The Stories We Tell Ourselves
“When does Mike get there?”
I stood in my parents’ garden/garbage shed on the phone with my oldest brother. The only spot on the property with cell phone coverage when it rains.
“He’s coming back from Paris. I think he’s on a plane, now.”
Silence on across the proverbial wire as my brother calculated a response devoid of marriage commentary.
In two minutes my sister will interrupt us to tell us our father has died. Finally. In two minutes she will first search the house for me, eventually giving up and calling my cell. I will see but ignore the call. She will then call my brother which he will announce out loud, as I had done, and we will both know.
I will hold him to my ear and say, “let me make sure.”
“Keep me on the phone.” A fifty-year-old voice with the echo of a boy.
And then it will be sure.
My brother is at least two hours away in rainy Boston traffic, and I am right here.
I go inside.
Or I don’t. I sob in the doorway on my sister. Or maybe on the shoulder of another brother. Or I stand alone wondering where my husband is.
Whenever I do step back inside, I’m wet. That detail is solid. When it rains the day my mother dies two years later, and I cross the threshold of devastation again in a damp dress, the deja vu is visceral.
My mother looks relieved. Or maybe I’m relieved and just looking at her. Words roll like marbles under running water, clarity resurfacing — she will miss holding my father’s hand.
A millisecond of recall. My brother’s high school lacrosse game. My father reaches for my mother’s hand. She pulls meaningfully away. One of a thousand obtuse marital smoke signals I can never decipher, but fear and judge.
But these past months of dying, as he lay and she sat, they held hands often. I wished I’d noticed more to help pull the memory into focus.
In a few days, I will find them quietly holding hands in the background of a photo of my children and their grandfather’s store-bought 80th birthday cake that is eaten mostly by the nursing home staff.
The little ones washed their hands in a hallway bathroom and returned to a large slice cut for the birthday boy, several bites missing. The skin hanging from my father’s lanky frame betrayed the ruse, but he would go to his grave swearing the triple chocolate was the best cake he’d ever had.
It takes a stalwart soul to commit to a lifelong lie for the sake of another.
In this moment, just minutes after my father stops breathing, I ask her. I’m scared, but I am sure, so I say it.
“Do you want me to take a picture of you holding his hand?”
Her head snaps up reflexively with a look I can’t read. Anger, disgust? It’s alone — a flash in her eye, that softens before it settles.
She yields. The head dip of an almost imperceptible nod. I nod back. She takes his hand, I frame it with my phone.
Hands that hold fifty years of marriage. Hands so familiar, memorized in moments my eyes needed somewhere else to land. Thinned skin splotched with spots, once-solid fingers turned bony. I am at a loss. Have I ever seen these hands before?
In three months I will return with his wedding band on a chain around my neck, and two framed photos. One black and white, the other in color. She will thank me with tears and keep both.
In this moment, more people come. There is the brutal kindness of the gentleman from the funeral home. His suit an homage to church on Sunday, and men for whom a suit is an always, but the tie a maybe. I am achingly grateful for his tie.
The hospice worker feels like a ghost. A nurse when she started three days ago, promoted to adjunct family in the intimate moment of untenable loss. I felt sure I’d been her babysitter once, though I couldn’t remember her name and I asked her enough times she flushed with embarrassment.
When I couldn’t take the moaning my sister had already borne for hours, the nurse stood when I begged her , “How do you know he’s not in pain?”
“He isn’t. I could stab him in the arm with a fork and he won’t flinch.” Her voice steady. Her sweater the exact color of the couch. She held my gaze. “Do you need me to do it?”
Afterward, mother will offer to buy her a car.
At some point, I stepped back into the shed and called my husband. Still on a plane, or maybe in a cab where he couldn’t hear his phone. I left him a message.
“He died. He’s dead. I’m going to stay here.”
A cruel delivery that gave me unfair relief. A place to offset the pain. Someone. He’d take it and he would forgive me.
The rain pounding on the shed roof, I breathed the earthy smell of potting soil and slightly rancid garbage. The hollow, damp alone of death and life
Snow whispers outside my therapist’s window as she listens to my well- worm, prepackaged story. A thin veil over the truth’s sharp edges. Lips pressed into a tight, nearly invisible line.
I tear up in earnest at the memory of my husband’s absence. “He chose to travel anyhow,” I’m startled by the swell in my throat. It’s an effort to finish the last turn of my organ grinder act. I search her eyes for affirmation.
And I know what she will say. Everyone says it. “He should have been there.” I am the eager wronged party. The beleaguered griever. An untamed puppy seeking my treat.
Her eyes are soft and warm. Her voice is firm.
“So that is the story you are telling yourself. There is something your husband could have done to save you from this pain.”
And there it is. All the truth that ever was.
That this pain could be anything other than what it is.
Mine. All alone.
I startle us both with my laugh, overwhelmed by the intense yearning to forgive everyone, everything. My husband, my father, myself. Maybe even the God I tell myself I don’t believe in. Pearls of memories string themselves in tears that fill the silence left by my laughter. Love given, love received, love collected. Love left at the altar of pain, by people who have lost and known, and those who love, but don’t yet.
I drop the story I’ve been clutching in my left hand.
The snow has turned to the spitting rain of spring. Daffodils just pushing through. I step into the smell of damp earth, and the death and life we do together alone.
Meghan Riordan Jarvis is a psychotherapist, author, wife, and mother of three. After losing both her parents within two years of each other she began Grief Is My Side Hustle. (www.griefismysidehustle.com).