I had always found Saturday afternoons to be the hardest.
Sunday afternoons were for cleaning and Saturday nights were for going out. Sunday nights you unwind and Friday nights you can grab a drink with a friend or see a movie.
The Saturday afternoons were what got me. I never knew what to do with them once I was alone.
Two days into October, and it felt as though there would be jack-o-lanterns decorating every door until the end of time itself. Kids ran by me in the drugstore to see what they could convince their parents to buy them from the candy aisle. Even I picked up a few bags of peanut M&M’s and tucked them in my basket next to the migraine medicine and the boxes of green tea.
The drugstore was an errand for Sunday mornings after church. Joseph and I had our own separate weekend errands for the twenty-three years we were together. I did church and the drugstore and Home Depot. He did the supermarket and the pet store and anything pertaining to the kids until the kids were grown and out of the house.
“Owen,” he’d say on Sunday nights as we were trying to remember what HBO show would start after the current one we were watching was over, “Why do you still go to church?”
There were many things at my husband’s disposal when it came to things that should bother him. I grind my teeth when I sleep so loudly I’ve been known to startle the dog. I have a quick temper. I burn about fifty-three percent of all the meals I attempt to make. I destroyed every sweater he ever loved.
In spite of all that, church was the hill upon which he always wanted to die.
“Listen to me one last time,” I said to him for what was never the last time, “I grew up with church. The same way you grew up with that idiot Gregory Natchez who now goes online and says lizards are running the government and people like you and me are the downfall of civilization. You still wave when you see him at the market and I still pop into church for an hour a week. I know you don’t think it’s the same, but I do, and that’s all there is to say about it. Now eat your burnt chicken before it gets cold--if that’s even possible.”
When I talk about Joseph now it’s difficult, because there’s the matter of tense. There are things he did, things I did, things we did, things it feels like we still do, I still do, he wanted to do, I liked to do, and we never got to do. I burn dinner. I still do that. He picked up dog food on Sunday’s. I do that now. He can’t.
I’m not one of those widowers who can’t let go, but I do find difficulty when it comes to what’s happening and what happened, which seems like it might have something to do with my grasp on reality, but it’s really just that as you get older, reality is a Cheshire Cat. You see parts of it everywhere, but you’re rarely lucky enough to catch the whole thing.
All signs pointed to me going first. I don’t eat right. I don’t get enough sleep. I’m mad constantly and my blood pressure is probably high enough to be studied by science. I am the one who should have fallen at the foot of a heart attack or a brain aneurysm or something sudden and unforeseen, except it wouldn’t be unforeseen, because something about me would seem to repel life. The only kids that like me are my kids and the only animals that like me are the ones who depend on me for food.
My husband, on the other hand, was a vegetable man. He was an exercise man. He drank water--lots of it. I’d always catch him drinking water. No human being who drinks that much water should die before the age of a hundred and five.
Erica, my eldest daughter, says that more people die when the seasons change. All her evidence for this is anecdotal, but it does seem as though we lose more folks in town between the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. It gets cold up in Rappashaw Valley earlier than it does in other parts of the state, and I think some bodies just decide they’d rather not go through another season of frost and staying in.
It’s just that my Joseph loved the winter. He’d make snowmen with the kids and cook chili on the stove for days and read out loud to himself even when I begged him to stop, because I have absolutely no interest in being afraid and all Joseph liked to read was Stephen King and true crime novels. I told him either he quit it or I was going to set aside my liberal values and start putting guns in every cupboard and drawer.
You see what I mean? I’m a lot to handle.
Always have been.
I was getting out of church when I saw Erica’s missed call. They talk in stories about your stomach dropping, but I think it drops in segments when the Big One hits. I felt the first part dropped when I saw the notification. A missed call. Erica doesn’t call. She texts. That girl would pass on answering a call from the Prince of Monaco then text him “What’s up?” a minute later.
“Erica,” I said as soon as she picked up, “Erica, what’s--?”
I heard the sob. From the gut. My daughter sobbing. I heard commotion in the background. Maybe there was no commotion. Maybe I put that in later the way they put music over movies. All I could think was that Joseph goes to see Erica every Sunday while I’m in church. They have coffee and she tells him all about how her latest boyfriend is a scumbag and then proceeds to keep dating him for another three years.
If something was wrong with Erica, Joseph would have called me. If something was wrong with one of our other two daughters, Joseph would have called me. If anything goes wrong, Joseph calls me. There is only one scenario in which something would be wrong and Joseph would not be calling.
That was September.
I made it through the month the way you walk through a swimming pool. All you notice is the resistance. How everything feels so hard, so immovable, and it’s just water. It should be natural. You should know how to do this. I buried both my parents. I buried my older sister after cancer and my aunt after a car accident and so many damn pets I doubt there’s any more room left in the backyard for another cardboard box or tiny coffin.
None of that mattered. The water let me pass, but only with great difficulty. I thought about stopping. I thought about laying down. I thought about the sensation of drowning.
People say “If it wasn’t for my kids,” but the grief wasn’t concerned with my kids. It wasn’t concerned with anything but the disintegration of my soul. Joseph wasn’t a mate. He wasn’t an addition to me. He was the working parts of everything that worked when I was at my best. With him, I was possible. Without him?
I felt like a power plant with nobody minding the control panel.
Soon, everything would go off the rails.
I knew how things were meant to go. I knew I was meant to go first. I knew Joseph would be a lovely widower. Sad, but pleasant. Discovering new hobbies and traveling the world. Scattering my ashes in lots of fun places. Endless cruises. Eventually he’d get married to some guy half his age--a respectable forty-one year-old maybe. My kids would like the new guy, and they’d admit, privately, to themselves, that their stepfather was actually nicer than their dead father had ever been. I’d either be up in Heaven flirting with Rock Hudson or haunting the heck out of the whole lot of them, but only in a funny kind of way. I’d mess with the stove and keep burning all of Joseph’s meals. Things like that.
Now, here I was. A living ghost. No fun party tricks to play and no interest in going on any damn cruise. The one, two, three of my routine was over, and October arrived fast only to settle in and refuse to get on with itself.
I did not want to spend the rest of my life living in October.
While I might have let the trappings of despair drag me into some kind of endless pit of sorrow if the month were July, I simply could not bear to lose myself while Spirit Halloween stores were popping up everywhere and the local cinemaplex was playing the nineteenth sequel in a horror franchise that’s been out since I was a teenager.
The only way was forward--even if the path was lit on either side only by the fires of remorse and regret, I would have to keep going down it.
If that last part sounds like poetry, it’s because I think my tenth grade Latin teacher might have forced me to memorize one too many sections of hellfire text from the Dark Ages and some of it never left my brain.
On a Saturday afternoon in October, I went to the supermarket and purchased whatever looked the hardest to burn. Then, I went to the pet store. Joseph and I were down to two dogs when he passed, but they were both very fond of him. I spent more money on gourmet dog food than anybody should ever spend on anything, but when I brought it home, and dumped it into a bowl, I could see both Froyo and Skip begrudgingly accepting that perhaps life with me and me alone wouldn’t be completely unbearable.
After they were fed and walked, I made my way over to Erica’s house. She looked startled when she answered the door. I had no idea what she did on Saturday afternoons, but I imagined it involving a hangover cure and a few episodes of the worst reality television show in history. Something featuring people locked in a house maybe, or middle-aged women arguing at a vineyard over whose plastic surgery looks the best.
“Dad,” she said, “Are you okay?”
I nodded and held up some muffins I’d made the night before--or at least the six or seven that were edible. The other twenty-six had gone straight into the compost pile.
“I know Pop used to come over on Sundays,” I said, referring to Joseph the way she did, I was “Dad” and he was “Pop” and there’s a reason I got the more formal title, “But I thought maybe you and I could do Saturday’s if that’s all right. It’s just that I--I don’t quite know what to do with the, um, with the--”
Before I could get the word out, she came down her steps and wrapped me up in a hug like the ones her father used to give. I used to tease him that hugging was for saps, and he’d just hug harder and for longer. I never knew that man to break a hug--not that I ever had any trouble breaking one myself.
Standing there with Erica though, I found I couldn’t break it.
I decided that I’d have to wait for her to let me go.