“I can’t come in today,” I said to Michelle when I called in to work on Friday morning. “I have…I have…esoteric adenitis.”
“Oh my God,” Michelle breathed over the phone. “Is it contagious? Have you been using the hand sanitizer I gave you for your birthday?”
“I don’t think it’s contagious, but you can never be too careful.”
“Okay, get better,” she said as I heard her typing away, frantically Googling the illness. “Don’t come back until you’re 100%.”
“Esoteric adenitis?” Henry asked as I hung up the phone.
“I panicked, okay? You know I’m a terrible liar.”
“Where did you come up with that?”
“It was on Dateline the other night. I knew that watching TV by myself all weekend would come in handy at some point. It’s hard to come up with an illness that sounds serious enough that she wouldn’t want me to come in today but that she wouldn’t question my miraculous recovery by Monday. Stop arguing with me and let’s get to work.”
I could have fought with Henry, the night he came up with his plan. I could have screamed at him that I didn’t want to let him go because every fiber of my being wanted him there. I always did. We weren’t the kind of couple that usually liked to take “breaks” from each other by traveling with other friends alone or meeting for dinner with other people without inviting each other to come along. Henry and I truly enjoyed being together. Even though we operated okay independently, we thrived as a couple. And to think about the fact that now, in this new situation, we would be stronger individually and apart was almost too much for me to bear.
But as we talked on and on about his theory, I realized that he had a point. Our bond to each other had placed us both in a kind of limbo, like we were both hovering around what was supposed to come next. He would never leave me not knowing if I would be okay and I could never let even a piece of him go without a reason. It hurt me to know that he felt like he was being pulled in two different directions, in one way attached to me and in another wanting to be someplace other than where he was and move forward with his life after death, whatever that might be. And I knew it hurt him that I felt the same way: Tethered to him by an invisible yet invincible bond but slowly learning that the way I was living, for him and with him even after his death, wasn’t the way I wanted to spend the next 60 years of my life.
After a while, we came to the conclusion that we could both linger at this midway point between life and death together…or move forward apart and make peace with what fate had handed us both.
So we began to do what we always did: Work together to solve what seemed to be an insurmountable problem. This required a lot of discussion (with Henry’s legal background, nothing could be done without a lot of discussion) and a couple of arguments (during which, in the middle of one of them, I actually told Henry to “drop dead”) until we came up with a list of things for our Let Go Plan.
“Now the first thing we need to do,” Henry started dictating to me as I sat in the living room poised with a pen and a legal pad, “is start going through all of my stuff.”
“What?” I asked in what I knew sounded like a whine. “Why does that have to be the first thing we do? Can’t we pick something easier? Like putting Glenda in counseling or convincing Jimmy to get his PhD in Astrophysics or something?”
“No,” Henry said seriously. “I’ve been hanging around here long enough to know that you keep circling around my stuff, but you're not doing anything with it. Even the stuff you’ve been dying to get rid of for years. Here’s your chance! Come on. I’m going to help you.”
“You’re really going to do this with me?” I asked a little sarcastically. “You’re going to watch while I get rid of those holey cargo shorts you’ve had since college and that god-awful painting of that dog you have hanging in the office?”
“You said you liked that dog!” Henry said defensively.
“I never said I liked it. We walked past it sitting on the ground at that flea market and you said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to have a dog like that someday?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ I did not realize that what you meant was, ‘Wouldn’t you like to have a picture of a dog of indeterminate breed that looks like he’s either winking or has lost an eye hanging in our home?’”
Henry glared at me. “You think you know someone….”
“This is my point!” I exclaimed. “We put up with things because we love each other. I wasn’t going to fight you on it because I knew it meant something to you. But now, with you insisting that we go through all of your stuff, you’re going to really find out about the stuff I didn’t like. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“No!” He almost shouted back to me and then seemed to try and get his emotions under control. “No, I’m not sure I want to do this. But I can’t win. I don’t want to get rid of all of my stuff, but I can’t stand to watch you living in this shrine to me, keeping tools that I’ll never be able to use again and staring at clothes in our closet that I’ll never be able to put on. You know those shorts that you hate so much? The ones that are the first thing on your list to get rid of? You know why I’ve kept them all these years?”
“Because they were what I was wearing when I met you, Jane!”
My mouth hung open and my eyes filled with tears.
“I didn’t know that.”
“I know you didn’t,” Henry said, starting to pace. “But don’t you see? It’s not good for either of us to hold on to some of this stuff. No, it’s not easy for me to watch you get rid of it, but don’t you realize that in some ways it’s all holding us both back?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“I just thought,” Henry said, stopping in the middle of the room and taking what looked like a deep breath, “that it would be easier if we did this together. We always got through the hard stuff together, Jane.”
At this point the tears fell like I had unleashed an internal storm.
“The truth is,” he continued, “I’m worried that the longer you wait, the harder it’s going to be until we both get to where we can’t let go of anything at all.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t even throw out the grocery list you left me right before you died and I don’t know why. I was so pissed that you left it because I thought, ‘Now why can’t he go to the grocery store?’”
“See? The longer we wait to move forward – both of us – the harder it’s going to be.”
“Shit,” I mumbled, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand. I picked up the pen and wrote “get rid of stuff” on the list. “If that’s your idea of where we start, I can’t wait to hear where you think we should go from there.”
“Dating,” said Henry. “I want you to go out on a date.”
“What??” I said, accidentally dropping the pen on the floor. “Are you crazy? You want me to go out on a date?”
“Yes,” said Henry. “You need to go out just once. And I need to see it happen.”
“What’s going on?” I asked suspiciously. “You run into Marilyn Monroe over there or something?”
“No,” he said. “But you need to know that you can do it. And you need to know that I’m okay with it. And I need to know that, too.”
“Fine,” I said. “Anybody in particular? Or should I just trip some unsuspecting male at the mall and haul him off to Chili’s?”
“We’ll work on that part together. For now, let’s tackle the first thing on the list. I’m starting to worry that putting too much down all at once is going to overwhelm you.”
“Really? You think so?” I asked sarcastically. “You think having my dead husband tell me he wants me to get rid of his stuff and screw around with someone else sounds like it might be overwhelming? Hey! Maybe we can kill two birds with one stone. I’ll put all of your shit in a pile and then go find some guy to come make out with me in the middle of it.”
“Well, the bonus is that if you’re pissed off at me for making you clean house, it might make going out on that date easier.”
That was when I told him to drop dead.
After a little more discussion, Henry and I decided that the best place to start weeding out his things was in the living room. We both stood there, looking around, each taking a silent inventory. Suddenly, Henry pointed to a wall and said, “Start with that.”
“That” was a neon Pabst Blue Ribbon sign that Henry had unearthed at an antique store years ago. I’d made the mistake of taking him shopping with me, thinking that we would have a great time picking out little trinkets that would go with the shabby-chic décor I longed for.
I had no idea at the time that I had tied myself to a man who, when faced with an entire store filled with beautiful things, could manage to pick out the most hideous items there.
“No. That’s where I draw the line,” I said when he picked up this enormous horse harness mirror that I swear still smelled like a barn.
“What?” he said, looking at it. “It’s perfect for Texas!”
“Then we need to move to New England,” I said, “because I’m not putting that in my house.”
I feel like I was duped when we bought the beer sign. He had been wearing me down, picking up one ugly thing after another and I kept shooting him down. Finally he picked up the neon sign and convinced me that it would look great in the kitchen of our apartment. Since that area was somewhat closed off and I knew that our apartment wasn’t permanent, I relented just so I could get us the hell out of that store. And I assumed that once we moved into a “real house” the sign would either get conveniently lost in the move or Henry would put it in the garage or some sort of man cave.
But for some reason, when we moved into our townhouse, Henry insisted that it go in the living room saying that he wanted to make some sort of bar in that corner, something that he had never gotten around to. So for years, that sign frustrated me, floating on its own in the middle of the wall where it was one of the first things you saw when you walked in our front door, its ugly black cord like a limp snake down the crisp white paint.
“You’re kidding,” I said. “You’re letting me get rid of that?”
“It’s time,” he said. “This space is yours now. You need to make it that way. Frankly, I’m kind of surprised you didn’t sneak it into the crematorium with me.”
I paused for a minute before I reached up to take it down. “Is it weird that now that you’re gone, I hate to see it go? That even things that I never liked remind me of you and now I don’t want to get rid of any of it?”
“It’s not weird,” he said. “But that’s why we need to do this. If you wait too long, you won’t want to get rid of any of it.”
I pulled the plug on the sign and unhooked it from the wall, carefully putting it on the couch. I stood there and stared at the blank white space and, God help me, started thinking about what I might be able to find to put in its place.
“Now,” Henry said, looking around the room. “I want you to find two pictures of us that you would like to keep in here. And then put the rest in a box.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t want to do that. I can get on board with getting rid of things that I never really liked. But I liked you. I like you. I like our memories. I don’t want to box them up.”
“I know you do,” he said gently. “And those memories will always be there, whether you have ten pictures of me on the mantel or one. And I’m not telling you to throw them away.”
“What are you telling me to do?”
“I’m telling you to put them someplace safe so that you can make room for new pictures and new memories.”
I crossed my arms. “Fine. But I get to have four pictures in here.”
I walked around the room for twenty minutes, carefully making my selections. I would take one down and then decide it was too important and put it back up. I would put one in the box only to take it back out again to compare it with the others. Finally I had found my three: One was a framed picture taken right before Henry and I had gotten married that someone had blown up and matted so that everyone who attended our wedding Happy Hour could sign their good wishes. Another was of the two of us taken the day we closed on the townhouse, both so excited about this new stage in our lives. And the last was just of Henry, not long after we met that summer after college, his hair a little longer and his face a little leaner, his eyes shining and his smile just so authentically Henry.
I held that picture and stared at it for a moment and I knew that Henry was behind me looking at it too.
“What were you thinking when I took that picture?” I asked.
“Honestly? I was thinking that I was completely in love with the girl behind the camera. Cheesy, but true. What were you thinking when you took it?”
“I was thinking that as soon as I knew you were committed to me, I was going to throw that shirt you were wearing away.”
I heard Henry grunt behind me. “Isn’t that just like a woman? At the exact moment the guy decides that he’s whipped, you’re planning a make-over.”
“Well, you boys don’t come trained. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication on our part. You were just lucky that I decided you were worth the time.”
I looked at the three pictures lined up against the wall where I’d just taken down the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign, the rest of the frames wrapped in newspaper and tucked safely in a box. And suddenly, I had an idea.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, leaving Henry in the living room and making my way through the kitchen and out to the single car garage. I grabbed a hammer and a few nails and headed back to the living room.
“What are you doing?” Henry asked as I stood back and took stock of the wall.
“Making a picture wall,” I said, hammering in a nail.
Henry was silent as I put the pictures in a configuration on the wall, which I knew took a lot of restraint because I had to move things around a couple of times, thereby making ten holes where there should have only been three. But when I was finished, there was Henry, smiling at me in a place that would greet me when I walked in the front door.
“Looks good,” he said quietly behind me. “What do you think?”
I looked around the room at the bare end tables and blank fireplace mantel until my eyes rested on Henry, standing a few feet away from me, the morning light coming through the filmy curtains behind him, making him look like he was glowing.
“I looks…different. I’m not sure I like it. But I’m betting that I can figure out a way to work with it.”
Henry moved toward me and looked at me with a level stare.
“That’s the point, sweetie.”
Henry and I worked on and on that Friday, cleaning out the garage of tools that he knew I would never need (or if I did, would never know how to use so I might as well call a professional). We spent hours in the office, going through papers, deciding what needed to be kept and what needed to be shredded. Occasionally, the phone would ring or I would hear the cheerful bells of my cell phone telling me that I had a new text message, but I was too absorbed with reliving my life with Henry and cleaning out the things that weren’t necessary anymore to bother with answering them.
“What in the hell do we still have this stuff for?” I asked as I ripped open a box in the office closet that contained his old shot glass collection. “We didn’t even open it when we moved into the apartment and then picked it up and moved it here. Which means we’ve just been moving heavy boxes apparently because we’ve just needed the exercise.”
“We might have needed them when we entertained,” he said, a little defensively.
“Oh, sure. Every time we had people over for dinner I would think to myself, ‘Now, why don’t we break out that shot glass that says Want to Watch Me Go From Zero to Horny?’”
“Well, I’m sorry that I didn’t buy my college barware at the Christian bookstore.”
I picked up the box of glasses and put it near the “donate” pile. “Well, now a less fortunate alcoholic can enjoy them.”
I began ripping open another box that was just labeled “Henry” and that, judging from the worn out adhesive on the tape we had, once again, just been moving from place to place for the hell of it.
“Good Lord, Henry,” I said as I began rifling through the box of odds and ends. “Do you even know what’s in this box?”
“Yes. It’s a time capsule that I created my freshman year in college. I knew that someday, some deserving girl would come across it long after I was gone and, thanks to its contents, know everything there is to know about me.”
“Really?” I said, picking up what looked like an old box of checks and opening it up to find dried up ball point pens. “You wanted the girl of the future to find out that you’re a complete packrat?”
“It’s an important thing to know about me.”
“Is there anything in this box worth saving?” I asked as I dug in elbow deep.
“Of course. That’s why I’ve kept it all these years.”
I rolled my eyes at him and started rifling through the box again and then pulled out a piece of paper that hadn’t been stored in a place that would have protected it. I unfolded where it had creased in an unnatural way, diagonally through the middle, and the tears began to flow again.
“What?” asked Henry, looking up from the box.
“That award you got your first year at the firm.”
Henry looked at the certificate. “Oh, yeah. Most Valuable Associate. Man, I was so excited to get that.”
“I know you were,” I said, looking at the paper, remembering the day he came home from work and told me he’d won it. “I always meant to get this framed for you.”
“That’s okay,” he said.
“No, it’s not,” I said, beginning to cry. “I was so proud of you that day. And when we went to that ceremony…that was the first time I understood how great you were at your job. Your bosses just couldn’t say enough about you. And then we just tossed it in the pile we always had of stuff we needed to do something with and I forgot all about it.”
“Hey, it’s okay. Really. I knew you were just as excited as I was. And see? It’s not the certificate. We forgot all about it. But you remember the day I got it.”
I put the paper carefully on the desk.
“What are you doing?” Henry asked. “Just pitch it. Really. It’s all right.”
“No,” I said, swiping the tears off my cheeks and sniffling a little. “I want to keep that. It’s something important about you. If anything, maybe I’ll send it to your parents so they can have it.”
I scrounged around the bottom of the box until my hand found what felt like the heavy, glossy paper of a photo. I pulled it out and stared at it.
“As opposed to this,” I said, laughing through my tears and turning the photo around so that he could take a look at the full moon he was giving the camera. “I don’t think they would appreciate it as much.”
Henry’s face broke into a grin. “Hey, look at that,” he said. “Hot tubbing with John and Gus when we went skiing my freshman year. Good God we were so drunk. I don’t think I sobered up until about my 5th run the next day.”
“You’re just lucky that I didn’t find this picture before. It could have made it on my Memorial Wall in the living room.”
Henry chuckled and said, “You know, my mom always warned me that I should be wearing clean underwear in case I was in an accident. If there’s anything I’ve learned at this point it’s that not one person gives a damn about your underwear when you’re in an accident but you should make sure you clean your shit out on a regular basis. Otherwise there could be a picture of your ass gracing the wall of your own living room.”
“Of all of the lessons about life and death…that’s the most important thing you’ve learned?”
“Well, that and if you don’t like your spouse become a hoarder so that she has to go through all of your shit when you die.”
I stopped myself just before I tried to punch him in the shoulder.
By the time evening rolled around, we had gone through most of the house, except the bedroom. I had called Goodwill that afternoon and set up a pick up for Monday, my stomach tense and burning to the point that I thought it was going to boil over as I made the call. I finally sat down on the couch with Henry next to me and cracked open a beer, feeling dusty and in desperate need of a shower.
“Can I ask you a question?” Henry said, catching himself before he put his feet up in my lap as he always used to.
“Go for it.”
“What do you think has been the hardest part?”
“The hardest part of what?”
I thought about that for a minute, wondering what on the infinite list of difficulties I was going to choose from. The silence? No…that I was starting to be able to deal with. Was it figuring out the funeral in the beginning? Not really. In my fog, I’d kind of let all of those responsibilities fall to our parents. The financial burden? Not yet, but that might be coming as time went on.
“The decisions,” I finally said.
“Usually just simple ones. Like what to have for dinner or what to do over the weekend. I never realized before how having someone around shapes your time. I miss asking you how you think I should do my deductions on my tax forms or if you think it’s worth getting a flu shot this year.”
“I would think that some of those things you’d like to just be able to decide for yourself.”
“I know. I would have thought that, too. But I don’t. I don’t like wondering if I should move and not have you here to ask about it. I don’t like this unsettled feeling that I have about my life and not being able to discuss that with you.”
“You could talk about it with your friends. Or your mom.”
I snorted. “My mom? My mom can’t handle anything more than my weekly grocery list right now. I think having you gone and me being on my own has thrown her into a tailspin she won’t even acknowledge yet.”
“Well, what about Emily? I mean, we know that Izzy is completely nuts, but Emily has a good head for this kind of thing.”
“That’s true,” I said thoughtfully, trying to figure out how to phrase what I was feeling. “But it’s not the same. Emily isn’t as invested in my life as you are. I mean, if I decide to up and move to Mexico and sell sombreros on the street, that doesn’t really affect her. She has her own life. If I change jobs, that doesn’t affect her benefits. There are decisions I have to make every day that don’t affect anyone else but me now.”
Henry was silent for a minute. “That sounds lonely.”
“Don’t kid yourself. It is.”
Henry gave me some space before I went on. “The other thing is, sometimes I’m scared to say what I’m really feeling to anyone else. I don’t think I ever truly appreciated how you accepted all of me the way you did.”
“What are you talking about? You have lots of people in your life who do.”
“No, not really,” I said, realizing it was true. “Sure, I have good friends and I know that my parents support me, but I didn’t have to think twice about what I said or did with you. With everyone else, even if I consider them a close friend, there’s always some sort of filter that I never had to have with you.
I remember figuring this out when we first started dating. Every time I thought I’d said something stupid or did something that would probably make every other man in America run screaming away from me, you just accepted it and never made me feel weird or awkward. If anything I almost felt more loved because you never seemed to question whether or not you loved the whole package that is me – flaws and all.
I think that almost everyone hides things about themselves and you allowed me to just be who I am.” I paused for a moment. “I don’t know if I ever fully appreciated that about you, but now that you’re gone, it’s something I miss so much and I’m scared I won’t be able to find again in anyone. I’m scared that I won’t be able to just be fully me with anyone anymore.”
Henry thought about that for a moment. “I don’t think that you give the people around you enough credit. But I do understand what you mean. I remember our first date when we went out for pizza and I made that joke about how tired Communications majors’ lips must be when they read, not even thinking about the fact that you were one. I thought for sure that was the end to a very short encounter because any other woman would have walked away offended. But you laughed so hard. I remember in that moment wondering if I had finally found the person who really got me, you know?”
We sat there quietly until I asked him, “Now it’s your turn. What’s the worst part for you?”
For a moment it looked like Henry was swallowing hard. He quietly stared at the ceiling and then said, “Being so close but being so far. Wanting to help and knowing I can’t. Realizing that all of the things we thought we were going to do – have a family, grow old together – aren’t possible for us anymore but are still possible for you. Being caught between what I want and what is.”
I wanted to reach out and just touch his hand so badly. For the first time, I was really beginning to understand how much Henry had been struggling since he’d been gone. That while the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders, it was no consolation because he knew it had been firmly placed upon mine and there was nothing he could do about it. What he was feeling wasn’t regret - it was a longing for what should have been and coming to terms with what was now impossible.
As he slowly turned to face me our eyes locked and I knew that we were realizing the same thing: That our quest to let each other go wasn’t for ourselves.
It was the last unselfish thing we could do for each other.