I’m alive as a gentle breeze that pulls strands of hair across her face and ruffles the flowers in her hands. I coax out the sun from behind a cloud and touch her softly on the shoulder. I want to tell her that everything will be okay, but I can’t - not anymore. So I settle for caressing her cheek with the wind.
I know my wife well enough to understand what it means when her lips press together and the creases form on her forehead. She’s ruminating again. She’s thinking back to the day when I doubled over in pain and staggered to the bathroom, when the toilet bowl turned red. She nearly crashed on the way to the hospital and just about carried me inside, but to her it wasn’t enough. She wishes she’d seen it earlier. She wishes she’d done more. For a moment I’m not a breeze but a gust that catches her tears as they fall. You did everything you could, love.
I’m alive in the smell of my car; I think it’s sweet that my mum’s been the only one driving it since I left. She hasn’t taken down the mint-scented air freshener that she always used to complain about. I'm still alive in the way she grips the steering wheel one-handed, and I’m the Darth Vader bobble-head on the dashboard that nods continuously as if the dark side approves of her self-incriminating thoughts. I’m there as rain pattering on the windows, and I'm the squeak of the wipers swatting it away.
She can’t bear the quiet so she flips on the radio. She thinks about the time months ago when I told her I was constipated and she was sure she knew best. Remember Grandma’s pumpkin soup recipe? That should do the trick, dear. Don’t waste your or the doctor’s time. She thinks about the homemade baby food she’d given me when I was born prematurely, and she wonders if breastfeeding me was a mistake. She worries if it happened because of the supplements she gave me in childhood. She wishes she’d asked why my weight was dropping, that she’d not assumed it was another one of my diet fads. She wishes she’d done more than feed me all of my favourite food so I would gain it all back. I try to shake Darth Vader’s head but the silly toy can only nod. It wasn’t your fault, mum.
I’m alive as the music blaring through the headphones I bought my son for his birthday. I’m the click of his mouse, the clack of his keyboard; I’m his memories of learning how to use a computer for the first time. I’m alive in his Facebook profile photo, standing proudly at his side when he won the junior science fair. I’m alive when he looks in the mirror and sees my crooked grin and my broad shoulders and, unfortunately, my ginger mop of hair.
He can’t look at himself anymore because his hair reminds him of how I lost all of mine. He’s still growing it out for charity and tells himself he’ll just know when it’s long enough, even though he reached his donation goal months ago. He stops going to the gym, since lifting weights reminds him of watching me waste away into nothing. By the end he could see the ribs jutting out from my chest and the shoulders he used to sit on as a child could hardly bear the weight of each breath. He stops drinking with his friends - from fear he’ll get drunk and throw up - because nothing was worse than watching me vomit after every miserable cycle of chemo. But I’m there as each strand of curly hair on his head. I’m part of you, son.
I’m alive when I hug my daughter through the teddy bear she holds close to her chest. I’m the Dad-sized stick-figure that she draws holding her little stick-figure hand. I’m still there on the other side when she has a nightmare and crawls into bed next to her mother, and I drop her off to kindergarten every morning even if she can’t see where I am. I’m the warmth of the fireplace, and the glow that fills the room, and I’m the voice that narrates We’re Going on a Bear Hunt! in her head, complete with sound effects.
My bright-eyed little girl is a silent child now. She was so thoughtful, so creative, always asking questions and yearning to know everything about everything. What’s cancer, Daddy? she’d asked; it had taken her months to understand the answer. A day finally came when she stood by my bed clutching her teddy, watching the final gasps of air rasp through my lips, and it dawned on her that cancer was the thing that took her Daddy away and made sure he would never come back. And no matter how many times she’s told that sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason and only because they’re unlucky, she decides that she can answer any question for herself if she just watches and waits. And so she keeps quiet. Be yourself again, honey.
I’m alive in the way my dog’s ears prick up when he hears a car drive past our house. I’m alive each time he waits by the door waiting for me to sweep in and rub behind his ears and ask him if he was a good boy today. I still run beside him on the beach and I still shield my face when he shakes off the water, even if I can’t feel it anymore. I’m there when he sleeps with his nose buried in my old hoodie. And I’m alive when he sits by my empty chair at the dining table where he used to ask me for scraps of roast beef. You’re such a good boy.
I’m alive in the cool evening air at my funeral; as alive as I’ve ever been. I’m alive because the people gathered there to celebrate my life, are my life. I’m alive in the words of everyone who tells stories about me, in every clap and every tear shed, and even in the casket that is lowered into the ground.
But I know what comes after is the most difficult part. So I kiss their heads with dying orange sunlight, and I comfort them with birdsong from overhead, and I promise them I’m still alive in the feeling deep inside that they need more time to understand. It will all be okay.