These are 10 things that only you know now:
He joked that he would die young.
You imagined 99 to your 100. But by “young” he meant 65. What “young” ended up meaning was 35.
In the memory book the funeral home gave you, there was a page to record his exact age in years, months and days. You added hours; you even added minutes, because you had that information. You were there when he had the heart attack.
Now it seemed that minutes were so very important. There was that moment in the emergency room when you begged for 10 more. You would’ve traded everything for the speck of time it would take to say his name, to hear him say your name.
You wondered why he’d told you he was going to die young. The first time he said it, you punched his arm: “Don’t ever say that again, ever.” But he said it another day and lots of days after that. You punched his shoulder every time, because it was bad luck, but you knew he’d say it again. You knew then that there’d always be one more time for everything.
He once compared you to an avocado.
He was never good at saying what he meant in fancy ways. (You had a boyfriend who wrote poems about you, but that boyfriend never compared you to anything as simple and real as an avocado.)
One night, out on the patio, the two of you were sitting close, thinking about whatever people think about after a hard, private discussion. It was really too cold to be on the patio, but there you were. It was just cold enough that you felt him shiver, and he felt you shiver, but neither of you suggested going inside just yet. That’s when he said, “I’ve decided you’re like an avocado.”
You almost didn’t ask why. But then you asked anyway.
He looked up at the dark sky. “You’re sort of tough on the outside,” he said. “A little intimidating.”
In photos, you always looked as if you didn’t want to be there. Lost tourists never asked you for directions.
He continued: “But inside, you’re soft and creamy. Luscious, just like a perfectly ripe avocado. That’s the part of you I get. And underneath that is the strongest core of anyone I know. An avocado.”
What you remember now is not so much the hard, private discussion, but being an avocado.
He predicted a grand slam at a baseball game.
Orioles vs. Red Sox, a sellout up in Baltimore, on a sunny June day, the kind of day when you look out the window and think: baseball. But in Baltimore it wasn’t possible to go to a game just because it was a sunny day; they sold out months in advance — especially against teams like Boston, which had fans whose fathers had been Boston fans, whose kids were Boston fans. He’d actually bought the tickets back in December, and it just happened to be that perfect kind of baseball day.
He’d grown up listening to games on the radio, sprawled sideways across his bed in the dark listening to AM stations from faraway Chicago, New York, St. Louis. He remembered the call letters and could reel them off like a secret code. Now he brought his radio to the game in Baltimore and balanced it on the armrest between your seats, and the announcers’ voices drifted up, and part of him was sitting next to you eating a hot dog, and part of him was that child in the dark listening to distant voices.
The bases were loaded, and Cal Ripken came up to bat. Cal was your favorite player. You’d once seen him pick up a piece of litter that was blowing around the field and tuck it into his back pocket. That impressed you as much as all those consecutive games he’d played.
“What’s Cal going to do?” he asked.
Cal wasn’t batting especially well lately. “Hit into a double play,” you said. Cal had hit into a lot of double plays that season, ended a lot of innings.
He shook his head. “He’s knocking the grand salami” — meaning a home run bringing in all four runners. You’d never seen one in person.
“Cal doesn’t have many grand slams,” you said — not to be mean about your favorite player, but you knew Cal’s stats, and his grand-slam total was four at the time, after all those years in the majors.
After Cal fouled twice for two strikes, you glanced over. “It’ll come,” he said.
On the next pitch, Cal whacked the ball across that blue sky.
Everyone stood and screamed, and he held the radio in his hand and flung his arm around your shoulders and squeezed. From the radio by your ear, you heard the echo of everyone cheering, and you thought about a boy alone in the dark listening.
He was afraid of bugs: outdoor bugs and indoor bugs; bugs big enough to cast shadows and little bugs that could be pieces of lint. Not “afraid” as in running screaming from the room, but afraid as in watching TV and pretending not to see the fat cricket in the corner; or walking into the bathroom first thing in the morning and ignoring the spider zigzagging across the sink.
“There’s a bug on the wall,” you might say, pointing, hand outstretched, forcing him finally to look up and see where your hand was pointing.
“See it?” you’d ask.
So you’d grab a tissue and squish the bug, letting out a sharp sigh, as if you knew you weren’t the one who should be doing this. He never said, “Thank you for killing the bugs.” He never said that he was afraid of bugs. You never accused him of being afraid of bugs.
He kept his books separate from yours.
Certain shelves on certain bookcases were his; others were yours.
Maybe it made sense when you were living together, before you were married. If one of you had to move out, it would be a matter of scooping armloads of books off the shelves, rather than sorting through, picking over each volume, having to think. He liked to stare at his books with his head cocked to the right — not necessarily reading the titles, just staring at the shelf of books, at their length and breadth and bulk. You never knew what he was thinking when he did this.
After your wedding, when you moved into the new house, you said something about combining the books, maybe putting all the novels in one place and all the history books in another and all the travel books together, and so on.
He was looking out the window at the new back yard, at the grass no one had cut for weeks. Finally, he said, “We own every last damn blade of grass.”
“What about the books?” you asked. You were trying to get some unpacking done. The only way to walk through rooms was to wind along narrow paths between stacked boxes.
“I’ll do the books,” he said. But he didn’t step away from the window.
It was a nice back yard, with a brick patio, and when you’d stood out there during the open house, you’d thought about summer nights with the baseball game on the radio and the coals dying down in the grill and the lingering scent of medium-rare steak and a couple of stars squeezing through the glare of the city.
Again you offered to do the books; you wanted to do the books. You wanted all those books organized on the shelves; his and yours, yours and his.
“I never thought I’d own anything I couldn’t pack into a car,” he said.
You started to cry, certain only you wanted the house, only you wanted the wedding. “Is it so awful?” you asked.
He reached over boxes to touch your arm. “No, it’s not awful at all,” he said, and it turned out that this was what you really wanted — not the patio, not rooms full of books, not the grass in the back yard, but the touch of his hand on your arm.
He once saw a ghost.
He was mowing the lawn in front, and you were in back clipping the honeysuckle that grew over the fence. Your neighbor — an original owner who’d bought his house for $7,000 in 1959 — wanted to spray kerosene and set the vines on fire, but you said no. You liked the smell of honeysuckle on June nights. You liked hummingbirds flitting among the flowers in August.
It was that time of the early evening when the shadows were long and cool and the dew was rising on the grass; that time when, as a barefoot child, you would start getting damp toes. You half heard the lawn mower whining back and forth, and you were thinking ahead to sitting on the patio and watching the fireflies float up out of the long, weedy grass under the apple tree. Then the lawn mower stopped abruptly; maybe there was a plastic bag in the way. When the silence lingered, you walked around to the front yard, curious, and found him leaning against the car in the driveway. The streetlight flicked; he held out his arms for a hug, and you felt his sweat, tacky against your skin.
“I saw a ghost,” he said.
You pushed the hair back from his forehead and blew lightly on it to cool him down. His forehead was pale compared with the rest of his face.
He pointed over toward the maple tree, but nothing was there.
“What kind of ghost?” You still had your hand on top of his head, and when you removed it, his hair stayed back where you’d pushed it.
“Like a soldier from the Civil War,” he said. “Leaning against that tree, and then he was gone.”
“Confederate or Union?” you asked.
He looked annoyed, but it seemed a logical question.
“It was a ghost,” he said. “I saw a ghost.”
“Confederate encampments were along here.” A car went by too fast, music spilling from its open window.
“This is stupid,” he said, and he leaned down and pulled the cord on the lawn mower. The engine roared.
Now you’re the one who cuts the grass. When you’re done mowing in the evening, you lean against the car and wait, but all you ever see are fireflies rising from the damp grass where you leave it long under the maple tree.
When he ate malted-milk balls, he sucked the chocolate off first.
He’d roll the candies from one side of his mouth to the other, making the tiny noises you’d imagine a chipmunk would make. If he caught you watching, he’d instantly stop.
He had a special way of doing everything. He developed a method of eating watermelon with a knife, cutting slices so thin the seeds would slither out, and setting aside the juiciest fillet from the middle to eat last. There was an order in which to read the newspaper (sports, business, style, metro, front page). The two of you never left a football or a baseball game until the last second had ticked off the clock, regardless of a lopsided score or a 10-below windchill.
If someone had told you about a person who did all these things, who imposed these rules on himself, you would’ve thought he was odd, annoying. But you found out piece by piece — like putting together a puzzle.
He hated his job for years.
You lay in bed and listened to him grinding his teeth at night. You fantasized about waking him: “Let’s talk,” you’d say, and he would tell you exactly why he hated his job and how he really felt about the endless reports he wrote that no one read. You would tell him to quit his job, offer to do his résumé on the computer; or maybe the two of you would just cry and hold each other.
But that’s not what happened the times you did wake him. He told you he was fine, told you he was tired of complaining about his stupid job, told you to go to sleep. His voice was expressionless, like a machine that runs on and on by itself. Then you both pretended to be asleep, and then he really was asleep, because he was grinding his teeth again.
You tried to bring up the subject during the day. “No job is worth this,” you said when you called him at his office.
“I can’t talk now,” he whispered.
You heard his boss being paged in the background. He said, “Men where I grew up work 40 years on the line at Chrysler. You think every day is great?”
The conversation never went further. It was his boss; it was turning 30; it was long hours; it was too much overseas travel; it was traffic; it was sucking up taxpayer money to fund projects that improved nothing; it was living in an expensive neighborhood in an expensive city on the East Coast; it was a wife who wanted to be a writer; it was needing his health-insurance plan; it was being the oldest child; it was being raised in the Midwest; it was being brought up to despise whiners. You knew it was all those things, but you suspected there was something more that he didn’t want to or couldn’t explain but that you could help with ... if only he would talk.
This is what you thought about on those nights when you pretended to sleep: You prayed for him to talk, even though you hadn’t been to church in 10 years. It felt strange to ask God to make a man talk. The silence was thick and hard and invisible, like air before a storm.
One night, you woke up and he wasn’t next to you. You found him downstairs at the kitchen table writing on a yellow legal pad. A tiny moth circled the overhead light; you watched it instead of him. You asked, “Working late?”
He kept writing, flipped the page over, wrote some more, and finally said, “I’m writing a movie.” He told you the plot: A guy who hates his job goes to baseball camp to relive his childhood fantasies and wins the big game, not by blasting in a home run, but by bunting.
It took him months to write the screenplay. He thought he was going to sell it in Hollywood and buy a house with a pool and retire. By the time he realized that wasn’t going to happen, it didn’t matter, because there were changes at his job, new projects that he’d developed. He talked to you about what he was doing, about the results of his work.
The handwritten manuscript of his movie stayed on your nightstand.
The combination to the lock on the garden shed (0-14-5), where you keep the lawn mower, the rake, the snow shovel.
Every fall, mice took over the shed; you never saw them, only the traces left behind — dry droppings like caraway seeds, footprints crisscrossing the dust. He looked into poison. A neighbor across the street told him the right kind. “It shrivels their body from the inside,” the neighbor explained, “so they dry up: no smell, no mess in a trap, no nothing.”
No one likes mice. But what kind of way to die was that, leaving nothing behind?
He set out the poison anyway.
Now, when you open the shed to drag out the lawn mower, you look for some sign of the mice, but he cleaned out the shed in the early spring, swept up the droppings, hosed the dust. You’re somehow disappointed that there are no mice. You think, They’ll be back in the fall. And you know that during the winter you’ll keep the shed locked, that you won’t look. Then you can think, The mice are there, never checking to see.
He wanted children.
You did not. His parents probed, and yours didn’t ask. For years, neither you nor he wanted a child. For years it was agreed: no children. There was travel, sleeping late, popcorn for dinner, an indulged cat. It was a pact.
One day he broke the pact: “What about children?”
“What about them?” Haha. But you knew.
He talked about having a baby, you talked around it. Finally he said, “You decide, because you’re the one who gets pregnant.”
It was a year of thinking about a baby. Of thinking about the books to be written, the time and attention books needed.
After a year, there was a day where you said, “I decided.”
It was a spring Saturday with tulips outside along the patio. You spoke this one-word answer you knew was secretly in his heart, the answer he was afraid to say. His face drained dry, his eyes flattened, and his heart was shattered because it had been the other word waiting in there.
He left the house. The car door slammed. You wandered rooms seeing furniture, books, the cat. What would he take? What would you be left with?
Four hours later, headlights flashed, and you met him at the door. “Let’s go to church tomorrow,” he said. An astonishing idea, but you went.
That spring Saturday was not the moment, but the beginning of the moment. The moment came a year later, after a year of church, when he said, “What I want is for you to write books. What I want is for your art to be what lasts.”
When he said, without the words, I want you.
That’s how much he loved you.
And that’s the thing you know most of all.
Adapted from “Ten Things” from the book “This Angel on My Chest,” by Leslie Pietrzyk. Copyright © 2015. Used with the permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. “This Angel on My Chest” won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Pietrzyk lives in Alexandria, Va., and teaches in the master’s in writing program at Johns Hopkins University. Her husband died in 1997.
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