Strings


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.


coffee-1487886_1920.jpgEach 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. nature-3176398_1920.jpgBelow 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.


 

Where I Came From

Once when I was young we drove to the farm to show my grandpa our new camper. He jumped from the combine, waving when we turned onto the long driveway. As we came closer my sister, brother, and I noticed something was wrong. He wasn’t waving anymore. He was stooped over, groaning.

Dad’s truck skidded to a stop on the gravel, sending up a swirl of dust. He told us to wait in the camper and ran across the field. Pain sounded in Grandpa’s voice through the screened windows. The men staggered to the truck and Grandpa sat across the table, rocking, clutching a paper towel to soak up the blood. He’d cut a chunk from his hand when climbing down from the tractor.

It was the only time I recall seeing him hurt. And for some reason, it was all I could think of the moment I hung up the phone with my dad, taking the time to allow the word “tumor” solidify in my mind.

My flight out of Charlottetown was quiet. The snow had melted from the hills below to reveal red patches of field checker-boarding across Prince Edward Island. I toyed with my seatbelt, hoping my husband would enjoy a week alone with the kids.  I landed in Toronto only to take off an hour later. Winnipeg greeted me in darkness.

“You’re at your mom’s?” His voice was deep as ever, the Frisian accent thick and endearing. “Well, shoot. That’s great. I didn’t know you were coming home.”

“I just . . . thought I should.” For months I’d ignored the urge to plan a trip back home. But, two of my cousins had scheduled their weddings within a week of each other. One of my best friends was about to have her second baby. My grandpa has a tumor. I wrapped the phone cord around my finger. “Can I come over?”

In twenty minutes I was out of the city and on the highway. I loathed the desolate landscape when I left Manitoba fifteen years before. But now, the drive to the farm was beautiful.  The prairies were my home. The place where I came from. I stared out at the open sky and turned up Wheat Kings the moment it hit the radio. My hands tightened on the steering wheel as I passed the penitentiary on the hill. Grandpa had retired from thirty-two years as a correctional officer long before– without taking a single sick day. At the end of his last shift, each and every inmate inside had lined up to shake his hand.

My sister’s van was parked in front of his barn, the Alberta license plate still dirty from the drive. Grandpa stood waiting for me in front of the shed. His shoulders were hunched, his shock of white hair thinner than I remembered. But, he was as handsome as ever. I rose to my tiptoes, hugging him tighter than I should.

“Well, look at you!” He laughed, stepping back to examine me, lines crinkling around sharp blue eyes. “You look good.” He winked. “Even if you are a little thin.”

We sat in the sunroom while my sister’s kids examined the toys we’d played with almost three decades before. I was next to Grandpa, resting my head on his shoulder as the sun danced between looming branches outside.

“I’m thinking of having the operation,” Grandpa said. His arm was around my neck, his hand engulfing my shoulder. He’d immigrated to Canada sixty-five years before. A Dutch giant, scooping up a piece of prairie farmland after the war. He was just eighteen then, a year younger than I was, when I left home.

“It sounds like you should,” said my sister.

I agreed without thinking of the implications–without entertaining the possibility he might never recover.

“It’s funny,” Grandpa said. “I never thought about dying before.”

My chest tightened. “No?”

“Oh you know, not really. I feel the same as I did before. It seems soon.”

The days were a blur of family visits, driving back and forth along the impossibly flat landscape. My friend’s house rose like a fortress in the woods on the outskirts of bear country. She was beautiful, pregnant and perfect. The first wedding began without me: the tendency to be late a family trait. Grandpa arrived a half-hour later.

The second wedding rounded off the very end of my trip, held at my old church: the sanctuary untouched by time. When the guests stood for a hymn Grandpa’s voice boomed over all of the others, fervent and on key: just like every Sunday of my childhood. I fell silent, listening, unable to sing anymore.

Grandpa chatted with each and every guest at the reception. I stole quick glances from across the room, fighting a lump in my throat. It was late by the time he arrived at our table. We talked for a long time, joking and exchanging stories while my sister and I dabbed Kleenex at our red-rimmed eyes.

Midnight descended on the reception too soon, a member of staff announcing it was time to leave. I had to fight the overwhelming urge to beg her to let us stay, noting the tired lines under Grandpa’s eyes. We’d kept him far too long already. I stood on my tiptoes,  hugging him tighter than I should, staining the lapel of his new suit with a few rogue tears.

And then I let him go one last time, the man where I came from.
On the third anniversary of the day he moved on, May 4, 2015.