A last they’ve all gone away: they’ve taken their soup pots, pasta bowls, lasagna pans, pie plates, the vases they stuffed—first with chrysanthemums and dahlias, and later with sedum and asters and fall hydrangeas. Brittle pods skitter like mice over the downstairs floor when the front door is opened, Max announces, “Mommy, we have to clean the house, we have to vacuum together.” When he says it, “vacuum” has three syllables. He and his father loved to vacuum together.
With the food came advice, jokes, criticism. “You’ve lost ten pounds,” an older neighbor admonished, then looked me up and down. Right on the money; I’d weighed myself that morning. “Eat lots of soup, it’s easy to swallow, dunk the bread in it, then it won’t get stuck,” she added. I stared, remembering she’d had a retarded child who was institutionalized or dead. I’m appalled that I never bothered to find out which. Yet does it matter now?
What matters is this: she knows how sadness and fear can stop up your esophagus. For six weeks after that conversation she left pots of soup on the porch. But when she next gathered me into her arms for a hug, she poked around as if she were the witch feeling up Hansel. “You’re still too thin, much too thin,” she said. Outraged, I simply stared: would I ever measure up?
I doubt it. Memories of my lack of grace burn in my mind as powerfully as desire once pounded in my ears. A week after the funeral Sara, a close friend who is an architect, arrived waving plans like a flag. A re-do of the laundry room with a counter where the kids could fold their underwear and shirts and pants and pair their socks. “It will keep them busy and relieve you.”
I glanced at her drawing. “Are we serving cokes, too?”
“They have to start to help sometime.”
Do people know how severe they sound? How often they remind me of my Latin teacher, Miss Leavitt, when she discovered I was giving answers to Henry Rosenbaum, “Dinah, I’m ashamed of you. You know how our honor system works. I hardly know what to say, such a fine student like you, surely you know that giving answers is as bad as taking them?” Maybe if I’d had the guts to tell Miss Leavitt she was lying, that they weren’t the same and she knew it, I might have developed the nerve that would have enabled me to throw some of these well-meaning people out of my house.
But I didn’t. All I could do was murmur, “They don’t have to fold laundry a week after their father died,” which made Sara flush so deeply I ended up feeling guilty and furious at myself.
Soon I learned not to answer the door. Then they’d leave messages on the answering machine. Expressions of concern, instructions, jokes, but, really sacrifices on the altar of thankfulness that though death had come so close, they were safe. Sometimes you could almost hear the reflexive frisson of relief. If they only knew how transparent they sounded!
After I’d read aloud each evening to Addie and Max until my mouth was sandpaper, I would tuck them in and lass them and try not to think about the gentle sense of peace Daniel and I always felt when they finally dropped off. Then, heavy with unspent tears, I would haul myself to our bedroom phone and listen:
“Be sure to heat the lentil soup for at least a half hour before serving.” “Don’t freeze the stew, it was made with meat that was frozen.” Then: “In ancient Egypt the little boys were learning hieroglyphics. The teacher said, “Please write: Ramses is a good king.” Then, “Ramses is an all-powerful king.” Finally, “Ramses is a virile king.” At which point one child turned to his neighbor and asked, “Do you spell that with one testicle or two?”” A nervous giggle. Jokes with body parts provoke nervous giggles. But better than severity bordering on blame.
Lillian, our next-door neighbor, grabs my arm. “Dinah you must do something about Addie’s hair, it’s awful, wandering everywhere, terrible.” I nod. I know. Addie’s thick chestnut hair, her father’s curly dark hair, is in her eyes, wound around her ears, sticky with jam, or filled with gnats, cream cheese, pieces of cracker. No wonder Lillian is continually lunging at her, her hands working the air. But Addie always escapes and often drags me with her; while we run Lillian calls, “Dinah, you’re as bad as the kids, you should be setting an example!”
An example for what? Addie has refused to let me braid her hair since Daniel died. Whenever she sat on his lap he would fiddle with those thick plaits and tell her about girls he had known and loved—though never as much as her—who wore braids. One was a woman he was dating when we met. I never had the heart to tell him her lustrous braids were hung from a doorknob at night. Besides, he might not have believed me, he was such a sweet, trusting, almost gullible man.
“You are an Indian princess,” Daniel would tell Addie as I gave the last twist, and then she would fly downstairs, levitating on her father’s love.
“Oh, Dinah!” Lillian cries, “She can’t go to school like that, you must do something!”
We finally do.
In the exact place where I used to braid it every morning, I swipe at Addie’s hair while Max looks on, frightened by the lonely clumps straggling to the floor. But when we’ve gathered them into a plastic bag, which I promise to keep, they look relieved, as if Addie’s thick shiny hair were somehow a betrayal of their father. And Addie seems freer, lighter, able to smile more easily. In a few hours she goes next door.
“That beautiful hair,” Lillian’s wails fill the space between the two houses. “How could you cut that beautiful head of hair?”
Max looks at me slyly, his eyes filled with a joy I haven’t seen for months. As if to say, Good for you, Mom, at least we did something. Doing something is better than doing nothing, a doctor said when Daniel was considering when to start treatment.
Around Halloween an excited wind blows through the house. By now I’ve set up my office in the dining room and decided to re-do the kitchen and build a laundry room. Sara stares. “I went to First Aggie Bank and got a loan. I want you to design it and Alan to build it.”
“Oh, thank God, thank God you’re not mad at me for pushing you that day. I knew it was wrong the minute I said it.”
I shrug. “It’s hard to know what to say at the beginning . . . .”
Yet her remorse gives me a strange lift. You’re getting to be a hard woman, Dinah, I tell myself later. Wanting an eye for an eye. And not even apologizing for your own peevishness. Daniel used to say he’d married me because I reminded him of his favorite aunt, who was a truly good woman, and when I would confess to having done something a lot less than good, he would reassure me, “You don’t have a mean bone, Dinah.”
Oh, Daniel, would you know me now?
Neither the kids nor I have much gusto for Halloween. That was Daniel’s department. He adored making costumes for the kids; once he even made Tatiana’s daughter, Ruth, a costume of a Baby Ruth Bar out of white and red Contact paper.
I sit at the dining room table for a few nights in a row, trying to conjure something, but my heart isn’t in it. Finally Addie and I look at each other, eyes brimming with despair, until she shakes her head and goes upstairs and squeezes herself into last year’s tutu. Then the two of us put together a red Superman cape for Max; on the big night we stand proudly and watch him fly through the neighborhood. But we’re all relieved when it’s over.
With that behind us, I’ve gathered my courage and am squirting oil onto that lever that causes a tinkling chorus when the heat goes on. Although Alan has marked the spot with a piece of red tape, I keep thinking this oil will somehow ignite the entire furnace and blow us all up. I’m concentrating so hard it takes a few seconds for Addie’s scream to pierce my consciousness.
The burn on Addie’s palm looks like a scarlet J. She was trying to iron her best white blouse. “Somehow the iron slipped away,” she tells me. “I had no idea something as heavy as an iron could move so fast.” She sounds exactly like Daniel after he rear-ended someone’s car the first year we were married.
On the way home from the emergency room a flurry of whispers drift from the back seat, and soon I notice Max cleaning his room with rapturous concentration. Still, I suspect nothing.
The Sunday before Thanksgiving more whispering when friends come to play. Of course. Each year Daniel said, “Dinah, you know I’m the only one in this family who knows how to carve a turkey, that’s why we have to have everyone here.” Since I’ve promised turkey, it follows that their father will be here to carve it.
Besides, they’re tired of people asking how they like the strange-tasting food they’ve dropped off, people rearranging their kitchen, tousling their hair, speaking in worried whispers. Worst was the Halloween Festival when everyone sang “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” On the line “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah,” Daniel always sang, “Daniel’s in the kitchen with Dinah.” Instead there was an awkward pause, then a nervous lunge forward that made Addie and Max freeze. For the rest of the evening they were numb. Concussed. Like something from Sleeper, which Daniel walked out of, calling it one of the sickest movies he’d ever seen.
“Stop it!” Addie squalls when Samantha’s mother tries to straighten her sash. “Don’t touch me!”
“These brownies have nuts!” Max screams at Barry and Ellie.
Enough is enough. They want their father back so badly they’ve convinced themselves he’s on his way.
The walk through the cemetery is cold. A blistery wind sweeps across the open fields. We’ve forgotten gloves. The tips of Addie’s fingers that stick out from the ball-like bandage are red, but she’s too furious to notice. Her nose is tilted sideways, exactly like Daniel’s when he was pissed. Max’s eyes water. The ground is brown and hard. When we last came, Addie pushed her forefinger into the cooling earth and asked her father if he could feel it. But now that’s impossible.
“This is where Daddy is,” I say as we stand around the faint outline of a rectangle. “When people die they can’t come back, even though they might like to, or we might like them to.”
“Samantha says their souls are floating in heaven, that they see everything, that Daddy is watching us all the time.” Addie’s voice is thick with anger, as it was when she’d accuse us both after she’d misbehaved. “Have you got eyes in back of your head?” she’d shout after she was caught, then get even madder when Daniel would say, imperturbably, “I do.”
I don’t answer, I’ve never known how to talk about heaven, or hell, either, but after a few moment, she says, calmly and in a superior tone as she takes Max’s hand, “Samantha says that Daddy’s happier there, that it’s a beautiful garden, prettier than anything down here, and when Max and I die the three of us will be together and that Daddy will tell us he knew everything about us even after he was gone. Everything!”
“Oh, no, sweetie!” What a terrible burden to lead your life thinking that. No, they can’t believe such a thing. I start to put my arms around them when she pulls herself up to her full height—becoming Adelaide instead of Addie in my mind—and suddenly says, “Don’t worry, Mommy, we won’t leave you.” Then looks around, as if we were thieves, and whispers, “Let’s get out of here, it’s freezing.”
As we walk back to the car, a horn honks, soon someone else waves. During the summer the kids and I came almost every day to Daniel’s grave. Now less often. But no one questioned why I chose a place so open to view. Actually, we both chose it, it was one of the few things we discussed before he died, and it was a good choice. It comforts me to wave at Daniel on my way to the village; it must console the lads, too, that he isn’t far away. When they get older, they can walk here and talk to him. And at night, when it gets so bad I can’t even lie in bed and toss, I stand at the window and imagine throwing on a pair of sweats and running down the road a mile or so. But I never do. What if they woke up and found me gone, too?
Besides, what can I say to Daniel? Doesn’t he know everything anyway?
People aren’t so scared when I look directly into their eyes. For months I could sense them thinking: Dinah is no longer a psychologist who helps troubled people, who counsels the weary, the sick, the bereaved, who wears funky clothes so her clients will relax, who sits on the Library Board. Who was luckier than most because her husband was so open about showing his love for his wife and two small children. No, now Dinah is like the rest of us, worse off than the rest of us, because her handsome gracious husband is gone and Dinah is a widow.
What a horrible word. It brings to mind old, bent women in black dresses and kerchiefs hauling water up a pebbly path in some tiny Mediterranean town. Spiders spinning their poisonous lethal webs. Toothless crones plotting fates imagined by Garcia Lorca or Moravia, their lifeless hair drawn back from their tell-tale widows’ peaks. In one archaic language, widow is derived from a word meaning: becomes empty, lacks. At 42 I am not merely a frail vessel, but a hollowed-out basin, a cavity, a bell which no longer rings but simply echoes sorrow.
Finally, though, I’m just Dinah: a woman with green eyes and gray strands in her light brown hair and a real nose and a tall, lean frame. “Fabulous ankles and wrists, knock-out forearms,” Daniel told me when we started dating; later it became a cue. Whenever he would say, lazily, “If it weren’t for those fabulous ankles . . . .” I would know that what we’d been arguing about had finally been put in its proper place.
“Friends gave an 80-year-old man a birthday party and arranged for him to stay at a hotel that night. As he was getting ready for bed there was a knock on the door. He opened it to a gorgeous blonde. “I’m part of your birthday present,” she told him, “And I’m here to give you super sex.”” The message goes dead. Steve, Daniel’s lawyer and closest friend. They once went to a costume party as Laurel and Hardy. The next call is him again. “I don’t know what happened, Dinah. But the punchline is, the old man says, “I’ ll take the soup.”“
Then, “We have to go through Daniel’s inventory for the tax people.” Daniel was in the rare book business. “And when we carpooled the other day Pat Talley said to remind you we have to get Mrs. Hamilton a Christmas present, all the parents are chipping in. She said to call her if you have any ideas.”
Are they crazy? I can hardly figure out what to feed my children for supper, let alone come up with a gift for the teacher. And finally, as if I’ve lost my mind as well as my husband, Steve’s somber warning: “Be sure Max wears gloves and a hat over his ears even if he goes out for only a few minutes. Kids his age can get frost-bite in seconds. And there’s eggplant parmigiana on the porch, not too spicy, so the kids can eat it, too.”
Addie hates eggplant. She won’t eat anything purple, except an herb Daniel once read about and bought: mint with a chocolate flavor. Just before the first frost, though it was only three months after Daniel died, I remembered to dig it up and put it on the kitchen windowsill. It grows bushier each day, as if it knows the kids like it over yogurt better than any other dessert, even better than ice cream. Or maybe as if it knows how badly I crave signs of health.
The winter is fierce, the worst in years. Alan begins by building a plywood shed around the construction to protect us from the seeping, insidious cold. The lads hate the new addition, they hated it when Alan and I moved the dining room table to make room for my files and then when we put the piano on an inside wall for winter.
A few weeks before Daniel died we rearranged our bedroom. “This way I can see the sun rise,” he told the children, “when I can’t sleep, it’s nice to see the sun come up.” Sometimes he would wake me with a persistent whisper, a thread of surprised joy weaving beneath the pain when, occasionally, the sun appeared like St. Elmo’s Fire skipping along the horizon, then parted the blue-black sky. Other days he would smile slightly and lift his chin to catch its rays.
But now nothing must be changed. Change signals destruction, death.
While Alan is rebuilding the kitchen Max goes nuts. He begins to wet his bed at night, and when I gather his clothes for the laundry, he asks if he will see them again. Night after night until it occurs to him that if he sleeps in them they can’t disappear. Mornings are an agony. Arguments. Tears. My patience stretched to gauze. And then, after the laundry room is finished and he helps fold and sort the clean clothes, Max asks, “Where are Daddy’s clothes? Doesn’t he need clean clothes in heaven?”
I don’t answer. Addie is in school, but Max and I will suffocate if we stay in this house another minute. Though it’s almost lunchtime, I say, “C’mon, Max, we’re going skating.”
The pond is next to the cemetery. It glitters as brightly as pennies in the sunshine and reminds me of a time so long ago when my friend Janie’s mother died—the year before I fell in love with Henry Rosenbaum—and we would walk the three miles to the cemetery and play skip, stone, or skip, penny, slipping dangerously on ground packed with snow and ice. Glaring white ground like the surface of this pond.
Janie was afraid to marry, afraid she’d die on her kids. But she got married just like the rest of us and had kids and lives in Wisconsin where she takes them skating all the time. She came east for the funeral, but had to get back the next day so we hardly talked. Once a week, though, there’s a message: no instructions or jokes, just, “Hi, Dinah, wanted to see how you’re doing. Give me a call, and don’t forget to kiss the kids.”
When I call, she makes some excuse so she can call me back because she’s always had more money than I do. We talk about old times and once she confessed how much my going with her to the cemetery meant to her: letting her yell at her mother and complain about her father and her older brother and sister, never judging her, and never telling a living soul. Just standing there, listening to her rant and sometimes cry, and then playing skip, penny all the way home.
Max will be a good athlete. He has a grace on skates that you don’t usually see in four-year-olds. Maybe a figure skater, I think idly. He’s delighted to have the pond to himself. Or a hockey player. That’s what we’ll get for the holidays next year: hockey sticks and pucks. Addie can play, they have a girls’ ice hockey team in high school, and it’s never too early to begin.
Suddenly, Max’s high voice penetrates my hazy reverie. “Who are you?” he’s asking, and when I turn I see a man staring at us from the edge of the pond.
“I wish I knew,” the man answers bitterly. I’ve never seen him before, which is odd, since this is a very small town. He’s about 70, maybe older, possibly younger. Hard to tell under that bulky coat and a hat that reminds me of George Raft in those dumb old movies Daniel and I loved to watch together. I haven’t seen a hat like that in years, and never around here. “My wife died and wanted to be buried here, she’d spent summers here as a child. But it’s such a terrible winter they can’t dig a grave and she’s lying in a refrigerator in Boston until spring. I come every week, I don’t know why, the people in the cemetery office say they’ll give me plenty of notice, but somehow I need to come and see for myself. It’s a hell of a ride, and I still have a small law practice, but here I am. It’s crazy.”
“It’s not her fault they can’t dig.”
“I know,” he admits. Again that bitter laugh. It resounds through the air like a plane against hard wood, like the sound of Alan’s machines shuddering through the house. “But she always had a penchant for drama, and I have a feeling this somehow pleases her, proof of her uniqueness, you might say, or rather, she might say.” Now his laugh sounds more normal.
I wish I liked him. I wish I could say I invited him back to the house and we shared stories and had lunch and he played Chinese Checkers with Max and we became friends. My parents live in Arizona and though they call and send presents and money, I don’t feel close to them. They came for the funeral and my mother stayed for a week, just as she did when Addie and Max were born, but when I finally worked up the nerve to ask her advice about the stock market, she shook her head and said, “Not this time, Dinah, I have to get back to your father,” and was gone.
I could use a parent figure. Yet nothing like that happens today. I nod, soon the man walks away, then I show Max how to make a figure eight, both of us rejoicing in the sharp sparkle of the sun and the relief we get from moving our limbs against the cold. Cold so deep you feel as if you’re pushing against a barrier. And so good to know we can get through.
“Here’s a political joke.” It’s Carl, a pediatrician whom people decided I should marry after his professor wife ran off with one of her students. He has two lads and is a marvelous person, but there’s absolutely no electricity and never will be. Though Daniel’s death has numbed me, I’m not so stupid as to think I’ll be sexless forever. It took me months to taste food, to enjoy a beer or a glass of wine, and there’s a strange kind of gratification in waiting. But never Carl.
Still, I can listen to his message: “One of Clinton’s advisors on the national health plan dies and goes to heaven. When he meets God, God asks, “Is there anything you want to know, anything I can help you with?” He takes a deep breath and asks, “Will there ever be a health plan for every American?” God hesitates. “Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that there will be, the bad news is—not in my lifetime.”“
“Dinah, the theater fundraiser is April 20th. I have two tickets. A cocktail party at the museum. If you’re interested, let me know. It says optional black tie, but your quilt dress would be fine, more than fine, Terrific. Speak to you soon.”
I once amazed Carl and his wife, Norma, by making a dress out of a crazy quilt we found in an antique shop years ago. It had an embroidered “D” in the middle and Daniel said, “How can we leave it here when it was clearly meant for us?” We could no more afford the hundred dollars for that quilt than we could fly to the moon. But he insisted, and when we got home and Addie was in bed, I came into the living room wrapped in it; its fine silk and velvet pieces were worn to a shimmery, tender tinge.
“My Blackgama,” I said gaily and swirled around him. Daniel looked up over his new reading glasses in surprise, then carried me and the quilt upstairs to our bed where we made Max.
As I go downstairs I ask myself: what are the right words to let Carl know he should invite someone else to the theater’s spring Do?
The weather begins to loosen, like a taut clothesline that sags with use. Daniel had this crazy idea our clothes had to dry outside— whatever the weather—like his did when he was a child in upstate New York. I’ve had my fill of sagging clotheslines, frosty pillowcases, nightgowns like cardboard. Now everything goes into the dryer and comes out soft and fluffy. And not a speck of guilt. Still, there’s a difference between fluffy clothes and junk food. Not once have we succumbed to McDonalds or Burger King. Daniel, you would be proud of me, your wife who never knew how to cook, who was happy to let you work at home and start dinner. It used to drive my mother crazy.
“Don’t you feel strange, letting your husband do most of the cooking?” she’d ask. “Don’t you feel guilty?”
And not even a hint of a smile when I’d reply, “Oh, Mom, you’re just jealous.”
Now, finally, I know why you liked it so much. The cooking calms me, that’s why I was so glad when they all stopped dropping off their one-taste casseroles. Tatiana bought me one of those cookbook holders, and each afternoon I bend over the recipe, put the ingredients on the counter, and start to create, like Merlin concocting his potions. Addie helps cut the vegetables and Max sets the table and by 6:30 we are sitting down to a decent meal like every other family on this road. Yet how much I wish I could search your eyes, as you so often searched mine, for a sign that the food was good, so good that each bite slid down my throat like cool spring water. Or revel with you that the four of us sat around a full table set with a clean, ironed cloth and napkins. At first I worried that there was something womanish about you—a man who loved books better than machines, who was happy to work at home, who adored cooking—but now I know it was part of your uniqueness. Still why didn’t I realize then how much all those daily efforts are the accumulation of a life, a marriage? Beauty? Love?
And only after all these months do I know I can, as some poet said, “meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat both impostors just the same.”
Addie and I clear the table while Max gathers his toys. The theater fund-raiser has come and gone. I was there with Carl because his date, a lawyer from Boston, couldn’t leave a son who had gotten a high temperature. “She’s a widow, too,” he said when he called, desperate. By then the word didn’t sting so much, and I had nothing else to do.
Everyone’s eyes lit up. Except Lillian’s. “It’s not even a year yet, I didn’t expect that from you, Dinah, what will your parents say?” she demanded the next day over the mail. That school marm voice. I wanted to punch her. But I held my tongue. She still hasn’t forgiven me for cutting Addie’s hair.
“We’re just friends, Lillian. Stop thinking dirty thoughts. At your age!” I grinned, hating myself. Why is it so bad to burn your bridges? I’d give almost anything never to have to speak to Lillian again, I suddenly realized.
Today, though, I feel triumph. The season has changed, truly changed, and we are still here. More than still here. My practice hasn’t gone completely under, Max has calmed down, and they tell me Addie is thriving in school. If we still stand too close to each other, the children and I, in a small huddle when we go to someone’s house for dinner, well, that’s no crime.
And now, for the first time since Daniel died, the lads have asked to sleep away from home. It’s Noah’s sixth birthday, a sleep-over party in tents in Sara and Alan’s backyard. Their canvas packs are stacked near the door, filled with pajamas, a change of clothes, toilet articles. Exhilaration blazes in their eyes. They no longer wake up each morning wondering how they’ll survive; they know they won’t die even though their father has.
Saturday is unseasonably soft and warm. “We couldn’t have ordered better weather!” Sara exclaims. Max never looks back, but Addie lingers. “You’ll be okay, Mom?” Her eyebrows furrow just like Daniel’s. I nod, and she goes off. When Sara offers me a drink, my first impulse is to accept, sit for a while, but that might complicate things for the kids. I shake my head, kiss Addie, and pick Max up for a quick hug, and force myself to walk to the car without turning around.
At home I’m suddenly beat, as if every moment I wished I could close my eyes in these last months had accumulated and were here, wanting its due. But if I go to sleep I will just toss and turn. Reveling in the unfamiliar quiet, I pour myself a gin and tonic and go to the glider where Daniel and I would sit on summer evenings. The smell of barbeque floats through the air bringing all kinds of memories. I thought winter would be the worst, but perhaps the worst is to come. I sip my drink slowly, then rummage in the refrigerator and eat a pear. Upstairs I throw myself on the bed and fall into the deepest sleep I’ve experienced since Daniel died. How strange, I think when I wake up, to sleep so hard when the children are gone and something could happen to them. What kind of mother am I?
It’s ten o’clock. My stomach growls, but it feels so good to be really hungry I don’t move. Then I doze and when I open my eyes again it’s after eleven. Not hungry anymore. The moment has passed, like so many moments in life. Sometimes our timing was off, but not that often. Our marriage amazed me: the range of feelings, the highs and lows that two people could experience together. “Dinah,” his lips savored the syllables of my name as I unlocked the door to my apartment that first time he stayed over, “Dinah, I have so much I want to say to you.”
I go into the laundry room and douse myself with Skin So Soft. “Fabulous wrists and ankles, fabulous wrists and ankles.” The words whirl in my head as I jog to the cemetery.
As soon as I start up the path I’m amazed by the pungent scent of lilacs. A row of them sway in the breeze. I’d never realized they were here. Maybe they’re new. But no, they’re too big for that. Did Daniel know they were here? He must have. We had them in Boston, and he insisted on planting them and Rose of Sharon when we bought the house here. Early May he’d fill the house with lilacs, and in August he’d tuck the first Rose of Sharon into my hair. I was wearing one the night he died.
I want to hide my head in my hands when I think of that night, him sliding so inexorably away from us. The torture in his dark eyes as he murmured, “The hardest part is knowing that I’ll never see you and Addie and Max again.” And then his surprised, “Oh, Dinah, I’m leaving you, I don’t want to, but I can feel myself going . . . .”
What I didn’t know then was that I would never see him again, either. All these months I can conjure up only parts—his cowlick when his hair got too long, his peculiar grace of motion as he reached for something too high even for me, his long fingers threading his belt through his pant loops, his laugh that rumbled from his knees when he was truly amused, the way he’d sing when he stirred a pot, the slight annoyance he would erase from his face if I interrupted him while he was doing the books for his business, the exaggerated patience in his voice when he was talking to someone he couldn’t stand. But never all of him.
I stand at the grave letting bits of Daniel flicker through my mind and wonder how much of him the children can see. Addie is terrified at the idea of a stone being placed here. “It’s like he’ll be imprisoned there, Mommy, no, no stone,” she’s said over and over this spring. She’s right. Just the grass and swooping sky, then the russet, noisy leaves and frost and snow and glossy ice, and maybe an etched wooden marker, but nothing so hard, so unyielding as stone.
Suddenly I hear a raspy whimper. I turn, expecting to see cats or birds caterwauling, or maybe a shadowy bat against the light of the stars. A shiver of fear runs through me, then relief when I peer and see it’s a man. The man from the pond last winter. He’s wearing a sport shirt whose collar is partly turned under. I’m tempted to reach out and straighten it, but of course I don’t.
He’s kneeling on the ground in front of a freshly dug grave above which sod grows in a thick mat. When he looks up he has no idea he’s ever laid eyes on me. “My wife died in January,” he begins, “but it was too cold to bury her, so we did it last month, when the ground could receive the coffin. What a peculiar phrase, but that’s what the people at the office said. Now that she’s here, I thought I’d feel better, but it’s worse, much worse.” His voice breaks.
He’s older than I thought. In his 70’s. And thinner than he looked bundled up last winter. He holds his face as though it’s been punched. I step closer and offer my hand, then give a quick pull to help him up. He seems astonished by my height. I wait for him to say something. But he merely looks at me, silent, and at that moment, the very thing I thought would never happen, does. Before us stands Daniel—all of him—and he’s wearing a soft greenish shirt and a Joan Miro-ish tie, and he’s begun to say something.
“Dinah, I have so much to tell you,” he’d tell me when he came home from a book buying trip. We never got near to finishing. We didn’t think the time would ever come, not even two years ago, wandering through the springtime dark, when we went back to our old street in Boston after the specialist told us how sick he was. Walking and talking, praying really, surrounded by lilacs, looking up at the place where we began our life together and trying to convince each other he wouldn’t die. “You can’t die,” I said so firmly he believed it. We both did. And we stuck to our belief until the end, when, stunned and miserable, we had to admit we were wrong.
Yet here he is again, a vision as whole as anything I have ever seen. Standing so naturally with me and this grieving man. Silently the three of us link arms and begin to walk, almost float toward the glittering sky. When we reach the top of the hill I feel as though I can touch the crescent moon and the surrounding stars, the “hornlight” and the “hoarlight,” a poet called them. Hopkins, I think. Daniel would know. Later, I’ll ask him. But for now all I want is to feel his breath mingling with mine, all I want is to smell the musky scent of his desire, and most of all to hear his voice as he speaks so intently to this strange man and me.
In just a few moments, though, I straighten and think: this is not Daniel, this is merely a vision and a flutter of sound, both as ephemeral as a shadow or a wavy reflection in water. Yet it is all I will ever have, so I let my body lean recklessly towards it, waiting for his touch, while the weight of this complaining, muttering man grows heavier and heavier on my arm.