Memory and grief have become my companions of the night; wresting aside sleep, they have their way with me when I’m alone and vulnerable. Sometimes the memories warm my heart and mind as I review happy scenes such as one late summer afternoon when Kelly and I, in a rare respite from work, children, and the stresses of everyday life, found ourselves at Tauphas Park. Amidst the sun-speckled shade of the tall trees, we found a space in the warm grass, and sitting back to back, we were both together and apart, reading. He was engrossed in The Man in the Iron Mask, (a rare thing for him to be reading a novel) and I was idly flipping through a woman’s magazine, a light breeze randomly ruffling the pages. These sort of memories make my heart smile.
Like a match’s flame which flares briefly and then is almost immediately extinguished, my happy memories are quickly followed by grief — icy fingers of pain reaching in and wrapping around my heart inflicting a physical ache. I retreat to my bed, but despite an abundance of pillows and my goose-down comforter, my king-size bed is a nightly reminder of Kelly’s absence.
I am restless, tossing and turning, without him beside me. I get up, wander to the kitchen where the moonlight streams through the window. I fill a tin cup with cold water, the cool smoothness under my fingertips grounds me in the here and now. I stare at the moon, wondering if it is shining like this in Idaho at the rural cemetery where Kelly is buried. Buried. It still feels impossible that he could be buried under a mound of earth hundreds of miles away from me. With a heavy sigh, I return to my room and slip back into bed. In the still of the night, when I am no longer keeping myself distracted with busyness, I find tears slipping, unbidden, down my cheeks in a never-ending flow of longing for Kelly. I yearn to rest my head in the hollow of his shoulder anchored in the security of his love. It’s the little things I miss the most.
I want Kelly. I want to still be tripping over his guitars and grumbling about his “horizontal closet” — his clothes strewn over the floor instead of hanging vertically on a closet rod. I want to watch him shake the water out of his hair flinging droplets everywhere. I want to watch his hands, his long elegant fingers playing across the strings of his guitar. I want to listen to him sing, his clear, tenor voice soaring as he sings Danny Boy or Shennandoah, or hear the gravel in it, his foot tapping the rhythm, when he is doing a Lynard Skynard or Bachman Turner Overdrive song . . . “If your train’s on time you can get to work by nine./ Start your slaving job to get your pay/ . . .Taking care of business, taking care of business, and working overtime. . . ”
I want to drive through mountain canyons with him admiring autumn leaves, stopping to get out and crunch through them, taking in the earthy scent. I want to watch him give rock-a-byes and horsey rides to the grandchildren, to see their small faces close to his, rubbing noses and chanting “nee, nee, nee” in unrestrained silliness. I want to watch him flip Saturday morning pancakes with a flick of his wrist, a decades-long tradition the children grew up with. I want to hold hands with him and walk in the rain splashing in puddles. I want to cuddle with him, our bodies curved together in a perfect fit, and make sweet love. I want to watch him peacefully sleeping, the daily cares subsiding from his face, his chest rising and falling in reassuring regularity —these are the things I want, but can have no longer.
And so I cry. In the darkness of the night, in the quiet of my room, I cry so hard I gasp for breath. Eventually, the storm of tears slows to rivulets, then shudders to a stop; I’m cried out, spent, utterly exhausted, and then, finally, I feel a measure of relief. Someday I hope to get to a place where the nearly constant, intense grief and pain can be mitigated to a dull heartache with only intermittent periods of agony —it seems to be a three steps forward two steps back progress. In daylight hours, in my rational, objective moments, I try to analyze and make sense of it, questioning how I can come to peace with still being here, when my heart is with Kelly. Why do I cling to my grief with such fierce intensity?
I have a black-and-red plaid flannel shirt that Kelly used to wear. It has a splotch of paint on one elbow, from when I accidentally swiped him with a paintbrush, and it is soft and worn. When I want to feel close to Kelly, or need courage to face new situations, I wear it. Sunday is the day of the week I dread the most. Most Sundays find me, a solitary figure, sitting in one of the small side pews, often wearing the flannel shirt paired with a black skirt, for solace. The shirt gave me courage when I attended my first single’s activity, and when I faced a loan officer on my own. Wearing it is like having Kelly’s arm around my shoulders. Sometimes at night I lay my cheek on its soft folds and use it to wipe away my tears. With time and repeated washing the shirt is slowly fading and wearing thin, yet I can’t bring myself to abandon its comfort.
Like the plaid shirt, I’m afraid that if I’m not hurting, it means my memories of Kelly will thin and fade away. The thought crosses my mind that perhaps this is why I cling to my grief; yet, I am tired of feeling sad, and hurting. I long to feel vibrant and alive again. Perhaps if I preserve the memories, capture the essence of Kelly in words, I will forever have him with me; alive and real.
I will remember how it felt to wake up snuggled against him, his warmth wrapped around me, his chin fitting on top of my head, our legs tangled, basking in sleepy togetherness; my hand wandering the length of his flat stomach, feeling his ribs, so clearly defined, and then his thigh, pausing at the small bump on his right knee—scar tissue from a motorcycle accident. I trace his face with my eyes: his high forehead with its slightly receding hairline; his trademark nose, a slightly broad, squared off jaw; his chin with its early morning stubble of salt and pepper whiskers, a generously full mouth; and deep-set eyes, his silky, long lashes closed in repose. Then wrapping my fingers in his hair, I will settle against him, content.
I will taste again the breakfast-in-bed pancakes with maple syrup, cheesy scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, and steaming, hot chocolate, served complete with a note or a flower expressing his love. I will feel the strength of his hand, fingers wrapped around mine as we stroll through a balmy summer evening, pausing to notice the vibrant hues of the setting sun. I will feel his lips pressed in the center of my forehead in the feathery softness of a princess kiss. I will hear the sincerity behind the flippancy when he says, “You’re the most gorgeous woman in the whole wide world,” when I ask him if the fifth dress I’ve tried on looks okay. I will feel his hand placed against the small of my back as he guides me across a crowded room. I will hear the loving drawl in his voice when he calls me “darlin” and “cutestuff.” I will feel again, in memory, my head against his shoulder, his fingers tangled in my hair, and the steady thudding of his heart as I drift off to sleep, in the still of the night.
This was written nearly ten years ago, and I have made my peace with sleeping alone (in a still-to big bed for one), and mostly when I think about Kelly it is fond memories of our time together, and while I don’t cry nearly as much, there are still some nights where I find myself holding Kelly’s red and black shirt for comfort as hot tears wet my cheeks, and I long to hold him. I think perhaps those widow’s moments will always happen. The thing is though, after all of these years I have learned to honor them, hold them, and release them — in the still of the night.