By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. It didn't really strike me, until that moment, that I hadn't left the house in six months. I'd gone inside in spring, I was coming out in autumn.
It was as gorgeous a fall season as I'd seen. A perfect explosion of yellow, orange and red, highlighted by the sinking sun. The crisp breeze riffled my hair and spun fallen leaves around my feet. In the park across the street, kids were running and playing, enjoying the cool weather before winter fell. It made me almost physically ill.
She had always loved autumn. I'd always loved the spring. That we'd loved each other was almost the only thing we'd ever agreed on.
I felt an irrational rage toward everyone I saw. Just going about their business, playing, running errands, smiling and laughing. As if everything was normal. Like the world hadn't just spun off it's axis. What right did they have to enjoy life, when all the joy had just gone out of the world?
I knew it was wrong of me to think that way. Friends and therapists and every reasonable person who tried to talk to me explained that it was normal to hurt and cry and be angry, but the pain would subside, and someday my life would go back to something approaching normal. These were the same people who'd insisted that I leave the house from time to time, try to maintain some kind of healthy routine, not totally lose myself in fear and grief and loss. And reasonably, I knew that was all good advice, and they were trying to help. Emotionally, I hated them for it.
How dare they suggest I leave her side? She only woke up for an hour or two a day as it was. And no one knew how much time she had left. How could I go out, when I might miss the few precious minutes when I could actually be with her? What if she needed something? What if there was an emergency? How dare they suggest that life could ever go back to normal?
I saw my reflection in the window of one of the cars parked along the road. I'd deliberately avoided looking at myself in the mirror for a while now, because on some level, I knew I was falling apart. What I saw confirmed my fears. Pale, haggard, exhausted. I must have lost twenty pounds in the last couple of months, and I couldn't remember the last time I slept through the night. I looked like death warmed over. It felt almost painfully appropriate.
I'd spent a long time wondering how I'd take it when the end finally came. I wasn't prone to fits or outbursts, but I could imagine myself screaming, or raging, or sobbing hysterically. As it turns out, when the nurse came out of the bedroom and told me it was finally over, I'd barely responded at all. I just dully nodded, slumped down in a chair, and said nothing. He kept talking, probably explaining what had happened, or asking if there was someone he could call. I heard none of it.
I keep hearing that we just have to accept the inevitable. So what do you do when you can't? When the very idea is fundamentally unacceptable?
The wind suddenly kicked up. I zipped my jacket up and hunched my shoulders against the cold. Why had she loved autumn so much? It was already getting chilly, the days were getting shorter and darker, the trees were turning to skeletons, all the life seemed to be draining out of the world. And yet it was her favorite time of year. I remembered when we used to walk in this park. The time she tackled me into a pile of leaves and laughed as I tried to wrestle my way free. Then she suddenly got serious, staring into my eyes, and I ran my hand over her cheek...
I was glad I hadn't raged and yelled when she died. The people around me didn't deserve that, they were just doing their jobs and trying to help. Who do you rage against in a situation like that? The universe? Reality itself? Whatever god was so cruel as to house such a strong and vibrant soul in such a weak, frail and sickly body?
She'd always been sick, to one degree or another. I knew good and well that she didn't tell me about all of her aches and pains and troubles. She knew how much I worried and wanted to protect me, which, of course, only made me worry more. So she went about her life, doing things that I knew exhausted her, and trying to hide her grimaces of pain at the end of the day. Every time I suggested she slow down, she'd just smile and tease me about trying to keep up.
If there were any justice in the world, I'd be the one lying in that medical bed, waiting for someone to show up and cart my body away, and she'd be the one still alive. How would she be reacting, right now, if I'd been the one who died? She'd be sad, I assume, but she'd definitely handle it better. She wouldn't be wandering the streets like a ghost, acting like her life was over too. She had a strength that I'd never possessed. Yet for some twisted reason, my heart was the one that was still beating.
I nearly bumped into a young couple strolling along the sidewalk. They barely noticed me, too absorbed in one another. That had been me once, not that long ago. In that bubble of love and happiness, like nothing else existed in the world. I wondered how many people we'd passed on the streets who'd been as miserable and despairing as I was at that moment, and we never even noticed. Suddenly, I felt almost guilty to be bringing my pain so close to them. That moment of joy belonged to them, and they should be allowed to keep it.
I paused on the corner, honestly having no idea where to go next. All I knew was that I couldn't go back to the house while she was still there. At some point, I was going to have to pull myself together enough to make plans, but right now, I couldn't do anything except wander. It was getting to be evening, the temperature was dropping and it was only going to get colder and darker. Eventually, morning was going to come. Eventually, spring was going to come. But standing there in the chilly wind and fading twilight, both seemed a lifetime away.