It is your birthday, and for the second time since we met, you are not with me on your day. How should we mark the occasion? Without any fuss, I can hear you say, and maybe you can hear me ignore you as I plan a fuss of some kind, the way I did for each of the 23 birthdays you celebrated with me. Anyway, my love, weren’t you the one who always told me not to throw away old photographs because they were proof that we were here? Proof of life. Proof of having lived. These markers matter, don’t they?
There are people who don’t know you lived, people who come to our house and knock on our door who remain unaware that you used to be here. Almost every day, the new mailman leaves in our mailbox at least one piece of mail addressed to you. He would not know that those envelopes bearing your name remain unopened before I discard them in the recycling bin. Should I tell him? How should I tell him that you don’t live here anymore? Is there some protocol in place for informing the mailman or the other “known” strangers who people my life? Maybe I can fill out a form at the Post Office so everyone will know that you don’t live here anymore. You don’t live.
But that’s not the way it used to be.
You used to do the last-minute grocery shopping, and I suppose I should tell you that we just have not been able to go back to ‘your’ store. What of Lisa, the cashier? She liked you and doted on Sophie. Does she ever wonder about you, I wonder? Does she know you died or, if you cross her mind, does she just assume you started buying our groceries somewhere cheaper? Then, there’s the old mechanic, whose old ways appealed to you. Unfairly, he is older than you. Last week, we had to take your car to his shop, because the damn driver’s side window got stuck again, and I don’t know how to fix it, even temporarily. Standing there waiting for him to tell me how expensive it was going to be, I noticed his assistant had already written your name on the work order, so I thought I should tell him you had died. Oh, honey, I had to look away. A cliche, but his jaw dropped, and he stopped what he was doing to remember you, to tell me he didn’t know and that he was so very sorry. “Goddamn,” he said. “Goddamn.” You made an impression on him. You made a mark.
No, I still don’t know how to fix things, and it seems as though things are breaking all the time. Yesterday, before the storm moved in, I called someone a friend of a friend knows to repair our patio roof. He climbed up your ladder, and when I heard his footsteps above me, I pretended – for a minute – that it was you. I almost waited for you to come back down and tell me it was no big deal. I wonder did he notice the clues you left behind, the proof that you were here. Your tools still lean against the shed; your lighter – empty now – remains surreptitiously upon one of the beams. I think you thought I believed you when you said you had quit smoking. Your pictures still hang on the wall, reminding me of the complete and smiling family of which we were once a part, and if he were to look in the laundry room, he would see your favorite blue chambray shirt hanging there. Maybe he thought you were at work or that you just weren’t “handy.” He didn’t ask, but I wonder if he wondered why I called him instead of you to fix our roof. I wanted to explain, to tell him all about you, but instead I looked at pictures on his phone of the patio he had remodeled for his outdoor wedding.
It is your birthday, and I am annoyed that the men who mow the yard and trim the trees have shown up the way they do each Monday, as if it is an ordinary Monday. They make too much noise, but none of it is about you. They know you used to live here, but they never mention you. They never acknowledge that you were here even when I remind them that since you died, I need them to pay closer attention to the sprinkler system and to the branches that trail on our roof and the Mesquite seed pods that drop in the pool. You are not here anymore to pick up their slack, and they don’t appear to miss you.
To them and other familiar faces at the grocery store or the gas station, I look the same as I always did. Mostly. My hair is longer again, the way you preferred it, and I have been going to the gym again. My wedding rings now sparkle from the fourth finger of my right hand. It makes no difference. Ostensibly, nothing has changed. If you were to ask the people who know me as the woman who leaves the trashcans out on a Monday night, so the man who drives the City of Phoenix garbage truck can empty them on Tuesday morning, they would have no reason to believe anything has changed in our house.
But everything has changed in your absence, and after twenty-two months, I have not figured out how to turn away from a life with you to one without you. Some people who didn’t know you presumed I was ready to “move on.” There was the bank clerk, gently impatient as she pressed me – just weeks after you died – for a certified copy of your death certificate so she could erase your name from the checking account and the mortgage, and transform things that used to be “ours” into mine. All mine.
Until I had to do them myself, I underestimated the work you did just to keep our house – my house – functioning, and I somehow missed so many of the countless little things that now loom large in front of me. You always knew when to change the oil and rotate the tires, but you cared more about keeping the hummingbird feeder full and doing the laundry. All second nature, I thought at the time, but I know now you reminded yourself on yellow post-it notes that accumulated in the basket where you always kept your keys. Do you know I have been putting my keys in your basket every day? Sophie reminds me.
You always put things back where they belonged. You played a steady tune that I can barely hear any more. Yes, there were things you didn’t do and wouldn’t do and things you weren’t good at, but that’s where I came in. Between us and for us, we made it all work, didn’t we? Sitting here with you on your birthday, I want to scream to anyone who will listen that I can’t make it work the way it used to, because “it” is finished. Yes. I am feeling sorry for myself and I know I shouldn’t. There are so many memories to mine on your birthday, but it is no good. This grief has me in its grip, a kind of delayed reaction. I am adrift with no idea where this altered life will lead. I know you would tell me not to worry, but I wouldn’t be able to hear you above the noise of my own fears.
Do you remember the last time we were grateful? It was New Year’s Day 2013, almost a year after I was diagnosed with cancer. We were certain sure, standing there on the street outside our house in the wee hours of the first day of a new year. I was still your wife, one half of an “us,” giddy with the promise of a clean slate. Like mischievous kids, we set off fireworks at the end of our street. My parents were here too, their faces illuminated by cheap sparklers we bought one Fourth of July in San Luis Obispo, smiling at our smiling girl in her pajamas and one of my heavy jackets. Our lovely girl – just fourteen – do you remember she toasted us with cider that sparkled amber in a Tyrone crystal glass from back home. All was well. Life was sweet.
I remember staying up after you went to bed, just to savor the silence of our slumbering house. This was before I resented the silence. Curled up on the couch, I remember reading Ted Kooser’s End of Year Reflections, and today, I am drawn back to what he said of this life, that it is
. . . a long walk forward through the crowded cars of a passenger train, the bright world racing past beyond the windows, people on either side of the aisle, strangers whose stories we never learn, dear friends whose names we long remember and passing acquaintances whose names and faces we take in like a breath and soon breathe away …
It is just like that, isn’t it? On your birthday, I find myself still in between two cars. I still have some distance to travel. Forward. Ready or not. A slow turning. From the inside out.
Do you remember that song? Of course you do. I remember adding it to a playlist I made for one of your birthdays. If it began to play right as you pulled into the driveway, you would turn it up and stay in the car until it was over. I can see you right now, on your birthday, a September sun setting in the rear-view mirror and you tapping your feet and singing your favorite line:
I’m yelling at the kids in the back, ‘cause they’re banging like Charlie Watts.
How could I not make a fuss on your birthday? I will never forget you.