“So, I was thinking, what if people who are cremated go to one part of heaven and people who aren’t, go to another?” I say.
Everyone sitting in the farmhouse kitchen at the large table stops mid-conversation, forks suspended in the air. Twenty pairs of eyes seem to be targeted on my forehead; no one can make eye contact. Even the babies are staring.
“Mom,” she drags out the o, emphasizing her annoyance, “you’re an Atheist.”
In unison, they turn and look at her.
“What are you both going on about?” says my mother-in-law, her eyes darting back and forth between us. I’m not sure what dismays her more, the thought that her husband and son might be in a different part of heaven than her or finding out that her daughter-in-law doesn’t believe in God.
“Nothing, Mom,” Della says firmly, “It’s nothing. Are you going to have coffee?”
“I’m tired of dancing around this. Why are we dancing around this?” I say. “He drank when he wanted, he smoked when he wanted, and he died when he wanted. That’s the bloody truth.”
My mother-in-law crumples as a soufflé does if it comes out of the oven too soon. Everyone attends to her, hovering, moving glasses and clearing dishes. Della glances my way; her expression is mixed.
I had finally agreed to leave the summer cottage. The cold had slipped in through the old sliders, frosting the edges with furry ice crystals like the trim on a child’s winter coat. I had to move onto the couch to sleep, next to the woodstove, up three or four times a night to load it. The plumbing lines were drained, and pink antifreeze was put in all the orifices. The main breaker was thrown after the refrigerator doors were propped open by pieces of molding found in his shop. My brother-in-law walked around with a stapled sheath of instructions he found tacked to the wall in the utility room. There was no signature, but there was no question as to who had written it. In Case I am Ever Hit by a Bus. An inside joke of ours. A bus would have been easier. It would have made more sense.
I’ve been living at the farm temporarily for the last few months. I took my sister-in-law, Della, up on her offer. I’ve gotten into a rhythm here; I feel safe. I first went into the city and settled all that end of life paraphernalia that a wife is encumbered with after her husband seemingly disappears. Accountants, lawyers, bankers and bureaucrats asked questions, and I answered. I nibbled away at the limit on my personal credit card like it was a cookie. The card I shared with him was frozen the moment his death certificate was printed.
I spent a couple of weeks in our small city condo. The last afternoon there, I collected a suitcase full of clothing and anything that might be appropriate. I forwarded the mail to the farm, and lastly, I knocked on the young woman’s door across the hall from us. Her expression stretched from happiness to distress, to astonishment when I explained the situation and asked her to look after our place…my place.
The dinner drama lingers like dust under a couch. We decide against coffee and cake. After all the dishes are sparkling and put away, the babies are tucked into their car seats. My tiny mother-in-law is jammed in the middle of two of them. We stand on the deck and wave at the parade of vehicles as they move down the long gravel driveway. Afterward, we retreat inside, and I steal away to the room I’ve been assigned. A tiny cave carved out between two bedrooms, formerly a large closet or small storage room, depending on your outlook. I’m comforted by its twin bed, down duvet, soft pillows and the small window overlooking the snow-covered fenced winter field where a large herd of beef cattle are housed. I’m woken every morning by a chorus when their grain is delivered by front-end loader.
A knock on the door is followed by Della with a large mug filled to the brim with milky, hot coffee. I settle in my nest, and she sits on the small slipper chair beside the bed, curling her feet under her. After I’ve apologized about my mouth running over at the dinner table, I relate the conversation I overheard my daughter and her daughter having earlier.
“Didn’t she tell you? She’s going on a world cruise.”
‘Fuck…I did not see that coming.”
“I almost fainted, but then I thought, what the hell, why not.”
“Maybe we could fit in her suitcase.” Then they both laughed. As thirty-something women with millstones of mortgages, careers, husbands and children do.
“You have to expect that it is going to be the reaction of almost everyone,” says Della.
“Sure, I just wish they said it to my face, instead of in a locked bathroom.”
“They have nowhere else to go to get away from the kids.”
“Oh yeah, I remember that.”
“Are you going to be okay?”
“Um humm, of course.”
“Can I come with you?”
We laugh, as sixty-something women with fragile, floating, tethered lines of children and grandchildren attached to us do.
A few days later, after big hugs and promises of keeping in touch, Della drops me in front of the airport. Walking alone, negotiating lines, finding the boarding gate by myself, I feel like I’m missing an arm. For over forty years, I’ve packed for two and carried two sets of documents. I need to learn how to not reach out to see if he is still beside me. My internal temperature is forever altered, like molecules contracting, moving away from the others, filling the space between them with a void. White space. In the waiting area, I sit in the middle seat of three empty ones.
“Can I help you?” an older woman says. She has deep brown eyes, a concerned look is masking a small smile. She perches on the edge of the seat beside me.
“I thought maybe you need something.” She is holding her hand out; she has a tissue. I touch my face; rivers are creating crevices down my cheeks. My jacket is damp.
“What can I do?”
The boarding announcements begin, we stand, then she folds her arms around me and pulls me close. People go around us, rolling their overly large carry-on luggage awkwardly. After a few minutes, when the heaving sobs have slowed, she helps me to the gate and attendant. Once in the big jumbo jet, I start to turn left to business class.
“You okay?” she touches my arm.
“Yes,” I say. She nods, then turning right, weaves around passengers, glancing at the numbers on the bulkhead. I watch until I lose sight.
Passing through the divider, my carry-on and jacket are taken from me, and I’m shown to my seat. What would he have thought of this, I wonder, looking down at the luxurious space. The flight attendant helps me get settled. He shows me the entertainment system and explains how to manipulate the seat.
“Are you flying alone?” he says, looking around him.
“Solo. Flying solo. Yes.”
As I watch the deicing truck spraying the aircraft at the next gate, memories of when the kindness of strangers has touched me replay in my head until I feel a soft tap on my hand.
“I got your text,” he says, turning his phone toward me. I see that he still has those crazy deep green eyes with long, dark lashes.
Icelandic Air 696 YYC to KEF, March 27, Row 2, Seat A.
My teenage love. I would have been able to pick him out of a crowd. He was the first boy who stole my heart. He carried my books through the foreign, new-to-me high school hallways. We shared a locker, which he decorated inside with pictures of snowmen he drew and cut-out. He picked me up every morning for school, coming to the door, impressing my parents. At a time in a boy’s life, he was a gentleman when respect is not always a priority. I can feel the blood rushing through my body as if a bullet train. My fingers start to tingle, I take slow, deep and even breaths.
“Someone gave me that number fifteen years ago. I just kept on transferring it to the next phone. I didn’t think it would work.”
He studies my face. The silence is roaring around our heads. Pushing through the noise, I say, “Besides, I heard you died a long time ago.”
“I read that too. It wasn’t me.”
“The last time I saw you, you were getting into that sweet cream-colored Mercury Cougar. I was standing on the gravel road in front of your parent’s empty house, right in the middle. You had to drive around me. I remember turning and watching the tail-lights until they disappeared,” I say.
“The last time I saw you was in my rearview mirror, standing in the middle of a gravel road in rural Ontario.”
“Your parents, sisters and the moving truck had left hours before.”
“I remember. We didn’t care.”
“What have you been doing all this time?”
“Waiting,” he says, tapping his phone.
Mary Long-Schimanke is a sixty-something-year-old reluctant writer. She started taking writing courses a few years ago because a friend was. She lives in Alberta, Canada for no reason at all, probably because she is too lazy to move. She hates the cold. Her husband of forty-years equally hates snow on his parked truck and would abandon everything in a minute. Her two adult daughters, who share a province that is not Alberta, tolerate her, barely. Her two young grandchildren tolerate her more.