My wife, Judy, and I moved back to New Jersey with relief. Earlier in 2008, we had returned to Connecticut from a year of raising a new-born grandson in Cambridge, Mass., sold our home and decided to rejoin our son’s family in Jersey. We swore this was the last time we were moving. We were both tired of relocating and excited about settling into our final home.
After a day of cleaning house in February 2014, Judy complained uncharacteristically of being tired and in pain. Half an hour later, a heart attack took her out of my life. My attempts at CPR while simultaneously talking with paramedics on the phone had been useless. All my life I’d believed everything was possible, but I ran headlong into a roadblock when her body refused to respond. It was the end of a 46-year marriage in which “she” and “I” had become “we.”
It had been a successful marriage of opposites: She was a hard-working Taiwanese and I’d grown up in a comfortable middle-class American household. I was a college grad and she had no more than an elementary school education. She’d been raised as a Buddhist and I was the son and grandson of Christian ministers.
Eighty-five friends and family attended her funeral service, and then time stopped for me. It hit me that when a person goes missing from your life, the entire world is empty.
George Eliot wrote in The World Before Us, “Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” But knowing that doesn’t ease the grief or lessen the loneliness even when surrounded by crowds.
The months since then have been long and difficult, costly in terms of burial arrangements and mental turmoil, and unusually quiet with just half the household noise and even less conversational chatter. I’d never before noticed how loud a light switch or clock can be in the silence.
Slowly, as I go through her things and select clothes that will be given to charity, I’m uncovering the bits and pieces of her life that I wasn’t aware of. I found loose change in the pockets of her jackets hanging in her half of the closet. I uncovered clothes, purses and scarves with store tags attached or still in their boxes. These were her anticipated holiday and birthday gifts. And there were shoeboxes with our children’s greeting cards from years ago.
Tucked in her bedside table were half a dozen hung bau, little red envelopes the Chinese use to give children money on the Lunar New Year, each containing a $20 bill. They were all to be gifts in case a child or older person came to our house or was celebrating an event. Judy was a great gift-giver, with protocols and propriety. No birthday or anniversary was ever missed in our extended family.
We took Judy home to Massachusetts for burial in the cemetery where she now rests with my parents, brothers, grandparents and great-grandmother. Although she was born in Taiwan, she had adopted New England as much as my forebears had.
And then a curious thing happened in that Northfield cemetery overlooking the Connecticut River. Following the interment service, the pastor came up to me and said, “While you were delivering your eulogy this leaf fell on your shoulder.” She held out a red maple leaf.
I seized on this as an omen, a sign that Judy was listening and perhaps death is not the finality it appears to be. I’ve saved the leaf as a keepsake.
And now I have much more to think about than the things she left behind.
Walt bounces between writing genres, from mystery to humor, speculative fiction to romance. His work has appeared in print and online in over a score of publications. He served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies, helped publicize the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and moderates a writing group in New Jersey. He’s also bounced from Fortune 500 firms to university posts, and from homes in eight states and to a couple of Asian countries.