Creative Nonfiction

Barbara Alfaro

Afterwards

I didn’t want the tube of toothpaste Victor and I shared to end. At the last, he was too weak to lift his toothbrush. “You’re as weak as a kitten” one of the nurses told him. I was with him longer than any nurse and he was weaker than a kitten. Once, when I was brushing Victor’s teeth, he whispered that it felt good. If I simply stop using the toothpaste it will last but then all I really will have is a souvenir of my silliness. For months after Victor died, I couldn’t drink coffee because he made such a big deal about our morning coffee, making the coffee blend himself, so enjoying that second cup. Eventually, I gave the coffee pot away and bought a Keurig one cup coffee maker that holds no memories. Thanks to Keurig, being totally alone is almost trendy. I couldn’t put away the last CD Victor listened to, Mozart’s piano sonatas. I couldn’t listen to it but I couldn’t put it away.

“I feel like I’ve just been hit with a baseball bat,” I told Victor after we left the oncologist’s office. We had just been told there was “no treatment and no cure” for his Stage 4 cancer. Even though Victor had gotten this brutal news only moments ago, his first thought was of another, his brother Fernando. He blurted, “How am I going to tell Fernando?” In the coming months, when Victor was totally bedridden (a word I have come to loathe), we prayed for a miracle, a humble one. We prayed his cancer would stop spreading – just stop – so he could continue living. The only thing we held on to was being told people in hospice sometimes live as long as a year or fourteen months. Victor’s cancer had metastasized to his esophagus, lungs, shoulder, and back so we would be needing that miracle. Within two months, we moved from Maryland to Kentucky to be near his family.

“Afterwards” is how Victor referred to his dying. I preferred “When the time comes.” We avoided the word “death” as if not saying it out loud might somehow prevent it from happening. “Afterwards,” Victor advised, “don’t go back to your old unhealthy eating habits, the way you were when I met you.” “When the time comes,” I worried, “what should I do, call the priest first or your brother? Or hospice?” I seemed to think there was a certain hierarchical etiquette to this business of dying. “Afterwards,” he cautioned, “promise me you won’t turn into a recluse. I know you, Barbara.” “Do you want donations to go to Hospice,” I asked, “when the time comes?” The time came September 12, 2018. Victor lost consciousness in the morning and passed away early evening. I will leave the details of that day offstage. Thankfully, my brother-in-law Fernando, and niece Alyssa were with me at Victor’s bedside.

Nothing in my experience had prepared me for watching the person I love suffer. And nothing in my experience prepared me for being the one “in charge” of things when he died. As it turned out, “in charge” meant paying $10,000 to simply bury my husband’s remains. The funeral home fees seemed standard and fair but I was hornswoggled by the blonde saleswoman at the cemetery when I purchased the gravestone. The gemstone in the ring she was wearing was the largest diamond I’d ever seen. Its owner rushed me into paying twice what I’d intended to pay for a “companion gravestone.” I’m “prepaid.” Beside Victor’s name and dates of birth and death on the stone, my name and birth date are engraved, and after my birth date, that cute little dash, just waiting. Everyone in the graveyard will know I was older than Victor but then, its occupants aren’t reading much anymore, at least as far as we know. The gravestone took over five months to be completed. Had they resurrected Michelangelo to do the engraving?

The funeral mass was at a small Catholic church. I arranged for baskets of flowers, a Spanish guitarist, and luncheon at a nearby hotel. I read a poem I’d written to Victor years ago, and astounded myself by not trembling while reading. Only the cremation, and interment of my husband’s ashes remained. After the funeral, alone in the house rented only six weeks earlier, I drank white wine, and listened to Van Morrison. Later in the week, Victor’s ashes were delivered to my home. They arrived in a small square container wrapped in brown paper. I placed it on the fireplace mantel, and a dark humor took hold of me. The package looked like any USPS parcel. I felt nothing when I stared at my husband’s ashes on the mantel, nothing. Wherever Victor’s spirit was, it wasn’t there. Weeks later, opening the copies of his death certificate that arrived in the mail, I completely cracked. Something about the officialdom of it tore me apart. And the awfulness of it. If death were a person I would have cried, “Okay, you win! I give! I can’t take more!” But I did. Grief attacks of uncontrolled sobbing. Hearing Victor call my name.

I wondered if my dog thought – in canine – She’s at it again when he heard me crying. I didn’t know if my little Maltese Darby could absorb so much reoccurring sadness. One morning, reading an especially beautiful passage in a book on prayer, I was overcome with grief and began sobbing. I was sitting on the right side of the sofa, and Darby was on the opposite end. The second he heard me cry, he walked over to me, snuggled beside me, kissed my hand several times, and rested his head on my lap. This is why we have pets.

Psychologists call seeing a deceased loved one or hearing their voice “extraordinary events.” Often these “events” comfort the living because they suggest there is an afterlife. On six different occasions, I heard Victor calling my name. The first four times, his voice was loud and clear, as if he were in another room of the house – and it was far from comforting. Victor sounded urgent, and unhappy. The thought that he was still suffering made me half crazy. Each time I heard him calling me I was startled and confused. Because I was in that state between sleep and wakefulness, and Victor’s voice sounded so near, I forgot he was no longer alive and shouted “I’m coming!” At this point, I remembered my husband was dead, and felt and was crushed with sadness. Thankfully, the last two times I heard him call my name his voice sounded far away – and blessedly, gentle. Some dismiss these paranormal occurrences as auditory hallucinations. Carl Jung might disagree.

There were other intrusions on my spirit – the pinch I felt the first time I checked the box beside “Widow” on a form; editing grace before meals to “I am” instead of “we are” about to receive; and, well-meaning but insensitive friends who seem to regard bereavement as if it were like the common cold, something to recover from as quickly as possible.

After my father died, my mother watched a great deal of television. I was in my mid-twenties and judged her harshly for apparently grieving inappropriately (it’s so awfully easy to judge when young). For the first few months “afterwards,” I did much the same thing, watching old movies on TV. The sillier the movie, the better. Anything to keep it all away. Of course, I failed. Eventually, though not completely abandoning TCM, I turned to reading poetry, and writing poetry – a good move for a poet. To my surprise and amusement, some of my new poems were lighthearted. In one of Moliere’s plays, I think The Imaginary Invalid, a character says when the patient’s sense of humor returns, he is beginning to heal.

Victor and I were happy with so little – a good book, a lovely meal, a loyal friend, a favorite TV show, and an occasional concert. It really was so little but it was so good. Victor had the gift of friendship. I’ve never known anyone who reached out to family and friends so often and so genuinely as he did. Paradoxically, during his illness, he often wound up comforting friends who had called to comfort him. Through all his cancer, he never once complained. He never once lost his composure or his spirit of kindness. He never lost his dignity in spite of the mortifying things the hideous disease did to his body.

The biggest mistake I made was looking through old photographs one evening. I was surprised at how pretty I once was but not at the gentleness in Victor’s eyes. Our smiles and unembarrassed love recorded through the decades devastated me. A single sharp cry spurted from me and I shut the album. It will be a long time before it’s reopened. I don’t want to be one of those widows who canonize their deceased husband. Victor could be argumentative and I’m short-tempered so we had our dark moments. Who but angels and saints hasn’t? One of my favorite jokes is that of a woman boasting to another woman, “My husband and I haven’t had an argument in twenty years.” Her listener replies, “Twenty years is a long time for a married couple to live apart.” Still, to this moment, I am haunted by the things I said in anger. Regret may be “futile” but it’s also resilient.

It’s one year since the parcel on the mantel, and the hustling saleswoman at the cemetery. I still have attacks of grief. Thirty years of loving companionship isn’t overshadowed in a year. I’ve moved to an apartment. It’s a lovely apartment with a deck for me to enjoy a glass of wine, and a yard for my dog to enjoy being a dog. I’m almost overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for my health, my friends, and my pal Darby. Often eclipsed by quiet joys, my sorrow is always with me, and will be, till the time comes.