“Didn’t want to bother you,” she said one rainy afternoon, to Meredith, her only child, who lived in sun-drenched San Diego, a whole country away. “It was just the right time for us.” Jen decided to ignore the repeated beep beeps on the phone, signaling an incoming call. “Maybe Dad can explain it to you better. It’s about moving forward while….”
The operator came on the line with an emergency interrupt. A no-nonsense police officer‘s voice spoke of a car accident, her husband. She should get over to the Montrose Hospital emergency department immediately. Her daughter yelled, “Oh no.”
Jen whispered, “Got to go.”
They said she couldn’t go in yet. She sat and sat, in silence, unable to read the old magazines, trying not to imagine what was happening on the other side of the “no admittance” doors, rehearsing instead in her head, as if it were still the proper thing to do, what she had intended, before, to tell Meredith. About why they’d moved to a condo so quickly, without discussing it in advance with their only child, a certified financial planner used to counseling strangers on what made the best sense, moneywise and otherwise, before embarking on a new adventure.
Did it matter now, that she and Dave wouldn’t have to think any more about their high-maintenance house, their aging appliances, the lawn moving, the snow shoveling, all those things they mutually decided they no longer wanted to do? How they concluded they should move while they were both still able-bodied enough to do it. That now they could relax and enjoy their well–earned retirement. Why was she repeating that litany now? All that minutia? Justifying? That was before life intruded two hours ago, and struck him, and her, down.
The aide led Jen beyond the “no admittance” doors to a small room, where stood silently the doctor in his scrubs and the social worker, looking solemn, and uncomfortable. Knowing immediately what they’d say, Jen burst into tears.
“Dave Bradshaw was a good man, a devoted husband to Jennifer, a loving father to Meredith. He served his country valiantly, in the Navy, for over twenty years. We have come here this morning to celebrate his life.“ (words from their very new minister, who barely knew anything about Dave, thought Jen, other than what she and Meredith told him yesterday. And, of course, he neglected to mention Jason.)
“He’s better off now, my dear, out of his pain” (from a sweet old lady, going through the receiving line, whereas Dave died in the crash, according to the doctor, almost instantly, and probably knew little or any pain.)
“He’s with God now, my dear,” (said a deacon, probably unaware that Dave, who rarely accompanied her to church, was at best agnostic about any kind of afterlife).
On and on came the well-meaning pieties, as she and Meredith stood patiently in the receiving lines, trying to comfort those who meant to comfort her and her daughter.
Last in line was Fred, now an admiral, resplendent in dress uniform and stripes, Dave’s best friend from the old days when they were both young ambitious officers, a decade before Dave had retired as a commander, saying he’d reached the end of the promotion line, “I’ll call you Jen, later, in a month or so. We can catch up.”
At the church reception later, her friend, Dee took her aside, “You know, a year after my Bernie died, another sweet old lady told me at the supermarket, ‘You’re still good looking. You can marry again.’ I think people are just trying to help. They’re uncomfortable with talk of death, or the prospect of death; anybody’s, including their own.” Hugging Jen, Dee said “I’m real sorry for your loss. If you need a shoulder, or help with the logistics, anything, please give me a call. Anything.”
“How’d your group go last night? the other woman asked at lunch.
“The same thing as before. That we’d most likely get better. Eventually. Probably. That I should try to focus more on my happy memories about Dave.”
“Only thing that sticks in my mind from my group two years ago was that social worker’s adage, ‘Women grieve, men replace.’ Sure enough, one of the men in my group was married again within a year.”
“What’s my arc, Dee?”
“Like Noah, you mean?”
“One of my high school English teachers told us about story arcs. For instance, a character in the story, say me, the grieving widow, has sunk pretty low into depression and undue self-pity.”
“You’re too hard on yourself, Jen.”
“Let’s say I’m drinking too much. And not eating enough. Which isn’t too bad, incidentally, the eating part, for my figure. Which is the kind of things people talk about in my grief group.”
“Well, in a good story, that makes the reader feel good, to say nothing about the over-drinking, under-eating grief-struck widow, the character who finds new strength somehow. She grows, changes. Voilá. She becomes, in my case, normal again. Or the ‘new normal,’ as they like to say in the group. Maybe I’d go back to just two glasses of wine at lunch.”
“Sounds like you’re not there yet. It’s only been eleven months,” said Dee..
“This’ll probably surprise you.”
“You’re attracted to one of the guys in our group?”
“Ha! Those horny old guys with the little blue pills? No, what I miss most is the comfortable, predictable ways Dave and I had. But real love? It disappeared years ago.”
“Real love? You don’t know how lucky you were!”
“Yeah. Part of me likes being on my own again. Still…”
“So, you’ll go for the passion next time?”
“Next time? My libido’s semi-retired. I think it’d be more like us both coming home from work, and just drinking wine together at day’s end.”
IV. Balboa Park
Her first time there in three years, Jen walked again through the gardens of roses and succulents, visited a few museums, and, near sunset, decided to rest for a moment on one of the wooden benches facing the main walkway, the Prado. Most were occupied by ancient Asian grandmotherly types, or by young parents and their kids. She finally opted to sit next to an older bearded man and his little dog. They looked safe enough. Talking quietly to his dog, the man paid no attention to Jen at first. “It’s a nice day today,” he said at last; “Oscar and I come here most nice days.”
“I thought all your days are nice here.”
“You must be a visitor.”
“Just a tourist, staying with my daughter, here for a week,” she said.
His name was Carlton. They began to talk quietly – about his wife, Oscar, and Jen’s daughter – the way absolute strangers sometimes can, as ships passing in the night, destined most likely never to meet again.
“My husband was a good, decent, patient man, who put up with my quirks,” she said after a while. Dave’s gone now, eight months.”
“A neighbor stays with my wife.”
“It wasn’t love at first sight, in that bar. But we dated, and married a year later. He was an enlisted man then, before he became an officer.”
“Sheila doesn’t recognize me anymore most days, although she seems to know who Oscar is.”
“She drove right though a red light, texting,” Jen said, “Right into the driver’s side of my husband’s small sedan, with his bags of groceries in the next seat. Her two kids were strapped into their seats in back, thank God. None of them suffered a scratch. Sending that young mother to jail wouldn’t have brought me any ‘closure,’ as the newspapers like to say.”
“I live mostly in my memories of happier days. Paris, and Naples, and the other places. Sheila was an artist, a painter. She won’t touch a brush now.”
On the bench next to theirs, two parents watched their son, a small wiry boy, maybe seven or eight, begin to perform, for their benefit, repeated somersaults on the pavement. The mother and father responded, simultaneously, with proud, gleeful shouts of, “Good job.”
“I hope I’m not being too forward, “she said brightly, asking Carlton if he’d like to go over to one of the cafes for coffee or wine, “To mark my early morning departure back East, where the forecast for my town is overcast and drizzly.”
“No, no, not forward at all,” he said. “It’s a very pleasant thought. That restaurant allows dogs inside. But, alas, Oscar gets too nervous in such a setting.” So, they sat and chatted for quite a while on less weighty matters, until they both fell, for a few moments, into a peaceful silence. At last, Carlton said to her in a low sad voice, “All stories, Jennifer, even for nice people like us, don’t always have happy endings. Sorry for the truism. Now, Oscar and I have to walk home. It’s just a few blocks. Time for his dinner. And dinner time for my wife and me too.” The two grieving people, who’d shared surprisingly candid intimacies for a few hours, exchanged contact information. Jen took a cab back to Meredith’s apartment.
V. Condo Again
While packing, Jen drank some more wine. She tried, in her effort to be Buddhist, not to dwell on the past or the future. But instead to focus on what was happening right now. That seemed to conflict with what her church told her about eternal life, “I got a home so much better, I’m gonna go to sooner or later….” And, indeed, the past, too, was important to her. She knew, at their farewell dinner together for this trip, that Meredith would probably bring up again their old house, now in the hands, hopefully loving, of strangers, where they’d all lived for over thirty years, except when Dave was posted somewhere onshore where he could take his family. Meredith would most likely tell her about her precious memories of living there. Jen of course had her precious memories, too.
She’d always loved that old house, where she could feel secure, and protected – at least most of those years, where, two decades ago, Jason would merrily ride his bike up and down their quiet street. Until, like his father, her ten-year-old son was killed by an errant car.
Dave was somewhere else after that, not at sea, the actual sea, but just lost in their home, in his own sorrowing. She and Dave had both begun to drink more, vodka martinis, exotic wines, starting at dinner, and then sometimes long hours into the evening, when they’d fall into bed, often without touching, each curling into their safe spots. Admiral Fred, then an up-and-coming lieutenant commander, just like her husband (whose career proved to be less up-and-coming) had tried to console her then, when she was grieving. She and Fred, her husband’s good friend, had a brief affair which distracted her for a time – she never knew what it did for Fred – but ultimately was no comfort to her. Jen, of course, didn’t talk about those things with Carlton at the park. She wondered if there would ever be any unmarried Carltons for her back home. Not that she’d been looking for them before.
Tomorrow, Meredith would drive her to Lindbergh Field. Living alone in that apartment back East would be, in many ways, very different from what she and Dave had planned for their well-earned retirement. Still she yearned, suddenly, to return right away to their small, cost-efficient condo, where they’d squeezed in most of the furniture from the old house, to their new place, cozy and snug, safe, protected from the drizzle. Jen finished her packing, closed the bedroom door, and moved to the kitchen, to share with her daughter another glass of pinot noir.
Gerald Kamens’ work has appeared in America, the Christian Science Monitor, Baltimore Sun, RavensPerch, Litro, flashquake, Grief Diaries, POZ, Dirt Press, Abbey Hill Literary, and Strata., Recent works include children’s stories, essays, and short plays He lives with his wife in Falls Church, Virginia, USA.