‘Turn off the light, Susan.’ It is early morning and the cold has crept into the room through an open window. Susan doesn’t reply and I watch the plumes of her breath as she sighs gently and turns the page of her book. I put my hand lightly on her arm, ‘You must be exhausted, you’ve been reading all night.’ She glances in my direction, a hint of a smile flickers across her face which then twists in confusion. Her mouth gapes and her eyes begin to well with tears that drip on to the book’s white pages.
I curve my hand affectionately over her stomach, enveloping the womb that has borne us two children now deceased. The doctors had told us Chloe had a simple cold nothing more, we did all the things caring parents would do, lots of fluids, pain medicine to keep her temperature down and we kept her tucked up in bed. Then one morning when I checked on her I found her purple and cold in her pink pjs. Dead in seven days from a sniffle. The virus had destroyed her tiny organs the coroner told us.
We never got over it. How could you? Susan turned her attention to Gary, showering him with affection. He became a real mamma’s boy. Then in the summer of ‘88 Gary got himself killed in a motorcycle accident. He lost control of his bike on a country road, hitting a tree at one hundred miles an hour. On the long car ride to the morgue we sat in grief-filled silence. Collectively we held our breath when the pathologist pulled back the white sheet, hoping against hope it wasn’t Gary, just some fool kid who had taken a joy ride on his bike. But it was, his face was alabaster white, his head attached to his neck by a thread. The pathologist tried to hide the injury but it’s hard to keep a secret like that when the parents’ eyes are moons, taking into their consciousness every detail of their son lying on a cold metal tray in the county morgue. We confirmed his identity and went back to our lives, both near retirement, two children in the ground.
Susan stares absent-mindedly at a photo on the wall opposite the bed, the family are enjoying a holiday in Malta, the only vacation we ever had in which we were all together. Chloe and Gary are splashing around in the Mediterranean sea, in the foreground the water is filled with the bobbing heads of thousands of other tourists, I grin joyfully at the camera.
Susan places the book on her night-stand and turns off the light. The breeze from the open window plays with its pages making a sound like rustling leaves. In the darkness, I can make out the vague outline of Susan’s back. I move closer, feeling the strong urge to touch my wife. I run my hand down her back, her skin is soft like tissue, she shivers and pulls the blankets up to the crook of her neck. She sighs out my name, ‘Ed.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I whisper, ‘I love you, soon we will all be together again.’
When I died Susan didn’t have much grief left to give. I had a stroke on my morning walk, only one block from home. A neighbour, recognising me, raced to fetch my wife. She arrived as the paramedics were performing CPR. Susan quietly watched with the rest of the inevitable crowd and when the resuscitation efforts ceased she bowed her head and walked away.
We had made a lot of plans for our retirement; purchase a camper van to see all the great lakes, visit Malta again to relive the family holiday we took all those summers ago, but most of all I wanted to talk about what might have been if death hadn’t been such a constant visitor to our family. Would Chloe be at university studying to be a vet as she intended? Would Gary have settled down at last having kids of his own and setting up that motorcycle shop he always talked about?
I followed Susan home after I died, she was all alone now with only memories to comfort her, shuffling all day from Gary’s room to Chloe’s, both untouched since their deaths, and sitting in the armchair in my study staring at family portraits and kids’ drawings that lined the walls. I wondered if she would keep my possessions frozen in time too. Chloe and Gary had had the same idea as me; they told me they had stayed in the house after they had died. I could see Chloe now lying beside Susan on the pillow, her face pressed against Susan’s, Gary was stretched out like a hound dog at their feet. We decided that we all needed to be together again. Susan wasn’t happy, how could she be? She needed her family. We gave her breast cancer, the dead have the ability to manipulate matter if their desire is urgent enough. Every night we willed the tumour to grow, becoming jubilant as it metastasised swiftly to one organ then another under our guidance.
The next evening, as I’m looking forward to settling down with Susan who is looking through old photo albums and walking forlornly from room to room, there is a knock at the door. It’s Bill, one of Susan’s old work colleagues. She invites him in and to my surprise offers to cook him dinner. Over chicken alfredo he tells her our memories have a place in our lives but so too does living for the moment, ‘You have every right to be happy, Susan,’ he said. ‘You have earned it, Ed and the kids would never deny you that.’ The comment hits a cord with her, she smiles shyly and her mood lightens. When they say goodnight he affectionately kisses her cheek, a cheek that the previous evening had been wet with tears of grief. They promise to see each other again soon.
The next morning I’m horrified to find her spring cleaning the children’s bedrooms, filling boxes with their possessions and stowing them away in the basement. She upends my study, drags a floral sofa into it which we were storing in the garage and puts up some breezy curtains-a sunroom. Bill calls again in the evening, this time they go out, Susan doesn’t return until nearly midnight. I wonder jealously if Susan is getting on with her life without us.
Chloe has her hand on Susan’s kidney, right where one of our tumours is growing, ‘It’s beautiful,’ she whispers as if Susan might hear us. ‘How long until we are a family again, Daddy.’
‘Not long now,’ I reply. I put my arm around Susan, she’s asleep, her nightgown is wet from night sweats. I can feel the changes in her body, she’s becoming very sick. Chloe and Gary notice it too, we exchange glances in the darkness and whisper about how great it will be when we are all a family again.