The police officers walked on either side of her and she felt like anyone who saw them on the street would have thought she was a criminal.
Since she’d made her request, she’d been made to feel like one. By her mother, her sisters, her friends, and even the men and women who served with her husband.
They didn’t mean to make her feel like a criminal.
They didn’t mean to add a greater burden to her grief.
She’d told them quietly what she wanted, explained they had to let her do it, and then went upstairs to the bedroom she’d shared with her husband of twelve years. The bedroom where they tried so hard to make babies. The bedroom where she laid in darkness for three days when their last attempt ended in a dangerous miscarriage in the sixth month followed by depression she couldn’t shake.
The bedroom where, when he took an unspecified leave of absence from his job, he kept her company. Brought her food, played movies he knew she loved, held her in silence while she cried, and didn’t try to make her find words she didn’t have.
The bedroom where he told her she was enough, she would always be enough, and he loved her more that day, and the day after that and the day after that, than the day he married her.
Gathering odds and ends, she returned to the first floor and stared at the hardwood floor he’d put in for her the year before. There was a spot by the fireplace where he cut his hand and the wood still showed the stains of blood he left there before she wrapped the wound and took him to the hospital for stitches.
She didn’t speak, the people gathered in her house didn’t speak, because it would have been hard to find the right words. It was never something she’d been good at.
Finally, they agreed. Her silence, her refusal to say another word, her quiet resolution, had convinced them.
She was silent on the car ride across town, anxious as her door was opened, embarrassed that she required assistance to get out of the car with everything she held in her arms.
Now, a stranger held the door for her, his eyes downcast, and she nodded as she passed him and walked inside. The place smelled of flowers, candles. Not unpleasant but more than you’d find outside a florist shop.
There was another man standing there, waiting for her, and his expression somber. “Mrs. Morales, this is not something usually done. Perhaps you can wait until he’s prepared and sit with him before the other visitors arrive. This is all very…peculiar.”
For a long moment, she couldn’t meet his eyes because she had to collect her courage, gather her composure, and find words that hadn’t been easily accessible to her in two days.
“I know. I know it is.” It was all she said and again, she let her silence speak for her.
Finally, the man sighed. “If you’re sure.” All she could do was nod. “This way.”
They walked through a labyrinth of rooms and he paused at the door of one. “It’s chilly inside. It’s…if you need to leave, we’ll handle the rest.”
Nodding, she walked past him and pushed the door wide. Crossing the room on legs that shook, breathing with lungs and a heart that cramped with the effort, looking at him with eyes swollen with a gallon of her own tears, she stopped and placed her hand on his chest.
She’d known she wouldn’t feel his heartbeat, the heartbeat that soothed her through so many nights, but she had to be sure.
Setting the things she’d brought on a long table beside the one he was laid out on, she took a deep breathe. Antiseptic was cloying. Her husband, her beautiful husband, was covered with a crisp white sheet. An attendant stood still and silent a few feet away. She ignored him.
“I know you’re not here with me, Manny. I know you’re already gone. I know you’re probably looking down at me and yelling not to do this, not to remember you this way.” Tears slipped over her cheeks as she shaved his face. He’d shaved in the morning the day he died but always had stubble by three in the afternoon.
“I can hear you telling me to walk away, to remember you laughing, talking to me, loving me. And I want you to know that I will remember all of those things, Manny. I promise that I will.”
She pulled back the sheet and ignored the flesh-colored bandages they’d placed in three places on his torso. She dressed him in his boxers. “This reminds me of our camping trip in Montana, the summer they had cooler weather than usual.” Despite the ache, she laughed. “You told me your gentleman had crawled up and would likely never appear again.”
Settling them around his flat waist, she turned and picked up his socks. “It did come back. A strong man like you would never have allowed it to cower. It’s cold in here, darling. Too cold for your guy to show them what you’re made of.”
Pulling socks over his feet, she worked dress pants up his legs and nodded at the attendant to help her with his weight.
“You told me you’d put on a few pounds from my baking spree.” Leaning close to his ear, she whispered, “I think you might have been right, my love.”
She slipped the shoes he loved to wear to church over his feet and tied them just so. Moving to the table, she put his favorite cologne on her hands and patted it on his face and upper body.
The attendant held him up so she could work the dress shirt around him. She buttoned it carefully and smoothed the collar. “I know you wanted to wear your uniform but your mother begged me to keep it. She’s hurting and it was a small thing to give her, Manny. Instead, I picked the suit you loved most. The one tailored to you, perfect for you, that matched the blue of your eyes.”
Help was necessary again to get the suit jacket around him and then the attendant removed himself from her line of sight. She pulled his cuffs through and attached the cufflinks his sister gave him for Christmas. She couldn’t part with the ones she’d given him for their anniversary.
Smoothing the fabric, she whispered, “You have always been a beautiful man. One that makes women notice, that makes them pause for just a moment, even if they’re with their family. It always made me laugh to see it.”
Working the tie around his neck, she made it perfect. “I taught you how to tie it properly so you can trust me to get it right.” She ran her finger over it and patted his chest as she buttoned his jacket.
“I know you were never one for flowers but I thought you might like one from my wedding bouquet. I snipped it and had it made into a boutonniere for you. It looks as lovely as it did the day I held it as I walked down the aisle to you, Manny. You’d be impressed.”
She combed his hair and even made sure his eyebrows laid just right. “There, my darling. You look perfect. Absolutely perfect as you did every day of our life together.” She added with a smile, “As long as you didn’t have a cold. You were a bit of a drama queen then, Manny. I feel like I can tell you that and you’ll laugh like you wouldn’t have while blowing your nose for the hundredth time.”
“I need to take this with me, Manny. I can’t leave it with you.” She held his hand, her fingers turning the gold wedding ring on his left hand that he’d worn every day for a dozen years. “I’d like to have it with me. I know you’re gone. I really do know it. I feel it. But for me, it’s too soon to let you go. Too soon to not see this ring beside the bed when I wake up in the morning.”
She removed it and slipped it over her thumb. She replaced it with the steel one they’d purchased when they were young and broke. “There…so the angels still know you’re taken.”
Pulling up a stool, she sat with him for a long time.
Reminded him of his promise to always love her. “You won’t get out of your promise so easily.”
As the attendant appeared in her peripheral vision, she laid her head on her husband’s chest. “I loved you from the start. I loved you harder than I knew you could love a person. You are my best friend, my strength, the love of my life. I’m proud and also a little angry that you felt the need to be a hero, Manny. That you didn’t hesitate to save another life at the cost of your own. Being you, it was the only way it ever could have ended.”
Leaning over him, she kissed his lips. They would never kiss her back again. Holding his face, she said, “I will see you again, Manny. I’ll see you again and I’ll yell at you for leaving me alone in a world I don’t always understand because it’s so loud, so fast, so angry. Until that day, until you look at me with your laughing eyes and your bright smile, know that I am lost without you. I miss you. I hurt inside and outside and all the pieces in between.”
Resting her forehead against his, she held his face in her hands. “I love you.”
Then she walked from the funeral home and returned to a home that held all the pieces of their life together, their moments of happiness, frustration, love, and grief…and added a little more to it.
© Shayne McClendon