I watched Helen, my wife, my widow, drift through the house each day, like smoke wafting from an extinguished candle. I could relate. But what could I do? I was the ‘dearly departed’ whose passing sapped the juice from Helen’s life.
That’s right. What could I do? How do I explain my being here at all? Neither here nor there, in or out… A presence within the absence. It’s admittedly hard to describe.
Those poor souls who think they’re taking the short cut out… They arrive when the party’s just starting. Who knew? Even thinking you’re finished, there’s always more to do.
My assigned location, the house where I spent most of my life. You won’t see me at the mall. Someone seeing me might point and exclaim, ‘But you! You’re…!’ Yes. What of it? You think you have all the answers? You’ve heard the saying, ‘Rest in Peace…’ One of the great punchlines. Never fails to get a laugh.
There are other perks. One thing I can say is, less paperwork over here.
But back to Helen. Some might liken her grief to sleepwalking. But the sleepwalker always has a purpose, even if it lives unstated, in a dream. Like a leaf, floating in the sluggish eddy of a stream, Helen had lost direction. She’d always devoted herself to us, to me. She deemed everything outside our family unit a distraction. Now, each listless action spawned others equally languid and disordered. Filling time was now her only purpose.
After lingering over a photo of us for the hundredth time, she’d set it down askew. Shattering the silence, she’d strike a random discord while passing the piano, then close the lid. Too loudly. The slightest sound jarred her, and so, she did less. Daily, she adjusted a frame in the foyer, leaving it not quite aligned.
‘Like a ghost,’ I thought. ‘We have so much in common.’ But I wanted to do something for her. I never wanted her to suffer on my account. My suffering had ended. I’d always been there for her, but now…
I’d been gone a month. And Helen’s life became a faded photo forgotten in the bottom of the sock drawer. It could be so much more. And it is.
Haunted? Yes. But not by me. How could I tell her I’m okay? Great, in fact. Not to worry? To live? Of course, things have changed. But they aren’t so dire. One always hears and expects the worst.
Sue, our daughter, brought casseroles every visit. How many of those did she expect Helen to eat? The freezer was packed. Helen couldn’t muster the energy to cook, or even to light the oven. Our son, Jeremy, exchanged them for the carrot cakes he brought, purchased at his local bakery.
Helen lit up when Sue arrived. They would talk and laugh, chatting over hot coffee. They’d play rummy. Sue could get her to open up about our past days and struggles.
She told Sue, “I talk to Hank at night. His presence comforts me. As if he’s here, next to me. But…” Then came the tears. She’d break down sobbing. They embraced. Sue said, “All is well.” Helen nodded.
But when she left, Helen’s mask came off. The gloom descended again. Calling it depression would be too hopeful.
All three were sorrowful, conflicted and grieving, in over their heads. No one was more surprised than me that my passing caused so much pain. I wanted them relieved. Not that they wished me gone. They wanted an end to my suffering. I didn’t want to pass it to them.
“You have to eat…” Jeremy told her, “You’re wasting away, Mom. Dad wouldn’t want that.”
I didn’t. How could I let her know I’m okay? That all is well, beyond imagining.
He came bearing carrot cake and played our old favorites on the piano. She’d laugh at his showmanship. They’d sing duets with tears streaming down their faces.
The kids competed for her affection. In a good way. But they felt they were shoring up a wall on the verge of collapse. Each stop-gap solution demanded more ambitious efforts. But short of a complete overhaul, what could they do? Bring in the cranes?
Helen afforded herself one pleasure. Once alone, she tried on favorite outfits, some never worn in public. She’d turn and pose before the long mirror in our bedroom, thinking of happier times. I would joke that she aspired to be a mannequin, always the first to wear the latest.
I stood behind her, like I used to. Now, only visible if you looked for me, like an oblique reflection off window glass. Going about her business, focused on the dress, she’d hold her pose. If she saw me, she didn’t let on. I’d make a little wave but she’d just stare, distracted for a moment, and return to her fashion show.
My cold feet were another steady source of humor. Jokes about wool socks worn to the beach at the height of summer always brought a laugh. She’d remind me to wear them, “You know how nippy it gets.” I was the resident expert on all things cold.
References to my ‘icicle toes’ receded as my illness progressed.
Helen had a habit, bordering on obsessive. She placed glasses, pens, her phone, everything, on her desk exactly. All right angles and equal spacing, a precise composition. Teasing, I nudged things slightly askew. My humor eluded her. Though never said aloud, she thought, in this I was clumsy, bordering on stupid.
By way of reconnecting, but not wanting to scare her, I resumed my old nudging practice. Helen would mutter, look about and shake her head impatiently. Sometimes I heard her exclaim, “Stop it!” under her breath. But she gave no sign she thought it was really me doing it.
One morning, her restlessness motivated her to pull my clothing from the closet. It was a sign of recovery. She lay things on the bed, sans hangers, in a pile to toss and one to donate. I’m sure she implied no late criticism by the meagre size of the donation pile.
She emptied my sock drawer and stuffed a plastic bag with my wool socks. She shook her head. “Who would wear these?” Undecided, she placed the bag between the two piles.
Finished with sorting, Helen gathered the discards and carried them out to the trash barrel behind the house.
She re-entered looking drained. She closed her eyes and leaned against the closed door. Two long steps brought her to the kitchen table where she sat heavily with her head in hands. I could do nothing for her.
The doorbell rang. Helen didn’t move. There came an insistent knock.
“My God, what? I can’t…”
When the door chimed again, Helen pulled herself up and walked to the front. She pulled the door open to reveal a well-dressed stranger.
He said, “Good morning… I hope I’m not bothering you. May I come in? I have some important information to share.”
“No… thank you. I’m not interested.”
Too late, she tried shutting the door which he blocked with his foot. He pressed his way into the house and kicked the door shut.
“You won’t regret it… You’ll see… If I can have your attention for a few minutes…”
He tried to maintain the façade of friendliness, but his actions betrayed him.
Helen backed away. She couldn’t defend herself against this intruder.
“What are you doing? Stop!”
She ran toward the kitchen. He blocked her and gripped her arm. Her face contorted. She pushed but was no match.
I couldn’t watch and do nothing.
Helen screamed as he forced her to the floor.
I covered him like a blanket and enveloped him in icy air. Sensing the sudden chill, he shivered. It was his turn to struggle.
He released Helen and thrashed against invisible restraints. “What the…” He groaned. His frost covered fingers streamed vapor as if from dry ice. “No…!”
Rolling across the floor he sprung up, lunged for the door and escaped. The door creaked shut behind him.
Helen lay on the floor, speechless. She could scarcely fathom what happened. Rolling to her knees she pulled herself upright, on wobbly legs.
She held herself close. “So cold…”
I resumed my spectral presence.
Stunned and bracing against the wall, Helen made her way into the bedroom.
She muttered, “Never do that again…”
A pair of my wool socks had emerged from the plastic bag onto the bed. Still shivering, she slipped them onto her hands like mittens and rubbed them together. Turning to the mirror, she held them up, modeled them, did jazz hands and clapped.
I stood behind her, reflected in the mirror. She stopped. Helen recognized me. I made a little wave. Our eyes met. She nodded so slightly, I almost missed it. Echoing my own, she waved. She knew I stood by her.
Almost smiling, Helen said, “Don’t know if you’re trying to scare me to death, Hank, or just give me a chill. But I’ve decided to keep the socks, after all. God knows it can get nippy.” She dabbed her eyes with her sock covered hand. “Thanks, Hank. You always come through.”