His hair felt fine as he slid his face through his palms, before resting his forehead on the cold stone counter of the bathroom sink.
"This is stupid," he murmured inaudibly under the heavy fan, left on to conceal his shame from the visitors who invaded the halls of his home.
As he lifted his gaze to the shell of a man in the mirror, dried toothpaste pulled at his skin of his forehead leaving a pinch of disgust in his stomach.
"They will never know you."
Rising to his feet, he paused with one knee on the ground. Struck by his body reminding him of the only memory that mattered in that position. A sigh left his lungs as he compared the ugliness of the image before him, to the euphoric joy that spread across her face, a product of his kneeling. The intrusive vision from the past, was little more than a calling card from the robber of joy.
After his final push to his feet, he final saw how pathetic he looked. His eyes red and swollen, his beard unkept, his mouth sagging, and his hair disheveled. His broken appearance reminding him of the task before him. Shaking his head, he drew deep heavy breaths to focus his thoughts.
“The greatest woman that God graced us with; he has now called home,” He began. “She walked this earth for 32 years spreading her compassion and peace to every corner she could reach. Her love for travel...”
He hesitated and reached for the notepad and pen stored in his pocket. Nothing he could say would be enough to honor her memory, and he felt defeated with his cleaver attempts to use words to capture the woman who brought meaning to the man he is.
“…Her undaunted love for travel” He murmured softly as he scribbled the addition into his pad.
The words blurred as the tears came, and like a dam breaking after the first streams trickle through, heavy sobs followed. He tried with all his might to just stop the pressure building in his heart but no amount of strength would win this battle. The agony of her absence was unrelenting as it stabbed his chest, he didn’t even realize he fell to the floor. Worse was the ruthless shame that kicked him in the fetal position. The once trusted ally of his mind became treasonous under the torture of his heart. His thoughts started by conceding the truth that she should have lived while he should have died. The thoughts had twisted to the distorted vision that her grave should be his too when the knock came.
The reality that he wasn’t alone, saved him from his despair. Quickly wiping the tears from his eyes, he stood, and pulled his shirt tight to conceal any evidence of with writhing pity he had just bathed in.
Opening the door, he saw his sister’s pale face. She had insisted on staying since the grief had first visited his home. The solemness in her face indicated she had guessed what had occurred.
So much for the fan drowning out the noise. He mused to himself with the bitter hopelessness of his past torment still residual in his mind.
He couldn’t hear his sister’s words as thoughts still ruminated in his skull. He could guess by her gestures she was asking if he was ok. So he faked a smile and nodded as her hand rubbed against his shoulder. Numbness had spread from his heart like a contagion so he couldn’t feel her touch, but saw her arm enough to know where it landed.
“We are about to start a movie; you should join us” Her words finally becoming clearer through the hum in his ears.
“Yeah, as long as it’s a comedy, I could use a laugh.” He responded while feigning optimism he was certain would never return to his heart.
Her face hardened, and he knew her 23 years of experience as his sibling had taught her to know his lies. She didn’t say anything to indicate otherwise; probably to respect his desire to suffer alone.
“I’ll be down in a minute, why don’t you pop some snacks for us while I get into some PJ’s.”
She flashed him a smile as fake as his, as she strode downstairs. When she was out of sight, he let out a sigh for the hundredth time and silently slid into his plaid pajama’s. While his mind was anything but silent. His thoughts were like ravens beating their wings circling their prey, cawing to one another about the treasure they found. Their prey being the priceless idea that snuck into his mental fortress when the bathroom rug was the only thing that understood him.
Walking down the stairs he saw his father sipping another bottle. He was the one man who could possibly relate to the pain of becoming a shattered half, after losing a loved one. However, his father only saw the rescuer from his own sorrow, every time the rim of the glass tipped to the heavens. Not even a grunt was shared as the two sat on the couch with their faces illuminated by the blue light of the TV, and periodic popping from the kitchen echoing behind them.
“You picked a great one,” he hollered at his sister, as he heard her footsteps.
She responded to a man on autopilot. He only heard every other word she shared and gave responses that were semi-thought out, as half of his attention was preoccupied by the anticipation of a higher idea. Laughs were painfully forced to maintain the façade, but with time eventually the movie ended.
“Thanks for that, I think I needed a good belly laugh.” He lied with a smile, to the woman who held second place in his heart.
“I’m just glad I could be here for you big bro,” She responded with the pride of supporting a man she looked up to her whole life.
“We should make it a habit. Like a weekly movie night.” Hiding his pain from her was being to wear on his soul, and he had to be careful not to lay his lies too thick.
“I agree! Well, I’ll clean up.”
“Nah, leave it it’s a good distraction for me…” He hesitated for his next request. “Why don’t you go home with dad tonight? He has torn through two 6-packs and probably shouldn’t drive.”
Her head cocked in confused by his question. She had stayed in his home for the last week and it felt to soon to leave, the funeral was two days away. It didn’t make sense to leave now.
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate our time together sis… I just need to get use to being alone…” His voice dropped as the sting of a life of isolation pained his heart.
“You won’t have to be alone” she responded before he could finish.
The second sting came from knowing she was unaware of how right she was.
After answering a few more of her questions, he was able to wrongly convince her that her concerns were unwarranted and that he would be fine. He helped her gather her things and made his best attempts to make her laugh. He brought up memories of their youth and teased her about her first boyfriend. Their time together was shorter than either wished for, and eventually they both stood at opposite sides of a threshold.
“Take care of dad, he really needs you.” He gestured at the car behind her with the shadow of an old man unconscious to the pain in hearts of the children he brought into this world.
“Yeah, He will be alright. It’s you I am worried about. Are you sure that you’re ok? I can come back after I get him home.”
“No I am ok, err at least I am headed to a better place I can feel it.” He told her in a half truth.
Before she had too much time to think about his last statement, he embraced her. Pulling her closer he could feel the coldness of the night air causing her to shiver. If he waited to long, he would rescue her from the chill of the drive home. Instead, he took a moment to breath in the scent of her hair before saying:
“I love you”
He let go as she turned to the car saying “I’ll see you tomorrow, we can get breakfast.”
As she walked away, the thought of how her choice of words would haunt her for years, pierced his mind.
“I said I love you,” he playfully baited her.
She groaned and turned to face him.
“I love you too,” she responded with all of the sassiness of a 14-year-old school girl.
“Say it like you mean it…” He smiled knowing the bait worked.
“I love you”
Quietness filled the open doorway long after the words had been said. As he stood there soaking in the light of her final words. His heartbeat slowed. Slowed to the calm rhythmic thump of a resolute drum. A flash of the day the woman he lost, meet the woman he just bid farewell broke into his mind. Pain washed the memory away and despair remained. He walked inside shutting the door to what he was leaving on the other side.
Slowly he scurried over his home, putting his affairs in order. He had seen death up close, and his body would not be found by the people who visited this home. However, he didn’t want to leave behind a mess. After his house was put together, the final step was to say good-bye. The simple message ‘I’m with her’ would clearly and concisely share what had occurred. He reached for the notepad and pen stored in his pocket, only to find it empty.
He stood at the entry of the bathroom looking down at the notepad resting on the floor. The memory of his shell of a body curled in the fetal position caused him to pause, but not long enough to break his commitment. He knelt to reach for the paper that would finalize his plan. A second time kneeling caused his brain to spark and recall memories. These memories came clearer than before and he felt the joy her face mirrored, and his proposal echoed in his ears.
“I will love you forever,” He spoke the words aloud to himself, as he looked down on the ink ring permanently embedded beneath his skin. A reminder of his commitment to her.
“I will love you forever” He repeated the words a second time with a heart that had softened.
“and I will love you longer…” A response came as a whisper of her voice.
His head spun around looking at the ceiling behind him. He questioned whether the voice was a memory, or if someone was talking with him. The fan still humming, disoriented where the whisper was coming from. He rose to his feet and shut off irritating buzz that masked her sound.
“Hello?” He called out with apprehension as he entered the hallway.
When no response came, he hung his head, criticizing his foolish hope that the grave had been conquered. With his neck craned, his eyes locked with a pair of green marbles that stared back at him, questioning his sanity.
“Loaf… Lets get you some din din” He grunted through strained teeth as he attempted to lift the large tabby from the ground.
“If you love me, you have to love him,” her voice licked at the back of his ear in the form of a whisper.
A grin came to his face at her frequent ultimatum, to his reaction of living with a cat. He turned to meet his lips with the mouth the whisper came from, only find his gaze looking down an empty hallway. In his defeat at believing in miracles a second time, he dropped the overweight animal.
“He is not overweight he is big boned” The sound of her whisper moving this time.
He chased after the whisper which led him down the stairs to an empty living room. He honed his ears, straining to hear the delicious sound that he had thought he lost forever. No whisper came, but the faint sound of scratching against the cabinet reminded him of his duty to the feline left behind.
As he filled the cat’s empty bowl, the delightful hum of purring filled the air. He turned to face the singing 'waste-of-fur', with a smile he hadn’t believed he had in him. Looking at the animal he remembered how much she loved them both. As the animal rubbed its body against the faucet he noticed a picture of the girl he helped raise, carefully hung inches above the humming beast.
“You will have to give her away on her wedding.” The whisper repeating words said during the drive home after a double date.
The whisper conjured all the responsibilities of a big brother. He gazed at the picture thinking about his sister’s potential and the losses she never deserved to have. His trance was broken by the whines of a full belly begging to held. He placed the cat over his shoulder and wandered upstairs, contemplating the events of the night. He followed his feet to the place he laid his head to rest. Once there he walked to the side of the bed that would forever be empty and laid the cat peacefully on a pillow.
Standing opposite his side of the bed a strange compulsion to open her nightstand took over him. Inside was a memory box, she kept to remind herself of all she valued. He had never seen the inside of the box, out of respect for what she held sacred, but the impulse couldn’t be contained. He gently opened the box, and a sense of ease entered his heart. He felt grateful to see every part of her. Memories that were once painful, didn’t bring a tear. He ran his hand over the items in the box, finally able to feel her. Suddenly, his finger caught the edge of an envelope. Inside was the first card he had ever given her. He knew the words without having to open it.
“You gave me a reason to live” He repeated the words aloud as tears returned to his eyes.
She was gone. That reason was gone. Despair returned haunting his mind like ghosts in a cemetery. Every corrupted thought from hours before returning with a vengeance for denying them for the bitter sweet taste of Hope. The pressure welled in his heart, and he feared the dam breaking a second time. He braced himself the inevitable.
“I just helped you see,” The whisper saved him. “It’s easy to find what you don’t have, but the art of gratefulness comes from finding the strength to look for what blessings you do have.”
The tears still came but they were softened by the truth the whisper brought. He looked to his left and locked eyes with the creature purring, completely oblivious to the crisis occurring next to him.
“Well you ain’t much, but your mine,” He said aloud teasing his new furry friend.
“But you’re not all I have to be grateful for” he added as his eyes focused on the picture of a young boy holding baby girl, resting on his nightstand.
He lay down finally able to rest. His thoughts grateful for the work ahead of him. He couldn’t help looking over, hoping to see the woman he loved. He didn't feel disappointment finding only the void next to him, because he knew it would be there. He instead traced her outline from his memory and recalled her nightly habit. He pictured her whispering into the forehead of the cat, how much she loved him. What once caused him jealousy, now brought a smile to his face. He reached out and pulled his rival onto his chest. Repeating what he had witnessed the love of his life do, without fail, every night.
And as he lay there speaking into the night, the whispers of her continued to answer.