John Betton is a retired psychologist, living in St. Albert, Alberta. He continues to explore through fiction his lifelong fascination with the way people think, feel and interact. Two of his stories were published in February 2019: A New Old Love in Spadina Literary Review and Filmmaker in Moon Magazine
Stuart was surprised. Of course, that's not what he said when asked. Rather, he gave the usual answers. Yes, I'm coping. Indeed, it takes time. His children? The grandchildren? Fine, just fine! They have a loss to deal with too. And yes, they are all helping out, being very supportive. These were easy answers but no less true. As much answer as he felt up to giving. Had he felt able he would have said something more complex.
Six months had passed since Janice died. His state remained mixed as were his feelings, more or less as expected, as much as anyone might expect in the wake of being widowed. But one feeling left him perplexed. A man who worked at understanding, he sought other words – out of joint, disoriented, and even stunned – but surprised is what he started with and what he came back to. It felt closest to catching this unanticipated condition.
He thought he had resigned himself to certain inevitable things; the stillness of the house, the absence of her sounds, cooking his own meals, doing the laundry. It hadn't helped. Each morning he made the coffee but many times automatically made enough for both. Only when he reached for two mugs did he realize what he had done. He'd sigh, maybe say damn as he put one back. Bringing in the paper or sipping his first cup he'd wonder what they'd have for breakfast, what she might want. Later in the day, going out the door, he might call to say he would be back in a few minutes. And then those painful moments in the night when he reached for her and she wasn't there.
They lived quietly after the children left and more so once he retired. When he looked back he saw how little heed he’d paid to this. As he thought about it he became aware there had been pleasure in the quiet, especially on those mornings when he let her sleep a while longer, almost as if he was protecting her from the intrusions of the day. But even when both were up and moving around it was a quiet house. They watched a little TV in the evenings. The radio was on only for news or weather. As the day unfolded they might talk about chores or errands, what one or the other might like for supper, plans to see a movie or getting together with this friend or that part of the family. Perhaps the most noise came with her phone conversations. She always was animated when she talked to their daughter, to her sister or to friends. Afterwards, she would share the news and gossip.
Now her voice wasn't there, nor any of the other sounds he had paid little attention to. He could hear the quiet. But it wasn't just quiet; it was still.
One morning, as he carried his coffee to the table, he experienced a strange sensation, as if he were moving against something, as though the air was thick and resistant. This brought to him an old memory. He had been at a beach and waded into perfectly calm water, creating small ripples with each step, the water heavy against his legs. He watched the ripples flow away and, when he stopped, had observed how the surface returned to its mirror-calm state. He remembered noticing how the water, windblown the day before, was smooth, almost congealed. How could it be so still? At that moment the air in his kitchen felt like the water, resistant, thick. He could see no ripples of course and even if he had they wouldn't last. It struck him then as it did now that he had no influence. The thought surprised him then and again now, in a way even more sharply.
Some days he thought he should give up the house, get a smaller place. Others who had been widowed did, often so quick to sell it seemed rushed. Was it a true need to move on or just to get away? And if to get away, from what? Each time the thought came he dismissed it; he wasn't ready.
He and his cronies once in a while had talked about the next stages of their lives, moving from homes to apartments and, at some point, on to assisted living, what Stu liked to refer to as assisted dying, a lame bit of humour, the kind she often didn't hear. When she did she might nod or smirk or occasionally say this one was better than the last. He missed those exchanges and was surprised he missed them, something that had not played – or so he thought – much of a role in their marriage.
Her death, as these things go, was uneventful. The oncologist called it a quiet cancer, for women a silent killer, one that drained her life away. She lost appetite, weight, strength, slowly and inexorably. He assumed there would be pain. She experienced very little, for which both were grateful. When it came time she went to hospital and then into palliative care, where, for no reason he could figure out, he felt surprise at the remarkable attention and compassion she received.
It all went well. He and Janice talked. They had few reservations about their life together and those either had were irrelevant at this point. The timing wasn't what she hoped for but on the whole she laid claim to a good life. So, let it be, an attitude consistent with the way she lived.
Considering all this, considering her equanimity, Stuart was surprised. In fact, he was surprised from the moment of her death, surprised she died. And he was surprised not only at her equanimity but his own as well. Shouldn't he have made more noise, been more demanding, found some way to put up a fight.
He wasn't a believer in miracles; he hadn't prayed, not in the private way so many do, praying for what and to whom? He was a practical man, one who sold life insurance. People died and he made his living out of calculated bets on when that would happen. Yet somehow, at some level in his being, he hadn't expected it to come to this. It did and he was surprised.
He was surprised that six months later he was still feeling surprise. Was this some inability to come to terms with a normal life event? Had he not prepared himself as well as he thought or as well as Janice thought she had prepared him? This is all nonsense he said to himself. It takes time, as everybody knows. The first year you survive. You may not really grieve until the second year. By the third year you should start to pull out of it; rough guides, known expectations, familiar to him. Nor was grief a new experience. He had been through it when his parents died, a brother, a childhood friend, others. So what was it – a failing on his part to come to terms with his grief? He wondered about this but the words didn't seem right.
It came to him it wasn't just surprise but something else, a feeling, a weight. This was closer, the words helpful. Finally, on its own and not out of effortful searching, a word surfaced – presence. Yes that was it. He knew by the feeling that came with the word, a sense of fit. There was a presence within him. This surprised him in such a way that he snickered, then fully laughed. Men his age don't snicker nor do they have presences. Those come from other people's imaginations, from cheap novels or thriller movies.
What he sensed wasn't like any of that. He wasn't fearful. He didn't think he was going crazy; he wasn't the sort. But it was there, had infiltrated at some point. He thought about this and thought about how long it had been with him. Of course, the answer was obvious. He shook his head at the fact he hadn't sensed whatever it was, his head shake one of surprise; it had been there all along.
As he thought and reconstructed he recalled it appearing at the moment of her death, as he was saying to himself 'she's gone', this thing, this presence, seemed to take him over. His recollection was of something like a full body blow, almost stunning him. It settled, gripped his whole upper body. He remembered feeling it was a struggle to breathe.
In the moment he had needed to cry, but couldn't. This thing, this grip, seemed to prevent that. Their daughter, at his side, hand on his back, was crying. He wanted to cry too and he wanted to offer comfort as he always had. At the same time this sensation, this force held him and stopped him. He remembered feeling surprised and noting he hadn't realized grief was so physical.
People’s grief took different forms. He had heard the crying and the wails, seen the distress. Some prayed and spoke of god, others touched or kissed the dead person, said I love you, said goodbye. It was all very emotional or maybe even social because, he knew, some were concerned with doing or saying the right thing. But at no time had anyone spoken of this physical sensation. Surely he wasn't unique?
In the minutes after her death he was able to set it aside. He finally turned to his daughter and they held one another. His tears came. They did say the thought and felt words; she was a loving mother, a loving wife, a good woman. This was all sincere. They had loved her, did love her.
A few hours later, after the initial rush of feelings and words and things to do, alone in their bedroom, it came back to him. He felt the force, gripped again almost to the point once more he thought he couldn't breathe, and yet he did breathe. He realized it wasn't that kind of force, not panic, not a heart attack. It was tight in such ways and yet somehow wasn't life threatening.
He slept, ate, shaved, talked to his children, was hugged by his grandchildren, offered condolences by friends. The funeral happened three days later. He was numb throughout, remembered little. The eulogy, given by one of her lifelong friends, was only meaningful to him weeks later when he read it. He wished he had been more present at the service because the words were thoughtful and moving.
In all of this, both caught up and numb, the physical sensation merged with all the others as if it no longer existed or at least he was no longer aware of it. And now, six months later, as he pondered his ongoing sense of surprise, it came to him that it was still there – the heaviness, the grip, the sensation of impaired breathing.
He wasn't much of a reader and certainly poetry was an unlikely interest. Yet, he found himself wondering if some poet had written about this. Should he give it a name? Could he name it? The word presence got most of the sense but not quite all. This thing within him had not just the feeling of presence, but almost a form. Yes form, a kind of form. And then the word entity came to him. That's it, an entity, a grief entity. What an odd term! But yes, he thought, maybe the sort of thing some old poet may have written about.
In the life insurance business he had many times seen clients through the loss of a spouse, helping them establish their claims and, in the early days, even delivering the cheque. He listened to their grief, their stories, the enumerating of both pleasures and regrets. Some cried and occasionally he held them. Some were lost and he did what he could to give them direction or to get them back on their feet. But none ever talked about this feeling, this presence, this entity, this physical thing that seemed to be his grief.
He lay in bed one morning, something he had cautioned himself not to do, fearing the habit, knowing a truth, for him at least; the less he did the less he would want to do. It would be neither wise nor healthy. But on this morning he lay there because Janice had been so present when he woke. He could feel her, almost as if she was in the bed, her weight pressing down on the mattress, creating its small indent, her warmth radiating to his body. He wanted to reach for her, to touch her.
He knew if he persisted in these thoughts they would turn to something else, the ache he felt so often. He directed his mind away, first seeing her as a young woman. This settled him and he relaxed into memories, smiling as his recollection came to the last time they made love.
She had been diagnosed, her condition beyond treatable, her strength waning. He had begun to do more, not quite nursing her but helping in little ways with chores around the house, with shopping, bringing her tea in the evenings, some of the things she had done.
It was a rare morning in which she awakened first. When he opened his eyes she was watching him as if she had been waiting. She smiled, kissed him and said she wanted to make love. Are you sure he asked, a first thought, a natural consideration. His second thought was perhaps a little self interested; he liked the idea.
Love making hadn't always been an easy or comfortable part of their marriage. Still, there were times when it went well and both enjoyed the act as well as one another. In a way it got better as they aged, happening less frequently of course, and with more difficulty. Strange, but it was those difficulties that brought something different to them. The physical limitations became a source of humour as joints creaked, muscles spasmed, sometimes in the middle of passionate moments. Disentangling after prompted laughter as well – a knee wouldn't bend or a leg wouldn't straighten – the simple movements of their young bodies now clumsy and humorously complicated.
They began as always with little kisses – lips, tongue, finger tips. He caressed her side and back, ran his fingers through her hair, touched her breasts – familiar pleasures. The softness of her skin often surprised and thrilled him, as it did in that moment.
She had once teased him that he 'took' her like a savage. They laughed because it was a rare occurrence and many years since either had felt such arousal. In this moment he was gentle, tentative. She made him look at her, meet her eyes. I'd love if you could take me in the way you used to, she said.
He kissed her, stroked her cheek, asked if she was ready. She gave him a searching look, a light smile and rolled so her back was to him. She could not have born his weight nor could he have sustained it. Taking her was slow, careful, perhaps fraught with care. She moaned, he waited, wondering for a moment what it meant. She moved and he moved as well, gently as they felt their pleasures. She moaned again and then they lay still. He held her pulled tight into his body, nesting, cradling. He moved once more and then from time to time, returned to stillness, holding her, listening to her breathe. And then, in one of those still moments, he heard the rhythm of her breathing turn to sleep.
He lay that way until he felt his erection diminish, let himself drift into asleep. When they woke, which they did at the same time, she rolled to face him, kissed him and said thank you. I'll remember this as your parting gift. Her words caught him and he cried. She put an arm over his shoulder and around his neck, pulling him to her. His crying turned to sobs. She pulled him close, shushed him in the way we shush crying children. It's okay she said, it's okay. We've had a good life.
On one of the evenings when he was invited out to dinner – this had become a regular occurrence with friends and family – he tried to share with his hosts this strange condition he was experiencing. He told about the physical sensation, the grip, the sense of some independent physical force within him, the laughable words he used like presence and entity.
Aline had been one of Janice's circle of friends, a lively, talkative woman. Her husband Ray was a decent man who Stu had known a little in their early years and to whom Stu had sold life insurance. They weren't close as a foursome but got together from time to time to play cards or take in a movie.
Oh Stu, she said, reaching for his hand. You miss her and you're lonely, that's all it is. Stu nodded in agreement, added, what she said was true, but there seemed to be more. Ray, a pragmatic man, asked if Stu had spoken to a doctor. You never know at this age what's going on inside. Stu hadn't thought of that. He had had an annual check up not long before Janice's death and all was normal. He agreed he would make an appointment.
But, if it isn't anything the doctor can identify, tell me what you think is going on. Both looked at him; Ray shrugged, Aline smiled one of her gentle smiles.
One day at the Seniors Centre, sipping an afternoon beer with his cronies, Bill asked him how he was doing, added with emphasis, how are you really doing? Stu took a moment to consider and decided it was okay with these friends to give more than the usual answer. He would try again to articulate what he was feeling. Some people describe their grief as if it were a hole in their lives, he said. I can see that. Where Janice was is now empty. It's one of the things I felt when she died. But what I'm carrying is different. It's not an absence but more like a presence, one that holds on to me. Sometimes it feels like I can't breathe or can't swallow. But, in reality, those functions are never impeded. Sometimes I feel heavy, almost weighed down. The feeling goes away, but whatever was behind it remains and seems to hover, waiting to take hold of me again.
Bill and Laz looked at one another and then at Stu. Bill shook his head. I don't get it. Laz said, tell me more. Stu tried but shrugged in the end saying he really had nothing to add.
You used the word presence, Laz said, as if something were inhabiting you.
Stu nodded and said a qualified yes. There is in a way, he went on. It's like some sort of being or entity. No, he backtracked, not being. It doesn't present itself as something alive. It's just there. Sometimes it's a weight, sometimes it seems like a force, other times I just know it's there without any particular feeling.
Well, obviously it's your grief, Laz offered, but, in your case, something unique. Like Bill, I don't get it but you've got me curious.
Oh hell, Wilf chimed in, with one of his typical I-don't mean-to-be-insensitive-but comments. I think you just need to get laid.
Bill reacted instantly with, For god's sake Wilf, have a heart.
No, I'm serious. It's all about sex isn't it, even at our age.
Every once in a while, over the years of their friendship, Stu would surprise them with a comeback to one of Wilf's low-brow utterings. This time he said: So, if that's the case, all I'd need to do is find a woman or take myself in hand.
Wilf chuckled. When's the last time you did that?
The fact is, Stu went on, I have no sexual feelings at all. Whatever this thing is, it isn't that.
Stu did see his doctor who suggested it was likely the depression normal with grief. He offered medication and also encouraged him to join a bereavement group. Stu said he would consider these.
A few days later Stu found himself wandering the house, opening cupboards and drawers. He stood for a long time in front of the cedar closet that served as storage for their out-of-season clothing. He touched a winter coat Janice hadn't worn in several years, stroked its fake fur collar. He had always liked the feel of it, remembered nuzzling her, the fur a pleasant sensation on his cheek as he kissed her neck or nibbled on her ear. In the moment he could feel her shiver. He brought the collar to his cheek, pressed his nose into it, could smell a hint of her, of a perfume she used to wear. But this is no good, he thought. I can't live like this.
He turned to another cupboard, one containing different memories, their odd little secret as she had called it. It held an accumulation of unwanted gifts which, for reasons neither was ever clear on, they had kept and added to over the years. He reached for the oddest of the lot, a jug or maybe it was a vase. It was in fact, a wine chicken they were once told, her great aunt's wedding present, brought for them from Italy. Both found it laughable and ugly. But, they had been wary about throwing it out, great aunts in those days to be feared. They giggled sometimes at their conspiracy and wondered at others, especially after the aunt died, why they hadn't disposed of it. Maybe it was valuable. But no, that wasn't likely. The aunt, known for her exotic gifts, was also known for being cheap. She probably bought it at a street market for a few lira thinking it would impress the less-worldly folks back home.
It was tall and placed at the back of the shelf. As he reached and lifted to bring it forward his sleeve caught a small, equally ugly figurine. He realized in an instant what he had done and watched helplessly as the porcelain figure tumbled to the edge of the shelf and fell to the floor where it smashed to pieces on the tiles.
He stood back, still holding the great aunt's gift, looking at the clutter and shards of the broken piece. He had disliked it almost as much as the wine chicken and, in an uncharacteristic way, he had disliked the person who gave it to them. It was from a cousin of his who had imposed on their hospitality many years earlier, asked to stay a night, turned it into a week. She was demanding and unpleasant, Stu embarrassed he was putting Janice through such a thing. Afterwards, Janice told him it wasn't important, he was making too much of it. When the gift arrived several weeks later he wanted to throw it in the garbage. Janice had insisted they include it in their secret collection.
And so it grew over the years: A caddy of decorated highball glasses to be used for patio gatherings, a small pile of crocheted doilies, someone's early attempt at oil painting, someone else's handcrafted pottery cheese plate, a Swiss cuckoo clock. Three shelves full of this detritus. He looked over the collection and down again at the floor feeling an odd satisfaction with the mess at his feet.
Then, for reasons he couldn't explain, he let the wine chicken fall from his hands. It too smashed on the floor. He reached for one of the highball glasses and let it fall, then another; picked up and dropped the cheese platter, the cuckoo clock. He stopped, stepped back, breathed a half chuckle, felt his head shake slowly from side to side, smiled. What would Janice say, he wondered?
He went to a nearby closet, got a broom, pulled a wooden tray from the collection, swept up the debris and threw it all, including the tray, into the garbage. He returned to the living room, poured himself a small amount of rye, sat in his usual chair. The thought came to him that his behaviour was surprising. Likely he had never done such a thing in his life, certainly he had no memory. The word surprise made him check on the surprised feeling he had been carrying. Odd, he thought, it seems to have lessened. Maybe I should go and clear off the rest of those shelves. But no, he wouldn't do that. It was too much out of character. Still, he felt a kind of satisfaction in what he had done; wished Janice had been there to enjoy it, even to have helped. She would have, he thought. It's more something she would do than me.
In an instant he was in tears, sobbed, shook, wrapped his arms around himself, held. Moments passed, maybe longer, before the sobs subsided. When they did his thoughts came clear. He saw, knew without a doubt, Janice had been present, acting through him, dropping those things. He began to laugh, laugh as though it was a joke. And in a way it was, Janice in her unique fashion saying goodbye.
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