An excerpt from WHEN YOU WENT AWAY:
I dreamt of us in springtime. Maureen and I walked hand in hand through Washington Square Park, an acoustic guitarist playing an Indigo Girls song on one side, a guy throwing a Frisbee to his dog on the other. As we walked, Maureen’s sleeveless arm rested against mine, giving me one more reason to be thankful for the dawning of this new season. A teenaged girl and boy ran past laughing carelessly, transforming as we watched them into Tanya at age five, and Eric, her best friend at the time. The park became our backyard. I chuckled as they rumbled by and Maureen leaned into me. She kissed me on the cheek and tittered into my ear, causing the fine hairs on my neck to rise.
Then she pushed me on the shoulder, calling out, “You’re it!” and running away laughing like the little girl I always wished I could have known. I chased them both (Eric had disappeared), sweeping Tanya up and carrying her, squealing delightedly and wriggling, under my arm while I sought Maureen, who somehow ducked out of sight. While I looked in one direction, she jumped on my back from the other, causing the three of us to tumble to the ground, Tanya leaping free to pounce on both of us. We wrestled together for a few moments, kissing, tickling, until we lay in the grass, a tangle of arms and legs, gazing up at the impossibly blue sky. I could stay here like this, I thought. I could very easily stay right here and never want for anything.
A musical tinkling came from somewhere in the near distance, and Tanya gathered her feet under her faster than any little kid should be able to. “Ice cream truck,” she said with a joy that was singularly hers, sprinting to the front of the house, knowing that the man in the truck had already slowed in anticipation of her approach and that Maureen and I would soon be behind her with the money necessary for an ice pop or a Dove Bar or whatever else she might want.
Maureen kissed me again at that point, softly this time, warmly, enveloping me with her spring smell. “Do you think the ice cream man will put this one on her tab?” she said, understanding how completely I wanted to remain here and kiss her like this indefinitely.
And then Tanya sat next to us again, her feet tucked under her nine-year-old bottom. “Do the two of you always have to kiss?” she said, pretending to be repulsed but at the same time bearing just enough of a glint in her eye to let us know that this was at least moderately okay with her.
“Yes, always,” I said and I kissed Maureen again to underscore the point.
She frowned at me, but her mother reached out to grab her and she tumbled toward us, kissing Maureen’s hair and settling into her embrace. I rested my head against the two of them, not knowing where one ended and the other began and not caring in the least. And in the languor of this late March day, with the afternoon sun making the air feel warmer than it actually was, I fell asleep on a bed infinitely more important to me than my own life.
The first thing I noticed when I came awake was early morning birds chirping, the sound slipping through the slim opening I left in the window the night before. Then the smell of the daffodils that Maureen planted in ridiculous quantities all around the perimeter of the house. It really was spring. I hadn’t dreamed that. And for just a second – that instant between dreaming and being awake when almost anything still seems possible – I believed that everything else about my dream was true as well. My wife was next to me. My daughter, five or nine or seventeen, was two doors down the hall, about to protest that it was too early to go to school.
But the moment receded. And again, Maureen was gone forever, gone from this earth with a suddenness I promised I would never understand. And again, Tanya disappeared from my life, not knowing that her mother wouldn’t be here for her if she ever chose to return. I felt each loss as if it just happened, realizing that the one thing I might have in unlimited quantity was sorrow.
In the past few months, there had been so many dreams. So many moments when they were right here where I could touch them and let them know that they were the absolute essence of my life. Where I could lay my forehead against Maureen’s and we could allow our eyes to have hours of conversation for us. Where I could stop time before I floundered with Tanya and give her something of me without taking away any of her. Where I could have said to them, “I’ll gladly accept the worst possible moments with either of you over any moment without you.”
I wanted to hold onto this dream, but I couldn’t any more than I could hold on to the dozens of others I had before. All I could hold onto was the increasing depth of understanding of everything I had lost. Like the insistent repetition of the chorus at the end of an epic song, with every new visit from Maureen and Tanya in my dreams, I came to feel what I had with them just a little bit more – and by extension feel what I could no longer ever have again.
Neither the birds nor the daffodils or any of the other harbingers of the season I loved most could elevate me. Spring was nearly here. And the thought that I would live it without Maureen and Tanya was heartbreaking.
I closed my eyes. Let me dream again. Let me visit with them for just a little longer. It never happened before and it didn’t happen now. Sleep didn’t come easily for me these days and it wouldn’t possibly come this way. No matter how much I wanted it.
Reese made his first morning sounds. He never cried right away when he got up. For the first couple of minutes of every day, it was as though the world was just so fascinating to him, so absolutely new to his eyes, that his rediscovery of it took precedence over his hunger. Then the crying would come. Crying that always reminded me, perhaps would always remind me, of the sound of his crying the night I came home to find Maureen.
I didn’t want him to have to cry today. And so before his empty stomach imposed its will upon him, I went to his room, picked him up, and held him to my chest. After a moment, we walked toward the kitchen. Past the framed painting of a hobbyhorse, posted outside Reese’s door, that Maureen found at the last antique store we visited together. Past Tanya’s empty room. Down the staircase lined with photographs of my wife and daughter and even a couple of the new baby.
As we got downstairs, Reese started to fuss a little. We were probably a minute from full-blown bawling. I heated the bottle quickly, using the microwave though I knew that wasn’t the best thing to do, rubbing his back, and humming to him in the time this took. I tested the temperature on my arm and brought him into the family room. Almost immediately, he sucked contentedly.
While he drank, I lost myself in the image of the antique quilt on the opposite wall. Maureen and I bought it a month before we were married. It was an extravagant expense at the time, but she wanted it so much. “It will hang prominently in every home we ever have,” she said. And it did. From the drafty walk-up in Coram to the needy starter three-bedroom in St. James to this, our family home for the past twelve years in Port Jefferson. “This quilt is you and me, Gerry. Woven from separate parts and joined together forever.”
Reese stopped sucking and I glanced down at him. He looked at me with fascination in his eyes, maybe even a bit of confusion, and his hand reached up toward my face. I bent toward him, kissing his hand and rubbing my cheek against it. It was only then that I realized I was crying. I let Reese’s hand stray over my face, drawing the line of tears down toward my chin. He had no idea what I was going through, just as he had no idea how much his touch meant to me.
I pulled the baby closer and adjusted the bottle. He began to suck again, secure in the simplicity and wonder of his world.
A new season was coming. A new day was beginning. I held fast to the only thing that made it possible for me to face either.