I awaken as the sun emerges from the Santa Ynez mountains visible from where I lie, sleep-cleared of yesterday’s heavy grief, with only the residue of bad dreams to taint the California morning freshness. Swiftly, memory returns. Uncle Chuck--my first thought—and the buoyancy of a fresh day vanishes. He died yesterday from sepsis after what, ironically, turned out to be an otherwise successful lung cancer surgery. This uncle who once brought the fun to any orbit always seemed outside of my private sphere, but anyone who ever met Uncle Chuck could tell a funny story about him.
I get up to feed the animals, everyone adapted to the routine: opening the backdoor for the dog to go out, putting water in his bowl, getting the cat food out of the refrigerator, measuring out dry kibbles as the dog obstructs me with his eager snout, the black cat purring anxiously for his wet food, the dopey fat cat waiting, too, just to be part of the event.
When I return to bed, Dave opens up his arm for me to curl inside—another ritual. I know that these moments are the best life can be and could be lost in an instant. I can tell by his breathing that he continues to fall asleep, while I’m restless. So the gloomy thoughts march across the void of distracting activity. Nearly thirty years ago when I fled the Midwest, I either wanted to discover or carve out my own place in the world instead of following the one my natal tribe prescribed, particularly to girls. I didn’t want to be as alone as moving West made me, but I couldn’t think of another way to feel less in conflict with myself than to move far away. Where did I belong? At this moment, I want my husband to wake up again.
I enjoy the feeling of hot water in the shower. Then at the breakfast table with the New York Times and a cup of tea, I comment about the news to Dave, and he does the same to me. Folding up the main news section, I think again of Uncle Chuck, trying to remember the last time I saw him—at Grandpa Roman’s funeral in July 2002, for which the sisters, Mother and Aunt Donna, orchestrated a post-9/11 American flag theme that included Grandpa Roman wearing a red, white and blue tie in his open casket with a bouquet of carnations of the same patriotic colors displayed nearby. After that, we ate Sloppy Joes in Aunt Donna’s dining room in Wauwatosa. Mostly, I remember Uncle Chuck’s perfectly, militarily polished black shoes (the Korean War) extending from the pew, solid on St. Mark’s linoleum tile.
I go to a new yoga class. When the teacher asks how I am, I say that a beloved uncle died. I expect and even hope to cry, but I don’t. The lovely teacher puts her hand to her heart for me, allowing silence; then, the class begins with an ohm and meditation, and this is when a gentle, steady stream of tears flow. Then the asanas pick up and I no longer cry and no longer think of Uncle Chuck, like a normal day.
It is like this all day: not always thinking of him, or of my broken-hearted mother back home in Wisconsin, then thinking of him, a little guilty that I had not been thinking of him, living the day, the moment, then quiet, then a heaviness in the silence even when I had forgotten about him. Then thinking of him, his polished shoes, his humor, his self-effacement.
I accept not doing too much, recalling when my father died that life will get back to a normal pace, even though I like how death in reality slows me down in a way that death in theory or death in history simply do not.
Wendy Lukomski is a college writing instructor for over fifteen years and a IWWG member. She has been writing fiction and memoir for twenty-five years. In addition, she has written one novel, one memoir, and is currently working on a new novel.