All Things Considered
It is Monday. The memorial service was this morning. I have heard the words "I'm sorry for your loss" and "every day will be a little better than the one before" so many times that I could scream. As if the ticking of a few hours on a clock, or a few days on the calendar could change anything.
They touched my hand. They hugged me. Some kissed me gently on the cheek. They sent flowers, and plants. Chrysanthemums, Azaleas, Lilies, ferns, even a cactus. Do they not know that he was the one with the green thumb? Not me. Do they realize that within a week they will wither and die? Their shriveling leaves and petals falling like rain to clutter my floors and counters. Do they not care that I will be left to vacuum and clean up their sad remains, and he will never see them or appreciate them.
They brought food. Casseroles, breads, salads. They brought soup. So much soup. Don't they know that soup is for sick people? You bring soup for a cold. This is not a cold. They brought cookies, and bars and cakes. My friend Debbie brought peanut butter cookies. Do they think I am hungry? I am not hungry. Oh. The food is not for me. Ahhhh. The food is for them. It will fill my fridge and my counters and cupboards. It will not get eaten. I couldn't eat this much food in a month. Even if he were still here, we couldn't eat that much food. I guess that's the point. They wouldn't have brought it if he were still here. It will grow mold. I will say, "What is that rancid smell in my fridge?" I will realize that it is the stench of the bribes that my family and friends used to get in. They knock on my door. They say, "I have brought you something". They come in. The food is their ticket in. They gather in the living room and the kitchen. They spill out onto the porch and into the garden. The garden that he wanted, and I didn't—but grew to love. They ask me, "Is there anything I can do?" I smile, shake my head, and say no, but thank you. The voice in my head screams, "Yes, here's what you can do. Take your damn cookies and leave! I NEVER, EVER liked peanut butter cookies. He did. They were his favorite NOT MINE! He is not here you idiot." But that is only the voice in my head.
I hear them talking about him. I hear them talking about me. They talk quietly, in hushed tones. "She seems to be holding up well. As well as can be expected, all things considered." I think that they think I have gone deaf now that he is not here. I can hear them. They ask questions. I wonder if these are trick questions. What if I answer wrong? They ask me, "What are your plans now?" Am I supposed to have a plan? We had planned to go to the mountains to ski. I have no plan.
"Will you keep the house?"
Am I supposed to keep the house, am I not?
"He did have plenty of insurance, didn't he dear?"
I hadn't even thought of that yet. I guess I should check into that.
And my favorite—"How are you doing?"
The voice in my head behaves badly, like a sarcastic, adolescent brat. "I'm doing marvelous, never better in my life", "My first plan is to go to Vegas and become a showgirl". "No, I'm not keeping the house, I'm giving it away so I don't have to live next door to you anymore". "No, there was no insurance, so I'm hoping for a loan from you Aunt Betty". That was the voice in my head. My real voice says, "I'm doing fine, as well as can be expected, really, all things considered. Thanks for coming." I smile. I nod. I lie. I tell a woman that he thought the world of her too, even though I know he couldn't stand her. She smiles. Kisses my cheek. It goes on for hours. The smiles, the shaking of heads, the nods, the hugs. They leave, individually, and in small groups.
Eventually I realize that it is just my sister and I. We are standing on the back porch, looking at the garden. She says I look tired. I should sit, and she will get me a cold drink. I sit. I drink. She says I should come home with her for a few days. Get some rest. I don't want to go. She has a three-year-old son, a thirteen-year-old daughter and two Boston Terriers. I love them all, but that is not my idea of rest. She also has a husband. He will pour her an evening glass of wine. He will help with dinner. He will kiss her neck while she does the dishes. He will help my niece with homework, and play with their son. They will go to bed, and read awhile. They will shut off the light, snuggle in and talk quietly for a few minutes. They will talk about me. How worried they are about me. He will reassure her and tell her that I will be ok after a little time has passed. He will kiss her goodnight. They might even make love.
The voice in my head screams, "I hate you! Go home to your perfect little family!" I look at my sister and tell her that I really am tired, and would like to be alone for a while. She smiles and nods. She is relieved. She has made the offer. She asks, "Are you sure?" I nod and smile. I walk her to her car. She hugs me. Really hard and really long. We have never been huggers. But we are today. She gets in her car. I watch her drive away.
I walk back into our house. My house now. I wander around and notice that someone has straightened up and done the dishes. I wonder when that happened. I shrug. It doesn't really matter. I walk up the stairs. I go into the bathroom and get undressed. It is still daylight. Too early for bed. I take his robe from the hook on the back of the door. It is way too big for me, but I don't care. I wrap it around me and tie the sash. I gather up the hem so I don't trip on the stairs. I go down. I walk to his recliner and look at it. I look at my rocking chair. I stand there, immobile. It's his chair, not mine. I've never sat in it. Not alone anyway. I sometimes would sit in his lap there, but never alone. I walk to the sofa. Neutral ground. I lie down and pull the afghan over me. It's the one his grandmother gave us for a wedding gift. I wonder if he has seen her yet. I heard a theory that when you get to heaven, you meet up with all your loved ones who passed before you. It makes me smile. She would be happy to see him. I wonder if they had a welcome home party for him in heaven. With a big banner, streamers and cake. Probably angel food cake, I would guess. I wonder if it's so much fun there that he won't even miss me.
Socks jumps up and curls into my side. This is most unusual. Socks is his cat. Was his cat. Socks has never liked me much. Avoids me most of the time. It must be the robe, I decide. He jumps down, goes over to the recliner. He jumps up on the arm of the chair and meows at me. He doesn't stop. I get up. Bring the afghan with me. I settle into the recliner and put the leg rest up. He curls up in my lap and falls asleep. He begins to purr. A soft comforting hum. He is content.
I look across the room, and my eyes rest on the photograph that sits on the table in front of the window. It's his favorite picture of us. It was taken on a quiet, white sand beach on Kauai during our honeymoon. We're sitting on a huge boulder, with a large fan shaped palm fern behind us. A young woman was passing by, and he asked her to take the shot. It is perfect. He framed it, and put a caption under it. The caption reads "Love". I think about it. Those wonderful, idyllic days in paradise. I'm glad he's my husband. Then I frown. Am I still married? I feel married. I don't even want to think about the w word. My friend Nancy used the w word today. She didn't know I heard. She was talking to her husband. I didn't hear the whole conversation. Just, "so young to be a widow". What is a widow supposed to do? How should a widow act? Am I supposed to wear black every day? I don't have anything black. Well, my little black dress. I bought it for our first wedding anniversary. We went out to dinner at The Seashell. The most romantic place in town. He bought me a rose. One red rose. For one perfect year of marriage to one perfect woman, he said. I can't wear my little black dress every day. Can I?
I notice that the sun is getting lower in the sky. Time to fix dinner. Then I realize I don't need to fix dinner. He's not here, and I'm not hungry. Heck, even if I were hungry there's enough food in the kitchen to last a month.
The phone rings. I let it. It's my sister. She tells the machine that she is "checking in". I think, "checking up on me more like". I pick up the third time she calls. I soothe her worried mind. Yes, I'm doing OK. Yes, I've eaten. No, I don't need anything. No, I haven't changed my mind about staying with them. Yes, I'll call if I need anything. I wander to the kitchen and grab a peanut butter cookie from a plate on the table.
It's time for the news. We always watch the news together. I go back to the recliner. Pick up his remote, and turn on the news. The first story is about a guy who went on a shooting spree at a shopping center. Five injured and one dead. How tragic. The anchor says, "and on a brighter note"—a story about the addition to the public library and the ribbon cutting ceremony. Nice. On to the weather. It's going to be much cooler tonight, maybe even frost in the morning. The meteorologist recommends covering your outside plants. I wonder if she really cares about our plants. I get up and walk out the back door to the garden. I stand there looking at everything he planted. Mostly perennials, but he always did some annuals for me. I love petunias, and he does not. Did not. There are petunias of every color throughout the garden and around the yard. For me. He loves me. Loved me. I stand there trying to decide if the plants really need to be covered. What difference does it make, I think. I walk to the shed, and get the coverings he has used for the last three years when the first frosts came. It is early evening. I am barefoot. There is dew on the grass. I am carrying the coverings, so I forget to hold up the bottom of my robe. His robe. It gets damp. I work my way around to the plants and finish the job. I have never done this before. I wonder if I have done it right.
I walk back into the house. Lock the back door. Get a towel from the bathroom. I dry my feet. I look at the bottom of the robe. I think, I should get my own robe while this dries, but I don't do it. I go back to the recliner. Socks gives me a look. That cat look that says, "You have inconvenienced me". He settles back in my lap. It is getting dark. I turn on the table lamp. My eye falls on the novel that he had been reading. The latest Grisham. He loves to read. Loved to read. He's always saying "so many books, so little time". I wonder if he'll have time to read in heaven. I wonder if God has tasks for him to do. Like the honey-do lists that we sometimes leave each other. I wonder if there's an orientation in Heaven. Like the first thirty days at a new job.
Day 1-Get measured for robe
Day 2-register for harp playing 101
Day 3- practice walking on clouds
And so on. He should get through orientation fairly quickly. He's a quick study.
It is Tuesday. Socks is making himself known. He wakes me with his incessant meowing and tugging at the collar of my robe with his teeth. I rub my eyes, stretch and get up to find him some food. I feel a little guilty. He hasn't been fed in a few days. It slipped my mind. Who could blame me really? Well Socks could, I guess. I look at the clock. It is 6:04. I must have slept. Good. When Susan calls, I won't be lying when I tell her I got some sleep. I make coffee. I pour a cup, add powdered creamer and sugar. I look at it. I start to cry. I don't drink coffee. He does. Did. I think that maybe I should drink it for him. I take a sip. Nasty. I can't do it. I pour it down the drain. I dump the rest of the pot too. I unplug the coffee maker. I pick it up and drop it into the trashcan. Slam the lid down hard. There will be no more coffee in this house. I continue to cry. I am standing in the kitchen. My nose is running, tears are running down my face, my eyes are swollen and red. The phone rings. I grab a paper towel and blow my nose. I take a deep breath, and answer the phone. It is my mother. It goes like this.
"Hi Stephanie, How are you doing?"
"I'm fine Mom."
"No, really, how are you?"
"I'm doing OK. I just made a pot of coffee."
"Oh. Um. You don't drink coffee."
"Nope. I don't. Pretty crazy huh."
"Have you been crying? You sound like you've been crying. You sound funny."
"I sound funny? I don't feel funny. I feel like shit."
"Stephanie Ann. Don't curse at your mother, and there's no need to be sarcastic. You know I'm worried about you."
"Yes, Mom. I know. I'm sorry. Please don't worry. I'll be fine."
"Are you sure? I can come over if you need me to. I have some chicken soup in the freezer I could bring for you."
"No Mom. Really. I'm doing as well as can be expected, all things considered. "
"That's what your sister told me. Are you sure you don't want me to come?"
"I'm sure Mom. I'm OK."
"Well, alright then. I better run. I have to make my tee time."
"Ok. Bye Mom. Thanks for calling."
"You don't have to thank me for calling dear, I love you."
"I love you too Mom."
I hang up. I sit down in the middle of the kitchen floor. I start to laugh. I laugh and laugh and laugh. Pretty soon I am crying. I cry until my head hurts. Socks looks at me, turns and walks away. I sit there for a long time. I don't know how long. Just a long time. I get up. I walk out to the garden and take the covers off of all the flowers. I put them in the shed, go in and get a diet coke from the fridge. I take a peanut butter cookie from the plate on the table. I take my soda and cookie out to the porch. I sit in the wicker chair and eat my breakfast.
It is Friday. I have been wearing his robe for four days now. The hem is dingy and gray. I don't care. It smells like him. Like the soap he always uses. I wear it and sit in his chair. I close my eyes and pretend that he is holding me in his arms. I wear it around the house. I wear it to the garden each morning and evening. Make the rounds. Cover up the plants. They are the children we never had. I tuck them in, carefully. In the morning, I come back. I gather up their night clothes. They nod in the breeze and lift their dewy faces to the sun. I wonder how long I will continue to cover them. If I continue through the winter, will they continue to bloom? Can I keep them alive through the snow and cold? They are a part of him. He planted them. He watered them. He weeded them. I don't want them to die.
It is Sunday. I know this, because I have been checking the calendar every day for the past few weeks. What was it they said? Every day will be a little better than the one before. So far, they are wrong. Just another of the lies that people tell to try to make me feel better. Or make themselves feel better. I'm really not sure which. Don't get me wrong. I know they mean well. They just don't know what else to say. It's what everyone does.
I went to the grocery store yesterday. I hadn't planned to go. I didn't want to go, but Socks had run out of food. I had been feeding him canned tuna, but I ran out of that too. On Friday I took a pound of hamburger out of the freezer. I thawed it in the microwave and fed it to Socks. Socks likes hamburger. After the hamburger was gone, I tried scrambled eggs. Socks doesn't like scrambled eggs. So, I took myself to the store. I got cat food. A lot. I figured while I was there, why not? I got salmon in gravy, beef with gravy, white fish in gravy, liver in gravy, mixed blend in gravy. I wonder why cat food needs to be in gravy. It's not like anybody is going to whip the cat up a side of mashed potatoes or anything. There was a woman in the pet food aisle watching me. She just stood there. Staring. I smiled. She sort of half smiled back, and backed away from me. Hmmm. I thought. What's up with her? Oh well, I shrugged. I thought while I was there I might as well get some milk. I was pretty sure the container in the fridge had gone bad. I walked up to the dairy case, and was perusing all the different milk choices. Whole milk, 2% milk, 1% milk, Skim milk, chocolate milk, strawberry milk, cream, half and half, lite cream—huh—what's the point in that, I thought. I was just about to make my choice, when my friend Barb walked up. When I say my friend Barb, It's kind of a stretch. More like an acquaintance. We go to the same gym. We've had lunch a few times. Barb is one of those people who always looks good. She looks good after an hour-long spinning class. She looks good shoveling the snow, or doing housework. Yesterday she looked exceptionally good. She had just come from getting a new hair cut. A bob. Cute, perky, shiny. She was wearing gray slacks, and a plum colored sweater. Matching pumps. She approached me cautiously. "Hi Steph, How are you doing?"
I smiled. "Oh, I'm doing ok, really, as well as can be expected, all things considered. Thanks for asking."
She smiled again, "You're looking well. Do you think you'll be coming back to the gym soon? You know, it would do you good to get out."
I smiled. The voice in my head said, "Another lie. I am most certainly not looking well." I am wearing pink sweatpants and a sponge bob sweatshirt. I have no socks on under my red keds. I have not had a shower in days. My hair is in a ponytail with a green scrunchy. I don't have a stitch of makeup on. I am not looking well. I don't care that I am not looking well, but I care that she tells me I do. My real voice breaks through. "Yes, yes, I've been thinking about the gym-maybe next week, I'll have to see."
She smiled, patted my hand—"Well, it was good to see you. Better run. See you at the gym".
I chose a half gallon of 2%, and a half gallon of chocolate. That's when the fun begins. I push my cart to the check out counter. Counter 6. The cashier's name is Wanda. It says so on her little white name badge. It says, "Hi. I am Wanda and I'm here to help you." Wanda smiles, "Good afternoon, would you like paper or plastic?" Hmmm. Decisions, decisions. I decide on paper. I set my milk on the little moving belt. Then I start unloading the cat food. Ten cans of salmon, ten of beef, ten with white fish, ten with liver, and nine of mixed blend. That's all that was left. Mixed blend must be popular. Wanda looks at me. She stops the little belt. She opens her mouth to speak, but no sound comes out. Finally, she clears her throat. "Ummm. You can't buy this much cat food." she says.
I laugh. "Right, haha, Is there a cat food shortage or something?"
"Ummm, Noooooooo, but you still can't buy this much cat food." I realize that she is serious. I ask, "Why not?"
"Well, it's a rule."
"There is a cat food rule?"
Wanda nods, smiles, relieved that I understand. But I don't understand. I tell Wanda, "I came here for cat food. I have cash. I have checks. I have credit cards. I am buying this cat food ." Wanda looks at me nervously. She picks up the little phone next to her cash register. She announces in a loud voice, "code 1 at checkout 6, code 1 at checkout 6". People are stopping. People are staring. Some are whispering. I don't remember ever having this much trouble buying cat food before. Then I remember. I have never bought cat food before. He always bought the cat food. That was one of his jobs. I think it might have been nice had he told me that buying cat food was this difficult. Soon a man in a nice blue shirt and a tie comes over and stands next to Wanda. His name is Bob. According to his name badge, he is also here to help me. Bob smiles at me. He says to Wanda, "Is there a problem here?"
Wanda says, "Yes sir, she wants to buy all this cat food. I explained the cat food rule, but she won't listen."
Bob nods. "I see", he says. He smiles at me, a weird, funny kind of smile. He repeats what Wanda has already told me, but in a quiet, patronizing voice.
"Miss, we have a rule. We can't sell you this much cat food. Not without proof that you actually have a cat."
A crowd has gathered. No one is checking out. They are all watching me. Watching Bob. Watching Wanda. I look at Bob. I know I look confused. I am confused. I say very slowly to Bob, "I need to prove to you that I have a cat before I can buy cat food?"
He smiles again. He nods. "Yes, yes, exactly. If you buy more than five cans you have to have proof."
I am perplexed. I look at Bob. I ask Bob a question. "Bob, Is there a special cat ownership certificate that I should apply for? My husband used to buy the cat food. He never mentioned a cat certificate. I looked through his wallet a few days ago. There was no cat identification card. I am sorry to make this so difficult, but my cat is hungry. He doesn't like eggs. I have to bring home cat food. What more proof do you need? Why on earth would I go to all this trouble if I didn't have a cat?"
Bob sighed. He came around the counter and put his arm around my shoulder. He said softly, "Miss, sometimes people go through hard times. Sometimes, through no fault of their own, they need a little extra help. There is no shame. No judgment. There are people who can help. Here is a number for you to call."
He hands me a little card. I read the card. 'Bluff County Human Services Food Assistance Program'. I look at Bob. I look at Wanda. I look at the card. I look at the cat food. I start to laugh. I think Bob thinks I've gone a little loony. He looks nervous. I try to stop laughing. I wipe the tears from my eyes. I collect myself enough to ask if it would be alright for me to just take five cans and my milk. Bob looks relieved. "Of course, of course, Wanda will ring that up for you. And Miss, take good care of yourself."
He nods to Wanda, and disappears. Wanda rings up my cat food, and my milk. I thank her. I smile. Wanda smiles back. She says, "Thank you for shopping at Miller's grocery." It is Wednesday. He has been gone for six weeks now. I went back to work last week. Socks and I have settled into a routine. I no longer sleep in the recliner. I am able to sleep in our bed. My bed. I finally washed his robe. I still wear it every evening while Socks and I sit in the recliner and watch the news. I go to the grocery store every five days for cat food. Wanda is still there to help me. I thought about trying to buy six cans of salmon in gravy, just to see what would happen. It has snowed several times, and I have stopped covering the plants at night. I have, however; kept all the plants alive that were sent for the memorial service. I have been diligent in their care. I think it would make him happy. I cry a lot. I cry while driving back and forth to work. I cry when I watch the news. I cry whenever. I don't need a specific reason. But every now and then I find myself smiling, or finding little pieces of joy in unsuspecting places.
My best friend Debbie came over a couple of weeks ago. She has called me every day since the memorial service. She knocked on my door one Saturday morning.
"Got any coffee?" she asked.
"Nope", I said. "I have cranberry juice, milk, diet coke, bottled water, green tea, and wine."
"It's a little early for wine. I'll have water. I'll get it." She went to the fridge.
She opened the door. "Good Lord! What the hell is in here? It reeks."
She handed me a bottle of water, pulled out my trashcan, and started throwing rotted casseroles into it. She emptied everything. She washed out the fridge and put in my box of baking soda. She hauled the trash out to the curb for pick up. She took the mail off the counter and sorted it. Separated the junk mail from the important stuff. She helped me write thank you notes to all the people who had sent cards, food, money, and plants. She told me to take a shower and wash my hair. While I did, she changed the sheets on my bed. I hadn't done that since the last time he slept there. She vacuumed and dusted. She did my laundry. She ordered Chinese takeout. We switched from water to wine. We talked. We laughed. We cried. She never once asked me how I was feeling. She asked me if there was anything I needed. I said, "Well, I do have a craving for peanut butter cookies."
I think I'm doing pretty well. As well as can be expected, all things considered.