Beep! Beep! Beep! I rolled over and hit my alarm clock snooze button, sighing heavily. It was six am. I sighed and climbed out of bed, glancing at the empty space of where my husband used to lay. I fingered the ring that was still heavy on my finger and closed my eyes, wishing for the pain to go away. I turned my light on, blinking in the bright light. I listened with disinterest to the radio playing quietly on my alarm clock. They were talking about some sort of fire. I bit my lip and turned it off, blinking back another wave of tears. Unbuttoning my pajama shirt, I gazed in the mirror. What I saw wasn’t pretty. I saw a haggard, almost-forty-year-old woman with grey streaks in her fading red hair. Her eyes had dark circles under them, stained red from the crying she had done the night before. I looked nothing like myself. I wasn’t the woman that had married my husband fifteen years ago. I was a faded image. I blinked away the memories of the past fifteen years and dressed in my new uniform of a faded old plaid shirt and jeans, a messy bun, and glasses. Twisting my wedding ring one more time, I sighed heavily before assuming the role of mom. I opened my seven-year-old daughter’s room. She lay on her pillow, her beautiful, sweet face shut as she lay dreaming about all the wonderful things only a girl her age should have to worry about. She knew her daddy was gone, but she didn’t know what it really meant. My eyes watered again as I thought that he would never walk her down the aisle or dance with her at her wedding. I placed a hand on her thin shoulder and shook her gently. Her eyes, blue like Michael’s, blinked open sleepily. I gave her a sweet, motherly smile.
“Good morning, sweetheart. It’s time to get up for school.” I said, trying to convey cheerfulness when all I wanted to do was cry. She sat up and rubbed her eyes, blinking again as I turned on the light.
“Okay.” She said, her sweet voice sad. Today was the first day back to school since her father had passed. The thought made me take a deep breath and I gave her a brave smile.
“Get dressed, sweetie, and brush your teeth. I will start breakfast after I wake up your brother.” I murmured. She nodded and quietly went to her dresser. I had taught her to be independent and to dress herself when she was only three years old. After eighteen years of being told what to wear and how to act, I hadn’t wanted my daughter to have an overbearing mother like mine was, so Michael and I had decided to teach her to be independent early on. It wasn’t that I didn’t love her—I loved her with every ounce of my soul—but I wanted her to be strong. I watched quietly for a moment as she pulled out the embroidered jeans that we had gotten her a few months ago and a dark blue t-shirt. I smiled at her, but she was too busy brushing out her long, auburn hair. I turned away and went to wake up my son. When I opened his door, he was sitting up in his train-shaped bed, staring at the bedspread. His curly dark hair was wildly spread everywhere and I suppressed a grin and sat next to my boy.
“Jamie, sweetie? What is it?” I asked, my voice sickly sweet. I winced at the sound of my own voice as his eyes found mine, tears in them.
“Where’s daddy?” he asked. “I want daddy. Mommy, where is he?” he asked, a whine unmistakable in his little voice. I bit my lip and took his small delicate hands in my own. I told him that Michael had gone on a long trip and he wouldn’t be coming back for a long time. It was easier than trying to explain death to a four-year-old, but it still broke my heart when I had to repeat this. I took another shaky breath—today was going to be hard, I could tell. I repeated in a soothing voice that Daddy was on a long trip and he wouldn’t be home for a long, long time. I felt my thumb twisting my wedding band again—it had become a soothing gesture for me. Jamie pouted a little and his little lip puffed out grumpily.
“I still want daddy.” He grumbled. I tried to smooth his wild curls, but he ducked out from under my touch. I knew that he knew that something was going on. He was a smart little boy for his age. I smiled sadly at him.
“I know, sweetie. I do, too. But for now, you need to get ready for preschool.” I went through his drawers, but all his clothes were gone. I glanced towards the bucket in the corner of his room, seeing that I hadn’t done laundry in almost a week. I sighed, adding that to the mental list of things that I needed to do today. I bit my lip and went over to dig through the pile of dirty clothes, pulling a mostly clean pair of pants and a Buzz Lightyear shirt. I tried to smooth out the creases and pick away at a piece of dried food, but I sighed as I helped him get dressed in his dirty outfit. He let me help him put on his socks and stared at the wall behind me. I quietly tied his worn sneakers. I’d have to buy new ones soon. Jamie was a very active boy and his sneakers were only three months old. I blinked and remembered his excitement when Michael had taken him to buy the sneakers. Smiling at him, I smoothed his wild curls and told him to meet me downstairs while I gathered his backpack. Walking down the stairs, I passed the pictures that I had so carefully put on the wall throughout the years. I smiled wistfully at the most recent one. We had been at the beach with my best friend and her family for a week and she had snapped a picture of us all laughing, Jamie on Michael’s shoulders. I had one hand on Ruby’s shoulder and my other hand was wrapped up in Michael’s strong grip. His eyes were bright with laughter and we looked happy. I didn’t look as haggard as I did now. I touched the picture, missing him with every cell in my body. My heart screamed for him, but my sensible mind told me I had to push past the heartbreak and continue going down the stairs. As I placed Jamie’s backpack by the garage door, I watched as Ruby was helping her brother pour his cereal. I walked in and turned on the coffee maker, checking the time. We still had half an hour until I had to get them to school. I felt my pride surge for myself. I had managed to push through my pain and got my kids read for school. I knew it wouldn’t always be like this, but I still felt like I had accomplished something huge. It had only been a month since…since he left us. I still couldn’t even think of him as being dead without breaking down.
I watched as my kids finished their cereal and drank their juice, sipping the much-needed cup of coffee and nibbling on the breakfast bar I had unwrapped. My appetite still wasn’t how it used to be and I usually only ate the amount I needed for energy to get through the day.
“Okay, kiddos. Grab your things and I will get you to school!” I said cheerily. The put their bowls in the sink and Ruby washed them out quickly. I smiled appreciatively at her, as her eyes caught mine. She looked older beyond her seven years. “Thank you, sweetie.” I whispered, as she walked towards the garage, grabbing her backpack. I poured some coffee into a travel mug and rushed out the door, gripping my purse and keys. As I walked out to the garage, I tripped over some shoes. I cursed to myself as I bent down to toss them aside. I paused, shaken. They were Michael’s hiking boots. “Oh.” I whispered, bracing myself with my hand on the wall. I stared down at them, remembering our family hikes. We had loved hiking. We hiked so often in the spring and summer that it had become a family tradition to go hiking and then go to the small lake that was at the camping grounds. I snapped out of my reverie as I heard Ruby’s voice calling for me. I shook my head, and breathing steadily, I picked the boots up and placed them in the closet by the front door. I checked that the door was locked and I walked out to the garage. She had helped buckle her brother into his car seat. I smiled at her again in thanks and turned the radio on.
As I walked around the grocery store, I heard my phone ring. I glanced at the caller ID. It was my mother. I pursed my lips and ignored it, knowing exactly what she was going to say. I let it go to voicemail, then listened to it, my face still frowning.
“How dare you not answer my call, Emma? I’m just calling to see how you and the kids are! I do hope you are taking care of yourself. I wanted to remind you of my offer to take the children off your hands for a while, until you are feeling better…” And so on. It was always the same thing. Her offer was kind in its own way, but it came with the constant reminder that she thought I wasn’t good enough. I shook my head in frustration. I continued to listen to her long message. “I was speaking to my friends about your situation…” She said situation as if losing my husband was an inconvenience for everyone. “And my friend Lila also agrees that you should go seek counseling. I do not think you would be strong enough to take care of them now…” I hit erase, my temper flaring. As I grabbed two jugs of milk, I saw Michael’s friend, Alexander, come around the corner. I called his name and he looked over, his eyes wide. He pushed his cart over. He smiled tentatively at me. I knew why. The last time I had seen him, he had been telling me my husband had died. He had been with him. I hadn’t let him come to the funeral. After a month, I still had anger coursing through my veins, but it calmed me to see his best friend. They had been as inseparable as my own best friend and I had been. In fact, he had married her after meeting at our wedding, getting married almost exactly a year after us.
“Alex…” I muttered, biting my lip. His eyes ran over my appearance and he took a quick breath, waiting to be yelled at. The silence stretched until I said, “How are you and Ellie doing?” He relaxed with a small smile.
“She’s well. She missed you. You should call her soon.” He answered steadily. I swallowed. Ellie had taken her husband’s side in our argument, and while I knew she wanted to be there with me, we were both too proud to reconcile. My heart was still too broken and bitter. I saw him glance at my wedding ring. “Would…would you and the kids like to come over this weekend for dinner? I don’t…don’t think we should have our pride hinder us from healing together.” He added quickly, addressing the issue that made us so hesitant. Suddenly, I hugged him. He hugged me back, surprised.
“I’m sorry.” I said quietly into his shoulder. “He…he wouldn’t want us to stop being friends. I forgive you.” I said quietly. He drew back and smiled at me. “And we would love to come to dinner.” I added. His smile turned into a beam.
“Ellie will be thrilled. I should go finish getting the groceries. She’s on a business trip until Friday, so I have the Dad duty.” I winced at the words dad duty and he paused, trying to gauge my reaction. I looked at him after a moment and he smiled. “I’ll text you with the time?” I nodded. “Great.” We hugged again and he pushed his cart down the aisle. I watched him go, a thousand memories flooding through me. He and Michael laughing together, watching the game. Vacations, weddings, cookouts. They were as much a part of our family as Michael had been. I felt a little piece of my heart break all over again. I knew that I had to apologize to them both more fully this weekend. I continued to walk down the aisles, picking items for their lunches and simple items for dinner—pasta and chicken nuggets and mac n cheese. I paid the staggering amount of $150.94 and walked my cart to the car. After loading the groceries, I drove to the bank and deposited the check my parents had sent us every month since we got married. It was their only kind contribution to our family. They had never approved of our marriage. When I had called my mom for solace and to tell her the news, her immediate reaction had been relief, then she realized how broken I was. I shook my head. After driving home and putting the groceries away, I wandered upstairs and collected all the laundry around the house and started a load. I fell into the familiar task of vacuuming and dusting and wiping down the counters. When I got upstairs with the vacuum, I paused outside his office. I hadn’t been in here. I hadn’t let myself. I imagined the room, still not going in there. He had his own pictures of our family lined up in between the tall bookcases. His desk was in front of a large window, facing the backyard. Sometimes, when he was working at home, he would watch me playing with the kids outside his window and finish his call or email and come down to play with us. He had a huge collection of books, ranging from classics to biographies. I placed my hand on the handle and turned it. The effect was almost staggering.
“Oh, God.” I breathed out, my hands shaking. I had forgotten the smell. It smelled of books and his cologne. I propped the vacuum on the door and walked around the office, small tears falling down my face. The book he had been reading before the trip was still on his desk. It was Pride and Prejudice. I laughed aloud. He had always complained about the reputation of a book that had so much romance in it, but I had finally convinced him to read it. I picked it up and ran my hands over the cover. Swallowing back tears, I opened the cover, and to my surprise, a letter fell out. It was addressed to me. Shakily, I opened the letter.
My Dearest Emma,
You were right, as usual. This book is pretty incredible. Austen writes with a clarity that not many writers can recreate now. Her prose is interesting and poetic. My favorite line is “I must learn to be happier than I deserve,”. I think that, as blessed as I am with you, I get discontented with my life. You know, of course, that I have had a rough beginning to my life, Emmy. You and the kids…you all make me feel the contentment that I do not deserve. Every ounce of my soul makes me love you. I feel as if I do not tell you enough how much I love you. I don’t think will ever send you this letter, but I just needed to write it out. Even if I don’t send this letter, I want you to know that I will try harder to be loving. Damn, I’m getting teary-eyed. You make me sentimental, woman!
Anyways, I hope that you do know I love you, even if I do not always say it. You are the best think in my life, Emmy. You make every little mistake I have made seem small in comparison. Every harsh word I say to you, you forgive with a full, true heart. You are the epitome of beauty and grace. If anything, ever happens to me, know that I will always be watching over you and the kids. Be strong, my beautiful wife. I love you.
I sobbed in his chair as I read these words. I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. I felt as if…as if this was a gift that I couldn’t keep. Suddenly, I felt an irrational anger wash over me.
“Fuck you!” I screamed, throwing the book and letter across the room. “How could you leave me, Michael? Why did you have to leave? How could you? You promised forever! You promised!” I sobbed. Suddenly, in a rush of panic, I ran over to the letter and smoothed it out and clutched it to my chest. His last written words to me…I smiled weakly. He had always written me love letters after reading a book. I picked up the book and placed it on his desk where he had left it. IT seemed like it belonged there for now.
As the week passed, my children and I fell into a quiet routine. They got ready quickly every morning and I dropped them off at school. Then I did errands and cleaning. I read some books. I cooked dinner. On Thursday, Ellie texted me for the first time in months.
Hey, Emma. I heard from Alex that he invited you and the kids for dinner. I’m thrilled! I miss you! If you still can, could you come for dinner tomorrow at 6? I hope we can see you! <3
I texted back quickly, saying yes, we would come. I told the kids and they excitedly anticipated seeing their favorite adults. That night, I pulled out a nicer pair of jeans and styled my hair straight, rather than the messy bun I usually put it in. I knew it was only dinner with people I had known forever, but I felt as if I had to make up for my behavior in some way. Dressing up also made me feel better. I even did some light make up. When I helped Jamie get ready, he beamed at me.
“You look pretty, mama!” he announced in his cheery four-year-old voice. I chuckled at him and finished tying his shoes for him. I made a mental note that I had to teach him to tie them soon. Michael had been trying for a while now…but… I shook my head and told him to get in the car. Ruby wore her favorite skirt and smiled at me as I helped her put her hair into a ponytail. She leaned her head on my shoulder in a moment of affection and I smiled down at her in the mirror.
“I miss him, Mommy.” She said quietly. I took a deep breath and smiled weakly.
“I do too, Rubes.” I choked out. “We should go. Aunt Ellie and Uncle Alex will be so excited to see you!” I said.
I rang the doorbell, holding Jamie’s small hand as he wiggled in excitement. Ruby was bouncing in her shiny flats and she looked almost as excited as her brother. My heart pounded quickly and it sped up with Ellie opened the door. Her dark brown hair had been cut shoulder length and her eyes were bright with excitement. She hugged all of us tightly, though when she got to me, I could feel the hesitancy in the embrace. When we pulled away, her dark eyes searched mine. She bit her lip and I squeezed her hand.
“You’ve been so sad, Emma. I didn’t know.” She whispered, as our children ran forwards and hugged. I saw Alexander standing in the kitchen, looking as apprehensive as I felt. Ellie told our kids to play while they finished dinner.
“Hey, Alex.” I greeted, my voice betraying me. He glanced at me, chopping some tomatoes. He was a chef and he always cooked whenever we got together. He nodded at me once and smiled briefly. I glanced around the familiar kitchen. Echoes of Michael’s laughter swam around me and I found myself smiling. “I’ve missed this place.” I murmured, mostly to myself. Ellie heard me and she pursed her lips.
“So, why have you stayed away for a month?” she asked coolly. I took a deep breath and looked at her. She was never shy, even when we were kids. She always went straight to the heart of the problem. I glanced at Alex, who had gone white.
“Have some wine.” He said quickly, pulling out one of the wine glasses. He poured me a liberal amount of wine and handed it to me, our fingers brushing. I drank for a moment, the familiar sweet tartness washing over me. I would need this tonight. Ellie waited as I drank and the tension grew, stretching out into the kitchen. The place that so many good things had happened for us was now becoming a choking room. Suddenly, I felt tears spill down my cheeks.
“I stayed away because I was grieving, Ellie!” I burst out. “I was angry and confused and grieving! I know that I should in no way blame Alex for this, but I did at the time because I needed someone to blame! I…I c-can’t believe he’s gone.” I said, setting my glass on the counter and sinking into one of the stools. Ellie’s eyes softened and she took my hand in her perfectly manicured one. Alex stopped chopping tomatoes and he washed his hands quickly and placed a heavy hand on my shoulder.
“I-I miss him too, Emma. It happened so quickly. He…he was gone before the ambulance could even get there. Emma, he asked me to take care of you. That was his last request. He asked me to take care of you, and when you told me to get out…it broke my heart because I couldn’t give him the one thing he asked me for as he lay dying.” Alex had tears in the large brown eyes. Ellie placed her other hand on his broad shoulder and I sucked in a breath.
“Is there something you aren’t telling me?” I asked quietly. He shut his eyes, clearly warring with himself. Ellie was staring at the two of us.
“I am going to check on the kids. Alex, tell her the truth. Michael would want you to.” She said. I found myself twisting my ring again. Suddenly nervous, I gripped her hand.
“Ellie…please stay.” I breathed. She looked at me, her face fully softened, the hardness out of her eyes.
“This needs to come from Alex.” She said quietly, and she moved out of the kitchen. Alex stared after her, face pale and eyes nervous. I sat down at the stool and stared at him.
“What happened that weekend, Alex?” I asked. He stared at me, a strange expression on his face. Taking a deep breath, he lowered his eyes and spoke.
“You know how his father died, right?” he asked quietly. Frowning, I nodded. His father had died of a heart tumor at thirty, when Michael was only three. I didn’t know exactly what that had to do with my husband’s accident. “He didn’t want to worry you in the months before, Emma. He had been feeling tired and weak for about six months. He went to the doctors and they told him that his heart was failing and he wouldn’t have a lot of time to live.” I sucked in a breath.
“What?” I asked sharply. His eyes flashed up at me, dark and in the past. “He never told me.” I said, slightly angrily.
“I know.” He murmured. “I urged him to tell you, but he…he was adamant not to tell you. He told me all this that weekend. He had six months to live, and he was determined to make the most of them. He wanted me to take care of you. The crash…it was almost a blessing, he said, as he lay dying. He told me that he’d rather die quickly and suddenly, than to have you watch him waste away slowly.” My hand flew to my mouth. My heart was pounding, this new knowledge making my mind spin. I went back over the last seven months. He had been getting more and more tired, going to bed earlier each night. He had been more short tempered with the kids, and snippy with me. The weight of the secret must have been weighing on him. Tears filled my eyes and I shook my head in disbelief. My husband…the one person who I thought would always tell me the truth…he had kept something so monumental from me. How could he? I looked at Alex’s anguished face, his eyes begging me to understand.
“So, why couldn’t they save him?” I asked, my voice unrecognizable in my shock and anger. “At the hospital? OR the doctors? Why not a heart transplant, or surgery?” Alex moved closer and took my hand.
“They told him his heart was so damaged, Emma, that surgery or a transplant wouldn’t help. It was almost shredded. There was nothing they could do for him. He signed a DNR if he had a heart attack or collapsed. When they took him to the hospital after the accident, they tried to resuscitate him but they had to stop because of the DNR.” He shook his head sadly. “They said even if they were able to save him, his heart was too damaged to keep him alive for much longer. And he didn’t want to have to have you see him die.” He added quietly. I realized why Alex hadn’t been in the room with him, why he had been waiting for me. My husband wanted him to tell me everything, but I hadn’t given him the chance to. I had just assumed and blamed. I didn’t listen to anyone, just cried and screamed for him to come back. Tears fell down my cheeks.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye.” I whispered. My anger faded, replaced with grief and emptiness again. Somehow, this new information just made my heart break even more. I stood up abruptly. Alex looked surprised, but I spoke quickly. “I need to go drive and process. Can the kids stay here tonight?” Alex frowned, glancing at the wine bottle, half empty.
“Do you want me to go with you? Or Ellie?” he asked quietly. I shook my head.
“I need this. I need to process. Go ahead and eat, and I’ll be back in the morning.” I said, grabbing my purse and coat.
“Emma—” he started. Ellie came out, looking concerned.
“Emma? Alex?” she asked. “What’s going on?” She slid across the floor, her heels clicking annoyingly. She stood a few feet apart from her husband and crossed her arms.
“I need to go process!” I shouted. “I just found out that either way, I would have lost my husband! From heart failure or a fucking accident! It was just our luck that he died sooner, without being able to say goodbye!” I hissed, flinging open the door. They followed me, shouting at me to calm down. “No! I can’t! He was selfish and I’m going to tell him so!” Ellie grabbed my arm and I flung it away from her in sudden rage. “By God, Eleanor, if you don’t let me go kill my dead husband, I will do something I will regret.” I said, my voice unrecognizable. She dropped her hands and backed up one step.
“Just don’t do anything stupid, Emma.” She said quietly, as I got into my car. “Remember your kids. Remember your life, and everything you have still. Even if Michael is gone, he was still the love of your life and you still love him.” I stared at her, some anger fading slightly.
“I know.” I whispered. “I just need to go process and think. I’ll be safe, I promise.” She nodded and closed the door. I turned the ignition and drove blindly to the cemetery.
I stared at his tombstone.
HERE LIES MICHAEL JACOB GRANT
BELOVED HUSBAND, FATHER, AND FRIEND
JUNE 14, 1993- JANUARY 17, 2018
DEATH IS THE NEXT GREATEST ADVENTURE
Both fresh and dead flowers were arranged at the foot of his tombstone. A few candles and a picture of our family lay near it. In a sudden kick of rage, I kicked the picture.
“Fuck you, Michael!” I growled. “Was this what you wanted? Did you want me to hate you? Did you want me to be so broken, not knowing what was going on with you? What the heck did you expect? Did you just want to leave?” I shouted. “If you had died in bed next to me…or in a hospital…no! I wouldn’t be okay! I wouldn’t be okay! You got lucky, Grant! You got lucky that I didn’t find out how much you were keeping from me! And this fucking letter! Did you write this before or after you knew? Did you leave it for me to find after you were gone? Well, it sucks that you’re gone! I hate you for it! You didn’t let me in to the worst part of your life! And I started to notice! The weight of your secret? It was weighing on you! How could you not tell me?” I sank to my knees and wept. “You didn’t give me a chance to say goodbye, Michael. You didn’t let me tell you that I would be okay. You didn’t let your kids say goodbye, or your best friend. Or anyone. You just wanted to shield us from everything. You didn’t give us a chance to save you. Why did you give up? Why didn’t you fight? For us, your kids? Your life?” I sobbed.
I watched my beloved wife weep in front of my tombstone. Her face was so sad. She didn’t look like my Emma. Love surged through my heart and I tried to reach out to touch her. The truth was that I gave up because I didn’t know how to fight. Dad didn’t fight, so I didn’t know how to fight either. I knew that I would tell Emma eventually, when I knew I was weaker. At first, when the truck came, I was relieved. I knew that it would be better to die without all the pain of a goodbye, so I didn’t swerve when the truck came. I let it hit me. I took the decision away from Alex and Emma and my mother. I wished suddenly that I could tell her all this. I needed her to understand.
“Emma! I’m so, so sorry. I want you to know that I love you and if I could take your pain away, I would. Please, please forgive me. I didn’t want you to know until the end. I wanted to say goodbye, Emma. I wanted to give you closure. Damn it, Emma! I’m sorry!” I said aloud. She looked up at my tombstone and her beautiful eyes were sadder than I had ever seen them. I shook my head in frustration, wishing that I could see her smile again. She stood up and brushed her hand on my stone.
“I really do miss oyu, Michael. I know that you did what you thought was right. I will always love you.” She said shakily. She picked up the picture frame and the smallest smile appeared on her face.
“I love you too, my sweet Emma.” I breathed, knowing she couldn’t hear me.
As I left the tombstone, feeling slightly dizzy and emotionally exhausted, but also better somehow for getting everything out, I realized I really did understand. He didn’t want to cause me pain of watching him suffer. I smiled as the moon peeked out behind the clouds. Moonlight was our favorite thing. We had kissed in the moonlight for the first time. I closed my eyes and remembered. We had been walking along the park pond after the first dinner. We had been friends for two years before he had the courage to ask me out, and I had immediately said yes. He was handsome and smart. He made me laugh and our conversations were never lacking in stimulation. Our dinner was nice and he had offered to walk with me along the pond. He had slipped his hand into mine, and I had let him. We had paused and looked out at the water when the moon peeked behind the clouds, like it was doing now, and kissed me. I smiled wistfully and shuffled to the car. Even if he was gone, I would always have the memories we shared, and the kids. I hoped that would be enough. Twisting my wedding ring, I put the car in drive and drove home to my best friends and my children, knowing I would be okay as long as I had them…and my memories of Michael.