found myself staring into the most beguiling face I had ever seen. I had never believed in love at first sight before. Then I met John.
After weeks of badgering, bordering on stalking I might add, I finally agreed to go out with this big silly man with arms the size of small children. He scared me to death but he also made me feel very girly and slight. This was not easy for me, a woman who tipped the scales at the very least thirty pounds over her ideal. I was also tall, almost five foot nine but John’s six foot four was more than sufficient compensation for this. I found myself walking straighter when I was with him on dates.
He was extremely charming and never met a stranger. Everywhere he took me he seemed to know someone and they always wanted him to tell them a joke. John was a handyman extraordinaire during the day but at night he fancied himself an amateur comedian. He wasn’t really that good at telling jokes or stories but the earnestness in the telling was what put him over the top. He loved to make people laugh; he told me once that to hear people laugh made him smile but to know that he was the reason filled his soul. Yeah, I know, how could I not fall in love and have babies with this man?
Well that is exactly what we did. Nearly nine months to the day we met I married my big John in a small ceremony at my father and step-mother’s house in their gorgeous arboretum. I promised to love, honor and cherish until death do us part. I said that. Why did I say that? How could I have stood there giggling like a high school girl, knees knocking together, having to pee so bad I was shivering and say “’til death do us part”? How could I not know how serious that statement was?
I wonder though, had I known that I would lose my husband a scant four years later would I have gone through with it? Had I gone to a psychic (don’t scoff you don’t really know if they’re real or not do you?) and she had told me that John was going to fall off of a scaffolding and, after fighting for his life for more than a week, leave me and his little mini me behind would I have gone through with it? In the worst of times I think “Hell NO!” but then I remember him … and us.
I remember our first date when he fumbled in his pocket for his money clip so he could run to the flower market down the street from the restaurant and buy me a rose. I remember the time we went on the swan boats and my big John looked so exceedingly ridiculous in this delicate little vessel that some Asian tourists asked if they could take his photograph as they laughed their heads off in the boat next to us. I remember when he fell off a retaining wall trying to take a picture of a baby bird’s nest for my sister Rachel. He had sustained only minor injuries he explained later as I wincingly treated his abrasions with Bactine. I remember the night he proposed. We had gone to my mother’s house for dinner and the whole family was there. I was so annoyed because I had wanted to stay home and watch movies but he had insisted. He had been arranging it for weeks and finally, after he had assembled everyone in the living room, he took my hand and sat me down on the couch with my sour puss and asked me on his knees to please be his wife. I know, who could resist? Yeah I would have married him anyway. One day with my big John was worth more than a lifetime without him.
The day he passed away I was feeling restless and irritable. They had told us that the fall had caused irreparable damage but John was just so strong and body healthy that he just wasn’t ready to give it up yet. If you’ve never gone through this I hope you never have to because there is nothing more horrible or greedy or gut wrenchingly painful than watching someone that you love suffer and praying alternately and just as vehemently that he would just stay alive a little while longer and that he would relax and let himself go. The moment it happens and you realize it, which sometimes takes a while, there is this sense of shame for the relief you feel and then overwhelming sadness for the loss and it’s all entangled together and it makes your heart hurt and your extremities numb and your eyes burn and …. well you get the picture.
I sat there for a while and just stared at his chest, willing it to move until finally someone came to check on him. I don’t remember her, she was only a shadow but apparently she took my hand and sat with me for a while. I didn’t weep. That is the oddest part for me because I am a cryer, I cry at every little thing yet, here I was sitting next to the bed in the hospital where my husband had just died and I didn’t cry. I felt like I had been hit by a freight train, this I remember. I remember shaking off the shadow’s hand and laying my arms and head over the big arm of my Big John. I remember at some point someone injecting something into my arm and then I remember seeing a halo of light around the shadow as she left the room pushing a table she’d pulled from somewhere.
The next memory I have is sitting in the waiting room with my father and my step-mother. My mother was upstairs giving the nurses brownies or flowers or something and I could not have cared less. That was the first time I remember feeling that overall numbness that I still feel now, three months later. It comes and goes now but then, it was there all the time. I hadn’t cried yet, at least I don’t think I had, I don’t remember leaving John’s side. My father’s papery hand was holding my right hand and my step mother had her arm around my back stroking my hair and crooning “there, theres” and “it’ll be okays” while watching the door for my mother’s re-entrance. I wanted to cry or beat my chest or scream at the top of my lungs or keen like I’d seen a mother from some Latin American country do on TV or hit something or someone. I didn’t do any of those things.
I looked at my father who looked back at me with his rheumy grayish eyes and I asked him where Austin was. “Rachel has him honey” Daddy said as he squeezed my hand and shifted in his seat toward me. I said “Oh okay” and then promptly threw up all over the floor in front of us. I have no idea why, I just did it. The thing is though, it felt good. That is messed up right? “Wow what a fruitcake” you must be thinking right now right? Yeah, it’s okay, me too.
Here’s the thing though. Don’t judge anyone until you’ve walked in their shoes. Everyone deals with loss differently and that’s how I guess my mind thought I needed to do it. Throwing up on the lobby floor of that hospital opened up the proverbial Pandora’s Box. My step-mother was trying to clean me up with a handkerchief my father had given her, my father was off searching for someone to help us, my mother appeared from nowhere and hustled me off to a family restroom located right off the lobby and through it all I cried. No, I didn’t just cry, I heaved and wailed and moaned and tore at my hair and clothes and lost my breath. The tears and snot and anger and resentment and sadness all just came pouring out of me with a vengeance and I just gave into it and let it overtake me. My mother just stood there over me, her hands lying gently on my shoulders, and let me go. I don’t know how long we were there but when I finally stopped crying and she helped me out to her car, my father and step mother were gone and we drove home in silence.
I spent the first week at my mom’s house, Austin in the bed next to me in the spare bedroom and Rachel in the next room. The three of us had not been under the same roof for more than ten years. It was comforting to know that they were there although they kept their distance. Were it not for them, Austin would not have been fed or taken care of that first week. I was a mess of nerves. My parents and my sister walked me through the awful process of burying a loved one. I don’t remember much of it but I know I was asked a lot of questions I did not know the answers to.
It “went off without a hitch” as they say. The wake and the funeral were lovely and everyone was wonderful and I had enough food to feed an army at my house. I was giving it away to people in the streets! “Here have some muffins, no no it’s okay I have seventy four more just like them!” I would say to the UPS Delivery driver. “I know your wife will love this casserole! Take it take it!” I said as I forced the mailman to take one of the foil tins. “Mangia! Mangia”! I said to the Italian caretaker for the common grounds behind our house as I forced him to sit on my patio and eat until he begged for mercy.
Eventually the food stock became more manageable as I gave it away either to friends or to the trash. Some of it was still in my freezer I guess but I really didn’t know for sure. Austin eats at Mom’s house on Day Care days and then Rachel brings him back to me after dinner. Mostly on non-Day Care Days he eats hot dogs or spaghetti or something easy to fix. Me? Oh I don’t eat. Well, okay I do eat but mostly it’s just the absentminded hand to bowl, hand to mouth snacking like Cheez Its. I drink coffee, lots and lots of it, but it never wakes me up. I’m in this haze and I stay there pretty much all the time. I take care of Austin, don’t get me wrong. He is what is keeping me going until I can figure all of this out. Eventually that is going to have to happen, the figure out part I mean. I can’t live in this house without him so I have to sell it.
Anyway, I’m going to go make my list now and then go to sleep. Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow I will finish my list.