There’s the tree. Right where your husband’s casket needs to be. But you see solid ground. A hole dug ten feet over. You grab hold of the steering wheel. Take a sharp left. Tires spill over the curb. You bang the hell out of the brakes. “I’ll be damned,” you say. Seymour’s grave isn’t where it’s supposed to be with his burial soon to start. Throat tightens, enough to make you cough. Enough to sit on top of your grief.
You feel the warm hand of your daughter, Alyssa, the change-of-life baby, now a woman of 32. Your son’s long legs press into the back of your seat. “What’s the matter?” Martin asks you. He might as well be 12. Fifty now. Sorry his wife and son aren’t here, both sick back at home 3000 miles away. They’ll come another time when inevitable loneliness sets in.
Release the grip on the steering wheel. Open the car door. Walk out on the ground to the big gaping hole, frost underfoot. The children are coming from behind.
“We know. It’s hard,” Martin says, catching up, tagging your shoulder.
“This is all about remembering, Martin,” you say, looking back. There’s grey in his beard. Good thing you made Seymour shave. So you never had to see how fast time was passing.
You hear planes overhead. Not just a plane. But the past. Now everything is a memory, a step backward over a threshold. “Seymour would never forgive me.”
“Forgive you for what?” Martin asks.
“You father almost died, you know,” you say, clenching his hand. “None of this would be happening if—.”
You can’t go on. You’re thinking of World War II. Seymour landed on Okinawa. Japanese planes overhead. Seymour took his chances, running for cover in a hole in the sand, pulling his comrades in with him. Bombs ripped the shoreline. Seymour survived, earning a medal for saying others.
“You’re not making sense,” Martin says.
Ten or so cars pull up behind the Volvo. Doors slam. You see neighbors, friends, relatives. You want to call the whole thing off. But they’re all over you, kissing and holding your hand.
A black hearse pulls up. Ushers emerge. Seymour’s casket lifted out. You run over to Jack, Seymour’s best man who drove the two of you to New York City for your honeymoon.
“I can hardly breath,” you say, holding onto his hands. You take a forced breath. “Jack. They opened the wrong grave.”
“How could they do that?”
You walk Jack over. Tell him how you and Seymour liked the thought of shade in the summertime over your tombstone.
The funeral director is walking over. Cigar dangling from his mouth. You’re glad you made Seymour quit. You point to the hole in the ground. “I need you to explain this.”
“My apologies. I should have warned you,” he says, sucking in his gut. “We prepare the grounds before the burial.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
“Tell him,” Jack says.
“Look. The hole isn’t where it’s supposed to be.”
“What?” says Alyssa from behind you.
“Are you sure?” The funeral director flicks his cigar between you.
You look over at Jack.
“Who’s responsible for this?” you ask.
“I’ll call the cemetery owner. He can sort this out.” The funeral director takes a smoke. “In the meantime, let’s proceed.”
“What do you mean?” You grasp for air.
“The ceremony will be just like you planned in remembrance of your late husband,” he says. “You don’t want all these people to wait, do you?”
“Maybe I do.”
“Having the ceremony here won’t make a difference. We’ll bury him afterwards where he’s supposed to be.” He drops what’s left of his cigar between the two of you.
“I want the ceremony where it’s supposed to be.” You feel yourself shaking.
“If you could just not do this,” Martin says.
You look at Martin. Silence him like you did when he was a little boy. You think how proud Seymour was of you in the hospital. You didn’t cry, held his hand as he gasped for air, tears in his eyes. You told him not to worry. He looked at you with a look you understood.
“Seymour, are you there? I’ll make this right for you, darling.” You start to breathe easier. You feel everyone watching you. You and Seymour were the pillar couple, the people on the hill, with your tidy red ranch on Summit Road. You don’t want to be remembered for making a fuss at your husband’s funeral. But here you are making a fuss at your husband’s funeral.
Three navy artillerymen stand at a distance, bayonets dangling. You feel sorry for them, their throats hoarse from the circling winter air. They traveled down from New Haven by train early that morning, expecting a somber funeral a war hero, a man of honor and good common sense. He was the brave one. You can’t be a coward.
A grey car comes barreling down the road. The driver ejects himself. Everyone turns. The bald-head moves quickly through the crowd. He reaches you, opens a folder like a prayer book.
“You’re right. This plot is not your husband’s.”
“Thank you.” You look over at the funeral director.
“We need to rectify this,” the bald-man says, “on this most unfortunate day for you and your family.”
“You met my husband. This was a terrible thing that happened to him.” Martin’s hand is on your shoulder. Alyssa is at your back, steadying you.
“She wants the ceremony at the correct plot,” you hear Alyssa say.
“We can move everything over,” the bald-man says. “Hey guys, it’s only about six feet. “Would it be all right if we did that?” he asks you. “Move everything over to his proper gravesite. We’ll bury your husband afterwards?”
“How will I know it’s the right place?” you say.
“Come back. Check. Before we bury him,” the bald man says. “We’ll call when everything’s set.”
“Call my son. He’s the lawyer in the family.”
“I’m missing something,” Martin says, pointing to the open hole. “Who’s grave is this anyways?”
“We don’t know,” the bald man says.
“Mom. Relax,” Martin says. “Maybe it’s not so bad. The grave they opened is close enough. You want them to move 20 chairs, the coffin? The priest is waiting for us.”
“What are you saying?” you ask.
He leans in to you. “Come on,” he whispers. “It’s your claustrophobia.”
You move away from him and shiver. No one is supposed to know. Tight spaces scare you. You’ve never been up in an airplane. You can’t be in other people’s cars. “Your father just died.” It’s all you can think to say.
“Do you think Dad would really care?” Martin says.
“Maybe he’d go along with it,” Alyssa says.
You look down. Push the coat collar up over your ears. Seymour would tell them to back off. This has nothing to do with your claustrophobia, goddammit.
“We can handle this,” the bald man says. “Let’s get started.”
A green mat is placed over the correct gravesite. Ushers carry chairs over. Seymour’s casket is placed down. You sit with your two adult children, bow your head when the priest comes with three altar boys. Canisters of incense rock back and forth, causing you to wheeze. The priest opens his prayer book.
“We have come here to honor the life of Seymour McCarty, loving husband, father, hero to his nation, son of immigrants.”
Six weeks ago, Seymour fell on the basement stairs. You rushed down.
“What a stupid thing. Right?” he said.
He broke his arm. The stairs broke down his stamina. You didn’t like the way he looked. On his eighty-second birthday, face sunken, body thinning like his hair.
A week later, friends spotted you and Seymour at a local restaurant, offering to take a picture of the two of you.
“You don’t have to,” you said.
“Come on, honey. What’s another?”
He smiled and kissed you. “Happy couple,” you both said.
You put that picture in the drawer. Searched for another one. There’s a photo of Seymour at 23, married to you, wearing a short leather jacket, standing in front of his rusty car. You taped the picture to the kitchen door. The real Seymour standing next to you. “Look at what 60 years did to me.”
“Never mind.” You hugged him. “I love you both.” He laughed in your ear.
Then came the wretched cough. Alyssa drove Seymour to a walk-in clinic. Nothing showed up. You were frantic for someone to figure something out. Martin promised to visit as soon as he could.
A week ago, Seymour woke you up, rocking you back and forth. Saying he couldn’t breathe. You grabbed the phone. The ambulance came before either of you was dressed.
“Seymour was a man of remarkable strength, loved by God,” the priest says.
Your hands feel empty. Martin and Alyssa grab hold of you. But you want Seymour to massage your neck, drag his fingers along your back.
Alyssa came with you every time Seymour went to the emergency room after his massive heart attack a decade ago. She told you what everything meant. Why Seymour needed a defibrillator, a pacemaker; why he wasn’t a candidate for bypass surgery. She wrote about medicine. She should know,
“At least his kidneys are working,” the cardiologist said. That you understood.
Alyssa came over whenever Seymour was hospitalized. They put him in a room on a high floor you couldn’t get to. You’d never been in an elevator; that was too claustrophobic.
But this time, one week ago, when you called Alyssa, she said she couldn’t miss work. Late in the afternoon, after a day of specialists all around Seymour making no difference in his breathing, she finally arrived.
A new face in a white coat came toward you just when Alyssa sat down. “I’m a hospital administrator,” the man said.
“Are you here to help?” you asked.
“Actually, I’ve come to talk to Seymour,” he said. “So, Seymour, I understand our staff has done the best they can for you today. Because of your heart and lungs, there’s not much more we can do for you.”
“You mean, all this isn’t working?” Seymour asked. You followed Seymour’s eyes up to the bags of fluid and medicine pumping into him since 2 a.m.
“We stop the medication, it won’t make a difference. The oxygen you’re getting isn’t helping you enough. There’s low oxygen in your blood, too low to keep you alive.”
“What are you saying?” You weren’t expecting this, your heart pounding in your ear.
The man cleared his throat, and turned back to Seymour. “We can try a respirator, a machine that breathes for you, and see if your heart kicks back. But even that isn’t a guarantee.”
“And?” you asked, looking at Alyssa for some sign of what was being implied.
The man looked back at Seymour. “We don’t think you’re going to make it through tonight,” he said. “You can choose to die here in the hospital, or die peacefully at home. We can also try that respirator. See if your heart kicks back in. What would you like to do, Seymour?”
You felt the air knocked right out of you. You looked over at Seymour.
“Respirator, of course. I can’t leave my wife.”
“No, no,” you started to say. You don’t understand why.
The man stepped in front of you and repeated the question to Seymour.
“Let me be intubated for my wife,” Seymour said. “I don’t want to leave her.”
The man turned to you. “I’m sorry. I need to talk to Seymour alone.”
“You want me to leave?”
The man nodded. You told Alyssa to stay.
She came out a few minutes later. “He wants the respirator,” she said.
“Will it help?” you asked.
Alyssa shrugged her shoulders. “We’ll see.”
Within an hour, in a small intervention room, you looked at Seymour. You knew he wasn’t coming home. You were saying goodbye before he was intubated. Seymour took the oxygen mask off long enough for you to kiss him.
“Now let us say the Lord’s prayer,” the priest says.
You try to picture Seymour happy and healthy. But can’t help thinking what Alyssa told you. Seymour alert, unable to talk, a tube shoved down his throat. The sound of a machine in the background, gurgling, helping to keep him alive.
The first night, Alyssa asked your permission for Seymour’s hands to be tied. You were horrified. You asked her why.
“He keeps trying to take the tube out,” she said.
The next morning, Alyssa said he didn’t need that. “He seems to be settling in,” she said. “He’s dealing with it.”
You were glad. But you worried about Alyssa. For three straight days, she went to the hospital in the morning, visited you for lunch, went back to Seymour for dinner, and stopped by you on her way home.
“Why are you going back to the hospital?” you asked Alyssa the second afternoon. “You can’t help him.”
Alyssa flinched. How could you explain that you were already the grieving one, she still holding out waiting for a miracle.
On the third day, there was a change. You heard it in Alyssa’s voice. She said the head of ICU came in with his squadron of interns, saying he understood how Seymour survived Okinawa. Seymour was a strong man, a real survivor.
You nodded your head.
“But then he picks up Dad’s excrement bag and flings it around to show there isn’t anything in it. He says Dad’s in renal failure. For three whole days,” she said. “I didn’t know that. He never told me. Then he says anybody else would be dead by now.”
“What did your father do?”
“He looked at me. I said the doctor was a jerk and not to pay attention to him.”
You smiled. “And then?”
“I followed the guy out to tell him off.”
“He asked me where you were,” Alyssa said. “He told me you should come and say goodbye to Dad before he dies.”
“My claustrophobia. You told him, right?”
“I did,” Alyssa said. “He told me there’s an extra-large elevator you can use.”
“I can’t get into any elevator.”
“He took me down the hall and showed me this big freight elevator. It’s really huge. Do you want to at least give it a try?”
If you looked inside the extra-large elevator and couldn’t get in, everyone would pressure you. You’d feel even worse about yourself. You knew there was no way they could bring Seymour down to the lobby attached to a big machine.
“He asked me if you’d walk up the stairs,” Alyssa said.
“I got shingles from all the exertion when I tried that after your father’s heart attack. Remember? You told him. Right?”
“I told him you don’t ask a woman your age to walk up 14 flights of stairs, or a claustrophobic woman to get into an elevator. I was mad at him, really mad.”
“Don’t get mad at him. He’s taking care of your father.”
“The other weird thing was that Dad kept looking up at the ceiling. He kept nodding his head. Like someone was talking to him. I asked him who was up there. He just looked at me like, ‘Hey Alyssa, even if I could talk with this tube down my throat, I wouldn’t tell you.’”
“It’s his mother,” you said. “She wants him to stop trying.”
That night, you tried to sleep. But you kept thinking about the circus going on around Seymour. You wanted to be there, to make it stop.
The first phone call came around 4 a.m. Seymour was struggling, even with the respirator. They asked if Seymour went into cardiac arrest, did you want them to revive him. You said yes, that was what Seymour would want.
You called Alyssa. You told her to go to the hospital.
The second call came around 5 a.m. Seymour had passed.
“You think I don’t know that?” you said. “Did my daughter make it there?”
“Wait a minute. Here she is. She’s running down the hallway,” the nurse said.
Alyssa came through your front door. You hugged her. You asked her if she was all right. You looked at her, her eyes and mouth.
“I drove high speed all the way. When I got off the highway, a truck let me through. I guess the driver figured it must be some emergency.”
“Did you see him?”
“I ran with a nurse through the hospital, up the stairs. I don’t remember how many hallways. I made it into Dad’s room. They told me he died 10 minutes before.”
“He looked at peace. Didn’t he.”
You brought Alyssa into the bedroom. Pictures of Seymour spread all over the bed. An old-fashioned photo of a pink-faced 6-year-old Seymour, and him at 12 years old with a pencil in his mouth.
“I’m glad his mother gave these to me,” you said
There was a large photo of Seymour in his sailor’s uniform, three pictures of the two of you at your wedding, Seymour as a new father sewing a skirt for Martin’s bassinet, carving Thanksgiving turkey in the dining room, sitting with Alyssa at a Girl Scout dinner. There were photos of you and Seymour holding hands as you grew progressively older over the five decades you were married.
By late afternoon, you told Alyssa she needed to rest. The funeral home called. Seymour’s body was ready to be viewed. You remember specifically telling Alyssa not to go if it was too much for her.
“Sure. I’ll make sure it’s Dad in the casket.”
You worried about Alyssa rerouting herself to the northern part of town. She called you, telling you they prepared Seymour not knowing the casket would be closed.
“How did he look?”
“He was coated with orange make-up and some light pink lipstick. They even put eyeliner and blush on him.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I told them he looked gorgeous,” she said.
“What do you remember most about your father?”
“I can’t picture him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t remember what he looked like.”
You reach for Alyssa and Martin as the priest closes his hymnal. Three rounds of gunfire go off. The funeral director folds the American flag covering Seymour’s coffin and hands it to you, a gift from the President of the United States for Seymour’s service in the US Navy during World War II.
You drive to the restaurant where lunch will be served. Cars follow you. In the middle of dessert, Martin taps you on the shoulder. It’s time to go back to the cemetery.
You arrive. The same big gaping hole in the ground. “I’ll be damned,” you say.
“No, Mom, there’s a second hole under the tree now.”
You see the bald-man from that morning. “It’s all right?” he asks.
“Let me see the plans. We have a contract, you know, and my son’s a lawyer.”
The man taps at the spot where you and Seymour signed.
“Should I measure the boundaries for you?” the bald man asks.
“No need,” you say.
“Great. We’ll go forward with the burial.”
You watch heavy equipment move to Seymour’s proper grave. His casket is moved up off the ground and lowered down. Mounds of earth are lifted and dropped in.
“If you think about the insensitivity of it, my mother coming to bury her husband and finding the wrong gravesite opened,” Martin says, “it’s enough to be paid $500. As well as no extra charges for the burial. How about returning a portion for the hearse?”
The bald man agrees to everything Martin proposes, and closes the folder. He indicates the check will be in the mail, and offers his condolences.
You walk over to the gravesite newly covered in dirt, grabbing a handful of soil, throwing it on Seymour’s grave. You watch Martin do the same.
“We’ll need to seed and fertilize in the spring,” you say. “Come and help?”
“Don’t you think they’ll do a better job?” Martin nods over at the bald man driving off in his car. Smiles at you.
Martin stays two more days, then calls every night. Alyssa sleeps over for a week. Afterwards she visits every night, calling in the morning to get you out of bed.
“Just tell me,” Alyssa says. “What did you eat for breakfast?”
You can’t lie, nor can you tell her you didn’t eat anything. “Some skim milk.”
“Not enough,” she says. “Why not coffee? You love raison bread, right?”
After several weeks of walking room-to-room looking for Seymour, you call the priest who officiated his funeral. You don’t know what to do with your loneliness. The priest tells you about a widower of six months who lives close by. He’s 72. Are you interested in a nice male friend to talk to from time to time? Out of desperation, you say yes. The man calls. He wants to come over and meet you that day. He’s tall, good looking, nicely dressed. You see he’s nervous, as if this first meeting really counts.
“I want to get married,” he says after a second cup of coffee. “What about you?”
You look down at your wedding ring. “I feel like I’m still married.”
“You’re married to a dead man,” he said.
“I guess I am.”
A week later, you say to the hall mirror: “Me. Me. Me.” It just doesn’t feel right.
For an entire month afterwards, you rummage through old pictures of Seymour, running them through the copier machine, again and again, to make them larger. You cover the refrigerator and the kitchen wall with pictures of Seymour. You feel like you’re still eating with him. You reframe five wedding photographs enlarged by a professional. The frames are gold with extra-large matting. All the while, you hear the voice of Seymour inside you, telling everyone you’re a great girl, telling you not to worry what other people say about you. You look on the kitchen table, half expecting to find a letter he left you, like he did whenever he left the house. You run down to the basement to look through a box of them. You read how you are “his perfect love, the one who makes all things possible.” But you feel like a nobody. How could that be?
You get rid of Seymour’s computer; you don’t know how to use it. Donate all his clothes. Change phone companies, even though the new plan charges you extra to call your children. Overdraw the checking account two months in a row. Two bank managers work with you to sort out all your accounts.
A Saturday, well before 7 a.m., you call Alyssa.
“No, it’s okay you woke me up.”
“Will you come with me to the grave? We need to clean it up. The ground’s ready for planting flowers, or maybe two bushes. What do you think? Can you come? I’m calling long distance, you know.”
“It’s not Daddy’s hole anymore. Don’t you think he’s in heaven by now?”
“Pl-ea-se. It will be such a big help to me. I’ll buy you lunch.”
“You don’t need to bribe me.” You wait for Alyssa’s answer. “Alright. I’ll be there before lunch.”
Outside you choose two small flowering bushes you bought to plant next to the patio in memory of Seymour. His gravesite seems more fitting. You pick out tools you’ll need. Wonder how you and Alyssa will get the bushes into the ground. Rush into the house and call your landscaper. Chuck says he’ll be there around 12:30.
“Should we do this?” you ask when you all get to the cemetery. Heavy clouds hide what was once a sunny day.
“Of course. We’re here,” Alyssa says.
Chuck doesn’t seem to mind. He’s getting paid.
You look at Seymour’s name engraved at the center of the gravestone. You look back at Alyssa and Chuck struggling with bags of soil and grass seed, buckets of water.
“Be careful. Those bushes go over Seymour’s spot. Not mine,” you say.
There’s steady wet rain at your face. You offer a small blanket from the car.
“Too late. We could have used it to carry the bushes, you know,” Alyssa says.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Chuck says.
“That’s more like it,” you say to Chuck.
He raises the shovel, hitting squarely into the ground. He digs two deep holes equidistant from the headstone and the bottom border of the gravesite you marked for him. Alyssa pushes the loose earth away, to use later to fill in around the new plantings. You cut the canvas bags from the bottom sides of the bushes.
Chuck hoists one bush into the ground, and then the other. He cleans his face with a paper towel. Alyssa drops dirt around the bushes.
“I think you need more soil under the second bush.” You watch Alyssa and Chuck bring small bits of earth.
You walk around the bushes. “Let’s pour the water and see if we need more dirt.”
Chuck pours a stream of water from a bucket. Alyssa tries to lift the other bucket.
“Don’t hurt yourself, Alyssa. Let Chuck do that.” You pat the ground for Alyssa to sit next to you.
“How does that look to you?” Chuck asks.
“More dirt over there,” you say.
You put an arm around Alyssa’s shoulder. Study her face. She looks so much like Seymour. You can picture him wearing her communion veil as he reaches under the house to remove a beehive. Seymour lifting his oxygen mask for you to kiss him goodbye. You wonder if he knew, like you, this would be the last time.
You and Alyssa lift bunches of seeds in your hands. Release them. Watch them melt into the ground, sipping up the water.
Chuck steps carefully around the bushes. “Looks good. Don’t want one blade of grass competing with its neighbor.”
You pull your camera out. Take a picture of the bushes on Seymour’s grave. A photo of Chuck and Alyssa with the bushes they planted.
“Let me to take a picture of you and your daughter.” You hand the camera over.
Back home, you see Alyssa hovering at the door. “What’s the matter?”
“You’re putting pictures of Dad on the front door?”
“They’re covered in plastic. They won’t get ruined in the rain.”
“As long as it helps you,” she says.
“Nothing helps me. I never wanted to see him intubated. I didn’t want to remember him that way.”
“That was such a brave thing for you to stay with him,” you say.
Alyssa leaves after a late lunch. You worry about her drive home in the rain. You hate driving in weather like this, keeping your eyes steady on the road. The rain reflects store windows, traffic lights, flashing lights of school buses on the road. But they’re not really there. All that’s there are the cars to the right and left, in front and in back of you.
Alyssa calls you to tell you she made it home.
“I finally saw him.”
“Whenever I came over, he’d stand by the kitchen window and wave, let me in and we’d wait by the kitchen table for you. That’s how I remember him.”
“I’m glad. But, Alyssa, please don’t stay in the hospital with me. I never should have asked you.”
You hang up the phone. If only Seymour chose to die at home, you would have been with him. With all the trouble you went through with his funeral, there must be something good in that.
You watch out the window. Dashed lines of rain make the backyard look like a painting. The grass is emerald green. Leaves sway on the trees, immortalized by raindrops. You look down, feeling something right there. Seymour’s hand might as well be on yours. The unbearable emptiness stops for a moment.