February 17, 2019

A Woman’s Voice

A few weeks ago, I saw my husband walking across the street, near the dry cleaners. He was wearing khakis, a beige shirt and the brown belt I bought him for his 48th birthday, the one with the gold buckle. I couldn’t see the buckle, because I only saw him from behind. But I knew that it was the one I’d bought to match a new pair of shoes — a reddish, rawhide brown. I admired him from a distance: his U-shaped receded hairline, his sturdy, wide neck, his fast-paced gait (acquired from the study of fencing and ballroom dancing). He was amazingly graceful for a heavyset man. It didn’t make a bit of difference that he’s been dead 10 years.

I sped up the car to catch him, lowering my window so that I could say hello. The instinct to call out his name seemed completely natural.

As I was preparing to speak, I felt my face go flush and my mouth go dry.

“While you’re at the market, we need some milk,” I started to say.

“Oh, my God,” I thought, “how do I explain myself now?”

You have to take my word for it: I do not live in the past. I do not go around expecting to see my husband on the Third Street Promenade or in the local Hughes. I haven’t dreamed about him since the first two months after he died. He was riding his bike in a park, wearing a red-plaid shirt. He seemed just fine.

So, to see him now, to gasp in recognition, at a man with a similar body type and round head, was a surprising sign that, as with any amputation, the senses do survive.

The guy who could have been my husband’s twin turned toward me. His face was stiff, and his eyes were dull, communicating none of Burton’s understanding that life is a huge cosmic joke. I laughed. Then I imagined taking the stranger home with me, wondering what it would be like sharing even the kitchen with a man who appeared so much like the one I had loved, but who seemed to lack the salt of his cynicism and the pepper of his wit. Maybe the difference between the dead and the living is only a matter of taste.

But what if my husband, indeed, moved back in with us today, picking up precisely where we left off. What would he make of me now?

Take the house, for example. I couldn’t bear to show him the back porch, with the outdoor sink sitting in a cabinet of corroded wood. And the living room, with the familiar chintz couch, its covers now worn thin. He’d sit down at the piano and immediately hear how badly it needs tuning. I mean to get to it, believe me, I do.

But it isn’t only my neglect I fear showing him; it is that which I have done. Surely, he’d prefer the new white refrigerator over the avocado-green, and the low-pile white carpet over the sickening orange shag. And he’d understand that a child outgrows the wallpaper of the cows and geese and replaces it with photos of girls and boys her father has never met.

But I’ve made an office of the garage without consulting him. I’ve gotten rid of most of the lousy paintings that were on our living-room walls. When he goes to unpack (I assume, for no good reason, that he has luggage with him), he’ll find that the old bed and the bedspread have been replaced. And if he’d ask me what happened to our wedding photo, once prominent on the wall, I’d have to say, “I don’t know.”

The phone would ring; a man would be calling. Maybe even several men. No use denying the obvious: I have known others. That must be why my face turned red.

I’d recognize him, but my husband might not recognize me.

Do you think you’ve gotten over it?” Samantha asks. My daughter knows all about counting time. This year, she has decided, it is time to move on.

I am angered by her question. How dare she ask me if I’m over it — isn’t it obvious?

And, yet, I never once went to the cemetery unless my daughter demanded it. I have not watched home videos — ever. I do not light the yahrtzeit candle, being afraid. I hated the past because I loved it so much; I could not bear that it was, truly, gone. Time to move on, indeed.

In all these years, I have met many men and women who have suffered loss. We never think we do it right. We should have remarried earlier, or later, or not at all. We should have kept the house, or sold the house, or taken in a tenant. We become control freaks over the small things — missing papers, unreturned phone calls — because we have no power over the large.

But what we never say is that death has great appeal. We study it and study ourselves, wearing it down like softened leather. Soon enough, memory serves us well. Better than real life.

Real life gets messy; memory stands still. Real life is strange and frightening; memory consoles — even its pain is familiar.

We are lying on the bed, watching a home video. “Are you sure?” Samantha asks. “I don’t want to cause you pain.”

I teach her the word “catharsis” and tell her it is time. I have the yahrtzeit candle ready. At random, we select the video from Burton’s 56th birthday party, the year before he died. Usually, at these events, he was the family historian, spending most of his film trying to focus the camera lens against the Spanish tiles on the ground.

But, now, Leslie has the camera, and it’s time for the cake. We’re all there, the birthday boy, his children, all his cousins and friends dating back to high school. I’m wearing a dress Samantha calls my “nightgown,” and I’ve just dropped the cake I made on the floor in the garage that would soon be my office.

“Here’s the cake,” I call out, feeding him a piece of chocolate mess. He laughs and kisses me and Samantha. And, I note, as he’s busy eating, my husband had no time to make a wish.

Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is wvoice@aol.com.