- Death & Loss of Life
MAY I HAVE THIS LAST DANCE?
I first published this short story in 1998 in honor of Roberta. We were married for almost twenty seven years when she passed away on June 18, 1998. It doesn't seem that long ago. The story was my way of living through my grief that first Christmas without her. There are so many of us in the hubpages' community going through relationship changes and losses, that I thought it might be healing for me and perhaps for others to take this short story out of the archives and share it. Enjoy and let your tears cleanse your heart.
A CHRISTMAS STORY
Some times we dance with unexpected partners. For him, it was the intimate memories of waking up with her on a cold Christmas morning, having her warm body snuggle up to his butt, and feeling her fingers playing itsy-bitsy spider on his compass as it pointed due north. Till now, such memories were choreographed as a gentle duet of tears and smiles. But would this harmony melt into a dissonant solo of pure pain come the actual day of his first Christmas without her? How would dancing with reality differ from the ballet of memories? Every move would have to be carefully decided and walked through ahead of time, even something so customary as going to Midnight Mass.
He glanced at his watch. He was delighted that he had decided to attend the traditional Midnight service and equally pleased that Father Joe had invited him to this small gathering afterwards. Captured like toys in a Christmas stocking, they huddled around the rectory fireplace, spinning Christmas yarn while sipping hot cocoa and cider. Mostly, they listened to Father Joe, a man surely chosen by God to be a story teller. His ecclesiastical anecdotes were the best. At least he thought so. And as many times as Father Joe had retold the story about the old sacristan John Guthrie, in truth, it was a good story and deserved to be recounted at least on Christmas Eve.
No one had ever seen Old John Guthrie stand or kneel. He always just sat through the entire Mass. So no one knew till The Lord’s Prayer, when Elizabeth, a middle-aged single mother of three, reached for John’s now cold stiff hand. She screamed and then slumped herself. “She’s never attended a Midnight service since,” Father Joe laughed. “We called the paramedics for her and the morgue for John.” And just like a good storyteller, Father Joe repeated the punch line several more times, “ . . . the paramedics for her and the morgue for John, God bless him.”
Then there was Father Joe’s all time favorite. In order to do the story justice, he struck a pose and pretended to be the Bishop. Father Joe’s eyes danced gleefully as he described the scene from ten Christmases ago. The Bishop stood tall, bedecked with miter and crosier, his right hand raised for the final blessing. A twenty-foot Christmas tree slowly and persuasively fell like a fainting soldier, knocking off the Bishop’s miter, covering him with pieces of broken ornaments, tinsel, and a string of still flashing lights which conveniently ringed the Bishop’s bald head like a monk’s tonsure.
He had heard Father Joe’s stories a hundred times, but even so, he continued to laugh at the hilarious sight of the Bishop stoically entangled in the fallen tree as if just another ornament. The laughter was healing. The whole evening had been healing.
Now, the inevitable was happening. It was time to leave, to go home. Ironically, as safe as Father Joe’s abode was, there was no room there for his grief. He knew he had to fight back his tears as he hugged Father Joe goodbye and wished him Merry Christmas. How can that be? he asked himself. And how does it happen? A man with a thousand tales and a million laughs, but no welcome mat for the precious stones of grief? Father Joe could pat you on the back and reassure you that in time it would all be better. He was quick to help you pick up the precious stones when they spilled out of the bag, but he had no interest in holding them up to the light. Well, of course, Father Joe’s a storyteller, not a jeweler, he reminded himself with a chuckle.
A small charge ran through his body as he walked to his car at the same time as Mary, a woman about his own age. In a barren fantasy, Mary hugged him and whispered in his ear, “How about coming to my house. It’s early yet!” In real time, they wished each other Merry Christmas and drove their separate ways.
Oh, if only the midnight service and the gathering afterwards could have lasted till dawn! For a moment, he considered driving until the sun came up. Where would I be in four hours? he thought to himself. Too far to have to turn around and come back, he affirmed.
It was a cold morning, as Christmas morning is meant to be. The heater blew warm air against his face and chest as he drove with the moon roof open so he could glimpse at the silent humming of the midnight sky. It was absolutely brilliant–electric. Even the most-distant stars managed to protrude through the vastness of time. The constellations were like fluorescent confetti scattered and pasted to the unfathomable blackness with Jupiter and Venus taking up their positions as trumpeters.
Driving up Singleton Road toward the mountains, he could smell the lingering smoke trails–the last vestiges of the final remains of yule logs–suspended above the small settlement of houses whose decorative lights cascaded down the foothills like strings of beads. He rounded the corner and saw his own house. There were no chasing lights as in years past. The porch light was lit, but the windows were dark. It would be cold inside. And empty.
He drove slowly into the driveway. He was not expecting to feel her presence, but there it was–gently gliding over and around his skin like a breeze. It was a familiar sensation, one he had experienced frequently over the last six months. But there was also something a little different this time. The difference was both scary and tantalizing. The goose bumps multiplied.
Yet he contained himself and proceeded slowly into the garage. He would not allow himself to jump from the car and run inside to check out what seemed not only to be a sense of her presence but a sense of her. He took his time, walking methodically, and slowly unlocking first the screen and then the door.
Like the warm smell of fresh pastries, her presence seemed to fill each room. Despite his best efforts, he reached the point of no return and began to cry. He moved quickly now to their bedroom door which he had left closed to keep out Puss, who was now rubbing against him and mournfully meowing. He stood at the door hesitantly and finally entered.
The room was black. There were no stars on the ceiling. The hallway light gradually streamed in, illuminating a painting above the bed with the words, Now Is Beautiful With You. She had painted it herself, and had given it to him as a birthday gift many years before. As the light grew stronger, he could see an outline of someone or something on her side of the bed. At first, he dismissed it as a pile of clothes, but the figure stirred. He could hear the sheets moving as if someone was rolling over. He shivered with fear. He had never wanted to see her ghost.
“Merry Christmas, Love,” she whispered in that sexy voice of hers. It was still too dark to see a face. He was beginning to lose his breath. He was tempted to run, but a rush of yearning calmed him and held him there. He let out a loud burst of tears and reached for the light switch, but she warned him, “Don’t turn on the light. Just crawl in next to me.”
He hesitated only for a moment. Excitement filled his body. He slipped out of his shoes and jumped into the bed and pulled her close to his body. He kissed her hair, her forehead, her cheeks, her mouth, her neck. He ran his hands down around and over her breasts. He was delighted when he felt her nipples harden. He continued to feel his way down to her thighs. He ran his fingers through her curly hair and delighted again at the presence of that sweet dew between her lips. There was a moment of indecision when his saner self began to question: What are you doing? He paid no attention and rolled on top of her. He buried his head between her breasts and sobbed. She held him tightly and comforted him. He heard the cat meowing, and then felt her bound onto the bed, the forbidden zone. Neither of them scolded her nor shooed her away. Puss lay there purring indulgently like a sphinx.
The two began moving this way and that until they found their familiar cuddle position with her head on his chest. He ran his fingers up and down her body, sometimes poking at her to see if she was real.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“You want me to leave?” she teased.
“Absolutely not. I was just curious.”
“I’m here a lot.”
“I know, I sense that every day. Sometimes, I think I even feel you touching me, but this is really different. I’ve never been able to touch you and feel you.” He paused. Silliness and playfulness overtook him. He whispered, “Did they kick you out?”
They both laughed.
“Yes! They sent me back here to live with you again. They said you were having too much fun by yourself! Is that true?”
“You still know how to get to me,” he grinned. “I am having fun, but it’s certainly not ‘without you.’ I miss you. I miss you more than I ever imagined.” And a wave of tears and mournful howling surged from deep inside the caves of his soul.
She pulled him close to comfort him. She whispered in his ear with that tone of disbelief, “You really do miss me, don’t you?”
“Ah, ah,” he managed to rib amidst his swirling grief. “So this is for you as much as it is for me. Some lesson about your own loveableness?” He tickled her bellybutton, a place completely off limits.
She grabbed his hand. “You just never let up, do you?” And she smiled and held him tightly.
“When can I turn on the light? I want to look at you!”
“Don’t turn on the lights,” she was adamant. “I don’t know why I know this, but if you turn on the lights, I don’t think you will be able to see me.”
“You’re kidding me?”
“No, I’m dead serious!”
He started to laugh, but caught himself.
“It’s okay, it is funny. I am dead serious.” She laughed, and he hesitantly laughed with her.
“So how do I get to look at you?”
“Light a fire in the fireplace.”
“Yes!” There was an urgency in her voice. “Light a fire!”
The small flame from the match grew and quickly spread. Tending the now crackling fire, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, her image approaching, almost floating toward him. He turned and gazed at her. She was wearing a white lace gown that was almost transparent. She was tall and slender as she was when they first met. He could see the outline of her breasts. He could see the dark-shaded triangle of hair just below her waistline. Her legs were long. Her back straight. Her feet were small. And her toes. He grinned. Her toes, still crooked. As she moved closer, he could see the outline of her face. He could see the reflection of the fire in her eyes. He continued to stare, searching for her nose and her lips. She then knelt down on the floor in front of him. He reached out and gently felt the skin on her face. She was alive, and he could see and touch all of her facial features.
“You look just like you do in that picture. . . .” He could not finish the sentence. An awful awareness jolted him. He chocked and tears rolled down his cheeks. He cried loudly. “I’m going to have to say good bye to you again, aren’t I.”
She did not answer him. She continued to kneel there motionless. Then she smiled and reached out with her palms and cupped his face. “Ah, my prince charming!”
He burst again with loud sobs. She wrapped her arms around him the way a mother holds her child. They rocked back and forth against the growing warmth of the fire. She held him so tightly that he could barely breathe, but he did not complain. He managed to wiggle out the question, “How’s your back?”
“It’s great–it doesn’t hurt anymore. I have no pain–anywhere!” She relaxed her arms and leaned backwards a bit so she could study his eyes. “I’ve always loved looking into your eyes.”
He did not respond to her enamored scrutiny, but talked instead of his own curiosity with her presence. “I thought when I lay on top of you that I might just go through to the mattress and sadly wake up, but your body seems real.”
“Of course, it’s real. And I’m real,” she grinned.
They were sitting now, facing each other, legs intertwined, knees touching, eyes exploring.
“So what’s it like?” he asked.
She peered at him. She seemed to be puzzled. She ran her fingers around his chin and around his lips. She inserted one of her fingers into his mouth, and he sucked on it. She giggled. “The words. I don’t know the words to tell you what it is like. I think I speak another language there. If we were there, I could tell you.” She smiled. “I don’t know how to tell you. I don’t even know if it is a place. What I can tell you is that I see you all the time, and I get some sense that you are always looking at me. It’s comforting to know that we are still connected somehow.”
“Wow, so you don’t know if it is a place.” He paused. “I look at your picture a lot. And right now, you look just as you do in that picture.”
“Let me see the picture,” she insisted.
He jumped up and put his hand out to her. She responded and followed him into the bedroom.
“So, I can’t turn on the light?” he asked.
“No, silly.” she laughed. “Like I said, I don’t know why. I just know if you do, you will not be able to see me.”
He took the photograph from its place on the old streamer trunk that filled the space against the wall next to the large walk-in closet. He took her by the hand again and returned to their spot in front of the fireplace.
She looked at the picture and beamed, “So I look like this?”
“Yes, exactly like that.”
“There are no mirrors on the other side. I don’t see myself anymore.”
She laughed, “Yes, really! How come you say really to almost every thing I say?”
“Really?” he teased.
She laughed and reached around to pinch his butt. He took the picture from her hands and leaned it against the rock hearth. “So while you’re here, you can see how beautiful you are.” He opened his arms wide. He was irresistible to her. She scooted forward. They wrapped their arms around each other, basking and holding each other, desperate for this moment to stand still.
He gently pulled back just enough to look at her again. He whispered, “So why are you here?”
“I don’t really know. I just stepped across somehow and I was here. And when I looked back, everyone was smiling at me and nodding that it was okay. They assured me that they would bring me back when it was time.”
“And when is that time?”
“I don’t know. It seems to me that it’s not a long time, maybe a second, a long second.”
“It’s right now, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. It is right now.”
She noticed a familiar look on his face, the one that says he has something up his sleeve. “What is it?” she asked.
“I want to put on some music.”
“Please do,” she encouraged. She watched him press a thousand buttons on the CD player and listened expectantly. She quickly recognized the melody of the flute. “Ah, my favorite, Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella.”
“Yes, our favorite Christmas Carol. And it’s going to play over and over again, all night long–forever!” He moved toward her with his hand extended. “May I have this last dance with you?” Tears filled his eyes. “I know I am not going to see you again–until . . .” The sadness welled up and strangled the remainder of his sentence.
She did not say a word, but accepted his invitation. They waltzed about the room gracefully. As the violins moved in behind the gentle flute, their feet seemed to rise above the floor. For a second, he thought they were dancing above the house. He thought he saw streaks of light flashing around him. He gazed at her. She recognized the disbelief in his eyes and forehead. She leaned forward and kissed him.
“You see me now and I love you now,” she whispered.
He returned the kiss and whispered, “I see you now and I love you now.”
He drew her close so their foreheads were touching. Then he put his head on her shoulder, closed his eyes, and together, they moved with the rhythm of the old French Carol, Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella.
The red glow on the inside of his eyelids told him that the sun was sneaking through the vertical blinds. It was Christmas morning.
He did not want to open his eyes. He could still feel her presence, but he knew that she had returned to where ever it is. “I love you,” he whispered out loud. He waited and waited, and of course, she did not whisper back.
When he had felt someone touching him during these last six months, he would always doubt his senses, even though he simultaneously relished in the comfort that maybe it was her. The skeptic inside would point out that it was probably just the way he was walking or moving or the way the shirt was hanging that produced the sensation. But it was happening again now as he lay in front of the fireplace where a few hours before they had danced forever.
He remembered lying down next to her, making love to her which felt different from ever before, and falling fast asleep, their beings intertwined like the falling glowing remnants of fireworks. He vaguely remembered dreams of the two of them laughing and running through meadows of wild daisies. And flying! He continued to lie perfectly still, feeling that familiar sensation on his back. Goose bumps covered the nape of his neck. He smiled. He opened his eyes and looked at her photograph which was still leaning against the hearth right where he had placed it. Those loud sobs from deep within the caverns of his being erupted uncontrollably. Puss meowed and began nudging her wet nose into the souls of his feet and licking his toes. He became aware for the first time since awakening that Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella was still playing just as he had promised.
He did not know what to make of her visit. He did not know who to tell or if he would tell anyone. What he did know is that it was Christmas morning. And that it was now.
He rose to his feet, bowed to her picture, extended his hand, paused, and then began to dance. It was obviously not the same as having her next to him, or was it? As happened so many times in recent months, the grief shouted out in loud sobs as he twirled about the room and gracefully kept time to Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella. “Now is beautiful with you,” he whispered.
He waited and hoped. He strained to hear even the faintest reply. And in the loud echoing silence of her whisper, he vowed never to forget the now of this day or any other.
Like a rose, so pure, so lovely...hush, hush, sweet is the sleep...Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella! Bring a torch to the cradle run.... He danced on.