One of the effects of a move is leaving behind your mail. You still received mail at our old apartment- not much- a stray card or two from our old dentist in NYC- you were due for a visit. A large postcard asking if you had hearing loss. In the past few weeks I was surprised to find there are still a few people sending you things here at our new address. The 20% off entire purchase- not the ubiquitous 20% off a single purchase – Bed Bath and Beyond coupon you get when you move came addressed to you. A furniture store welcomed you to your new home and neighborhood.
I am tired lately like the kind of tired/discomfort you feel while traveling after living out of a suitcase for a few days too long. Packing, unpacking, in a makeshift home. I am incomplete lately like the moon partially full- when my eyes play tricks on me and I can still see the rest of the circle outlined in the darkness.
Audrey had a traumatic experience at the dentist for her cleaning a few weeks ago. Apparently, it was all my own fault. I tried to scare her into brushing by telling her the tale of a preschool mate of hers who had to go to the hospital and be put under to get her cavities filled. “I”m pretty sure she must have heard about somebody at school…” the dentist offered as Audrey, who has been to the dentist for cleanings four times already without any issues or even nervousness, writhed in my arms. Hmmm…I thought- maybe the story I told her? Whoops. I had no one to blame but myself when, after one completely unsuccessful appointment of screaming, fruitless bribery and rationalizing back in the waiting room, and the receptionist’s “Maybe it’s just not a good day…” we went back a few days later and we did OK until she saw the chair again. After more screaming and writhing, the dentist, a very patient and kind Korean woman- looked at me and said it again, “Maybe today’s just not a good day.” “But this is the second time- I really want her to get her teeth cleaned,” I said. “What about if Daddy takes her- would that help- maybe Daddy?” she asked hopefully. “Who?” I replied. “Daddy?” “He died.” “Oh I’m so sorry…”
I keep replaying this chaotic scene in my head for some reason- mostly the part when it gets quiet and I say, “Who?” I heard what she said. I comprehended it, but I replied, “Who?”
Meanwhile, I play the radio station that plays non-stop Christmas songs loudly in the car while we drive to and from Audrey’s preschool every morning. I sing along. “I don’t mind the holidays; it’s a welcome distraction and something good I can offer my daughter,” I tell a pastor and an elderly woman freshly widowed in a seminar they have one morning at the church that houses Audrey’s preschool entitled, “Surviving the Holidays.” I attend because I usually need something to do for the couple of hours Audrey’s in school and because- it’s an event that is geared towards me- instead of all the happy families all of the other publicized events are for- a little reprieve from the mask I must wear while chit chatting with other preschool moms, “Oh- I just got rid of a chunk of the baby gear- it felt sooo good…” the mothers of three say as we wait in the hall one day. I think about how difficult it was for me to part with any of Audrey’s baby gear and nod my head slowly.
The hardest day for me though, I told the pastor and the elderly woman, is your upcoming birthday. This December is different than previous ones. For Christmas, we are staying home. The first two years we’ve gone away – to Arizona, to Disneyland. This year, I felt I wanted Audrey to wake up in her own house and find presents under her own tree rather than open them on a hotel bed. I was also just too tired to think about traveling. For your birthday the first year- during the day I sat in bed eating Christmas cookies- but later, I’d put together a dinner of your friends in K-town. Afterwards we toasted you at an Irish pub. Last year, I attempted to do the same thing, but no one could make it but two people so Audrey and I spent the day walking the aisles of Target and eating Thai food at a newer restaurant in our old neighborhood. I had ordered all of our favorites- the ones you and I always ordered and shared- and to my dismay, it was way too much food for myself and a three-year old. This year- I already understand that this is a day for me alone now. We will visit the cemetery with flowers. I won’t plan anything strenuous. I break down in tears telling the pastor and the older woman how at this point, I don’t hear from many people and how the dynamics of all my friendships changed- how all of my “friends” are so busy with their large, young, families. The pastor hands me a few napkins and tells me that whether they know it on a conscious level or not, to my friends- I am living their worst nightmare- which might make it hard for them. “It is a nightmare,” I answer. “My own worst nightmare.”
I decide to host a cookie decorating/Charlie Brown Christmas watching party for Audrey and all the girls in her preschool class. It’s something else I can offer her when I feel I fall so short in other ways as a competent mother and person. A distraction for me as I order miniature rolling pins to attach the invitations to. One of the moms emails and tells me that she and her husband have a holiday party to attend that night, but if it’s earlier, she can drop by with her daughter. “– and I have a holiday party to attend together…” This sentence is so full of luxury to me. I miss going out as a couple- to dinner- sitting across from one another- making eye contact, talking, laughing, sharing food. To the movie theater- I have not been once since you died…sharing popcorn, your laughter while I weep at sappy previews, your wide eyes as you watch the screen, holding hands- we held hands. To a party with other adults- paying attention to what I wear, hearing you tell me I look pretty, having a drink without worrying about driving home…coming home together.
Sometimes I think that my “scholarly” approach to grief- the reading, writing, thinking- has all been one brave attempt to avoid missing the simple beauty of your companionship. In that way, when I have heard other widows talking about how hard the holidays are, or how one simply posted, “I miss being the most important person to someone,” or when another preschool mom I run into at Starbucks tells me she’s running out to get her husband’s boss a Christmas gift- I can pretend to myself that I don’t miss those things- that the holidays aren’t any harder than the normal days, (which is mostly true still) or that I don’t miss being the most important person, or even the wifely duties I used to do like buying your co-workers Christmas gifts. No- I am concerned with the larger questions, universal suffering, the purpose of humanity on earth, the afterlife. And I am, I can’t deny that the realm your death thrust me into feels like such a different place that I am full of questions about these things. Or that you grieve who you are, and I’ve always been more concerned with these things. But don’t be foolish, I tell myself lately, those little things shared- when our eyes met at something sweet our daughter did, a shared meal of panang curry and pad see ew, the tender squeeze of your hand at a suspenseful moment in a darkened movie theater, the coming home, debriefing on the party, and sleeping side by side…are as significant as these larger intellectual questions of philosophy and theology and where you are right now at this moment while I type (the answer to which truly changes everything doesn’t it?). This morning, on the drive to school, Audrey tells me she can still see all of the dolls, her “daughters,” she left eating at our dining table eating- “because I have a telescope at my back.” What if those sweet moments of companionship I feel so deprived of now are actually part of the answer to the questions I carry like some kind of cosmic vagabond- my own telescope at my back. But to put it simply, I miss you very, very much.
Audrey and I attend the small town tree lighting down the street in the misting rain tonight. She has hot chocolate, the Girl Scouts lead us in some incredibly off-key carols that you and I would’ve chuckled at together, and Santa arrives on a fire truck and gives out candy canes. On the short walk home, I push her stroller and feel your striking absence. At home, an old acquaintance from our church in Brooklyn that I don’t really remember but who recently messaged me, has sent me photos he’d taken of you at our old church- playing in the band- and later at Audrey’s baptism. Evidence of what was- there you are. I study your face and features in a photo I’ve never seen before- the fear of forgetting is always there. Before falling asleep, Audrey is hugging me and telling me, “I just really love you so much mom…” I hug her back and say, “We’re a special family you and me.” “And appa…” she adds. “I just miss him every day,” she continues. “I know, me too…” “I think that’s the way it’ll always be- I’ll just miss him every day until I die,” she says. “Yup, me too. But in the meantime, appa wants us to live and be happy…we have to live with all our strength (a phrase I borrow from a K-drama- hey, it works.) “Oh ok…” she assents begrudgingly with a sigh. This is December- the third since you have died.