have something to tell you, you tell me one afternoon. Can you come over tonight?
Are you OK?, I ask.
Yes, you say, but I can’t tell you this over text message.
I’ll come over after work.
He’s breaking up with me, I think. We’re done. I did something wrong. I’m not giving him enough of something. He has found someone else. I am not enough for him. I do not bother to tell my wife, Holly, I will be late. I think she likes being home without me. If we are not at home together, then we are not fighting. If we are not fighting, then she can focus on our son, Avery. Focusing on Avery means she isn’t focusing on herself, or on me, or on herself with me. He has been her focus since before he was born. She stopped seeing me, or maybe we stopped seeing each other.
It happens. Marriages, and the people inside of them, fade. You don’t think it can happen until it does. And one day you wake up and you wonder how the person next to you got there. You don’t want to be there beside that person. You think there is someone better suited out there for you. You think you got married too young, or maybe that you settled. You think that the man who lives less than four miles away is going to hold your future, the same way this woman holds your past. He will watch your children open presents on Christmas and pose for school pictures. This man, the one you’ve not yet known two months, is going to be with you on the day you turn 50. This man, he, that’s who you’ve been waiting for.
Or maybe he will be the next person you one day wake up next to wondering how you got there.
I drive to your apartment after work, and you text to say your door is unlocked. Just come in, you say. I walk upstairs and into your bedroom. You are in your bed. You are still wearing the clothes you wear to work. You look like you have been crying. You look like you are sick.
My mother has cancer, you tell me. This is not the first time.
I don’t know what to say. How do you describe cancer? How do you describe loss? How do you describe numb? How do you describe you without her?
All I can do is ask if her cancer is terminal.
We don’t know, you say. She is going to fight. Chemo and stuff. We’ve gone through this before.
I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything. A reporter’s trick – don’t say anything when someone you are interviewing pauses, and he or she will usually keep talking, if only because silence often feels uncomfortable.
Are you OK with all of this?, you ask.
With all of what?, I ask. With your mother having cancer?
Yes, you say.
I think you sound like you are afraid of my answer.
D, I say, we can get through this together. And I want to crawl into your bed next to you and pull you next to me and hold you and rock you to sleep and sing You Light Up My Life, because this is the song my mother would sing to me when I was sick or afraid when I was a child.
I’ve heard that before, you say, and you tell me how the last time your mother needed to undergo treatment for her cancer, the man you had been with told you it was all too much and he broke up with you, breaking your heart in the process. Your mother’s cancer went into remission. She grew stronger. She told you to live your life. You had followed your advice and moved out.
All I know about your mother is what you have told me. She was an artist for a while, and you have two of her paintings in your living room. She sometimes offers you money, not a lot, and not because you really need it, but because she is your mother and what else can parents do but offer what they to their children? She still tries with your brother, even though your brother doesn’t try with her. He is her son. She can’t help but love him. She is your best friend. You and she have no secrets. You told her you were falling in love with me, after I had brought you red M&Ms one afternoon when you were sick. I brought you a different color of M&Ms every day after until you felt better.
I have seen pictures of you and your mother when you were younger, and I have seen her Facebook photo because she is one of your friends. When you told her that I had a son, she sent Avery a toy truck. You and Avery take turns pushing the truck on the hardwood floors in your bedroom. The truck is supposed to move on its own, but it doesn’t. Avery does not know that it is supposed to move on its own.
Do you need to be with her?, I ask.
Not yet, you say, but I am going to go home for a visit in a few weeks.
I’m sorry, I say.
I love you, rabbit, you say, and you seem to exhale a breath you had been holding since you first heard the news.
I’m not going anywhere, I say. I take you as is. I’m not scared. These were your words the night you met Avery, and I return them to you. I get into bed, and you bury your head in my shoulder. I pull your comforter over us. I tell you that everything will be all right, and that I am here, and that we will get through this together.
ou go home to visit your mother. I pick you up at the train station when you get back and take you home. How were your flights?, I ask. I don’t know how to ask you about how your mother is doing.
They were good, you say. You put your bags on your bed and begin to unpack. Your mother has sent home with you several things from your childhood. She was cleaning, you say, and wanted you to have these things. Of course, what you don’t say is she is starting to think that unless she gives you these things now, she will never give you these things.
How is she?, I ask.
And you begin to cry. I reach for you, and you let me hold you. You bury your head in my shoulder, and I hold you until you lift your head up. Rabbit, you say, she wants me to be her medical proxy in case she isn’t able to make decisions.
Did you guys talk about her final wishes?, I ask.
A little, you say. But I couldn’t really – and again, you cry. Despite having already called you my partner, this moment, in your bedroom, is the first time I feel like your partner.
It’ll be OK, I say. I rub your back. I can almost feel you shrinking into yourself. I’m here, I say, and you say that you know, and that you can’t get through this without me.
It’ll be OK, I repeat. I don’t know what else to say.
Our relationships ends four months after you tell me about your mother’s cancer. You cannot be in a relationship with someone who is still trying to figure out how to get divorced from the woman who came before you. Your mother has considered my son her grandson. She bought him toys and sent him books and asked you about him, and about me, each time you talked to her. I e-mailed her to let her know how grateful I was for the how she treated me and Avery while we were in your life, and that I regretted not getting to know her better. I don’t know whether she shared this e-mail with you.
few months later, I tell a man I go on two dates with that I am not interested in a third date. He assumes I’m not interested because I’m still in love with you. Really, I’m not interested because he isn’t interesting. He knows just enough about you to Google for your Facebook page. He was curious, he tells me later. He finds your mother’s obituary and sends me a link to it. Why are you still not over someone who didn’t bother to tell you that his mother is dead?, he writes.
I read your mother’s obituary, and I see your name as surviving her. I want to call you and tell you I am sorry, but I cannot call you and tell you I am sorry. I should have flown to Peoria with you, or been in your life when you got a phone call telling you that it was time for you to go to her. I should have driven you to the airport and made sure you made your flights. I should have been because that was my job. I was your partner. Learning she has died like this feels like I am losing you all over again.
There are words to describe how I’m feeling, but I don’t know how to describe these words. Loss. Numb. Empty. How do you describe me without you?
I think she died before she could truly see you happy.
I call Holly, and I hear our daughter, Aurora, who is not yet two weeks old, cooing, and Avery doesn’t want to go to sleep, and Holly can hear I’m upset, and she asks me what is wrong. I say his mother is dead. And she doesn’t have to ask whom I’m talking about.
Did he get in touch with you?, she asks me, and I tell her no. I tell her that I had read the obituary online. She stood in line at a bookstore once to get a picture book signed for Avery, I say.
Do you have the book or do I?, Holly asks.
I do, I say.
You and your sister probably had to sift through your mother’s belongings, deciding what to keep and what to give away. There would have been photo albums, pictures of you with hair styles you would have been too embarrassed to show me. And I would have made you show me, because you would have needed to laugh, and you would have needed someone to make sure you laughed, if only to keep you from falling to pieces. You were probably numb. You probably disengaged. You probably had to relearn how to breathe. Or you felt you had to make sure everyone else could break down.
My not being there for you – another way I’ve let you down.
Most of us die with regrets. Maybe she regretted being a burden on you and your siblings. Maybe she regretted not being able to protect you. But if this were OZ, and she were Dorothy, you would be Scarecrow, and on her way home, she would have told you that it would be you she’d miss most of all. I don’t need to have met her to know that this is true.
Holly apologizes for the loss, and I tell her that there is nothing I can do. I hope that the people in his life were able to comfort him and take care of him, I say, and Holly says that that is the best I can hope for. There’s a man who lives near Peoria who I think you probably had sex with when you were home for the funeral. You and he used to have sex, when you lived with your mom. I don’t like thinking about you with him.
I send you an unsigned condolence card. Inside the unsigned card, I include copies of two poems written by your favorite poet. You had shared this poet with your mother, and later, you had shared this poet with me.
You do not acknowledge receiving the card. I hadn’t thought you would.