On an Annual Goodbye

Edith Thomas slowly guided her silver sedan around the lush hills of Sparrow’s Trace Cemetery. It was a clear, sunny day in early October, but, at 79, she no longer trusted her eyes and reflexes as she once did. So, she drove slowly, humming her favorite hymns and pulling her hair back gently with her left hand. She slowed as she crested the high hill, pausing to look at the Gentry mausoleum as she always did. Still standing and still beautiful.

Edith glided down the hill, past the Smiths, the Flannigans, and the Browns, and she turned gently left at the Turners and the Vincents. As she arrived at the Memory Pond, she pulled over onto the side of the road and parked. A look in the mirror, a flutter of the eyes, a purse of the lips, a sniff of the nose, and an application of makeup later, she gingerly opened the door and stepped out.

Underneath the car landed two black flats, worn but still presentable at church. Like a series of blocks landing on each other came the hose, black skirt, thin black belt, cream blouse, black jacket with jade broach, and jade necklace. The assemblage was topped by a surprisingly youthful face, rose cheeks and deep eyes surrounded by an oval perimeter further fenced by short silver hair. Small wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth betrayed her, but she bore a posture and pose of a woman twenty years her junior.

Edith took her flowers from the rear seat, shut the car door, and walked across the road and onto the grass leading to the Memory Pond. The grass was thick with the summer’s growth, and it appeared her slight frame did little to challenge the combined strength of the blades. She arrived at a small stone bench, her favorite, and sat, admiring the complete view of the pond. Ringed by Northern Red Oak trees, the blue-green water of the pond shimmered as if on fire when the breeze danced across. She closed her eyes, felt the sun on her face, and leaned back on her hands. She could hear the wind and the birds and a stray insect or two, as always, and, most importantly, she could hear nothing else.

She had first come to Sparrow’s Trace Cemetery thirty years ago to bury her parents. Then, she had the strength of her husband Kevin and daughter Emily to lean on. To depend on, really. Ten years later, with Emily living on the other coast, it was much more difficult when it came time to say goodbye to Kevin. Her college sweetheart. Her best friend. Her everything.

Her mind wandered to the breakfast table 21 years earlier. That’s when it started. Like every other morning, she had made Kevin his oatmeal and sliced his apple. It was just one of the daily rituals that gave their lives meaning and order and, honestly, happiness. They talked about Emily’s impending marriage, town gossip, and other things that surely seemed important. An hour later, that’s the first time Kevin felt ill. A pain in the stomach. She wrote it off to indigestion, but it didn’t resolve for hours. A few days later, the same thing. The next week, again.  Then, Edith and Kevin began the dance so many knew so awfully well: doctors, tests, more doctors, more tests, the Big C, tears, treatment, tears, treatment, exhaustion, treatment, hope, more treatment, more exhaustion, more tears.

A year later, at Kevin’s bedside in the hospital, while Emily had gone downstairs to get some coffee, Edith held Kevin’s hand as she watched him slip away. There was no commotion, no dramatics, no furious heroics from doctors and nurses. Fear becoming reality was surprisingly quiet. Edith just sat and held his hand. She knew the thought — that if she never let go he wouldn’t either — was foolish, but she couldn’t will herself to move. Edith felt Emily come into the room with the coffee, but to move to acknowledge her, to recognize her own daughter, entailed finishing her final moment with Kevin. No force in the universe could have caused that. She stared at Kevin, frantically trying to take as much in as possible, clawing against time, fighting in silence against an undefeated foe. It was not until Emily’s hand landed gently on her shoulder that the spell was broken. Still undefeated. Emily never knew that Edith’s subsequent tears embodied her anger at her for breaking the spell as much as they represented the pain of losing her husband.

Edith glanced around the pond and watched the ducks swim. For many years after Kevin’s death, Edith felt just like those ducks — grace on the surface, but kicking and struggling like hell underneath the whole time. She came to the cemetery often to visit and that helped ease the pain to some extent. Like oatmeal and sliced apples, the ritual of the cemetery visit gave her grief order. Maybe even meaning. Eventually, she visited only on Kevin’s birthday, October 4. And, so, today, it was time for Edith and her grief to take a visit. And today, she had an important message for Kevin.

She got up from the bench and carried her flowers halfway around the pond. She carefully walked up and over a slight hill and into a large expanse dotted with trees and shrubs. She smiled as she passed the Callahans and the Benders, the Julians and the Roosevelts. Edith finally came to a large, gray headstone, beautiful in its simplicity. “Kevin Bryant Thomas, October 4, 1936 to May 17, 1995, Father, Husband, Son, and Friend” As she knelt to put the white roses down in front of the tombstone, her left hand rested on top of the stone and felt its warmth. She enjoyed the sensation more than she would have thought. After all these years, she still wanted Kevin comfortable, as silly as it was, and after all that had happened.

She stepped back and took in the scene. Behind the stone and white roses, the hill fell away gradually, undulating as far as the eyes could see. Trees dotted everywhere and melted into the sky. It was a beautiful vista, one of endless possibility for spirits with no possibility. She looked around and noticed numerous flowers in front of various tombstones and took comfort in at least that level of life in this place. She cleared her throat and looked again at Kevin’s tombstone.

“I’m back. Happy birthday. You’d be 79 today, Kevin. I always did like being married to a younger man.”

She looked away, smoothing her skirt with her hand. The wind had picked up.

“I think about you every day. I do. And I know I don’t cry anymore. I can’t cry anymore, Kevin. I don’t think you’d want me to cry.”

Her eyes watered.

“Well,” she began to laugh at herself, “maybe I still cry every once in a while.”

Her small chest began to heave a little, and she wrapped her arms around herself. She stood contrapposto, fighting for the right angle to balance her sadness against the wind. Her oval face trembled now, the emotions of decades acting like tectonics, moving, shifting, shearing underneath and overtop one another, all under the surface, evidence by the slightest twitch of her eyes, jerk of her lip.

“Twenty years, Kevin. Twenty years. I have come here every year for twenty God damn years.”

She smoothed her hair back and relaxed her shoulders. The wind had died down, mirroring the slow release of all that Edith had held back for the last year.

“Last year, Emily and Joe came here with me on your birthday. We stood here, told Joe our favorite memories of you. Made him laugh. You would have been a good father-in-law to him. That night, they asked me to move out to California with them. And Kevin,” the tears were tumbling down to the thick, full, green grass, “Kevin, I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to leave you. I know, I know, but I didn’t want to leave you. Leave these visits. It was our life. Our life, Kevin, it was here. And it was a happy life.”

Edith stopped, pausing over her last words, looking away, unable to face Kevin or at least his earthly stone representative. Her shoulders had drawn up again, her hand cupping the broach he had given her on their 20th wedding anniversary.

“I told Emily and Joe that I would have to think about it.”

She wiped the tears away and caught her breath. Red leaves tumbled about her feet, one brilliant red leaf lodging in the white roses.

“While they were here on their visit. They helped me move some things up and down from the attic. Joe’s a strapping boy. He lugged those boxes up and down like it’s nothing. He brought down your old trunk from the attic. One of your old football programs caught his eye. We enjoyed looking at our college yearbooks. We were so young, Kevin. So young. When they left to go back to California, I looked around in your trunk some more.”

She paused again. Her tight face hid the delicate balancing occurring in her heart. Then, more tectonics. One plate slid underneath another, shearing off the scab she had worked so hard for the last year to build.

“I found the letters, Kevin.”

The beasts of hell had been released in slow motion.

“I’m sure you never counted on getting sick and dying so young. Were you going to get rid of them at some later date? Did you get too weak to go up to the attic to get them? Was that one thing you couldn’t ask me to help you with after your treatments? ‘Hey Kitty Kat, will you scurry on up to the attic and fetch the evidence that shows how our marriage is a scam? Thanks, hon.'”

“Did you die thinking about them? Were you keeping them to take trips down memory lane? Trips to remind you of your unfaithfulness. Trips to remind you how, with a small daughter and wife at home, you carried on a double life with a cheap office harlot for four years?  I guess we weren’t enough. Was that it? Did you want a trophy? Was it a conquest? Was I not exciting enough? Was I not dedicated enough? Did I not give you enough? Twenty God forsaken years, Kevin. Twenty years coming here. Twenty!”

Her scream ran down the hills. The grass and the leaves listened. Her emotional weight bent the light around her.

“You didn’t even have the creativity to come up with new pet names. Kitty Kat, how stupid was I! How many more were there? Did you get it out of your system, or was I an ongoing fool? Was it nothing to you, all an act? Or was our family all an act? Was I on stage or in the audience? Please let me know, I want to know.”

She stopped and breathed. Her first parry complete. Exactly as rehearsed. For months.

“I want to know, Kevin. I deserve to know, Kevin. I deserve….”

She trailed off as a car rounded a corner in the distance. She straightened her jacket, smoothed her blouse, reset her shoulders.

“I deserved better.”

The tears that had been dried by the heat of anger rolled onto the shore again.

“I’ve come here for twenty years. It gave me strength to remember this amazing man. This amazing husband. This amazing father of my child. Do you think I liked being alone? Do you think this is how I wrote my future? Do you think I wanted this, this, this non-life? I’m known for the past, not the present, much less the future. I’m a living museum exhibit. I’m spread so thin, Kevin. Why, Kevin, why?”

“But I held on to you, because you were wonderful to me. And, then, I read the letters. And I’m holding on to a dream. Holding on to a lie. A fiction.”

“Did you regret it? I wish you could tell me you regretted it. Tell me it was your worst mistake, made you love me more, made you even more committed. Tell me any one of the lies people tell each other in such situations. Tell me something. Anything.”

Edith’s shoulder’s slumped, her youthful posture and strength sapped.

“I haven’t told Emily. I won’t tell Emily. Not because I’m protecting you. I’m not. I feel sorry for you, that’s why. You cheated yourself out of loving someone completely. I don’t want your daughter to know you did that. She would think less of you, as I do. I still love you. I cannot change that, but I also can’t un-know. I will forgive you in time, but I won’t forget.”

The plates rested. An equilibrium had been reached. The trees, the leaves, and the grass were still.

“I’m moving to California next week. I won’t be back here again. I’m taking Emily and Joe up on their offer. I gave you twenty years of widowhood. That’s nineteen too many.”

She turned to walk away, took three steps, and stopped. Edith wheeled around, walked to the headstone, and removed the red leaf from the middle of the white roses. Kneeling, she whispered, “I still love you, Kevin. I’m angry, but I still love you. I was faithful, and nothing ever changes that. I loved you. I gave you what I had to give.”

Edith continued to kneel, for a long time, hugging the tombstone, crying, and offering “I loved you” as a quiet, rhythmic chant that rolled over the hills, among the leaves, and through the thick green grass.

When there were no more tears, when she had wrung all of the farewells and goodbyes from her soul, she turned and walked away over the hill, never to visit her husband, her only true love, ever again.

*******************************************

As Edith approached her car, a landscape worker was fixing some equipment near a tree, and she stopped and watched.

“Oh, hello mam. How are you?” the young man asked as he walked toward her.

“I’m okay, thank you,” Edith responded, her red eyes and streaked cheeks attesting to something different.

The young man had had many such encounters and tried to be as respectful and as unobtrusive as he could be, but felt moved in this instance to add, “It’s never easy to lose someone, is it?”

Edith took a long look at him. So long that he feared he had been inappropriate, only to hear her respond, “No, it’s not, especially when you learn that you had lost them long before you thought you had.”

The young man didn’t understand.

“May I ask you a question?” she asked.

“Yes, mam, of course.”

“Are you married?”

“Yes I am. We have two little boys.”

“You must have your hands full.”

“We do, but we get by. We’re happy.”

“Good, now I have a favor to ask you.”

Confused again, the young man replied, “Yes mam?”

“What’s your wife’s name”

“Theresa.”

“Tonight, when you get home, I want you to take an envelope and write on it ‘I love Theresa and my sons.’ That’s all. Don’t write anymore. And put the envelope in your dresser, where you’ll see it everyday.”

“Mam, I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“I want you to remember that everyday, and, if you ever get tempted to put any other letters in there, you’ll see that envelope. Give yourself the chance to love someone completely.”

The young man still unsure what the elderly woman meant simply replied, “Yes mam. I think that’s a good idea.”

“Trust me, I know it is.”

*******************************************

Edith got in her car, wiped clean her face, and began winding around the hills of the cemetery toward the exit. She no longer felt the inertia of the place, that grounding force that retains and retards. The trees and the leaves and the grass passed by, no longer interlopers on her pain, but a more unified whole.

She pulled under the ornate iron gate, paused, and turned right toward home. The feel of the last tenon releasing was not the snap she had expected. More of a gentle release. From her own hand.

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