It came on all of a sudden, like a summer thunderstorm. We had been talking at dinner about friends and family, and family of friends, who had passed on recently, and my wife became teary-eyed.
“You just never know when you’re going to lose someone,” she said as her face clouded over with foreboding. “If you died . . .”
“You mean when I die . . .”
“I was going to say, if you died soon . . . I wouldn’t know what to put in your obituary. You’ve done so many . . .”
She choked up, and couldn’t speak.
“Trivial things?” I offered helpfully.
“I was going to say ‘stupid,’ but yes, maybe ‘trivial’ is a better word.” She had that stoic demeanor of an ancient female relation in a tale by Faulkner. She would not just endure, but prevail against the forces that threatened to snatch me away from her at any minute–a light beer truck driven by a texting Teamster, for example.
Her concern was timely. A week earlier I’d fallen in a hole in the pavement next to the Surface Artery, the high-speed boulevard I must cross on my way to work, and tumbled into the road, so we’d had a recent intimation of my mortality. “You’ve mentioned a riderless horse before . . .” she said as her voice trailed off.
“I was kidding, sweetie,” I said as I patted her hand. She was too young to remember the poignant touch that this symbolic animal lent to the funeral of President Kennedy, but I recalled it vividly. I’d long ago decided that it was over-the-top, de trop as the French would say, right after they corrected me for thinking that “cheveux”–which means “hair”–is the French word for “horse.”
“I don’t need a riderless horse,” I said. “Times have changed. I was thinking more along the lines of a driverless car.”
“Like Google is making?”
“Well, that would remind me of the way you drive,” she said, as she stifled a sniffle.
“I don’t think it will be hard for you to write my obit. I’ve already done a lot of the spadework.”
“Yep. Surely you’ve read my autobiography–‘So Far, So Good’?”
A look of chagrin scuddered over her face, like the shadow of a low-hanging cloud as it blows by above you. “Actually, no,” she admitted. “When did you write it?”
“Fifth grade. I got an A+ on it. It’s considered a classic of the genre.”
“What genre is that?”
“The youthful autobiography. Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves. Stop Time by Frank Conroy. Justin Bieber: First Step 2 Forever: My Story.”
“Why does he get to have two colons in his title?”
“He’s The Bieb.”
She rubbed her finger under her nose, and I handed her my napkin. She’d already used hers, but I wipe my hands on my pants, so mine was clean. “I didn’t know you’d written an autobiography. But what about . . . ”
“The later stuff?”
“I’m not sure I’ve actually accomplished that much since then. Remember, I was a two-time spelling bee champ, earning a perfect score both times.”
“That’s why I don’t need a dictionary with you around,” she said, as she took a turn patting my hand.
“I’d become the first class president in my little Catholic school from a mixed marriage . . .”
“Sort of. My mom’s Protestant.”
“And yet, you never hear about that on the news. So after that . . .”
“Well, I was a member of a prize-winning polka troupe in sixth grade . . .”
She began to choke up again. “Who . . . who was your partner?”
“Carolyn Spretzel. But I’m not in touch with her anymore.”
“Not even on Facebook?”
I placed both hands on the table so she could see I hadn’t crossed any fingers. “I promise.” I did what I always do when I want to comfort her: I got down on my knees, scooched over to where she was sitting, and gave her a big, wet, warm, sloppy kiss. Husband as golden retriever.
“How about your memorial service. I know you want a traditional New Orleans band, right?”
“Correct. ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee’ to the cemetery, ‘Didn’t He Ramble’ coming back.”
She looked off into the distance. I could tell she was calculating in her mind how the mounting cost of my obsequies was going to cut into her merry widowhood, and I’m not talking about the bustier. I mean her decorating budget, once I was gone and could no longer stand athwart the entrance to the living room, yelling “Stop!” when she tried to put up new window treatments.
“How about poems,” she said finally. “I know you love poetry . . .”
“But you hate it.”
“I only hate it when I don’t understand it.”
“Don’t worry–I wouldn’t make you read any Wallace Stevens.”
“According to Robert Frost, The Poet of Bric-a-Brac.”
“Like your mother used to have on that knick-knack shelf in her dining room?”
“Right–the one I crashed pretending to be Wile E. Coyote clinging to a ledge one night.”
“Why were you doing that?”
“I was young and stupid. And animated by the spirit of a Warner Brothers cartoon character.”
“Okay,” she said, apparently forgiving me for a misdeed that my mother–now gone–couldn’t. “So what poem would you like?”
“‘The Lotos-eaters’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.”
“Why does he have a comma in the middle of his name?”
“I don’t know. I guess he was a big star in his time, like The Bieb.”
“How does it go?”
“You don’t have to read the whole thing, just these lines:
Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives
And their warm tears: but all hath suffer’d change:
For surely now our household hearths are cold,
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.
Or else the island princes over-bold
Have eat our substance, and the minstrel sings
Before them of the ten years’ war in Troy,
And our great deeds, as half forgotten things.
I waited a moment for the sound of the last words to die away. “Do you like it?” I asked at last.
“It’s okay,” she said, and now her tears were dry. “Just don’t come like a ghost to trouble my joy when I’m having my girlfriends over.”