Ever since this has happened, people have been telling me and advising me that perhaps I should move out of New Jersey, move out of the neighborhood and the apartment where Don and I shared our life, our engagement, our marriage. I have mixed feelings about this. There are some days when I am out in public with people, or at work, and the only thing I want is to go home and feel close to Don. Then there are other days when every step I take inside this apartment is a cold and cruel reminder of what will never again be. It starts the second that I wake up in the morning and my eyes look over to Don’s side of the bed. Every morning it is empty. Sometimes Sammy or Autumn occupy the space where Don once was; except they aren’t lying on his chest or next to his face. They are lying there alone. Each morning I wake up by crying at this realization. Each morning and night he dies all over again in my mind. When I finally get up to go to the bathroom, brush my teeth, I use the nice expensive, good floss that he had bought after he had started going to the dentist and really taking care of his teeth again. He was so happy and proud when his teeth were finally all finished. He would smile at me, after years of not wanting to smile at anyone because his teeth were in such bad shape, and he would say: “See Boo? Looks pretty good, huh?” A month later he was dead.
When I look in the bathroom mirror, behind me, I see a picture of Don and I on the wall. It is from a couple years ago, taken when our family went out for breakfast together at Parkers Farm in New Hampshire. We look very happy in that picture. We are very happy. I clean the cats litter box, a job that Don used to do way more than I did. I used to teasingly inform him that he was simply “better at it” than I was, so he could have the job. He was onto me, but he always cleaned it out with pride and a smile because he loved taking care of his pets; his babies. He would talk to them while he scooped up their poop. “See? Its all clean now. Now you can go and dirty it all up again.”I jump in the shower. More flashbacks and memories. All the times I would be in the shower and Don would come in with me and wash my hair and kiss me, dry me off afterwards. He liked to sometimes take showers together; and I did too. I loved it when he would wash my hair. He would always wrap me in a towel when we were done and then kind of hum as he dried me off. It made me giggle. He could be very silly. Now I let the tears come down my face as I shampoo my own hair and exit the shower with both cats staring up at me; judging me. I sit at the computer and check my mail. My mind goes to the crazy way Don used to sit at this same computer, at this same desk. He would sit sort of sideways, all stretched out, putting his legs and feet up on the low file cabinet next to the desk. I never understood how he could type like that, half lying down it seemed. Somehow he did though. Sammy would always sit right on his chest, up by his neck. Sammy was in love with Don. Now Sammy has me; and I’m second rate.
I walk into the kitchen to make myself something to eat, an English muffin maybe. On the way I pass our living room, his guitars, his chair, all his things that I still haven’t touched or decided what to do with yet. There are too many things to think about, so most days I put it out of my head entirely. I will deal with this another time, I tell myself. Not now. And then I come across an item of his, every single day, that throws me for a loop or sends me reeling into different memories of our time with each other. In the kitchen, there are his dishes and cups that he brought here from Florida. His “Sunstar” thermos and his EMS coffee mugs and cups. I wait for the toaster to pop, and my mind pictures him coming up behind me and wrapping himself around my waist, something he used to always do whenever I was in the kitchen cooking something for us. He would just appear out of nowhere, and then put his arms around me, giving me silly little kisses on my neck and cheeks. He would make kissy noises and say: “Whatcha makin’, Boo?” I would turn around and hug him back, burying my head into his chest. “Making us some turkey cutlets” I would say. “You make the bestest food ever!”, he would tell me. Now I spread my sad-ass peanut butter onto my lonely English muffin for one. I don’t cook much anymore. It makes me too damn sad. Cooking for nobody but yourself is goddamn depressing. I used to love cooking for me and Don; for my family. I do not enjoy cooking for just me.
Everything inside this apartment is us. The furniture, the bed, the flatscreen HD TV that he bought us proudly for the bedroom two years ago as a joint Christmas gift. The two sage green couches in our living room that we picked out together with some of the money we got from our wedding. The wooden oak dresser in the bedroom that had half my clothes, and half his. The crappy computer desk that we would both curse at regularly because it sucks on so many levels. The Blu-ray disc player that Don bought us with the gift card mom and dad gave him one year for Christmas. He was so excited to have found a great deal on the price, and to watch all his favorite movies with such a great picture. The coffee table we carried in together from the parking garage across the street and up the stairs, because we couldn’t get it into the elevator. Underneath it is a small shelf, which is filled with photo albums of our life together with each other, with friends. Our wedding album. His big CD rack that sits against the wall in the living room. His stereo equipment, recording equipment, tennis rackets, guitars, sheet music, the two amps.
Everywhere I turn, there is a piece of him. It feels wonderful and awful all at once. It feels overwhelmingly emotional to walk into daily piles of items that belonged to your husband; items that were so important to him, and others that weren’t so important. You hold onto every little thing, because when that person has died, it is the only thing you have left. Stuff. It is a very sad and lonely feeling to be left only with someones stuff; and to no longer have the beating heart and soul that went with it. You feel like you are suffocating in stuff; yet getting rid of anything feels like a betrayal.
I remember a few days after he died, and my mom was staying up here with me so I wouldn’t be alone. One day she went around with a trash-bag and started to throw away some of his things. She told me: “I just want you to know I am NOT getting rid of anything that is important or that you might want to keep. I’m just getting rid of junk … old receipts, chap-stick, things like that, just so you don’t feel like you’re tripping over his things everywhere you go.” I looked at her blankly as she tried to help. Later that day, mom asked me if I wanted to donate some of Don’s clothing to Morgan Memorial. Of course, I said. She had me sit on my bed as she held up different clothing items of his; asking me Keep or Donate? I started crying on about the 4th shirt. It was one of his favorites. A sarcastic t-shirt he had my friend Dave Guay make for him at his t-shirt and sign shop. On the front was the EMS emblem and “EMT”. On the back, it said: ” I’m not here to save your life – just prolong your miserable existence.” Don loved that shirt. He wore it all the time and was crazy proud of how funny that concept was to him; prolonging someone’s awful, stupid life. The idea of that cracked him up. “I’m keeping that”, I said to my mom, as I cried harder. “You want to stop?” she said. “No, its okay.” For the next hour, she held up clothes and I cried. In the end, there were a lot of items I simply couldn’t part with. I kept a lot of shirts. I wear them as nightshirts when I sleep mostly, but it makes me feel close to him somehow. I kept the Yankee jacket that my dad bought him one Christmas. He really loved that thing and wore it all the time. I kept the Texeira shirt too, his favorite current Yankee. There were a few Bucs shirts and Tampa Bay type items. I held onto those too; maybe to give to his best friend Rob soon. I don’t know if he would want them, but I think he might. I need to slowly figure out how to best handle all this stuff.
When Don was here, I used to get on him all the time about his “stuff.” All the time. We had a tiny crappy apartment, and he would always come home and throw his stuff all over the place. Keys, chap-stick, wallet, Tums, random receipts and crumpled up papers. He would kick off his shoes and they would end up in a corner of the living room floor. His EMS uniform would come off in pieces and then be thrown across the room, on the arm of the couch, back of a chair. Minutes later, I would walk around and put all the parts of his uniform in one pile folded up, throw his shoes in his closet and out of the way, and then take each of the smaller items that he would toss onto the top of the entertainment center, and put them into a small basket that sat atop one of his music speakers. Later, he would always be so confused.
“Where the hell are my keys?” he would ask.
“They’re in the basket.”
“What about my Altoids? I know I put them somewhere around here…”
“In the basket. Its all in the basket.”
Then he would laugh. “Basket. Everything’s a basket with you. Why does everything have to go in a freakin’ basket?”
“Because its organized, and you always know where it is. Its ALWAYS in the basket.”
“But I know where I put my stuff. I don’t lose it until YOU move it. Just leave it where I put it Boo.”
“But it doesn’t go there.”
“Says who? You? Who cares where it goes? Whose coming over here?”
“I care! I’m here! The top of the entertainment center isn’t for a pile of your junk! Just leave it in the basket!”
He always made fun of me and my baskets. He would walk around, kind of mumbling to himself and nobody in particular: “Basket … Jesus… freakin’ baskets … you’d put ME in a basket if you could.”
“I heard that!” Id say. “And yes I would. But you wouldn’t fit.”
Right now I would give just about anything to have Don walk through that door and start carelessly throwing his “stuff” everywhere. If I could have him back again, he could leave his clothes and things scattered all over the floor for all I care. Well, okay, maybe not. That seems a little ridiculous and unsanitary, quite frankly. But I would love nothing more than to hear him making fun of my baskets again.
The painful memories of us don’t stop inside the apartment. Even when I leave our apartment, there is the neighborhood. Everywhere I go is a reminder of his absence. The beautiful NYC skyline view right outside our apartment, on our street, overlooking the Hudson River. It is a view I never get tired of, it is so gorgeous, especially at night. Don and I used to take long walks along Boulevard East, our street. We would hold each others hands and swing them back and forth as we strolled along the Hudson at night, the lit up city as our backdrop. We would stop along the many benches along the way, talking and laughing. Relaxing. Being together.
The ice cream truck would come in the summer and we would run out and get two cones with sprinkles. In the fall, our favorite time of year, we would watch the leaves turn as we played a game of catch with our baseball gloves in the park across the street. Don used to love playing catch with my brother whenever we went to visit them in Massachusetts; but I was his catch partner here. Sunday mornings we would get up and take a walk about 10 blocks to the diner for breakfast, and then walk back. There were a few times I went down to the tennis courts down the block to play with him, even though he was much better than me. I just loved his company, and wanted him to have fun, so I would go. Later on, he found new tennis partners and friends to play with that didn’t suck as much as I did, so I would stay home. And then there were all the times we drove our car around the neighborhood for lunch, dinner, errands, shopping, to the vet, the dentist, the DMV, the movies, the mall. So many places we went together.
Now, when I drive my new car down that same road, I see all those things in my head. I feel all those moments, as if they just happened yesterday. They are fresh in my heart, new in my mind. These memories and sights are painful for sure, but nothing compares to the raw pain of constantly having to drive by Palisades Hospital in my car. Where I rushed to that morning in a cab, where I was told that my husband was dead, where I saw him lying there in that room, no longer alive, no longer laughing. Driving by that hospital, which happens often since it is 2 minutes from my apartment, is the worst kind of immediate hurt I have ever felt. It is horrible to re-live that nightmare. It is awful to remain in this apartment, in this neighborhood, without him here. I do not like this new life of mine. I am simply trying to learn how to tolerate it. Everywhere I go, he is there. We are there together; except we aren’t. It is just me, and there is nowhere to escape, nowhere to run.
Today I walked down the block to the little bodega convenience store that Victor runs. I had to get some paper towels, cat food, boring things like that. I hadn’t been in there much since about three weeks after Don died; when I walked in there with my mom by my side and said to Victor: “I have to tell you something,” as I stood, shaking and crying. “My husband Don, who came in here all the time, he died.” Victor was shocked. “Don? Oh no!” he said, and tears came to his eyes. Since then, his store has been one of those oddly painful places for me to have to visit. But I needed some cat food, dammit, and I wasn’t in the mood to drive all the way to the grocery store just for a couple things. Also, I wanted to give Victor one of Don’s prayer cards from the services. For some reason, when people get one of those from me, it makes them feel better; almost like they were a part of his life somehow; part of remembering him. It gives them something physical to take away from this horrible reality, something to hold in their hand and say: “Wow. He is really gone.”
So I walked in there, and Victor was there with the other Indian man who runs the store with him. At least I think they are Indian; or part Indian. To be honest; I only know that Victor’s name is Victor because Don told me; matter of factly. I have no idea what the other dudes name is; but he looks like a younger version of Victor; so I am assuming they are related. I think they are cousins. Or brothers. Maybe Don mentioned this to me one time; I don’t know. I am suddenly wishing like hell that I paid as much attention to these people as Don did; that I had the patience and the common courtesy to make friendly conversation with them, learn their names, and actually give a shit.
I feel like such an undeserving jackass as I hand Victor and the nameless one their prayer cards and say: “Here. I wanted you to have these, just because.” The store is empty, and the two sweet men both look at the prayer cards with intense eyes, reading the nice poem we chose on the back and memorizing Don’s face on the front with their minds. The three of us stand there in silence for what seems like a long time. It should be awkward, but it isn’t. They are both thinking about Don. Finally, Victor looks up and says to me: “Your husband. I still miss him. I miss seeing him.” Then he shakes his head in that disbelief sort of way that I have become used to seeing from people. The shake of the head that asks: “Why him? Why did this happen?” I have no answers, so I don’t say anything. The nameless one says: “He was so nice … so, so nice.” Part of me wants to scream out “WHAT THE HELL IS YOUR NAME?”, but I feel that this would be an inappropriate time to ask. I can never ask. Its too late. I wish I could ask Don, because I know he would know the guys name. But I cant ever ask Don anything again; at least not in the way that I want to.
After a few moments, Victor takes the prayer card and hangs it behind him on the wall, near the cash register. The nameless guy takes the other card, and gently places it on a counter top, inside of a small basket. He put Don in a basket. I pay for my items and walk out. As soon as I hit the street corner, my eyes well up and I begin to cry.