They say your life flashes before you when you die.
They are wrong.
It’s your future you see.
Like when you lean down to kiss my curdled cheeks. I see you, my darling. Even in grief you are beautiful. The way your hair still drifts downwards as if drawn by a curiosity of its own. Your sweet lips extend in pert caress as you lean in towards me, the gleam in your green eyes muddled by tears but bright. You close them at the moment of impact, and the kiss is as careful as life itself.
I could draw you in, like I used to. When your whole body grinned and the light smacked off your blinding curves and we kissed like the underfed. I rolled you over, your hair spilt like shadows on our pillows, your eyes cut bright above your smile. I felt the softness of you, the resolve, the giving and you’d laugh a coy and sumptuous chuckle, and when I entered you, you sighed and pulled me in with your body.
And when we had spent our happy agonies and lay stricken on the bed, you’d rise and lean over me again, as if to recommence, and your hair would loop down to visit my cheeks and you’d brush a strand behind your ear and smile and kiss me gently, lightly on the cheek, as caring as life itself.
The heart attack: sorry. I gave my all, there were no signs, I kept myself fit, but it hit me side on. I know you will forgive me. More importantly, I know you need not mourn me. Our history together was paradise. Your future is long and fulfilling, and I am a part of it. Our future is ahead of us, my love.
When the funeral was over (such nice things said about me– the person who said we should have living funerals so the dead get to hear all the nice things had no idea what the dead can hear), and I was lowered in my suit and wooden casket into the ground (thank you for not burning me, I so much more enjoy being food for the grubs that gnaw at my flesh) and I saw you and the kids walk away, arm in arm, Sal pushing the pram with her right hand, Joe on your left with his girlfriend Sue-Anne on his left. What greater pride can there be than that? To see a family united, close.
I walk about the wake. Nobody sees me of course, but I can see them. I muscle up next to Brendan, who keeps running his hand up and down his partner’s back. The Drysdales, bless ‘em, what stalwarts they’ve been. I stick my tongue out at old Cheryl Withers. Mind you she wasn’t a bad old stick. Nosey, but only because she was lonely. More complimentary things are said about me then too. It’s good to enshrine the dead with an absence of malice.
After the funeral we went home (I snuck a lift in Joe’s car with you and Sue-Anne). It was quiet at home. Joe’s offer to stay was heart-warming. I’m very proud of him. I sat with you on the couch, my fingers entwined with yours, my head on your shoulder, breathing in your scent. I watched over you as you finally went to bed, silent as night, and held you as you tossed and turned and then when sleep finally took you. When you woke I was there, smiling into your stolid face.
I am with you all the time. Do you know that? I think you feel it. Very occasionally, when no one else is there, you pause, and smile, and wave your hand in front of you as if warding off a cobweb. Is that when you see me?
I was there at Joe’s wedding to the new girl – Katie. That was a quick change wasn’t it? Men do that more than women I suspect – decide a long term love is not the one for family building and the long haul. You said, ‘You dad would have been proud.’ I was, proud as punch. He’s a good lad, and she seems good for him too. I enjoyed getting to know her as the years went on. She’s a looker, but then all people are in their twenties. It’s how they carry it into later years that counts. Like you, so many years now and still the most beautiful thing I see.
Family is all, no? Sal’s an excellent mother, but look at the example she had. They were both so helpful in selling the business. Of course I harboured a regret that neither wanted to take it on, but who these days has a passion for timber sales?
No, family is all. It was great seeing the grand kids grow up. That toddler stage is awesome – full of awe. They are awestruck, at the world they discover, and we, awestruck at the miracle of their growth and development. Little Jake always pondering the ground he’s standing on, and brother Joel always jumping. Has he learnt to walk yet? He jumps and runs and spins and dances, but does he ever take a walking step?
I suppose you and I were once like that. So so long ago, and the tragedy is that we are unaware of how delightful we are as toddlers.
Sal’s husband Aaron has been good too. I know I said at times he was a bit awkward, but he loves Sal, and she loves him, and nerds are still in charge or so it seems. He couldn’t bait a hook for money, but he looks after our girl well. And crikey, what a house they have.
You were such a support when Joe and Katie’s first one arrived. I watched you run about when Joe had to go to the hospital after work, and Katie was in ICU. I was there as you bathed the little newborn Sarah. I kissed her pink belly as she lay on your hand in the luke-warm water, as you lay the washcloth gently over her fontanelle, as you cooed and told her mum would be okay. I wept with worry with you, and wrapped my arms about you as you went home alone, yearning for Katie’s recovery.
I was there when Katie left the hospital, swaddled baby in her arms, an adoring husband – our son – dancing about her, opening doors, pressing lifts buttons and making way in front of his new family. She was radiant, you were radiant, he was bursting with joy. I laughed with you all, and revelled in the bouquets of flowers that adorned their apartment. I sipped the champagne too – and why not, Katie didn’t feel like it.
I stood with you a year later in the airport, as the little family left for Joe’s overseas posting. It’s hard for parents to watch their children leave. Birds push their fledglings out of the nest not because they want to (not because their issue want to either) but because they must. It is our duty to be rid of them. It is a savage cut that thankfully soon mends.
But I was there when you turned after they disappeared into customs – Sarah on Katie’s hip pointing at the ceiling, Joe laden with the accoutrements of early parenting. I kissed the tears in your eyes and sat with you in the cab home. I ate dinner with you, I sat with you on the couch as you spoke with Sal, a handkerchief in your spare hand.
That night was the first time I felt you coming.
You paused after you hung up from Sal, after you’d flooded the boys with unanswered questions about their day and the books they’d read and the soccer game that was coming up this weekend and they flinched when you said good night with grandma-y kisses. I noticed then that age had crept into your presence. You looked around the room, unfocussed. One of your children had left your realm of influence. You had abandoned them to the winds – literally while they were crossing the skies. I wonder if eagles pause when they watch their young fly off as adults. Or do they gaze at their empty nest and wonder at the marvel of flight?
Do you think of me then? In that moment, of absence, do you look for me? I am here. I mesh my fingers with yours, I kiss your forehead, I rejoice in the love we had. I wonder, do you think of joining me? Do you decide, then, that that was a path that you must follow?
I think you do. I see you smile and hear you sigh. You pick up the photo of us on the barge on the Seine all those decades ago, you showing Paris the shine of your smile and your floral dress splayed across the deck chair. Wine and cheese and olives from the markets, a loop of hair hanging across your cheek.
You put it to your lips and, before you set it down, you look to your right, as if a memory had stirred, as if you sense something. Do you feel my presence now? I hope you feel me. I am sure you feel me.
Afterwards, I hold you close in bed.
Splendid woman. You have started to come. Do you know you had?
At Jake’s tenth birthday I sat with you at the back of the ten pin bowling alley. You declined the offer to play. The pack of boys thundered their balls down the alleyways, laughed when they slipped on the hard floors and imitated each other falling and laughing and were only quieted by a table load of chips and nuggets and soft drink. When Jake showed you the enormous Lego Star Wars fighter – like you, I don’t recall what specific ship it was, something massively important – I nodded my head with you and exclaimed it would take a long time to put that together. We were sure his dad would help him. Heavens, it’d be beyond us to piece it together.
Only two years later, at Joel’s tenth, you had a walking stick.
Over at their place, Sal was overly solicitous, and I chuckled when you told her to sit down while you made her a cup of tea for once. Goodness knows running a family with boys at ten and twelve while working part time was hard enough and with Aaron and the wolf pack out at paintball she should take a load off for a moment, plus you weren’t so decrepit you couldn’t make her a simple cup of tea. And she said you were always such a great mother, how did you do it all, and you said you just did and that’s the thrill of it.
The boys burst in, Aaron bragged loudly of his victory at paintball and the boys exclaimed their exploits and enacted how their victims fell: guts and screams and explosions of coloured paint and unmet pleas for mercy. By the time you served the Bolognese Aaron was asleep at the table and the boys only dragged themselves to bed, leaving the two of you in the quiet wake of exhausted males.
When Sal drove you home she said she’d do a working bee on the garden one weekend but you said, don’t prune the azalea though, it reminded you of me because we planted that when we first moved in, what was it, forty years ago?
We waved her goodbye from the front door half hidden by the vibrant pink flowers as she reversed out of the driveway, but she could only see you.
Then we go inside, and I notice how reliant you are on your cane. Wiping off your make up in the bathroom I think your cheeks have sagged a little, those high cheek bones I so loved now less prominent in a slightly squarer face. Not that you look any less attractive to me, just that age is foreshadowing its effects. In fact it draws you nearer to me.
We shouldn’t regard age as a diminution of life, or some unwanted decrepitude. It is a transition, until the grandeur of the next epoch, much like a newborn, smooth and burping with potential vomits and shits and indiscriminate cries.
You sleep wrapped in my arms. I am full of anticipation. I softly kiss your cheek, and breathe your thinning hair. The scent is time solid, an accumulation of all we had been and felt in one moment. A baby smells sweet; you smell sweet and young and perspiring and weary and floral and from-newborn-to-adult in one flesh. It is grand. Do you notice me? You sleep well. I don’t stop smiling all night.
Your delight when Joe (who had filled out a bit you observed) and Katie and Sarah returned for a holiday was uncontainable. I watched as you hugged your son tightly and your daughter in law, and then cuddled and coddled the little five year old granddaughter. You fussed over them all with food and comforts and bounced little Sarah on your knee. She laughed as you read her Mother Goose and patted her tummy with The Very Hungry Caterpiller. It was an exhausting but exhilarating fortnight of trips to playgrounds, on ferries, to the swimming pool, with TV, lollies and fresh cut fruits throughout the day.
I understood your tears when they disappeared again through the airport gate, Sarah clutching the soft koala bear you’d given her, and waving a little hand as she pranced ahead of her parents.
At home you shrink on the sofa like a survivor shipwrecked on the sand, as the waves wash in around your ankles. It’s hard to see it from your side, but age is not the slow receding of life’s tide, it is the compulsion of the ocean’s depths, the source of tides, the source of flow, the unfathomable dark and acquiescence of our being. I see you from there, I feel you coming, I sense you knowing and willing to join me. Can you feel me yet? You look about again, as if a shadow darted by with no ready origin. Are you looking for me? I am here. I am beside you, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder. I am the shadow, I am the source.
You were unaware of the first stroke. It was minor, but I saw the sag on your left brow, the slight downturn on your lips, a moderation of your usual energy and quick wittedness. Did you see it? Or did you just call it age? There is no difference anyway – it was step to aging, aging is a step in aging.
You could still recite The Jabberwocky though, something which Joel frequently did with you and the kids. You were fit enough to watch the occasional football game the boys played, perched on the fold down seat in your walking frame on the sideline as the afternoon closed in, scarf wrapped about your thinning neck line, and holding a pallid cup of tea in one hand. You told them I was a fullback in my day, and a fast and handsome one at that.
I particularly enjoyed riding with you on the motor scooter, the Red Demon. Up to the shops, out to the cinema, over to Lucy Lambet’s for book club. You weren’t going to a nursing home, you announced to Sarah when she had the nerve to raise the topic. And you watched the boys taking turns driving the scooter up and down the footpath. She at least persuaded you to accept the medi-alert in case you fell.
You don’t fall of course. You make sure of that. But one night you just sleep, and don’t stop sleeping. Then I know it is happening. I rejoice, and call you, encourage you. I feel your weight loosen and droop into the bed, I watch your joints relax, I hear the final untrammelled breath as it exits your barely open lips.
And you come to me. Glorious and free and high spirited and vital and you shriek with joy when you see me and we race to each other. Arms cling to bodies and entangle in spirited flesh, you glow, you glow, your smile as pure and light as earth’s beginning and your taste on dying lips the sweet and exotic licence of being. We laugh, we hug and hold and cry and the dark world turns about us shaving shards from distant suns and moons and the gloaming of life’s long appointment.
This was – still it – our love. I am, you are, we are, a knot of body pressed unfleshed in a love as grand as the horizons and as insignificant as a planet in the cosmos. This is our being and our ending. This is our time between. A love that marks no stain on the heavens, but only on the hearts of two mortals, who, although gone, remain in love. And the fact of having been, of having loved, remains insoluble, undeniable, inextinct. Though the sun may eat our earth and shrink into shreds of shadowed obsolescence this will remain, a quiet mote of truth etched in to the unkept records of all that occurred: we loved each other with a unity that was light and gold and minute and magnificent.
Lips meet lips open mouthed, free air breathes between freed hearts and is finally freed of being, the dark summons, the truth is set, the record sealed, and we dissolve into the unity of ever having been.