What a beautiful story. The end surprised me.
He remained warm a long time.
Warm and still. I lay with my head on his chest, straining to hear the heartbeat that had lulled me to sleep so many times before. Only this time, I wasn’t trying to sleep. I wasn’t tired. I was engulfed: drowning in the tide of arrangements I’d have to make once I picked up the phone to announce it.
The sun rose slowly behind the blinds. He’d usually be up by now. Every night he made sure the alarm was ready, and every morning he rose before it went off. On the rare occasions I woke before him I could practically feel his consciousness return to his body; the stages of his awakening marked by a subtle, sentient shift in his breathing. He’d yawn. Quietly stretch. And then he would lay still a moment, caught up in mental preparations for the day.
In the last few years his joints creaked and popped as he rose from the bed. But, it wasn’t because he was old. He wasn’t old. Not old enough, anyway.
Each day began with the same routine, ever since the kids moved out. He’d put on his slippers and shuffle to the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee, humming softly. He’d make his way down the front stairs to grab the paper and pull the door shut quietly behind him, careful not to wake me.
The lapel of his pajamas was soft between my fingers. Our room still smelled like him. The scent of his breath. His hair. How long could I lay with him like this before the smell of him ripened?
It had always seemed like there would be more time.
There had been times throughout our marriage I fantasized he would die. I’d even longed for it in the days after we laid our first baby to rest. I had wanted him to go with her so I could move on. So I didn’t have to see the sadness of losing her swallow the spark of fatherly pride that so briefly lit his eyes.
It had been morning when he found her still and quiet in her crib. She had been released from life as irretrievably as the string of a helium balloon, floating above the reach of my careless grasp. I should have known. I should have felt her passing, but I didn’t. Just like I hadn’t felt Walter’s, sometime in the hours before.
He brought home a puppy, three days after Luanne died. He’d left me alone in the house until dinner and returned with the dachshund, a bag of kibble, and a rubber ball. How many years ago had that been? Fifty-three. Our Luanne would be fifty-three now.
How I hated Walter when he brought that dog home.
I didn’t love my husband. I hadn’t loved him before our daughter’s death, and I didn’t love him after. In truth, there was never any great spark between us. We went through the motions of love. Meet. Become engaged. Get married. Exchange our apartment for a house. Buy a dog after our baby died, as if that would help. As if a dachshund might entice me to forget the sweet way the top of her head had smelled, and the warmth of her tiny body at my breast.
I pulled back a little, moving my head to the pillow beside his to take in the sight of Walter’s face in the rising light. His colorless lips hung open slightly. Small grey hair sprouted from wide nostrils and spilled from his ears. Lines ran thin around his mouth and eyes, and deep across his neck.
He was old. We both were. Maybe I just hadn’t noticed before. Not really.
The blankets were wet at my legs. It had happened quietly. A final release of urine while the organs inside his body shut down, like lights switching off in an old house at night, one, by one, by one.
I left him to shower. The water felt good on my shoulders, and I adjusted the taps gradually until the stream was almost scalding. I stood naked beneath the flow, watching the clouds of steam rise in the air. He’d been a good father when he wasn’t pulled from the house by clients. I’d raised the boys alone for the most part. He mowed the grass, budgeted my grocery allowance, paid the bills, and came home to cold dinners, left on the stove long after the kids had reluctantly padded to bed.
That was a long time ago. There would be no need of asking Walter for permission to spend money now. I could paint the house whatever color I wanted. I could sell the house if I wanted. In fact, I’d have to. There’d be no reason to keep up with the shoveling in winter, the gardening in summer, and the raking in fall without him.
Partitioned from the world like this, water raining on my back, it was easy to imagine Walter at the table, drinking coffee, turning the pages of his paper. The memories came easy of him teaching our sons to ride their bikes on the road out front and to skate on the rink out back.
Would these memories come as easy if I lived somewhere else?
No, I never loved him. Not in the way women loved men in the movies. I could live without him now. Thrive without him. We had never been soul mates. We argued more often than not. About trivial things. They all seemed trivial now.
The boys would want to salvage some of his things. A few tokens to remember him by. What would they choose? His tools. His journals. His books, maybe. And I’d have to go through the rest, weeding out the objects binding him to our house. I’d made these arrangements before, for his parents, and then mine: the going through of the houses to remove the things. It had been hardest when Walter’s mother passed. She loved me like a daughter since the first time we met. She loved me effortlessly. Easily. I could almost feel her sadness of his passing now. The comfort she might offer me if she was still here. The tightening of her arms around my body.
What was this feeling constricting the bones in my ribcage? Sadness? Regret? What was a woman supposed to feel, in the moments after her husband died? I had been the witness of Walter’s life, and I failed him. I never loved him the way he deserved. I never loved him the way he loved me.
The conditioner rinsed from my hair, I turned off the tap. I hesitated, listening to the last of the water trickle down the drain. The house was quiet. Walter’s body waited.
Clearing the fog from the mirror, I examined my reflection. My eyes weren’t quite as sharp as they used to be; the border between my pupils and irises slightly blurred. Water dripped from my short white hair. My breasts hung heavily from my chest. Yes, I was old. Just as old as Walter. And we had come down this road together.
In the bedroom, I pulled Walter’s clothes off his soft, deflated body. I struggled to roll him to the clean side of the bed and dress him in fresh pajamas. Blue ones, his favorite. I changed the bedding and put the put the soiled laundry in the washer downstairs after ensuring he looked comfortable, head propped up on a couple of pillows. This is how the EMTs would find him when they came.
I puttered about the house, moving our glasses from the coffee table in the living room to the dishwasher and tidying the kitchen. The phone rang once, twice, three times, breaking the sanctuary of silence to remind me of the outside world. The world waiting for me to say it.
What were the boys doing now? Were they eating? Talking to their wives about their children and grandchildren? How could I tell them their father had died? I picked up my cell from the counter. A picture of Walter with our youngest great-grandchild lit the screen. A girl. The only girl in our family since Luanne. How Walter loved her. How he spoiled her. How she’d miss him.
They’d all worry about me now. They would swarm and hover. But I didn’t have to tell them yet. It would be days before they expected our call, checking in to see they were well in their respective cities of Vancouver and Saskatoon.
The old oak tree stood strong and tall outside the kitchen window. Below the surface of grass and dirt, its roots had likely twisted around bones of the dachshund I’d loved; the dog that had carried me through my baby’s death, just as Walter hoped.
We would bury Walter next to Luanne, next to her grey rotted coffin in the cemetery just out of town. But then, maybe Walter was already with our baby. With his parents, and mine. And maybe he was waiting for me.
I let the cellphone timeout to black and padded down the hall. I lay on the bed beside him, clean and fresh, and ready.
I kissed his cheek. I took his hand in mine.
Oh, how I had loved him.
This was how they’d find us.