The day was dark enough without the addition of the snowfall pelting the ground, blanketing the casket that now held my dear wife of some thirty-five years. I didn't feel the cold however, I was already numb emotionally as I stood there.
Standing by my side were my two daughters, Rachel and Kimberly, along with my son Pete home on emergency leave from the service. Hard enough on them burying their mother during a near blinding snow storm, each one of them berating themselves for not being there by her side when she passed. But Karen hadn't wanted it to be that way. Her last visit with the kids, well ... our daughters anyway, had been six weeks prior to all this. We'd gone home, home where I called it anyway, where the kids lived, not where we did. What I didn't know, and what Karen obviously did know, was that we were coming home for the last time. Time enough to say good-bye without saying it.
We had moved from Utah to Arizona almost six years ago. We did so for my wife's asthma more than anything, though at the time we had no idea she would soon be fighting an even greater problem than that. She had breast cancer, which turned out to be a rather aggressive form of it on top of everything else. At first, we kept it from the kids of course until such time as she began really radical treatments. We'd hoped with that, she'd be one of the lucky few and beat it. She wasn't. None of us were prepared for the rapidity of her decline. It felt like it happened overnight. One day she was her bright smiling self, full of "vim and vinegar" as I so often put it. The next, she was a darkened shell of her former self, and soon after she was gone.
I'd held her in my arms there at the hospital as she lay dying, barely strong enough to speak, and when she did, she shocked me. Surprised me to say the least.
"Jim, promise me something," she stated.
"No, not until you promise me you'll grant my last request, no matter what you think or feel about it after I tell you what it is."
"Ok," I said fighting back the tears. "I promise." Though at the moment, I'd have promised her anything regardless of what it was, just to see the light shine in her eyes again the way it had over the past three and a half decades that I'd spent with her.
I saw her smile, for a moment she was twenty-six again, the age we had gotten married and began our life together.
"Don't live alone," she said weakly. "I'm not telling you to get married again if you don't want to. But ... promise me Jim, you won't live alone pining away for me either. Find someone, someone to have fun with, do things with. At least that much," she half begged me.
Of course I balked at her notion, the words forming even as I began to express them, but she held her fingers up to my lips effectively shushing me. "You promised," she said, and with that, took her very last breath and passed from this life into the next. Even as the alarm on her monitor sounded, I continued to hold her, oblivious to the sound it was making. Her final words still ringing in my ears as I sat there.
"Don't live alone ... promise me."
After everyone had left, friends and relatives I hadn't seen in years, I continued to stand there as they lowered my wife's casket into the cold hard ground. The kids as always standing by my side, finally pulling me away though my head stayed behind even though my body followed. I remember eating something later, without tasting it. I remember hushed whispers outside my room as they quietly left leaving me to sleep, though I remained wide awake for most of the night. All I wanted to do was follow after my wife, crazy thoughts whirling around inside my head, though each time I thought through some conclusion on how to accomplish all that, I saw the horrored looks in my children's faces as they stood looking down at me as they lowered my casket into the ground. No, it wasn't going to be quite that easy. The best I could hope for was that old age would speed up the process a little and do its thing in a reasonably short time without any real help from me. Though subconsciously perhaps, I'd already decided I wasn't going to do much of anything to prevent that from happening either. About the only thing I did immediately decide to do, was to sell the house in Phoenix and move back to Utah, find some sort of a nice, easy to maintain condominium or something, and then wait for the inevitable.
As much as I loved the kids, and they me. The last thing any of them wanted was for "grandpa" to end up moving in with them. Sunday dinners every other week was about as much as any of us really was willing to entertain as far as family gatherings go. After that, I was content to sit at home, watch TV, eat simply and wait for time and circumstance to catch up to me. My wife's words all but forgotten as I soon settled in to what became a very mundane way of life.
And just like the seasons change, so did my life, quite unexpectedly too. I certainly wasn't looking for it, if anything ... I was trying to avoid it. Even my kids had been pestering me to "get out" to do something, to "meet someone". Which was about the last thing I had any intention of ever doing, regardless of the promise I had made. So far I'd managed to come up with enough excuses to put them all off with. If it hadn't been for my craving for peanut butter, which lately had become one of my main staples, maybe things would have continued on the way they had been.
Funny how something so simple as that can change your entire life.
I stood there in the isle, a jar of Skippy smooth and creamy in one hand, and another jar of Skippy chunky style in the other. I actually found myself torn between which of the two I should buy when I heard a feminine voice speaking behind me.
"Live a little, buy both of them," she told me.
I actually laughed at that without turning around. Funny how the simplest of things can strike you when you least expect them. I'd forgotten the last time I had actually heard myself laugh, which is when I turned to address the woman who had urged me to buy them both.
"Maybe you're right ... maybe I..." The last word stuck in my throat. There was something familiar about her, something about her eyes that told me in an instant that I knew her, though her name escaped me for a moment. And then she smiled, and then I knew who she was. That same smile now added to those eyes that had somehow remained the same after all these years. "Oh my God! Carol, is that really you?"
Now, don't get me wrong here. Ever since the day that Karen and I had gotten married I had loved her with all my heart. And not that we didn't have a few bumps in the road along the way either, because we did. I called those my stupid times. Karen had another word for it, but she forgave me for it anyway. As I later did with her. Like I said, our marriage wasn't perfect, but we truly did love one another, and eventually started acting like it ... right up until the end. But Karen wasn't the first woman I had ever loved either. Though back then, being the young teenage kid that I was, I wasn't supposed to be in love, or even know what that really was. Though secretly I had told myself that I was ... in love with Carol very early on. But there was another problem with that too ... I was five years older than Carol at the time, and being twenty one, infatuated with a young woman of just sixteen years of age, not only wasn't very feasible, it wasn't very damn likely that anything would ever come of it either. We ran in different circles, different peer groups and friends. Though fate always seemed to have a way of throwing the two of us together in the most unlikely of circumstances, just as it had done now.
"Sorry to hear about Karen," she told me, her smile softening, her eyes pooling quite unexpectedly. I wasn't even aware of the touch of her hand on my arm as she stood there supporting herself on her shopping cart as she stood next to me. Which is when I noticed she was missing a limb. Not that she wasn't standing quite naturally, but to my surprise, she was wearing a pair of shorts, her metal leg, which for the briefest of moments reminded me of the skeletal monster in "The terminator" flashed inside my head. I silently berated myself for the thought and looked back up into her eyes. Eyes that had already spoken without words as they did. But she was smiling again.
"Car accident, ten years ago," she informed me simply. "I lost Dave in the accident, thankfully, the twins were home with a sitter when it happened," she added.
It's not like we had kept in touch or anything, because we hadn't. I had heard when she had gotten married to Dave of course, a year after I had gotten married to Karen. I had also heard about the birth of her twin sons, though I didn't even know their names. And I had heard about the accident too, though I hadn't heard about her losing her leg, or that Dave had eventually succumbed to his own injuries months later, never coming out of his coma. Something Carol would tell me all about later, though not here.
"I'm sorry," I said in response as we both stood there smiling at one another, words now failing the two of us as we stood there.
"Listen, I'm still a pretty good cook if I do say so myself, and one thing I hate doing is cooking for one. I don't know of a single decent recipe for a single person without having a week's worth of leftovers remaining behind because of it. How about you come over and join me for dinner at my place tonight?" She asked.
.... There is more of this story ...