The Last Birthday

I found my husband’s body on September 3rd, 2016. He was 47 years old when he died. And like anyone who has lost someone, I’ll never forget the particular circumstances surrounding the death.

There’s no nice way of saying it, but he was living in our basement so he didn’t have to be around me. Life was difficult it for me during those last years and I know I was hard to live with. He was unemployed, his memory was going, and he withdrew because he knew how rapidly I could turn from smiling to screaming.

A variety of things killed him. He was on a lot of medication, many of which I would find not taken at the end of the day. “I’m pretty sure I took them.” He’d say. But I knew how many pills he had and how many were taken and the math never added up. Other things contributed as well. His parents had both died. I crumpled him. I broke him. We shouldn’t have been together but he couldn’t take care of himself. We shouldn’t have been together but he had no where else to go. We shouldn’t have been together but I couldn’t send him away when I remembered the way he smiled at me. And I could never live with myself if he died alone.

I was walking down the stairs to the basement that last morning and I knew something was wrong. The theme song to the TV show Vikings was playing on a short loop as if it were left on the menu. And he wouldn’t have left it that way. So I knew before I opened the door that he was gone.

And then I opened it.

His pale feet stuck out from his recliner chair, the one he slept in. His head was cocked to the side, his eyes were open, and his skin was cold. I touched his wrist knowing that I wouldn’t find a pulse. Walking from one end of the room to the other, I wrung my hands and cried out loud. “Oh Dennis. Oh Dennis.” Over and over.

Even though I didn’t have the best relationship with my mother over the years, she was the first person I called, crying uncontrollably, hardly able to get the words out. She told me to call the police and wait. She told me the name of a funeral home to call the next day. She told me it would be OK.

I called work and told them I had found my husband dead and couldn’t come in for my scheduled shift. I still remember the poor girl who took that call. I tried to tell them the name of the nurse who often replaces me but I couldn’t, for some reason, remember her name even though we’d worked together for about 10 years.

After I called the police, I had to do the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I had to tell my youngest son who was playing video games innocently in his room, that his father had died.

We went down the stairs together. I was crying and he wasn’t. I ran my fingers through my husband’s hair which used to be so thick and curly. Lately, he had developed a love of yogurt and there it was, sitting on his lap, the last thing he ever ate. And I know his death was painless and quick because he was still sitting in his chair the way he always sat with his ankles crossed over each other. Death had crept over him so swiftly and silently that he didn’t have time to uncross his ankles.

My brother and sister who had considered him part of the family for 23 years, came to sit with me until the body was taken away. The police car and the ambulance sat out front of the house. The doors of the neighbors kept opening and closing. After the coroner told us the tests they wanted to run on his body, they took him away from me.

I called my son in Toronto and knew he’d have to bear the sorrow alone. Without any of the family to hold his hand or rub his back or hand him a tissue.

And for the next two days I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I had the strange sensation of being small and transparent, like I was a wraith. Like I didn’t exist.

Dennis’s brother wanted a Catholic funeral which was laughable because Dennis never went to church during our marriage. I knew he wouldn’t care for a religious service. But I couldn’t imagine what type of funeral to have. Whenever I thought of funerals I pictured the church, the mourners in black, women with veils, people weeping.

“It’s too bad we couldn’t throw your Dad one more birthday party.” I told my youngest son.

“Why can’t we?” He said.

And we looked at one another and smiled. Because we could throw him a party. We could throw him one last birthday celebration. And that’s what we did.

So I sent out invitations for Dennis’s last birthday party, to be held on the day that would have been his 48th birthday. A birthday party with a rock and roll theme. His funeral would be fun and why not? We served pizza, soda, and a guitar shaped cake. The invitations were backstage passes. We made bowls out of records to hold the snacks. We asked everyone to come in their favorite rock and roll t shirt. And we made a slide show consisting of photos of his life with rock music playing in the background.

And I had to say the eulogy. I had never said one before. I’d never done any public speaking before. I wrote it and scribbled it out and wrote it again and erased and wrote in the margins. I had to have it perfect because I did really love him. Even if our love had taken a back seat to our bickering and our differences, I did love him. And I wanted people to know at the very last, the things I remembered about him throughout our marriage. The reasons I had to stay with him and the reasons I had to leave. I was so nervous about speaking. I read the eulogy out at work to the nurses. They listened and dabbed at their eyes with tissues so I knew it was right.

On the day that was his last birthday, I stood up under the strobe lights and disco balls. And I spoke out loud, looking at the crowd fearlessly because even if I failed him in life, I wasn’t going to fail him in death.

These are the words I spoke.

“I’d like to thank everyone for coming to Dennis’s 48th birthday. Dennis, as I’m sure you all know was born on December 3rd, 1969, the youngest of four children.  He moved to Athabasca from Southern California when his father, Archie retired.

That’s the part of Dennis’s history that you know. But I’m going to share with you some things that you don’t know. In March of this year, Dennis had his first heart attack. I think he knew he didn’t have much time left because he started talking about making a will and funeral arrangements. Specifically, he said he didn’t want anyone to mourn his passing but to celebrate his life. I think he wanted a party. And anyone who knew Dennis knows that he would have chosen laughter over tears any day. So thank you all for coming together to celebrate this wonderful man we all knew.

Dennis was a man who knew how to live. He loved good food, good music, travel. I never saw a man more comfortable walking into a room full of strangers and almost immediately finding a best friend. He loved concerts, especially the small venues he could wander around with a beer in his hand. If any of you ever went with him, you would have seen him walk a few steps this way and then stop. Walk a few steps that way and then stop again. He did this over and over until he found the auditory sweet spot, the place where the music was the most beautiful. Because for Dennis, it was all about the music.

When I met Dennis, he was living in an apartment on Bellamy Hill with his childhood friend, Roger. It was the stereotypical bachelor’s apartment. They had every sauce imaginable in the fridge but no actual food. They had five pizza cutters but no cutlery. They had milk crates to sit on but no chairs. And of course, the bubble gum machine full of condoms.

Dennis and I met in July of 1993 and in August of 1993 we were married after an engagement of twenty four hours on Salt Spring Island. This led to the ongoing joke in our marriage “I don’t usually go this far on a first date.” We didn’t have much time to plan the wedding of course and when it came time to pick the music, we had one CD, U2-The Joshua Tree. I realized as I was saying my vows, that the music playing in the background was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

We never wore wedding rings. With an engagement of twenty four hours, we didn’t have much time to shop for rings, so we picked them up at a second hand store for a very low price and before our first anniversary, they both broke. And we just never replaced them.

People get married for all kinds of reasons. I asked Dennis once why he married me and he said “You’re the only girl I ever knew who could sing all the words to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Because for Dennis, it was all about the music.

The first 8 months of our marriage, Dennis and I were separated because I was in my last year of art school in Vancouver. I spent a lot of time at the library and one day I picked up a random book of poetry and opened it to a random page and found one of the loveliest poems I’ve ever read. I sent a copy of it to Dennis and he loved it as well. He decided it was our poem. It’s called “At a Window,” by Carl Sandburg.

This is that poem:

Give me hunger

Oh you Gods that sit and give the world its orders

Give me hunger, pain and want

Shut me out with shame and failure

From your doors of gold and fame

Give me you shabbiest, weariest hunger

But leave me a little love

A voice to speak to me in the day end

A hand to touch me in the dark room

Breaking the long loneliness

In the dusk of day-shapes

Blurring the sunset

One little, wandering, western star

Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow

Let me go to the window

Watch there the day-shapes of dusk

And wait and know the coming

Of a little love

Years later, after visiting North Carolina, we inadvertently discovered Carl Sandburg’s historic home which was a nice connection.

Dennis always remembered our anniversary and I didn’t. Even the first anniversary, he called me from work apologizing because he had forgotten to say Happy Anniversary. I was a little confused, not knowing what anniversary he was talking about and, after he hung up, I realized he was talking about the anniversary of our wedding. We went into an insurance company a few years later and the agent asked us when our anniversary was. He was shocked when I couldn’t remember but Dennis could. He told us he always asks that question because he likes to watch the guy catch hell from his wife because he can’t remember. For the first time in his 17 year career, the woman couldn’t remember a wedding anniversary but the man could.

Over the years I’ve narrowed the date down to somewhere near the end of August but I still don’t remember the exact date. In August of this year, only a few days before he died, he called me at work again to wish me a happy anniversary because, once again, I had forgotten.

One thing that you might not know about Dennis is that he was an amateur midwife. Our second son Theo was born in our home with no midwife to attend the birth. And, though I like to take credit for the actual delivery, Dennis was my attendant. As soon as Theo was born, he cut the cord, and he and little Archie took the baby and climbed into the tub to wash him off. And so ended his career as a midwife.

We drove to Alberta a few times while we lived in the South. On one such trip, we stopped over in Wisconsin just in time for the Alien festival. Dennis asked a local woman what people do at an alien festival and she said “Oh, mostly drink.” And Dennis probably would have attended except there was no good music there. We continued on to Alberta the next day, a drive which took us 17 hours. And Dennis wanted to listen to Phish the entire way. I don’t think any jury would have convicted me of the murder I wanted to commit at the end of that trip. Dennis was as happy as a clam because for him, it was all about the music, but not so much for me.

This past summer, I spent some time cleaning out the boxes Dennis brought from Grampa Archie’s house. I had been meaning for some time to buy a new coffee maker but it kept slipping my mind. One day, I found a box from Grandpa Archie’s house that had a brand new, still packaged, never used coffee maker. I brought it to Dennis and demanded to know why he didn’t tell me it was there. Seeing my annoyance, he smiled and said “But Dale, I put the song Fat Bottomed Girls on your Christmas album.” And when this lighthearted joke at my expense didn’t work, he back peddled. “Um, um, um,” he said. “Um-Happy Anniversary.” And I had to admit defeat at this point because I couldn’t remember when our anniversary was.

I’m 46 years old now. And for half my life, I was married to Dennis. But how long is that really? How do we measure time? Do we measure it in days? If so, I was married to Dennis for 23 years and 57 days with 5.75 days added for leap years. I calculated I knew him for 8466 days. And that doesn’t sound like much, especially when you consider we spend 8 hours out of every day asleep.

But I think we measure our time differently. I think we measure it in moments. In those 8466 paltry days, Dennis and I lived in two countries, we lived on both sides of the continent of North America, we had two beautiful boys, we broke up, we got back together, we shared anger, compassion, joy. We lived as fully as we knew how, for every moment. So I asked myself if 8466 days is enough to make a life with someone and the answer is, of course, yes. It’s enough to learn the sometimes difficult lesson of choosing laughter over tears.

All the events in our life together can be traced backwards like a trail of stones. The bigger ones, the birth of a child, marriage, graduation, the death of a loved one, all cast shadows on the others. But the smaller ones are no less significant. Doing a crossword together, sipping a cup of coffee next to one another. Simple moments we all share with those we love.

Although we knew Dennis was a man who knew how to live, what none of us knew, is that Dennis was also a man who knew how to die. He died quickly, quietly, peacefully in his home, on his comfy easy chair, watching a movie, with a snack in his hand. Dennis died the way we all should die.

On September third of this year, Dennis had a date with eternity. He was called to attend a concert that will be held until the end of time. A concert where he will always have the best seat in the house, directly in the auditory sweet spot where the music is most beautiful.

As most people do after losing someone, I found myself in shock. As if, without my consent, I was tossed into a shallow pit. And I had to decide if I should stay in the safety of the shadows or ascend into the sun. If I were to stay, the fear was, I would have a shovel thrown down for me to dig my way out. And I’d try. I’d try only to discover I was making my prison deeper and deeper until the thin rays of the sun could no longer reach me. I would forget the loving embrace of its warmth and grow pale, like a ghost, spending the rest of my days concealed in stillness, neither hot nor cold, neither dark nor light, only silence, billowy and soft cradling my body, engulfing me in tranquility. It doesn’t help to sit at the bottom of a pit hiding from the sun. It doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t alter the course of a life, but I did it all the same, hoping to stay the hand that moves the world along.

I clung for many days to the last remaining link to my marriage before life turned me in a different direction. The tenuous silver thread binding my body to his like a kite, tethering me to his ground.

I can make the choice to stay at the bottom of the pit without protest, to feel miserable every day, to spend the rest of my life under the blanket of joyless existence. It would be a dismal choice, dismal but easier than ascending.

Or I could rise.

But how can anyone continue from a depth of such emptiness. I realized that I can ascend because life is made of moments.

My last memory of Dennis was the morning of his death. A simple moment. A hug. A very nice hug. He kissed me and he told me he loved me. And later that day I found his breathless body.

Maybe everyone has a moment when they realize that we’re only in this life for a brief time before we blink into the next. I had my moment when I found him and under my fingers, his skin was cold, his face was blank, there was no sunshine in the hazel of his eyes. It was little consolation when I discovered that I no longer had to carry the onus of his pain and he no longer had to carry the onus of mine.

Imagine life at the bottom of that pit, when even in absolute darkness there is solace. But if someone brings a light, a small light, an affectionate light and then they leave. The darkness after they’re gone is an ocean of desolation. Dennis was my temporary light and his absence left me in despair. I didn’t know when I met him about the dry wilderness I would have to wander once he disappeared over the horizon.

I always thought the end of a life would arrive like a door slammed shut, the abrupt closing of one story before the opening of another. At once there would be life and then, in a sound as short as a clap, there would be nothing. But, though a heart may stop beating, it takes years for people to let go of the dead. Nothing ends in haste but we sigh out of this world in the longest of exhales. Once our bodies have gone over the edge, the people left behind cling to the cliffside looking for the fallen and forgetting, perhaps for years, that the living have to eat.

For as long as there have been people there have been debates over the concept of life after death. But these thoughts don’t interest me. Forget the great scales of right and wrong, of good and evil, of heaven or hell, forget it all, I only know that I want him back and I can’t have him. But the worst events in our lives, the ones that cause us the most pain can never be extinguished, they must be endured.

What could I have said to Dennis to put an end to my fury of sorrow? This affliction that harnesses me to the past? What words could I have uttered that would give me the freedom to move on without this great weight? Remembering that I’m the one who has to wake up every day, wearing my sadness, and wandering the world alone.

I would say three things to him:

  • I love you.
  • I took pleasure in the sound of your voice and the smell of your skin.
  • I lived every day hoping you would smile my way.

My greatest regret in my marriage is that we clung to our bitterness when we could have severed the noose. I didn’t approach him in life so he could understand the soothing balm of my forgiveness or so I could understand his.

I’m so very happy that my last moment with him was not filled with bitterness or anger. It could just as easily have been an argument over whose turn it was to clean the kitty litter. For the record, it was his turn. But my last memory of him was sweet. And in clinging to the sweetness of that last moment, I was able to climb out of the pit.

Dennis died the way we all should die when we embark on our own final journey, the last adventure we will ever attend, our own date with eternity, when the troubles of living overcome the troubles of dying and we welcome the cold fingers of eternal sleep. But today we can ask ourselves some questions. Not about death but about life. Have we enjoyed good food, good music, travel? Have we chosen laughter over tears? I say with full confidence that Dennis would have wanted that for all of us.”

Those were the last words I spoke for my husband save these. Good bye my love. I’m sorry I couldn’t be the wife you needed.

For more about Dale:
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If you want to read some of my fiction, download my book Zoo of Human Frailties for $2.99 on kindle https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07YZ123DY

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Remnants of Memories

“Every Artist was first an amateur.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I first saw Athabasca years ago with my husband. He took me there a few months after our wedding to meet his parents. Of course, his parents didn’t live in town. Like most retirees, they lived in a year round cabin outside of the city. But is Athabasca a city? I have no idea. All I know is it isn’t large enough to have a Wal-mart.

The Athabasca Railway building is situated on 50th Ave, the main drag through Athabasca right by the river front park. I don’t actually know if it’s a railway building. The sign outside says Visitor Centre so I’m pretty sure people visit there. But the building looks alike a railway station so that’s what I’m calling it. You can see the sketch for yourself and decide.

Athabasca is a small town settled on the Athabasca river. It was a trading port and the river used to be instrumental in the trade routes. Imagine large wooden boats sitting low in the water and large, unwashed viking sized men rowing on either side. That’s what it used to be like in the early days in Athabasca. Or at least it might have been like that. I just made that all up. But it seems likely.

The river is pretty massive and, in winter, ice creeps over the edges until it meets in the middle and the river is frozen solid. All around, rolling hills covered in shrubs wash over the landscape like an ocean. Hard working people live there, people willing to eek out a subsistence living from the stony earth.

I loved it the moment I saw it with my young husband. He took me on a tour of the town. And whenever we visited there, we took the same route that became familiar to me. Every friendly home and building sat still, frozen in time, as if waiting for me to come back. We drove around all the same places, the rooming house where his mother grew up, the old brick school house, and the Burger Bar before we drove out to Island Lake where his parents lived. And we always passed the house that had the mechanical moose standing out front.

Writing about Athabasca is hard for me because I drove there about a year ago to put some of my husband’s ashes in the lake. We had spent so much time driving around the dirt roads on quads and swimming in the cool water. Fires by the shore, fireworks reflected in the glassy surface on Canada Day. I think the main reason I don’t like to go back there is because I see remnants of those memories everywhere and I’m reminded that they meant more to me than to him. I’m reminded of times when we were loving and times when we were not. I’m reminded of arguments and embraces and despair and anger and passion. But those things are over now. And every time I feel the ghostly fingers pulling me back, my heart is broken all over again. Holding on to them does no good. So I have to let them go and let him go. And now I realize that when I visit a place that holds onto echoes of his short life, it pricks a hole in the bottom of my happiness and washes it away.

I drove there that last time with our son in the car. We walked down to the lake front with a few friends and family in attendance and put pieces of him in the edge of the water. And I had to smile so they didn’t see how the burden of facing his memories weighed me down. I wanted to go on that tour of town again, the one we used to take every visit but I couldn’t. We left Athabasca and my son fell asleep on the way home. I’m happy he fell asleep because I didn’t want him to see me cry.

So many lovely scenes sit just waiting for my hand to put them on paper. “Make us immortal,” they whisper to me. I truly love the place. But I’ve never been back since that last visit and I’ll never go there again. I have pointed my life elsewhere and this drawing is one of a thousand memories I carry with me.

This drawing can be downloaded at dalegreenearts.bigcartel.com

For more about Dale:
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If you want to read some of my fiction, download my book, Zoo of Human Frailties, for $2.99 USD https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07YZ123DY