I've tried to tell this story before. I've come close, but I've never been able to find the right words.
I've decided I will never have the right words. Death defies explanation. Death defies exposition or flowery prose.
So let me tell you how I wound up in hell, and how I emerged with my shoes still smoking, ready to fight.
She was my wife.
She had this unapologetic, booming laughter. To this day I swear on all that is good in this world that I can hear that laugh in the halls of this house.
She couldn't stay in one room for more than a few minutes unless she was watching a really great movie or reading a really good book.
She loved art. And life.
She was my wife.
And throughout all our fights and good nights and struggles and triumphs she was always my one and only. My wife.
She gave me my boys.
They mostly look like her. Around the eyes, I think.
Plus my youngest has that same zest for life and the finer things. I can see so much of her inside his soul that I sometimes burst into tears just looking at him. He's strong and proud and unapologetic like her, too.
When my sons were almost out of elementary school something changed, albeit slowly.
I would find her crying in our bed. She wouldn't say why. Then she would get angry when I pressed her. The bouts of crying became more intense, something else, some one else. Her face would contort and change and she would shriek and make horrible noises.
It wasn't until she began to scare the boys that I demanded that she get help. She almost jumped at me in her rage.
"You don't KNOW, Rick!" she screamed at me one hot night in July. Sweat was standing on her brow and she was trying much too hard to breathe. "You don't KNOW how this feels! Those KIDS don't know how this feels!"
"No," I said, almost whispered. I remember whispering because I could hardly find my voice. This was a different woman. This wasn't my wife. "I don't. But for your health and the health of our boys you have got to make me understand."
Then she said something that made me sink to my knees in panic. "It's like having to make myself get out of bed! Mostly I just want to be rid of this--of myself! I want to die! I just want to fucking DIE!"
I cried with her. For her. Images flashed into my mind from happier times when we first moved in together. Us laughing together. Laughing at the ravages of a world that had yet to touch us.
That night is burned into my mind, into the back of my fucking eyes.
My boys and I moved into a shitty little apartment in the same town. I took a lot of time off my shitty job to make sure she got help.
Medicines came next.
A hiatus from her job after that.
Nerve medication for me, because I was having trouble coping with that was happening. My boys were still hungry, and my wife was falling apart, and my job (at this point) was paying me just enough to put food in my son's bellies and provide a roof.
Some nights I went hungry.
It was better that way, I think.
I wasn't in the mood for food, in any case.
We spent two years in that circle of hell.
Finally we began to realize that our marriage had ended that night when she almost collapsed on the bed in her depression and panic. So we filed for divorce. It was civil, almost business-like. I guess I hated that more than a knock-down drag-out, in some ways.
A half a year after our divorce I got a union job on a linen route. Good job. Good pay. I loved doing it, and I loved the people I worked with. I moved out of that little apartment and started my life, and the lives of my boys anew. They now had a yard and a dog to play with. They were about to start high school.
I hadn't heard from my ex-wife since I started the job.
Out of the blue she called me.
She sounded happy. She sounded centered. She sounded like she was finally, finally healing.
"I'm working better, and starting to feel better. I'm being more myself again."
I almost burst into tears. "So..."
"I'm on a number of drugs, and I've got a new therapist now. It's time to stop crying over us, crying over myself and who and what I am. It's time to identify, combat, and adapt, as my therapist would say."
That did it. I started crying.
Then she laughed. It was her! That laugh, strong, so essentially her.
"Stop crying over it, Rick. I'm healing. It's taken more strength than I knew I had, but I'm healing."
So she came to see us. She was alight with life again. She was there again. In her battles with depression and anxiety, she had been crippled, at times bed-ridden. Now she had thrown the crutches aside. She was free.
She saw her boys and loved them. They even stayed with her a few nights out of every week.
It seemed the world had tilted back on its rightful axis. The previous two and a half years seemed like a distant nightmare from which we had all just awakened.
Then it changed. We were hurled back into hell, one more time.
It was cancer. Aggressive, strong, painful.
It ate a hole in our lives. And it ate the light from her eyes.
God damn it! The pain had just ended, she had fought the battle of her life, and here was another battle, another battle for her life.
When she told me I didn't know what to say. I went back to my old hell-fetal-position standby. The nerve pills. The beer. The endless nights staying awake until three, only to have to rise at five to get in my truck and head off to work.
She was strong and defiant, even to the end. The endless treatments, failures, and the pain and anguish on her face were not enough to send her to death without one final laugh.
I walked into the hospital room. She was bone-thin, weary, clearly in pain. I stopped at the door, the usual visit at the usual time. This time, though, I could almost feel the air sucking out of me as I saw how horrible she looked.
And she laughed. A big, booming laugh that startled me into backing up into an orderly that was there to bring her supper. I bumped him, the tray went right into his uniform, and he fell backwards on his ass.
The laugh redoubled, infectious to the point to where both the orderly and I were both laughing hysterically.
"I'm dying, and you're the klutz that can't keep his feet!" she howled.
She...she was dead three weeks later.
After the funeral the boys and I muddled through a life devoid of color and meaning. We ate because we had to. I worked because I had to. The boys went to school because they had to.
I just kept feeling so goddamned AWFUL! Why? She had just beaten back severe depression. She had got to spend all of a year back to normal. I was angry. Angry at the whole. fucking. system.
It went like that until one afternoon after supper I heard my boys laughing hysterically in my oldest's room. I went in to see what the ruckus was all about. They were sitting on the bed, leafing through an old photo album.
Remembering. Laughing. Laughing like she used to laugh.
I guess that was the moment I started the long process of healing. I walked away because I wasn't ready to look at pictures and laugh yet. But I knew that because those boys were laughing and remembering, she was alive.
And her soul was laughing.