A few years ago, I wrote a short story about some of the things I felt at the time and some things I thought I may feel in the future as I went along in my life without my husband. Recently, I re-read it to see how these feelings emerged or subsided since when I wrote it and thought I’d share it with all of my Hope Sisters. I hope some of you can relate.
Pale Space, a short story
It had been one year.
No one ever told her that when her husband died, she’d still feel married. For months. To a ghost, a memory, a photograph on the dresser. No one ever told her that when she finally purchased a small apartment, the lawyer at the closing would write her marital status as “single” on the paperwork and that one word would make her stomach clench. No one ever told her that when his clothes were folded neatly and put into several boxes for donation to the Salvation Army, she’d unpack them because she needed them to be hung in the closet. They were his clothes. They occupied the pale spaces left behind in the wake of his absence.
It had been three years.
Jack asked her officemate if he thought she was up to a coffee date. Jack liked her. He always had. He thought she was a nice lady and pretty, too. He knew that she had lost her husband a few years back but figured that by now, certainly she was ready to sit with him at the café down the street and talk about their work, their families, their mutual music tastes. There was a chemistry between them. They had a natural “thing.” But this was just coffee. Just music. Jack was shy, but he had conjured up the nerve to ask her as she walked down the hall for her morning meeting in the conference room. He stood up. She turned the corner. Jack took a deep breath. Here she is. And as she slowly waltzed by him, her sky-blue skirt swishing neatly around the pale spaces of her lower legs, he saw her wedding band still resting on her left ring finger. She must not be ready for coffee and music. Jack went back to his desk and finished his report.
It had been five years.
Her son came by her apartment after his classes let out for the semester. He wanted to talk with her about cosigning a loan for him. He needed a new car. His dad’s old Chevy pickup just lost its transmission, and it wasn’t worth fixing. The truck was worth less than the transmission would cost, and he didn’t have enough money saved up to fix it. He would have no problem affording the loan payments himself with his new job, but because of his lack of credit history, he needed his mother’s help. She was upset. She argued with him about selling his father’s truck for “next to nothing” to some “chop shop.” She demanded that he fix the transmission instead of getting a new car, that she couldn’t imagine her husband’s beloved pickup in some dusty old place, rotting away, like he was underneath the earth at the cemetery. As she read over the documents that her son placed in front of her, pleading for her understanding, she ran the pads of her fingers over his sloppy and illegible signature on the title, over the fading ink-filled pale spaces, which still held onto his name.
It had been seven years.
The toddler with curly blond hair bounded over to her in his excitement to hear the story about the baby bear’s adventures. She sat on the playroom floor with her back to the wall and her legs spread out, waiting for him to land between them. That was his special “story spot” with Granny. As she put the large picture-filled storybook in front of his face, the tot put his chubby hands around her left hand. He ran his index finger along the simple gold band still resting there and said, “Shiny, Granny.” She watched his finger go back and forth and felt the familiar pain and dread in her heart, the longing for all the things that used to be there, among the pale spaces. It was a normal feeling after all this time, her default state of being, a sadness wrapped around her small aging body like a well folded quilt. She was “snug as a bug in a rug” inside of her cocoon of grief. There were no butterflies emerging here. It was unending, and as she peered down onto the top of this tiny boy’s curls, her eyes welled up with tears. He would never know his grandfather. He would never know all the love he lost, long before he was even born. What a tragedy to never know such love.
It had been ten years.
She trotted briskly in her low rise black pumps to catch the train which would take her into the city. She was so excited to see the big musical. Finally, at last. He would have wanted to see it with her. He would have taken her to an early dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant where the napkins were cloth and the silverware was polished and the waiters wore stiff white shirts. He would have loved the songs and would have sung in his tone-deaf baritone at the top of his lungs as they drove to the nursery in his Chevy pickup on a Saturday morning. She raised herself up onto the platform and entered the train only to see it was full of riders. Nowhere to sit. And she lived in a time when strangers did not make eye contact and no one cared if an older woman with silvery hair had to stand on a train for several stops. The train went on and she held onto the pole with both hands, her fingers bony and strong and measured in between all the pale spaces, her wedding ring flashing in the fluorescent lights.
It had been twenty years.
She stood in line to talk with the middle-aged government worker who would talk her through all the retirement paperwork she needed to fill out.
“It says here that you are not married,” the pudgy, balding man stated flatly, his eyes glancing briefly at her left ring finger.
She looked down at her wedding ring, still sitting proudly, as if it were the same day that he put it onto her finger during the quaint ceremony with the Justice of the Peace. Judge Matterhorn, she remembered. “No, I’m not married,” she breathed out in one stream of a melancholy sigh. “I just feel married.”
The man peered up from his laptop and cocked his head sideways. “How long?” he asked, sympathetically, clearly knowing what she felt.
“Twenty years,” she admitted, suddenly aware that she had never said it out loud to anyone. He nodded and reached over to her hand which rested weakly on the desk.
“It never gets easier. All those books. They lie.” Then he pulled a photo out of his desk drawer. It was a picture of a beautiful young woman, her face filled with the light of youth and promise. She wore a red polka-dot sundress and her feet were bare in the grass. She was laughing one of those uncontrolled laughs, when something is truly funny. The edges of the photo were bent. “This was my wife. She died of breast cancer when she was twenty-five. That was thirty years ago. Never got over it.”
She saw tears in his eyes. She understood what he meant. Her gut flared up, a rising well of hurt, like a wave. “You must’ve been quite young yourself,” she said, her voice beginning to quiver.
“I was twenty-five, too. We were high school sweethearts.”
“Were you ever able to move on?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
“On? No. But through, I had to. And she would’ve wanted me to. She wouldn’t have wanted me to stay married to her ghost and not live my own life, as long as I had one to live. I suspect that your husband would’ve wanted the same for you.”
She thought about how he held onto this photo in his desk, a piece of his ancient history, one he kept with him despite all the years. He put the photo back into his desk.
“I keep it to remind me of who she really was, rather than the last months of her life. That still haunts me sometimes. What happened to her. She might be gone, but that laugh, face, the imprint she left on me…that part of her never died. Cancer can’t take that away from me. I love her today as much as I ever did when she was alive. And I’m allowed to love her but still move through to the other side of the pain.”
They continued finishing all the retirement forms, and the man hugged her before she walked out the door.
She sat in the front seat of her car, looked down at her wedding ring and pulled it off. Holding it in her right palm, she observed the pale space left behind, a line from where the ring once sat and knew that it was time to go through to the other side.