From the author: Helen is a psychiatrist, grieving the loss of her husband. But when she finds his skeleton in a sinkhole in her back yard, the grief becomes complicated, and things that once made sense, stop making sense entirely.
I once thought that the dead stayed dead, and the grieving stayed grieving. That my husband Alex would be in the ground forever, rotting down to his to bones. That I would mourn him until I joined him in the plot we picked out fifteen years ago when we were both healthy and death was just a joke. I thought that until this morning, at least. I thought that until Alex actually came back to me, for good.
I found him in our back yard. In the sinkhole he swore he’d fill before he died.
Alex swore he'd fill that sinkhole for months, all while it continued to grow deeper and wider. And in the ten months since his death, it had grown deeper and wider still. It was a late spring Sunday, which meant taking my coffee and cigarette by the trees now taking up the backyard. It meant standing in the shade, bedheadded and bleary eyed. It meant not caring what the neighbors thought. It meant breathing smoke at that sinkhole, wishing it away, obscuring it, for a moment, until I saw it.
There was something in that sinkhole. Something white in all that green grass and decaying leaves. Something that looked like leftover snow. In June.
It was Alex’s skull. I'd know those cheekbones anywhere.
I usually turned down Jude's habitual offer of an 8:15 Keurig for my lunchtime double espresso, but this time I needed it. I could see in Jude’s quiet, analytical gaze that she knew I needed it, too.
"That'd be good," I said.
"I'll bring it to you in your office,” she said. “Strong, right? You like it strong."
"As strong as you can get it,” I said.
Jude’s instincts had turned on me once Alex died. Her innate kindness plus social worker training had both focused intently on me since Alex’s diagnosis (but only in-between clients). She was constantly offering me coffee, changing the thermostat when she noticed my slightest shiver, and inviting me out to dinner on Friday nights. Normally, I found her attention annoying. But it was welcome this morning.
The morning after finding Alex’s skeleton.
I spent all of yesterday assembling Alex: clearing off my old workbench, finding a clean blanket, carefully drilling holes in his bones, and then wiring him together with leftover chicken coop supplies. I was in the garage long after sunset. Long after the cricketsong had drowned out all my own thoughts. Long after my concentration waned and I managed to lose the last two joints of Alex's right pinky finger.
I tried to slough that fatigue and those memories as I sat down at my cheap plyboard desk and grabbed the day’s schedule. But the fatigue was still there in the weight of my arms as they took my planner from my desk. The memories remained as I felt my own fully-present fingers gripping the pebbled faux-leather.
I opened it to the week: Two patients before lunch. Pharmaceutical rep after lunch. Then lunch--two hours for that. Three patients after lunch. Then two more pharmaceutical reps. Then paperwork. Then home.
A full day. Exactly what I didn’t need.
Jude knocked on the doorframe, one the office’s cobalt-blue coffee mugs in-hand. Cobalt-blue was the main color in Jude's repertoire. It was in her wardrobe, in her office, even her car was cobalt-blue. Her voice even was even as calm as the color, making her soothing to listen to (even if a little soporific). No wonder she could afford the rent here.
"Here it is," she said, setting the mug on my desk. "Hey, did you ever call that therapist we talked about?"
"I don't want to see one of your friends, Jude."
"I promise we don't talk about our clients," she said.
I highly doubted that. Jude and I talked about her clients all the time.
"I just think you’re really struggling with Alex." She stopped, her fingers worrying the door frame. "It might help to talk to someone about that. Even maybe just a friend."
Jude and I both knew that right now she was my only friend. She was the only person I saw anymore, outside of patients and pharmaceutical reps. Jude had her own friends: she went to book club on the first Saturday of the month, went to a wine-thing on Wednesdays with other women our age, and had a fortnightly lesbian ballroom dance thing on Saturdays. I knew this. She knew that I knew this. But she, as always, didn’t hold it over me. She just looked down at me with her cobalt-blue composure, as cool and calm as Lake Michigan.
"You know, I see a therapist," she said.
"I know,” I said.
"Lots of psychiatrists see therapists, Helen. People like us are the worst at taking care of ourselves; we always put others first. We tend to think we're failures if we put ourselves first. I promise, Helen, seeing a therapist doesn't make you a failure. Think about it, okay?"
"I will." But I didn’t mean it.
"Promise?" Jude asked.
I nodded and picked up my phone receiver. I wanted to be alone. No, that wasn’t true--I wanted to be with Alex. Jude continued to stand there, fingers still worrying the door frame, waiting for me to do something. So, I started dialing Alex’s old cell phone number. Only then did she leave. I knew she was worried about me. But I was fine. I was only grieving.
End of story.
In the two months before Alex died, I redid the landscaping. He wasn’t talking much then, mostly sleeping in the hospital bed in the living room while hospice workers hovered around him all day and I drunkenly played his favorite Italian pop songs at night. He’d stir while I fumbled around on the piano. I told myself it was because he liked it, not because I was crying too much to see the keys.
In the hospital, when we got the news, when he was more communicative, Alex said to me, “Bury me in a forest, Helen. Not in one of those damn sterile cemeteries. Don’t burn me, don’t scatter me. Let me feed the trees.”
So, while the hospice workers hovered around Alex, checking his vitals and monitoring his pain, I dug fifteen holes. I had fifteen trees brought in from the local nursery. The neighbors gave me a talking to, but I planted them anyway. “Those aren’t native,” said the woman with the screaming children and the trampoline. “They don’t belong in Illinois.” “Great,” said the middle-aged man on the other side, “Thanks for the extra yardwork.”
I didn’t care. I kept digging. My short, clipped nails becoming black, the lines of my hands, the wrinkles of my eyes filling with the dug soil. This was as close as I would get to Alex, in a few days, I told myself.
As close as I was going to get.
Thirty-eight hours after finding Alex’s skull (and eight hours after Jude’s Keurig coffee) I brought Alex into the house and sat him down at the kitchen table while I made dinner. Just spaghetti and marinara sauce from a jar. Nothing fancy. Nothing like Alex used to make before he got sick; before he died. He used to make hummus wraps with vegetables from our garden. Tofu ramen with bok choy and the worst use of chopsticks. Marinated seitan steaks. Alex could have been an actual chef, but not me. I could barely even cook.
I put the pot of water on to boil, and then sat down across from Alex and lit a cigarette. He sat in his old chair; I sat in mine. I stared at his eyes. They used to be brown, deep brown, so deep brown I could get lost in them. They were black now. Deep black. I could still get lost in them. While I stared at Alex, smoking, he stared right back at me, smiling. Like he missed looking at me, too.
"Hey Goober," I said.
He sat there, slouching like he always did. Smiling with all his teeth, like he always did.
"You look cold, are you cold?"
When Alex started getting sick, before we knew he was sick, he was always cold. All the time. We started keeping old, stained, holy cardigans in the closet so he could layer-up. I left my cigarette to smolder in the ashtray and grabbed one for him now, gently cupping his finger joints in my own fingers, leading them through each sleeve. I was careful. I was gentle. Gentler than I ever was with Alex when he was alive. He was more fragile now; lighter; less substantial; less whole. This last part I had to remind myself as I held the knotted wire where the last two joints of his pinky should have been.
This was not Alex. Alex was dead.
The water came to a rolling boil as I placed the cardigan on Alex’s shoulders. The boil became angry when I put his favorite baseball cap on his head: a faded blue one with a fraying United Federation of Planets logo on the front.
"There," I told him. "Much better."
He smiled across the table, looking more relieved. He was slumping in his seat, the way he always did, hands reaching across the table, the way they always had; taking up space, the way liked to. I didn’t want my dinner anymore, which was typical. Instead, I noticed that the cardigan would need airing out. The whole room was crowded with the heavy smell of mothballs and ash.
The next morning, I crept past Jude's office and into my own before she could catch me. I had two early patients; I didn't want to be bothered by Jude’s well-meaning questions or her concerned cobalt-blue gaze. The patients went by as-expected. My 8:00 needed an extension to her FMLA paperwork signed, so I signed it. Then my 8:15 cancelled (as usual); more car trouble.
So, I walked to our shared waiting room, where Jude was currently sitting, paging through (but not reading) a four-month-old copy of Peoplemagazine.
"Cancellation?" she asked, her eyes on me, not on the magazine. "Me too. Come, sit. Pull up an Us Weekly."
I hesitated. Couldn’t answer. Instead, I stared at her Keurig machine.
"Would you like one?" she said, dropping the magazine and coming over to me. "I’ll make it for you. Strong, right? You like it strong.”
"As strong as you can get it."
I wanted to stay with Jude. I wanted to talk to her, be in her company. The urgency with which she stood up to make me coffee, the heavy concern in her voice—after talking to Alex last night, her need to be with me made my chest ache. Maybe I was just hungry (I hadn’t eaten since lunch yesterday afternoon), or maybe it was seeing Alex’s deep dark black stare for hours last night. Hours. Saying nothing except his silent, wide-toothed smile while I reached for him as his bony fingers slowly slipped across the table out of reach.
Or maybe, I was lonely, too.
“Of course, Helen,” Jude said. “I’ll bring it to you in your office.”
But her voice carried something else. Not concern this time, a need, matching my need; a longing. She reached out to touch my shoulder, like she used to at social functions back when Alex was alive, and he’d say stuff like, “You watch over my girl now.” And she’d laugh and say, “How could I not?” While I’d stand there and feel so … wanted.
I hadn’t felt that in a long time.
Jude’s hands were now both on the Keurig, far from my shoulder. Her attention focused on that. I’ll bring it to you in your office, she said. I watched her for a moment before returning to my desk, settling into my wooden chair with its creaky wheels and heavy burdens. I settled in to breathe and stare out the window. Moving away from myself for a moment to watch a squirrel with its face buried deep in the dirt.
“Knock knock,” Jude said, and I jumped. “I have your coffee here.”
She didn’t set it on the desk this time. She hovered in the doorway, holding it, so that I had to stand up to take my coffee from her. Jude’s cobalt-blue eyes blinked twice at me when I took it, and then she smiled one of her therapist smiles; the kind that said she didn’t mean it.
“You’re welcome, Helen. I’ll be in my office if you need anything else.” But she didn’t leave. “Oh, Helen?”
“Helen,” she said, her voice so calm I could get lost in it, “I’m here for you, whenever you need me. You know that, right?”
I’d heard Helen say this before, dozens (no hundreds) of times. Each time she said it, it never got better. Her words cutting deeper, harder, into my grief. Wounding me, opening each facet of Alex and his illness and what I’d done. So, when she said it this time, I bit my lip, I wrung my hands over my knees, feeling the bony edge of my kneecaps. I needed to feel Alex with me then, near me then, as much as I could.
“I do know that, Jude,” I said to her, my voice sifted through my closing throat. “I do.”
Ten months before, ten months before and still fresh in my memory, and yet weeks after the fifteen trees were planted and safe in the ground, weeks after I sent the hospice workers away as I’d become sick of their constant cooing and worrying. Weeks after I’d grown tired of the smell of sick and bleach, of the sound of Alex’s soft moaning, of the low whine of the last oxygen tank keeping him alive, I knew it was time.
I had three fingers of whiskey that night (for courage). I remember standing over Alex in the dark of the living room until his eyes opened. Standing over him, clutching his cold, lonely, bedside pillow in my fists. He smiled at me. A faint, wan smile. The only kind he could give me anymore.
“It’s time,” I told him. “It’s time for what you asked.”
He shook his head. He shook his head from side to side so violently it made the bed shake, the oxygen tank shake, my hands shake.
“I have to do this, Alex. Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
His breath came out in a rattle against his cancerous throat. He had no voice left to speak, but he nodded his consent. So, I lifted the pillow up to show him, and he closed his eyes, closed his mouth, and folded his arms over his chest.
This man in the hospital bed was a shadow of my husband. A skeleton of a thing, skin hanging off bone. Sockets where his eyes should be. No life left. What I was giving him was a blessing. What only I could give him was a blessing.
I held the pillow against his face, held it against his tiny struggling, against the symphony of sirens and car alarms out on the city streets, none of them coming for me (none of them even noticing me). The oxygen tank’s whine grew in protest when the deed was done, so I shut it off. I shut Alex’s eyes, his mouth, touched my fingers to his fingers. When he was finally dead, I breathed a little easier. When Alex’s request complete, I knew we were both relieved.
Before the night was over, I wrapped him in our favorite bedsheets (blue with yellow palm trees) and laid him in the hole I’d dug between the fifteen trees. After what I’d done, burying Alex was the easy part. Living with what I’d done, I knew, was going to be far, far more difficult.
There were questions, from friends mostly. Friends who’d left us all behind when we announced Alex had cancer. When we told everyone it was terminal. Everyone vanished except Jude. She hovered constantly, ever at my shoulder. “Helen,” she’d say, “I’m here for you whenever you need me. You know that, right?”
I did know that.
That was the problem.
I got home the evening after avoiding Jude to find Alex collapsed in his chair; his chin resting on the kitchen table, baseball cap covering his eyes.
"Me too, Goober," I said. "Me too."
I tossed my purse and keys in front of him and sat him up, resting my hand on his shoulder, as Jude had almost done with me this morning.
"What do you say about Chinese tonight, huh? Treat ourselves?"
I called the closest place, one Alex used to love, ordered garlic broccoli and white rice, and then sat across from him to hold his bony fingers in mine.
"We had a lot of good times," I said. "But I could have been better near the end."
He stared at me, like he used to when he knew I was going to get serious. His eyes deep and dark, a waiting question, allowing me to talk.
"I'm sorry for that," I said. "I should have said I was sorry then. I should have. I definitely should have."
His fingers were warming in my hands as I stroked them.
"I'm sorry I didn't realize you were sick," I said. "I tell myself every day: Helen, you went to medical school. Helen, you should have noticed something was wrong. Helen, Alex wouldn't have died if you had decided to be a surgeon."
Alex's jaw fell open.
"I'm sorry you got sick," I said. "I'm sorry I couldn't stop it."
Alex's jaw fell off.
“I’m sorry I can’t save you now.”
What was sitting across from me wasn't Alex. I was talking to a dead thing. A dead thing that because I was a psychiatrist and not a surgeon, I had botched wiring back together. Just like had botched keeping us together, and now I was botching keeping myself together. Alex and I were great and then he was a mess and then we were a mess now I was a mess.
How could I ever expect to take care of anyone else when I was like this?
I was re-attaching Alex’s jaw when the food came, but I wasn't hungry. Again. Like usual. I put it in the fridge and cradled Alex's bones in my arms up the stairs and to the bed. I removed his pilled and stained cardigan. I removed his baseball cap. And gently, carefully, I put him in his favorite pair of pajamas. The green ones with the embroidered pineapple on the pocket.
I set his skull back on the pillow as I lay facing his toothy smile, his hollow eyes. I held his finger joints at my chest. I brought his skull down to touch my own head.
We had held each other like this all through our twenty-year marriage. We held each other like this after sex, when he found out his family dog died, when we found out my sister was pregnant when we heard her partner lost their job, and when we heard Alex’s prognosis. Now I held him like this again. His finger bones cupped in my sweating palms; his dirty skull against my flat-ironed bangs.
I breathed and felt his skull rise and fall with my breathing. I felt it warm to me; I felt his finger bones warm to me. I listened to the susurration of his pajamas moving against the sateen sheets. I listened to the wet sound of my breathing, brought on by thirty years of smoking.
"It should have been me, not you," I said to him.
Only the squeaking of the ceiling fan replied. Another thing I'd been meaning to fix.
"I wish you were here," I said. "I miss you so much."
I looked into his eyes then. I gripped his hands so hard I felt one of his finger joints bend the wrong way.
“I’m sorry I never apologized,” I said. “I’m sorry for that most of all.”
We held each other's gaze, Alex and me. We looked so long and deep at each other that when he spoke, I felt it in my failing lungs, in the wet rumble of my own breathing.
"Helen, I'm here," Alex said. "For you."
Alex’s warm, bony hands moved to my shaking shoulders as the tears came. He held me close, his ribs biting into my chest, his cheekbones against my skin.
“Whenever you need me,” he said.
My throat closed from sorrow. My heart stung from the sound of his voice. His breathing came as a whisper. Like the deepest secret we’d ever held. And we held it together, all into the night, kissing one another and saying “I love you” until dawn came.
I stopped by Jude's door the next morning. Jude always ate breakfast at her desk: one granola bar and a large green-juice smoothie. I usually arrived at Jude’s door empty handed with a mouth full of drama, but this time I arrived with two lattes. Hers was a single shot with almond milk and cinnamon sprinkled on top. Alex liked cinnamon on his lattes, but he always avoided smoothies. He’d pretty much avoided vegetables all his life.
It took a moment before Jude noticed me, she was typing furiously, intent on her computer screen. She jumped when she saw me hovering at her door.
"God, Helen, you're like a ghost just standing there."
"Thought you might like some coffee," I said. "I remembered the cinnamon this time."
Her smile lit up the room like sunshine, making her eyes squint in a way I hadn’t seen in months. She looked a lot older when she smiled, crow’s feet blooming out across her face, wrinkles forming around her mouth. Jude’s smile was like waking up next to Alex this morning. Like feeling his bony fingers running through my hair, playing on my lips. Like seeing his smiling face, his black eyes looking, deep, deep into to mine. Both things made the day brighter, better.
"That’s so nice of you, Helen," she said, taking her latte. "Come in, I saved your old seat for you."
I set her coffee on her desk, just like I used to and sat down. She turned and looked at me, her composure as cool and serene as Lake Michigan. The blinds let in the barest hint of 8:00 sunshine.
"So, what’s been going on?" Jude asked. “What’s got you so busy?”
I paused for a moment, sipping my own latte (double shot, soy milk). Then I spoke.
"Well…" I said. And I began with the skeleton.