The first time you see him, you’re on your way to his funeral. Your black car, driven by someone you don’t know, follows the hearse, which is driven by someone else you don’t know. One thing you’ve found in the last few weeks is that there are a lot of new people to interact with in a time where you have never wanted anything more than to be left alone.
He is standing on the corner, on the last turn before the cemetery. He looks the way he did when you last saw him, when you had to identify his body. His limbs are at the wrong angle, barely supporting him, and his face… It’s distorted from the injuries but you can see the rage and accusation burning through. The sight of him cuts you and you remember your last view of his once perfect face, lying white on the silver table, surrounded by people with sympathetic faces and gentle questions.
You screech at the driver to stop and he stamps on the breaks, alarmed. Flinging yourself from the barely stationary car, you stumble to the space he was in. It’s empty. He’s gone.
There’s nobody else around either. But you know what you saw.
Something breaks in you then: something you didn’t know you had left to break. It feels like you’ve done a lot of breaking recently.
The driver that you don’t know approaches you cautiously and places a tentative hand on your shoulder. You let him guide you back to the car and finish driving you to your son’s funeral. It’s as horrible as you expected it to be and you can’t stop looking around for him.
The second time you see him, it’s twenty-four days after his funeral. You’re in the garden, escaping the silence of an empty house. The dark dirt is hard from a stretch of sunshine and it isn’t breaking under your hands. You can feel a blister forming between your thumb and forefinger and the heat is beating down on the tender skin at your neck. You give one more stab at the ground and then throw the tool away with a furious sound. Nothing is working for you. You can’t seem to do anything right. You lean over so that your forehead touches the earth and allow yourself a moment to not be okay.
When you look up, he’s there. He looks the way he did when he was five. His blonde hair ruffles in the faintest of breezes and he frowns at you. His little foot stomps in the way he used to stamp when he wasn’t getting his own way. You remember him doing it in supermarkets when he didn’t get a chocolate bar and you remember him doing it in church when he didn’t get picked to light a candle. Everything in you contracts.
As you watch, he looks at the trowel you launched. It has landed in the vegetable patch he spent so much time creating and you realise the force you put into the throw has broken one of the trellises. You remember how carefully he painted them, choosing the deep red himself despite your advice for a brighter shade. You know he is angry. You’re not surprised.
You look down, unable to face the look you know will be in his eyes. When you look up, he’s gone.
You are suddenly, abruptly, furious. How dare he do this to you? You’ve been living with his absence like an open wound and he can't even stay for a minute or two more? He must know, even in his childlike state, how hard this is for you. Five more minutes wouldn’t have been too difficult - you just want to see his face.
You snarl. It’s an animalistic sound that you don’t know you’re capable of making. Before you have fully understood what’s happening, you are standing in the wreckage of his hard work. Splinters of bamboo and shredded plant life are littered at your feet and your blackened fingernails are torn and bleeding. A drop of blood hits the ground, startlingly red against the green of the destroyed foliage. When you realise what you’ve done, you sink to your knees and howl.
The third time you see him is four months and one week after his funeral. You’ve been coerced into going to the farmer’s market with your sister, who thinks that you need to get out more. You have seen your reflection in the mirror and know that she is right. You pull the pale shawl around yourself tightly, though it is a warm morning, and follow dutifully.
You catch sight of him standing between a stall that sells honey and a stall that sells greeting cards. He looks the way he did at sixteen. His navy blue tie is on crooked and you remember reprimanding him for it; you fixed it for him and told him that it would help him make a good impression at his first ever interview. His hair is smartly styled and his face carefully blank. He stands, watching you and you drop the basket of fruit that you’d been persuaded to buy.
You’re moving through the throng before your sister can register the dropped produce. It’s crowded here and a couple passes between you, blocking your view of him even though you’ve sworn that you’ll not take your eyes off of him. When they pass by, he’s gone.
You whisper No under your breath and fix your eyes on the spot he was in. You don’t move. You’ll stand there until he comes back. You won’t move an inch, just as long as he comes back. You will stay there for hours, days, weeks just for him to please, please come back. You just want to see him. Just a glimpse. You’ll do anything.
Your sister arrives at your side and tries to speak to you. You don’t realise that you’ve been whispering deals and promises out loud until she asks you who you’re talking to. She’s worried and you want to reassure her but you’ve struck a bargain and you have to stick to it.
It’s a full hour before your sister’s panic overwhelms you and you allow her to lead you away. You want to reassure her but you can’t talk through the shards of glass in your throat.
The fourth time you see him, it’s six months and three days since his funeral. You’re in the kitchen, chopping onions for a meal you can’t be bothered to make. The colourless chemical released is making your eyes sting and you cross to the sink to splash some water in them.
He is standing in the doorway when you look up. He looks the way he did when he first left for university. He’s wearing a faded video game themed T-shirt and a look of tentative, teenage hope. He slouches against the door jam and you remember him standing like that just before you’d finished packing the car. You half hear his voice asking if you’re nearly ready, the same way he’d asked you all those years ago.
You stare, drinking in the pale contours of his face and the angle of his shoulders. The water and onion juice are stinging your eyes but you hold them open as long as you can. When you finally have to blink, you know, even before you look. He’s gone.
A sound escapes you, a low keening noise. It doesn’t compare to the sound of agony you’d made when you‘d first found out but it comes from the same source.
You sink to the floor. The tap is still running and the smell of onions is turning from sweet to bitter as they slowly char on the hob. But you stay where you are, empty and grey, missing part of your soul.
The last time you see him is eight months to the day after his funeral. You’re in the garden again, preparing to start painting. It’s the first time you’ve picked up your brushes since his death but there was something about the blush morning light on the tree tops that gave you the urge. It had taken an unexpectedly long time to find all of the things you needed and by the time you sit down, the light has changed. You still want to paint though so you look around for something else that is beautiful. Your attention is caught by the ruins of his vegetable patch, now overgrown with purple wildflowers and the new shoots of some stubborn green peas.
You know that he’s there before you turn. The sight of him is a familiar ache now; it’s like a phantom limb that needs to stretch. He looks the way he did the morning of the accident. His blue eyes are sparkling with the light of adventure and you remember warning him against going too fast on his new motorbike. His voice is faint on the breeze, teasing you for worrying too much, reminding you to lighten up a little. You remember the last words that you said to him and you say them again, holding his gaze.
It’s because I love you so much.
He smiles in the exact way he had done that morning and, for the first time in such a long time, you smile too. You feel a sense of calm and the grey wisp of cloud blocking the sun moves slightly. The light blinds you a little and you have to turn your head away for a second.
When you look back, he’s gone.
But it’s okay. There’s pain still but you can breathe through it; it doesn’t wind you the same way it used to. Your easel stands in front of you and there is so much beauty to be committed to canvas. You pick up your brush, breathe in the sweet-scented Spring air and begin.