I have never been alone.
Not truly alone.
Not ever really alone.
I stare at the corner, at the yellow gold, murky gray, and sepia tiles of my bathroom wall. I remember when Max and I laid those tiles ourselves. He held the level and I drew a line with a red pencil.
Oh, I breathed in sharply. I remembered the rich and vibrant red of that pencil and the tiny wooden shavings that curled around the edge of a carpet when I needed to sharpen the implement. No one carpets a bathroom now days. It’s rather inconvenient and carries a musty smell. We removed the carpet in the seventeenth year of our marriage.
Seventeen. Oh wow! That year came and went with its own trials, all which seemed significant then, but not so much in year forty-seven. Forty-seven years of marriage, six months, seven days, eight hours, and eleven minutes. That’s when Max passed away from this life to the next, and I felt the life force slip through my fingers like shifting sands, in with the waves, out with the high tide.
My kids will call me crazy, but I thought it was as though a hot white light, fierce like the sun, peaceful as a wispy cloud, spiraled in the air in that moment on the precipice of life and death. I chuckled a bit to myself, adjusting my wide-brimmed black hat.
I am not all that certain that it only exists in that breath. Sometimes I swear I can see the glow of a white light, a reminder that a Higher Divine Power guides my steps. And my hands… I nearly forgot to wash them after using the restroom. I chuckled again.
“Is it okay to laugh at your memorial, Max?”
I ran my hands under the lukewarm water, the familiar creaking of the pipes, once a stiff inconvenience. I insisted we hire a plumber, and Max insisted he could fix it himself. He never did. Stubborn old Max. Stubborn until the day he died. I’m sure the melancholy and the reality of this whole life and death thing has yet to sink into fact for me. Practically, I know you’re gone, Max, but personally, you feel alive. Here. In my heart. Your spirit still resounds like the gentle groan of a slow-leaking pipe.
The strangest thing about this sudden realization is that I might actually feel lonely. There’s a common misconception that those who are surrounded by others are not lonely. I think I feel more alone in a crowded room than in the quiet confines of my mind. I am welcome, but isolated here.
Max’s students are here at this memorial. Your memorial, Max. Memorial (n) serving to preserve remembrance; Commemorative. The professor in Max would be proud that I finally remembered a definition. I had to smirk a smidge. Pun intended. Oh how you loved puns!
Still, it seems strange to commemorate my late husband with people I barely knew. Toward the end of his life, instead of retiring, Max took an assistant dean position at the local Foundry College. At the very least, I can say he was loved. His students came in droves, filling what seemed as though every inch of our home with tears and laughter, pain and joy, remembering, commemorating, preserving pieces of Max in the shared discourse.
Each brings a card. Each says a kind word. Each offers condolences. As if it is an obligation. I know some are genuine. Max always said I had a knack for seeing the authentic. I smiled as I passed the foyer table with cards. I could escape to a place with words, just words.
You made words and pictures come to life with your animated stories. I see cabbages, but you see rows of cabbage flowers opening their green arms to welcome in the sunshine and rain in a bed of red earth, and the loving weathered hands who tend to their needs.
I see child scribbles, and you see the sweet innocent hands of a young girl hoping to please her parents with her ever-so-careful colored pencil marks, and a single stray green stroke on the second page for where the lawn sprawled out of place, but it doesn’t matter. It is beautiful. It is a masterpiece.
You always saw masterpieces, Max.
Everyone plays a role. I play the grieving widow. But am I grieving? Of course, I feel peace that you are no longer suffering. I feel joy that you will live on your life in a better place. But grief? I hug my granddaughter. I see you. I speak to a student. I see you. I see my son sniffling in the hallway into his sleeve, and pretending otherwise. I see you. It is normal to go through a wave of emotions. I know this. Somehow I am still surprised at the emotions I did not expect to feel. Is it normal to feel relieved?
I spent five decades of my life with this man, a man I met in high school, and married on my eighteenth birthday. I loved you fiercely, Max. I loved him with every fiber in my being. Part of me is gone with you. Part of me will never be the same. And yet, I feel numb and hollow now with my plastic smile and my appropriate amount of tears and blurred mascara, saying and doing things people expect. When have I ever done something unexpected?
People do strange things when they are grieving. I once read someone who lost her spouse spent a week locked in her bedroom watching nothing but horror films, a binge fest of Moonlight Massacre films and stale popcorn and weak orange soda. She called it “scream” therapy. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a horror film.
My daughter chose to dip in the backyard pool fully clothed. One of Max’s students thought it was a trend or something. A fun thing to do at an otherwise quite dull and stuffy event. I don’t think Opal thought of it that way. It must be liberating to jump into a swimming pool fully clothed, the splash of the water hiding her tears.
Opal has never been one for convention. You know this, Max, of course. Our youngest, our little Opal Maxine, named for you, a trailblazer as a toddler. She never did things the easy way, or the normal way. What is normal? An artist like Max, but of a different sort, she didn’t attend college like the rest of her siblings, disappointing her father, for sure. For me, I was relieved.
Max, did I ever tell you that? I thought Opal needed to create her own path, and she found it, albeit different than what you anticipated. A single mother at seventeen. Waiting until marriage is so old-school, Ma, she had said. Oh my precious Opal. My only daughter. I wanted to guard you from all harm and pain. Yet there is grace in the path divergent.
Postpartum depression hit hard. She was a teenage mother. We did our best to love her, and to care for her. Max even let her move back home. She hasn’t left, but a few times. Once to traipse through the Sim Union with her friends. Once to take a modeling job in Osimceana. And once to bury her boyfriend, her daughter’s father, who died in the basement of an abandoned warehouse. The needle in his arm still sticking out when she found him.
Opal hung the lanterns in the trees. The ones she hand painted that summer we spent in Granite Falls. The boys wanted to capture fireflies and fish at dawn and play pirates and nobles in the woods with their cardboard and foil swords and eye patches, roasting marshmallows over a crackling campfire of pinewood, and telling ghost stories in their tents with flashlights.
Our Opal? She wanted to do arts and crafts. She participated in the class with the ranger every day. You wanted her to come fishing with you, or hiking, or to explore the woods, Max. You wanted her to see the poetry in nature, but our daughter saw the portrait in the paper. I always inspired that imaginative spirit, and secretly and jealously wished I had such a talent.
When the boys teased her, you told them the lanterns were magic, holding the hopes and dreams of fairies and genies and warding off the weres in the woods. The boys giggled, but they stopped teasing. Then you turned and asked a beaming Opal if she would try fishing in the morning. She gulped and nodded yes. Those lanterns? I think they are her final act of defiance and tribute of love to you all the same.
Did you know it’s raining today? I suppose that’s poetical in itself. The day we met it was raining. No, you did not give me your umbrella. I gave you mine.
You were embarrassed and frazzled, late to a meeting with the principal about your series of bad grades. Oh the kids would laugh if they knew you nearly failed our sophomore year.
My single act of kindness was all it took to light a spark in your eyes and an ember in your heart.
Jasper stands in the hallway, grumbling about the muddy paw prints from someone’s dog. I didn’t stop their pet from entering our home. He is a lot like Max. A perfectionist. An idealist. The weight of the world weighing on him heavily like a Tofunda Wagon sitting on his chest. He wants the best. He needs to be the best.
He works hard. Long hours. Because he wants everyone around him to have the best too. He’s so sweetly misguided. I wish you had spent more nights at home with me by the fireplace, ankles crossed, knitted socks, books in hand. We wouldn’t even need to talk. Just be in each other’s presence. I know you meant well.
Jasper means well too. I wonder for his wife though. Should I try and make more of an effort with my daughter-in-law? Julia is an accountant for a law firm. She crunches numbers and balances figures. I cook flour tortillas from scratch and bake turkey dinners just because. They pay for a service to deliver meals to their door each night.
Jasper does very well for himself. Still I wonder. Work is his life. Where does he live? I know he has a penthouse on the western coast. His drive for success in business nearly rivals your thirst for knowledge, Max. He can’t help but want everything to be in its place, and all in the world to be right. He straightens my shoes. It’s his way of coping today.
As for Pierce, he smiles. He always smiles. He loves to make people happy. He walks around, greeting the guests, replenishing drinks, and engaging in small talk to compensate for my sub-par hostessing. I don’t really want to speak. Pierce does enough of that for us all. He has always been the gregarious social butterfly. It’s probably why he is so successful with his acting. He got a bit part in a soap opera last spring, and it took him to Roaring Heights.
He looks so sharp in his suit today, and his power tie. Almost as though he belongs on Money Market Lane. But he’s much happier on the beaches of Del Sol Valley. I know, my boy. He enjoys his partying and schmoozing and his beach barbecues and backyard soirees. He enjoys standing at center attention.
His date seems a little out of place today in her faded blue jeans and feathered earrings and purple butterfly wrap blouse. She sits uncomfortably on the couch, wiping her no-doubt nervous and sweaty hands against her pants. I almost want to sit next to her and tell her it’s okay. It’s okay to feel out of place at a funeral. I feel out of place and he was my husband.
We light candles in the corners of the room. It’s as though we cannot stand for a single hint of darkness, and yet something always sits in the shadow of the flame. I try to breathe and remind myself that it is okay to be in the light. I don’t want to be in the center light like Cole.
I want to be like the white light of the spirit, the energy of serenity permeating every corner of this home. I want to waft into the rafters and crawl into the space of emptiness.
There I will make my plan. All the things I haven’t accomplished. All the things I said I’d do but didn’t. All the things I have never done. A memorial may be a strange sort of place to realize a truth about myself. I have never been alone. And I’m not okay with that.
Author Note: I started this story with the idea of “Never Have I Ever.” It is a game, for those of you who are unfamiliar, where people play in a circle and get up and move around when they have or haven’t done the things that the center person calls out. It is a get-to-know-you sort-of game.
The game got me thinking about the end of life and regrets and bucket lists and things we always say we would do but never did, and how it’s never too late to start fresh. Most Sims stories begin with a young protagonist. I’m always one for changing convention. Why not have a more seasoned protagonist in the later years of her life?
This is the story of a woman past the prime of her life, learning what it means to be alone again, and exploring her self-identity and forging new paths. I plan to walk through a “wish list” of sorts with this character as she meanders through late life and widowhood, and finding new meaning. Sometimes death can give birth to new purpose.