Had I not reminded myself of these things, I would have expected him home after work each night. “Just left the office, traffic looks good, want anything from the store?” his 5 p.m. voice mail would say.
I had to remind myself that he wouldn’t be walking through the front door to make dinner with me and take the dog to the nearby park afterward. I had to remind myself because grief is sneaky. It fools you into thinking the impossible is possible so you don’t die of shock.
My sister had to remind me that Greg wouldn’t be pulling into the driveway each evening when I wondered aloud if he would. She was there when two workers from the funeral home showed up at my house with a gurney and death mobile for Greg, and a red rose for me. This was an hour after my sister shot down my idea that we “Weekend at Bernie’s” him, driving all over Seattle to his favorite haunts one last time.
My sister led the funeral home people downstairs to the man cave where Greg had chosen to ride out his last couple weeks as a living, breathing husband. She didn’t want me to watch them zip Greg into the black bag and wheel him away. My sister is smart.
I busied myself upstairs with the dog and my phone and a box of Kleenex until my sister ascended from the cave. She smiled as she relayed the Laurel and Hardy skit unfolding downstairs. “So, you saw how small that man and woman were, right?” she said. “They probably weigh 100 pounds each, if that.”
We chuckled at the contortions the pair was going through to figure out how to move my 6-foot-5-inch tall husband from the rented hospital bed to the gurney.
Suffice it to say that, today, my sister has no doubt that Greg is dead. But I do.
I’m not religious; I have no idea what happens when we die. But when someone close to me says, “when Greg died,” it’s as if I know something they don’t. He’s not really dead to me.
When you spend nearly 15 years with someone, as we did with each other, you get intimately acquainted with their daily rituals, quirks, scents, preferences, turns of phrase and annoying traits. I know what new books and movies Greg would get excited about, and how ecstatic he’d be over the latest archaeological findings in the news. I know what he would say before going to bed and how he’d hold me before getting up for work. How he’d grunt-pull-up his too-tight-from-the-dryer jeans and wrestle the dog before heading out the door.
I hear him in my head throughout the week, sometimes encouraging, sometimes demanding: “Hi sweetie, I love you, you’re doing great. Remember to get the car checked out. Get up and take that dog to the beach before she chews a hole through the wall. And if you could stop badmouthing that friend of mine you never liked, that’d be great.”
I know what Greg would have said after his urn was placed in the ground, a couple dozen relatives and close friends gathered at the cemetery for one last send-off. When the groundskeeper filled the hole with militarylike reverence, I heard Greg’s familiar refrain in my head. “Ta-da!” he chimed, as though he’d just fixed the garbage disposal.
The first three or four months Greg was gone, I felt as though he were just on a long vacation. “I’m still married. I just haven’t seen him for a few months,” I told a couple friends. But the more times I had to check the “widowed” box on some form or another, the more permanent Greg’s vacation seemed.
Sometimes I don’t think of him for five, 10, even 20 minutes after waking in the morning, which now comes as a guilty surprise. Others, I feel as I’m waking with him, his sleep-smell, his warm, soft skin just out of reach. I can feel him talking to me, sometimes even touching me. It’s impossible to tell whether this is imagination or something more. Either way, it gives me comfort.
But when asked by banks, insurance companies and government agencies to confirm my status — single, married, divorced, widowed — I wish for another option. One that actually rings true. Interstitial, perhaps. Haunted. Ghosted.
Back at brunch with my sister and mother, my sister continues recounting her story, the one that takes place “after Greg died.” It may be about a new client she landed or a barbecue she hosted. I have no idea. But I nod, lost in my reverie, my dead husband at my side with his hand on my knee.