Tom died suddenly last Tuesday, exactly one week before Emma’s 50th birthday.
Emma tells the funeral director the ceremony should be on her actual birthday. It’s the anniversary of the night they met, on her 21st in that seedy campus bar. Here’s your present, baby! he’d grin the morning-of every year, spinning around in his birthday suit like a monkey dancing ballet. It always made her laugh.
So it seems appropriate to give Tom back to the universe on her birthday. Return her gift to the manufacturer, so to speak. He would have loved the irony.
But the funeral director insists, oh, so gently, that it might be best if her birthday and the funeral are not forever linked. As if four days after it will mean she’ll ever have a happy freaking birthday ever again.
Fine. She is too tired to fight the man.
Burial or cremation? Emma thinks burial is a waste of planet. But Tom wants a plot, a place for her and the girls to visit, and she can give him that.
It is a strange kind of luck that for people so young they’d discussed this. Sadly, they’d been to so many funerals in recent months that talking through their own felt important and banal at the same time. She knows the coffin he wants (tasteful, mid-priced), the music (classical guitarist), the kinds of wine and cookies to serve in the funeral home sitting area at the wake.
But how superficial those discussions seem now. The funeral part will be over in a blink, and then she’ll face the living-without-him part, the part they’d breezed over with the trite, self-assured generosity of people who knew they weren’t going to die any time soon. Of course I’d want you to find someone else, to be happy, to not be alone.
Now, in the funeral director’s office, she suddenly feels very naive and frightened. Like that first day home with the twins, her paper-thin confidence built on books and classes crumpling under the weight of two squalling babies and no clue how to change their diapers, let alone care for them for the next 18 years. The same monstrous chasm of not knowing opens before her.
Mrs. Malone. The funeral director brings her back. He scoots the tissue box toward her and she takes it though she isn’t crying. I’m sorry. Do you know if Tom wanted an open casket? He does, but she shakes her head no. It is the only thing she will not do for him. Tom thinks seeing those waxen leftovers of chemically preserved skin and bone help the living process a death viscerally. Accidentally snuggling next to his stone-cold corpse in their bed that morning was more than enough visceral processing time for her, thank you very much. Besides, the girls’ texts have been adamant: they do not want to see “it.” Case closed. Or is that casket closed? She turns her laughter-snort into a cough.
And the eulogy? She can’t decide. Not expected of the spouse, of course, but at one of those too frequent, recent funerals, Emma’s friend eulogized her own husband with such class after he’d hanged himself in the entryway of their home. Emma sees now that her friend is a much bigger person than she—when Emma isn’t numb, she’s nuclear. And Tom didn’t even die on purpose.
She thinks about what she’d say anyway. The story of how they met? No. Everyone knows it, or will before the end of the wake.
Something she’d never told anyone, including Tom, bubbles up. The moment she knew she loved him. Not the day she told him she was in love with him, which came months earlier, tangled up in bed, but the day she realized he was the one.
They’d been together for a year, both six months out of college with good entry-level jobs in their chosen careers, he in finance, she in journalism. They had ambition, drive, good educations, and connections. They were on their way, baby. And they were in love. The world, in a cliché, was their oyster.
So when her period was a week late, then almost two—it was always every 28 days—she thought about not telling him, finding out for sure then dealing with it herself. No way would she let this upend their oyster. In the end, though, she broke down and told him on the 14th late day, and they went to the drugstore together.
Waiting for the results in her tiny, powder blue bathroom, they held hands as she sat on the covered toilet and he perched on the edge of the bathtub. I’m not leaving. I love you and I’ll adore our baby. They cried, kissed, he stroked her hair. I’ll marry you. I’m not leaving. When the pink minus sign showed strong and clear, they were almost disappointed. And when he asked her to marry him a few months later, she had no doubts.
That memory is not only too risqué, it’s too personal. The story is hers alone to savor, even if reviewing it now feels as lacking in meaning or context as watching someone else’s home movie.
She doesn’t have the energy to think of anything else, let alone stand up to tell it. She shakes her head. His brother Joe will do the eulogy.
After the funeral, after the last guest leaves and the caterers have cleared out, Emma sits on the big red couch in the living room, bookended by the twins as they lean into her and sob.
She still hasn’t cried. Not really. She has tried, of course, especially at the funeral when it was expected. But when she isn’t angry, she is a hollowed-out shell that doesn’t sleep or eat, doesn’t understand or remember how to do either, as if they are theoretical concepts. The smell of food makes her sick.
She wants the twins’ pain to wash over her, enter her, so she can absorb for them the awfulness of their losing a father when barely out of girlhood. But then she thinks about how their lives have just begun, how they will move on, to friends, boyfriends, significant others, children. Her life, by comparison, is over.
Instead of grief, a new form of anger curls up from her gut, amplifying her nausea. Envy. She stands abruptly. I need a walk.
Want us to come?
She’ll have to get used to it.
The girls go back to college three days after the funeral, a week after her birthday, two weeks after Tom died.
Alone in her kitchen with a ginger tea, the only thing she can stomach, Emma glances at the calendar on the wall, at the 14 empty white squares she hasn’t crossed off. Why bother? She feels a small cramp low in her belly, and she remembers how late she is. She stands to flip through the calendar. Three weeks and a few days. Stress? The beginning of the end, maybe? Certainly would be apropos.
She is overdue for her annual anyway, and when she calls to set it up, the nurse practitioner suggests a pregnancy test, just in case. Ridiculous. She almost ignores the advice, but decides a walk to the drugstore will do her good despite the sub-zero temperature, the icy sidewalks.
Yes, perimenopause can trigger a false positive. Let’s get you in, though, to be sure.
Emma hangs up, sits on the toilet seat staring at the blue plus sign on the stick in her lap. She thinks back to when life was full of feeling, color, light. Three weeks ago. A lifetime ago. She remembers before that, a night, maybe two, she could describe as unprotected, but they had their systems down so well after all these years, it couldn’t be…could it? She reflects on her nausea, her inability to sleep. The mental fog, the numbness. So similar to the start of pregnancy with the twins.
She sees Tom, holding her hand so tight in that powder blue bathroom.
I’m not leaving.
And then she is weeping so hard, she’s afraid she may never stop.