I would like to say two things before you read this little story. First, I'd like to thank my editor, Erik Thread, for going beyond what is expected of an editor. He guided me and helped me to make this story better.
Second, because a number of readers have commented upon it, I'd like to warn you about the second paragraph. It is a vivid but true description of a death from a type of skin cancer caused by the sun. When I was little, I lost a beloved uncle to Melanoma. I'm afraid I've become rabid about suntans ever since.
I think it adds to the story, but others think the story is better without it.
We were only married 28 years, not even a blink of the cosmic eye. Our wedding did seem like yesterday, until she died last July. Each day of the last six months has seemed an eternity plus a month of Sundays. I know Ginny's with the Lord. As the old expression goes, St. Peter had to let her in, because we both did our time in hell.
Melanoma, caused by sun tanning when everyone thought it was healthy, killed her, but not before I had to watch her beautiful face eaten away. The last time I was able to watch her dressings changed, her cheek was gone. I saw her molars and her naked jawbone. But mine hell endures.
When she died, my soul was sundered. So intertwined were we, that the 'me' I was, doesn't exist anymore. I know that life continued, I ate, slept, I went to work, watched TV, I even went to my beloved Texas home football games down in Austin. But if I didn't have the ticket stubs, I would swear I hadn't even watched them on TV.
I know I visited with friends and that family came to see me. But for the last six months, I retreated into a deep place where light has never been. If only, if only suicide wasn't a mortal sin--but like that old 60s song Last Kiss.
"She's gone to heaven so I got to be good
So I can see my baby when I leave this world."
Tonight is Christmas Eve, and I don't know how I'm going to make it through tomorrow. I've just returned from our midnight candlelight service at church. As we sang endless Christmas carols, something shattered. When my little candle was lit, it illuminated the dark cave of my life.
I was singing one of Ginny's favorites, and when I couldn't hear Ginny's powerful, but always off-key, voice, my voice became husky. I lost the tune while the tears I'd never shed rolled down my cheeks. I saw our friends from the Sunday School class Ginny and I had attended faithfully for the last twenty-five years. I saw our two children, one on either side of me. Each of their spouses sitting beyond their set of my darling grandchildren. I saw everything except my other half.
My daughter was sitting on my left, my son on my right. Kristin, ever a "daddy's girl" saw me crying first. Reaching behind me she poked her younger brother, and in a stage whisper urged, "We have to get Daddy home, now!"
I was too overcome to protest, but the last thing I wanted was to go back to my empty house. Somehow, the two families hustled me out of the pew and through the church's back door before Silent Night, always the last song, was started.
I had driven my car to our little neighborhood church, but my son-in-law drove me home. Everyone else followed in the other two cars. For the first time I was aware of all the decorated houses with their lawn ornaments. A vain attempt to match the majesty of billions of stars on this clear, cold, moonless night.
When we got to my house, I was shocked. It was decked out in all its Christmas finery. How had I hung those lights? I'd always needed Ginny's help to do them. Where had I found the crèche that Ginny's mother had as a little girl? All the lights on the tree were blinking. I must have spent hours finding burned out bulbs, when had I found the time, or the energy?
I know I'd done it, but the doing was vague, distant. All our married life, my one job was to hang the lights, outside and on the tree. Could I have done all this? I know Ginny had left a detailed list of careful instructions of what I was to do, but getting the house to look as it always did when Ginny decorated, was a fragmented memory, like one from early childhood. The kind where you're never sure if you remember the incident or are remembering an earlier memory, a memory of a memory.
My son supported me with his normal vigor as we walked through the leaded glass front doors into our living room. "The tree is perfect Dad, just the way Mom always decorated it. We all want to stay, but Mom gave us strict orders not to come over until after we celebrated our own family trees in the morning. She said she wanted you to open her gift alone. Kristin and John will bring breakfast for you, Jessie and I will bring the fixings for dinner."
"Dad, are you going to be okay? Mom insisted that we take you to the candlelight service like always, and that we leave you alone tonight, but if you want..."
Reality sucks. I wished I could retreat back into my cocoon, but my bubble had dissolved and I knew I couldn't live there anymore. I interrupted him, "No, I'm going to be fine. I just miss your mother ..." I struggled not to break down. "More than I can say, but I need some time to absorb all this. Don't come too early in the morning. I'll probably stay up a while and sleep in."
He gave me a firm hug and left without another word. I looked around the house. I hadn't been able to remove a single thing of Ginny's, except the medical stuff we needed at the end. If she were to walk in right now, everything would be like she wanted it.
I sat in my recliner, and I looked over at her empty chair. I pictured her there laughing at the absurdity of a TV show. I could smell the Sand and Sable perfume she loved. A grin almost cracked my face. The kids always called it Sand of the Stable and it was her annual gift from both of them as they grew up. A distant part of me noted it was the first time I'd thought of Ginny and didn't want to cry. Oh precious Lord, I miss her so, she made life fun!
I don't want to sound metaphysical, I don't believe in ghosts, but at that instant, I felt a warmth flush my chest. As if my lungs had been bathed in warm water. If it had continued much longer I might have worried about a heart attack, but it lasted only a few seconds and it was gone. I will always believe that it was Ginny's spirit saying she loved me too. It left me at peace. It also left me resolved and terribly fatigued. I was motivated to begin the process of disposing of her things; it had been too long, but not tonight. Tonight I wanted to savor memories and cherish what we had built together.
When I finally went to bed, I must have been asleep before my head hit the pillow and awoke feeling more rested than I could remember being in years. Donning my ratty old robe, I practiced my one culinary art, the only thing I'd been allowed by Ginny to do in HER kitchen. I prepared a mug of Prince of Wales tea. To achieve my masterwork I use two heaping teaspoons of Sugar Raw, a brand of turbinado sugar, and three of half & half. Folks have made fun of my persnicketiness in making tea, but every one always asks for it instead of coffee. One of my private joys had been to fix tea for Ginny every morning for the last fifteen years. I always used a little yellow teapot; it was the perfect size for two cups. This morning, for the first time since she died, I didn't use it. It should have felt odd, but it didn't.
I never eat breakfast. I know, a terrible habit, but I never have more than my tea. I carried my cup into the living room, sat in my chair, and looked at the presents piled under the tree. There was a large heavy box in garish paper that clashed with all the other presents for my kids and their kids. It had arrived yesterday morning via Federal Express overnight service.
There was a card on it in Ginny's distinctive handwriting that said, "To my loving husband." I wasn't surprised that I had a Christmas gift from Ginny six months after she'd died. Ginny was one of those people who did their Christmas shopping early, like at the after-Christmas sales. I was a little surprised that she'd ordered something to be delivered Christmas Eve, but my major surprise was how anxious I was to open it.
I think its arrival yesterday was what caused the first crack in my shield, but my reaction at the time was anger that she was sending me something while I would never be able to buy anything for her again. Now I was excited by her last demonstration of her love for me.
A tingle of fear crept into my excitement. What if this was something Ginny had ordered before she got sick, something that she'd intended both of us to enjoy. Ginny gave me a ton of gifts like that over our twenty-eight years of marriage. For example, one birthday she gave me a cruise for two to Alaska. I'd been stationed up there in my time in the Navy and hated the place. For years I'd told Ginny I wanted a Mediterranean cruise to see all the historical sites of the Roman Empire, Roman history is a hobby of mine. So, her gift to Me was an Alaskan trip that Ginny had dreamed of and hadn't thought we could afford.
Of course she bought my Roman History cruise as my birthday gift to Her a few months later. I enjoyed both cruises, very romantic. That had been two years ago, and if this were something like that, I didn't know if I could stand it.
When I opened it, my false teeth fell out. Well, they would have if I had false teeth. She'd given me an inflatable sex doll. It was the most obscene thing I'd ever seen. I was shocked and I didn't know what to do. The kids knew she'd sent me something, but how could I let them see this--this Thing!
I loved our sex life, but it was very conservative. We did do IT in public once, if you count daybreak behind a sand dune on a deserted beach. If I'd made a list of the ten thousand most likely gifts from Ginny, an inflatable sex doll still wouldn't be on it!
Tucked down in a corner was another card. It had my name printed on it and the notation, "Personal from the manufacturer."
Hoping for some sort of explanation, I opened it with trepidation. Inside was a handwritten note in beautiful calligraphy. The body read:
"Our company advertises these inflatable dolls as gag gifts, so we receive some very odd requests. Many of those we wouldn't honor even if we thought it would be legal to do so. When we received your wife's request, it was so unusual that I thought I'd better check it out. I visited with your wife many times after that first call. I am proud that she considered me a friend. I never met a more inspiring woman. I want you to know that I mourned her passing, I even considered flying in for her funeral. I did send a donation to your church in her name. You should receive the card after New Years Day.
"I also wanted to share, that typical of her, I received an email two days ago reminding me of the shipping date and the instructions. It was only when I was personally preparing this doll for you that I began to worry that you might not get her real messages. I haven't read them, they remain sealed in the envelopes she sent me. However, you won't find them unless you inflate the doll and explore. Your wife had a wonderful sense of humor, and it is my prayer as you inflate her gift to you, that you can laugh about the packaging as much as she did when she planned it for you."
Ginny had a wicked sense of humor, and she always delighted in poking holes in what she called my "pompous tendencies." It's hard to explain just how I felt as I used our canister vacuum cleaner to inflate the sex doll. I almost laughed aloud when it began to take shape. If the wrapping paper was garish, what word could I use for how hideously lurid that doll was? It was a caricature of a parody of a doll. The only thing lifelike was its size.
Ginny, knew me, but I also knew Ginny. I knew where her message would be, but I also know she'd leave me some pithy comments in the other two orifices. I spent a full ninety seconds trying to decide the sequence she planed for me to follow. After triple guessing myself, I checked the doll's bottom, retrieved Ginny's note, opened it and laughed aloud for the first time in since Ginny died. The message, in her handwriting, said:
"In your dreams, my dear husband. Why did I know that the first place you'd check was the place you've never been?"
I moved to the other lower opening and retrieved her second handwritten note.
"This place is what the message is about, not where I want it delivered from. Now stop thinking with your precious little head, use your big head and let's talk."
I smiled at the heart of my special lady. I checked the doll's mouth and got my last message from my wife.
"My darling, I hope you are smiling. I am as I write this. Somehow, I think I'm there with you now, but I don't have to be there to see the expression on your face when you opened my next-to-the-last gift to you. I know you, sweetheart, you've been hiding in your Ol' Bear cave, chasing off everyone who might want to help you. Pulling back from those who love you.
"Well, my darling, it's Christmas morning and it's been long enough. Our kids need you, and our grandkids deserve to know the man I love. I also know that those family jewels I loved are turning a bit blue. I can't bear the thought that for the rest of your life you'll be reduced to using the equivalent of this doll, I've named her Suzy Slut by the way--or what did you call it, Rosy Palm? I can't bear that your love might atrophy to those pale imitations.
"I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, dearest lover, and you're too young to spend the rest of your life as a widower. I looked to see if you might find the next love of your life among the people we know, and I don't think you will. There are some wonderful women, but I don't think you can get past our shared history to completely give yourself to them. That's what I want, I want you to give yourself to your next wife as completely as you gave yourself to me. I don't want you to hold any part back. I believe Jesus when he said that heaven won't be like earth and there isn't marriage there. That means you need to give your body and your heart to your new love. Where I am now, I promise I don't need it. Nothing will ever replace what we had, and you will never have a love like ours. We raised a family and we grew up together. No one else can do that with you. But that was then, and this is now. I want you to create a new, and I pray, an even better love.
"I won't be there to grow old with you and I can't stand the thought of you growing old alone and bitter. So, as my last gift to you, I'm giving you a dating service. I checked out several and even looked at the sort of responses you can expect. I picked the best and paid the fees. I've filled out the personality profile for you. After all, I know you better than you know yourself, I'm less modest too. I've talked to both our kids and they support what I'm doing. The studies all say that the better the marriage the shorter the time before you re-marry. We had the best marriage in history. So you've mourned me long enough! New Years Day is a time of new beginnings, and I want you to send answers to at least five women who have responded to your profile, on New Years Day... you can miss those bowl games, because I know that our Longhorns will be in the BCS Championship this year. Dearest Husband, I know you don't want to do this, but I want you to know that one of the things that is making my leaving you easier is knowing that I found a good way for you to live on. I know you won't spoil my peace.
Live and love fully, heart of my heart, with my blessing.
"Oh, PS, there were a couple ladies I emailed that I really liked who said they were going to wait for you. There was one that seemed perfect to me. If she did, and you marry her, you'll know that I couldn't have picked better myself. Now get that doll out of sight before the kids get here, I don't think we want to share our sex life with them--We don't want them to get jealous!"