Back where I don’t want to belong, or at least, I don’t want to belong. Yet I find myself here, again and again.
Back in that cool fall room, the morning mist still rising from the recently shaded lawn. Even as the leaves fell, the shadows deepened, and the buzz of insects was slower to chorus.
Not from exertion, but from having it stolen, I stand out of breath at the doorway. My wife lays in bed, not noticing my approach. The scene glitches, and then they lay on the floor, pale and cool, wearing only red plaid boxers and top surgery scars. We had joked so often about the near-translucent whiteness of their pale skin; now it was the brightest color in the room.
I don’t want to belong here. I don’t want to be here.
I don’t want to find myself here, over and over, when I am running down the sidewalk, waking up from a dream, startled by an unexpected hand on my shoulder; this is where I wake. Thanks, I hate it.
I hate that the vision I have of the love of my life is, most often, their death.
Sometimes, the doorway is as far as I get. I stand there, frozen in time, staring, unable to move.
Sometimes I feel the bones in their chest break under my hands.
Sometimes I am pacing in another room, begging for someone to come while the first responders push breath and electricity into someone who doesn’t need those things anymore.
Sometimes I walk out the front door, dazed, and see the volunteer firefighters in a social distance half-circle around Lucy in her stroller, too small to be strapped in that way.
I have never been in time.
I have never had a do-over; never got there early enough, never yelled loudly enough for them to hear, never threatened – then followed through – on calling 911 if they didn’t answer.
They never answered.
Sometimes, in the bright sunrises over the duplex homes on our street, I’ll remember the last time I saw them alive. The soft moments just after dawn when I had tucked them in after a bath when they’d been unable to sleep, nuzzled the recently buzzed baby duck hair, and told them I loved them. Get some good sleepies, I said, and slipped out the door while they were still asleep.
What if I hadn’t? What if I had stayed while they’d slept?
For years, I have prized my early-rising morning time. My body has never liked sleeping in. And now, that morning especially, I wanted to write. I had just started really writing again – just the week before, I had posted for public accountability that this blog would be updated every two weeks. I figured the off-weekends would be the best time for actually writing, so I was at my desk with full-octane coffee. I was no longer pumping breastmilk for the baby, so when she woke up, I’d changed and fed her, and settled in her swing next to my desk for her first morning nap. I was tapping away at the keyboard – like mice tap-dancing, according to Hawthorne – when the sound of their snoring coming through the floorboards changed. I listened, and didn’t like how long it took the next one to sound out.
Sometimes I go back to walking up the steps, and think I remember thinking about getting the phone, unlocking the door. But I didn’t then, and like I said, I haven’t had any do-overs.
I remember the turn of the stairs, my thick socks cushioning my steps down the hall. I couldn’t hear the creak of the swing or the tinkly music, but knew I’d hear Lucy if she cried. Then I’m back at the doorway.
I don’t know if it was grief or parenting that made me realize what a bullshit construct time really is. The two have been intertwined for me since July 19, 2018. Some days, I look at their picture and wonder where they’ve disappeared to, since the house isn’t that big. Some days their life seems like it was too long ago to count in anything but eons.
It’s been two years since I first walked into our bedroom and found my wife, too pale and still for this world. It’s been nearly that long since I physically stood in that bedroom. It’s been about three hours since I was last there.
This is not what I thought time travel would be like. I mean I suppose I should have expected some pain, what with the rearranging of atoms across the time-space continuum, but this keen slicing of paper-thin sheets of my heart is a little much. The wail of grief is well imprisoned, an iron mask that no one really wants to acknowledge; if they did, they’d have to face their own certain mortality, and so many people just aren’t ready to think about that. Who is? Only those who have been given no choice, their brush with it close enough to feel her breath.
Have you felt it?
I live with that breath inside me, entwined in me. It has the most intimate knowledge of my lungs, my arteries and veins. I have carried life in my womb, and in my arms. I have carried death in both as well. Sometimes I feel she walks alongside me, and the touch of her hand to my shoulder is the trigger that sends me back across time and land to arrive, again, at the open bedroom doorway. I am the time traveler, but it is at her whim.
I want to belong at home, here at my desk, tap-tap-tapping on the keyboard like mice in the walls. I want to belong with the scent of farmer’s bouquets, pungent and spicy as the world turns toward autumn. I want to belong where the laughter of my daughter is, and her increasingly clear speech.
But I don’t; at least, not only there.
Time passes when I’m in the bedroom doorway. It starts out bright, the early morning September sun streaming through the bathroom windows and onto the floor just where I stand. It moves; the beams of light grow shorter as the sun rises higher, changing the angles. I stand, staring, as the world continues to turn around me. I don’t want to belong here.
But I do; at least it’s not only there.
Grief is a trickster, for all her sad smiles and damp eyes. She’ll fool you without mercy. Death is the one who makes things happen, who pushes the buttons and programs the machine. Time is a construct, a scarecrow, a nonsense creation that falls apart and gets stuck back together at odd angles. These three sisters, hair falling down in mobius curls; they are muse and master. There is no one that they have not touched, not rock nor tree nor person, let alone a displaced people. We are at their mercy, of which they have none. Always a step ahead, up around a quiet corner, waiting; waiting until you are right where they want you.
And what do we do? We fight back, because that’s what we’ve been told. On the ambulance, we raced to the scene, sirens screaming down side streets at all hours of the night, letting everyone in earshot know that we were the front line against death. We buy cards with platitudes, console people with thoughts of being in a better place and sanitized images of angels. We buy cream after lotion after facelift in order to turn back the clock.
For all of that, though – the bravado, the Hallmark and Oil of Olay profits – we fight back with hope, and continued solidarity, intrinsic to our corporeal bodies. We rise, and breathe in, then out. Over and over and over again.
Time passes, smoothly or in fits and starts. Grief waxes and wanes. Death eventually takes our breath for her own.
I am standing in the bedroom door, watching the chest of my wife fail to rise and fall. I breathe in, then out, over and over as I stand, immobilized, wishing for this not to be true. Eventually I awake, and I am back. I breathe in, then out. And I rise for another day.