My husband’s ashes are in a very nice box on my mantle.
I never expected to be the sort of person who said things like that. My husband’s ashes are in a very nice box, on my mantle, and it’s becoming a little bit of a memorial. His cousin sent him a Dad-Joke-A-Day calendar, and that’s beside the urn, as though he’s still telling groaners. I’ve added a stuffed Grover, one that he had before we got together. One of the few decorative items in his first apartment. It’s not a lot, but nothing is. Or everything is. Everything is a LOT.
You’re supposed to light a shiva candle when you return from burying somebody. It burns for the seven days of shiva. Only we started sitting shiva five days before the memorial. I didn’t get the candle until the third day of shiva. And I didn’t light it until another week later. It’s burning in my room, not our room, a little flame through the night. I find myself looking at it and talking to him when I’m struggling. Looking at it and crying while I talk to him.
I never expected to be the sort of person who cried while talking to my dead husband.
If what I’m doing is healthy, I don’t know. If it’s not, I also don’t know. I know there are things that must be done, soon, now, and that I’m doing them. I know there are things that don’t have to be done now, and I’m not. I also know there are things that need to be done that I’m NOT doing. And I know there are things that can wait but that I’m doing now anyway.
There are so many things. So many rooms in such advanced states of disorder. So many new things to figure out. Simple things. Things that shouldn’t have to be complicated. Like taking out the garbage. Like catching up on laundry. Like not referring to needs around the house with words like, “ours,” and, “we.”
We aren’t throwing away the lumpy old mattress, I am.
We aren’t still throwing away unrecyclable or donatable medical supplies, I am.
We aren’t going through cabinets and tossing the five open bags of identical types of chips, I am.
His things are everywhere, all kinds of places I never realized things were his. When you’re married this long, everything seems collective, but it’s not. And it’s all mixed together. His unicorn hat on the headboard, for nights when the fan bothered his bald head and I couldn’t sleep without the white noise. His broken iPod cord in the box of cords everyone has somewhere. His coffee grinder. His favorite hot sauce in the fridge. His pile of appliance instructions. His Ravinia promotional coaster in the heap of coasters. His favorite houseplant.
I found a notebook, no doubt picked up at some kind of professional lunch where companies give away promotional notebooks. It’s falling apart, but there’s only one sheet used in it. One page. It says, “Lea’s Gifts,” in his all-caps scratchings.
I know this list. It’s from 2018. It’s the list of presents he bought me for Christmas and Hannukah, annotated with what he would give to me when. The last item is “Cowboy Beebop,” the series on DVD. We watched it together almost every night, starting on Valentine’s Day a month later. He loved it. We recited the only lines in the theme to each other every time we left a hospital. “I think it’s time we blow this scene,” One of us would say. “Get everybody and the stuff together,” the other replied. The first counted off, “Three, two, one, let’s jam!” and we both started making trumpet noises, much to the confusion of nurses and doctors, as I grinned and pushed his chair from the room.
He loved those perplexed looks. He loved making that horn noise. “Wha-dap, ba-dap, ba-dap, ba-da-daaaaahhh…”
Also on this list is the multi-tool I’ve been using to dismantle our room and reassemble it into MY room.
When we were married and people asked if it changed things, I was surprised to answer that it did. We had been living together a year, but that official label gave a sense of comfort. Of settled-ness. I stopped thinking of objects in the house as his or mine. They were all just… ours.
Now I suppose they’re all mine. But I walk from room to room and think of all the dead people who they belonged to first.
My dead sister’s couch.
My dead grandma’s candy bowl.
My dead grandpa’s art.
My dead great-great-grandfather’s chairs.
My dead granny’s piano.
My dead husband’s lamp. My dead husband’s mail. My dead husband’s shoes. My dead husband’s deodorant. My dead husband’s least favorite bathmat. My dead husband’s old Halloween costumes.
My dead husband’s list of gifts.
When he was dying it was easy to be grateful. He was still here. He was dying, but he was still alive. The thing that shocked me the most in the aftermath of his death was how soon and how hard I missed him. Having him insensate in a rented hospital bed in our front room was so much more comforting than his being gone.
But he is gone. I lay on his corpse for hours, until my shoulders were screaming and my clothes soaked in his final fever sweats, knowing he was gone. I lay with him as long as I could, I wanted to hold his hand until it went cold, but I didn’t realize I was warm enough to keep it feeling alive.
I never expected to be this alive when my husband died.
And now I wander from room to room feeling all kinds of alive feelings. Anxiety, fear, sorrow, confusion, frustration, exhaustion. They’re all such living feelings. Emotions aren’t the problems of the dead. It’s only us who have to deal with them. And it’s not all hard, conflicting, difficult feelings. Sometimes I’m happy. Sometimes I’m joking around, sometimes, I don’t feel like there’s a black hole in my chest, and I’m gradually collapsing into it. Sometimes I feel relieved that it’s over. Sometimes I feel frighteningly free. Sometimes I think back on the last year with horror, realizing it will take me decades to begin to unpack the trauma we all went through. Sometimes I’m grateful that he left me so certain he wanted me to be happy, to move forward, to go on with a full, long life.
And as grateful as I am that he is not suffering, that I have let out the breath I’ve been holding for fourteen years, I wish he was here. So I tell the candle. I cry and tell the candle how much I miss him, and how hard it is without him even though nothing is that hard all by itself, it’s hard BECAUSE it’s without him. I cry and I tell him I know he wanted me to go about my business, go through the day, be ready for the next one, and live that one, too. I know he wanted me to be happy, to succeed, to have a wonderful life. I can hear him encouraging me, I hear him in my ear telling me I’m doing a good job, and it breaks my heart.
He wanted to leave me all kinds of gifts. I know if he’d had the time and the follow-through he’d have been one of those husbands who had a florist deliver roses on Valentine’s Day, or Margie’s chocolate-covered cherries on my birthday for years to come. But by the time he knew he was running out of time, he couldn’t have done those things. And his romantic gesture follow-through was always terrible.
He left other gifts, though. Only a few days after he died the kids were playing his video games and LOVING them. They were so proud of themselves for doing well, playing how he taught them, solving problems, sticking with it even when it’s hard. He taught me to stick with things when they’re hard, and solve my own problems, too. But the children keep telling me they kept at it, and kept at it, and kept at it, and then they BEAT IT, and I cry.
I never expected to be the sort of person who cries over video games.
One of the gifts he gave me was time. The girls and I have so much more time for us, now. We started watching Doctor Who again. We have all our meals together. The table is becoming our place, the four of us facing each other, the four of us clearing the dishes together, packing up leftovers together, reminding each other to put our napkins on our laps, making jokes, talking in a somewhat freer way than we ever have. There’s a lot of new honesty at the table. Mike isn’t here to tell me I’m oversharing with a meaningful glance. I am definitely oversharing. I am certain I was a better parent when I was half of a team.
I want to believe that mixed in with all these things, with this whole life full of things that were ours and are mine now, that I’ll find more of those gifts. But I bought another shiva candle. I don’t know why it’s so much easier to talk to him looking at that flame, but it is. I’m keeping a candle burning for him. I’m telling him I love him every day.
I know his love didn’t go anywhere. I know it’s here.
And for some reason, I think that’s why it hurts so much.
You can donate to the GoFundMe for the family here: Love for the Grover Family
You can read about knowing this was coming here: Sometimes When Somebody Loves You
Read my most recent post here: A Eulogy for My Husband, Michael Thomas Grover
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