I talked a lot about you yesterday. To a bereavement counsellor, and to a good friend of yours. After a two-hour session with the counsellor, I felt compelled to phone Helma. She was with you in the hospice, but by then you were unable to speak or see. It took a great deal of courage for her to come on Saturday morning after I phoned her because she just lost her husband of 41 years, your good friend Hermann, at CMC’s hospice two weeks before. I remember how much it affected you to know your friend had finally passed away after a long illness, and you were astounded by the fact that she phoned you right away. I wanted to give her the opportunity to see you one last time, since it had been so long, and you spoke so much about them. I never got the chance to meet Hermann, but it was as if I already knew them.
It was the best idea of the morning. I agonised over letting other people see you in the hospice, especially when I knew you didn’t want people to see you sick. People wanted to say goodbye, but maybe I was under too much strain to shoo them away. I didn’t want to be selfish with you.
Having Helma there helped me, and I think you knew it, although you couldn’t speak. I whispered in your ear, “Helma’s a lively one, just like you said!” — and I am certain I saw you blink fast and move your chin in affirmation. She sat with you when I was dealing with people outside, and I felt better knowing she was with you. Helma said watching me swab your mouth for hydration was like watching herself two weeks earlier. It was painful for her, but gratifying at the same time because she knew what I was going through, and she was helping me help you.
You’re so right about Helma’s cooking, too. She made me the best dinner I’d had since Tosca cooked for me the week before. I had the biggest appetite in ages. No wonder you were over at their house so often!
I told Helma how attached you were to the blue housecoat she made for you. That it’s falling apart from constant use, but you wore it all the time when you were sick and would never replace it. She beamed.
Oh, and I met “Kitty”. Hugh has much to learn from Kitty about how to use the litterbox, even though he’s had nine more years of practice.
I told Helma how much you raved about her cooking, and her textile handiwork. And how much you admired Hermann’s attention to detail with the plane modelling and jewellery-making and dental instruments and his many other interests. I told Helma how often you passed along stories of Hermann in Germany during WWII, and she pointed out “David’s seat” at the end of their kitchen table and how you were the perfect gentleman all the time — to the point where they couldn’t tell off-colour jokes in your presence for fear of making you blush.
We also shared stories of care — of husbands who were handicapped by their illnesses, personalities altered by failing bodies, and sharp minds dulled by relentless pain and neurological damage. Helma, who’d just celebrated her 41st anniversary with Hermann on November 28, and I, who’d been married to you for less than three months, had more in common than we realised. Despite our disparate ages, backgrounds, and history of illness. We were both new widows, and we both felt incomplete.
Helma showed me around her house, pointing out the momentos, wedding and anniversary photos, souvenirs from trips with Hermann. They had a whole lifetime together, and it was all in this house. She couldn’t bear to change anything, or move anything around. She needed everything to be exactly the way it was when Hermann was there, because even the tiniest change meant a little bit less of Hermann.
I feel the same way. Everything here is exactly the same as before, except I moved your cane and shower seat downstairs. I can’t return them, but I can’t bear to throw them out. I could probably give them away, but I’m not ready yet.
I’m not ready to touch “Fieldingville Railroad”. Especially because I suggested the name, and that’s what you called it. The platform is still on the dining room floor. Your eBay purchases of train gear are still in the boxes. The only thing I returned is the box of table legs. I went to the service desk at Lowe’s, burdened with images of the last time we were there, just the week before you went to the hospital.
You used a motorised cart for the first and last time. You hated having to resort to it, but I badgered you: the hardware store is the only retail outlet you enjoy, I argued. It still vexed you to ask the service desk to cut the plywood for you when you have a fully-equipped workbench and tools downstairs. The only thing that placated you was that the cutting service cost $1.
Sales clerk: “Is there something wrong with it? You don’t need it anymore?”
“No,” I said quietly.
The TV is still at an angle in the living room, where I moved it so you could watch movies from the recliner, the only place you could get comfort from your aching spine. The small TV is still in front of the little bed in the spare room, where you always slept. I can’t even bring myself to throw away your small mountain of medication — there are bottles in bags, in the bathroom, on the counters, in the medicine cabinet. It’s silly to keep them, and they’re a symbol of sickness, so you’d think I’d want to get rid of them…
Helma said she threw away Hermann’s medication. But she hasn’t gotten rid of his medical aids, either. Even his wheelchair is still there. I returned yours — you used it once, so I don’t have that same association. Hermann’s hats are still hanging on the banister, and your razor and shaving cream are still by the sink. Even Hermann’s ashtrays are still where they always were, even though Helma doesn’t smoke. I totally understand.
Helma and I couldn’t stop talking. Next thing we knew, it was after midnight. She drove me home, but we still sat and talked in the driveway for ages.
Hugh greeted me, as usual. If it were you arriving home instead of me, you would find everything in its place. It was as if you’d never left. I know one day it won’t be like this, something will be moved or thrown away or given away, and I’ll feel more loss. I wish there was a way to buy more time, with you, in our married life. I’d pay anything for it.
I miss you, Honeybun. We said this so often when we were apart, but I’m saying it again for the both of us. I have to keep reminding myself you’re not in pain anymore. It’s the only good to come of this. Thank you for Helma.
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