“Neither do I,” I say to her. “But sometimes I pretend I do,” I say. “to make it hurt just a little less. I think it’s okay to pretend you do.” she rests her weight on me and I can feel that I am holding her up. It’s empowering to be the one holding someone else up. It makes you feel strong, maybe even stronger than you are. “We could talk to him if you want,” I say. “What does it hurt, right? It doesn’t hurt anything to try, and who knows? Maybe it will feel good. Maybe it will . . . maybe he will hear us.”
Susan nods and tries to gain her composure again. she sighs and breathes deep. she wipes her face and opens her eyes. “okay,” she says. “yeah.”
We’re in Nevada!” Ben screamed as we drove over the state line. He was emphatic and exhilarated.
“Wooo!” I yelled after him. I put both fists up into the air. I rolled down my window and I could feel the desert air rushing in. the air was warm but the wind had a chill. It was nighttime, and I could see the city lights in the distance. they were cheesy and ugly, overwrought and overdone. I knew I was looking at a city of casinos and whores, a city where people were losing money and getting drunk; but none of that mattered. the city lights looked like they were made just for us.
“Which exit did you say?” Ben asked me, a rare moment of logistics in an otherwise very emotional car ride.
“Thirty-eight,” I said and grabbed his hand.
It felt like the whole world belonged to us. It felt like everything was just beginning.
It’s evening by the time we muster the strength to try to talk to him. It’s a warm november night even by southern California standards. We have the sliding glass doors open around the house. I try to direct my voice to the wind. speaking into the wind seems just metaphorical enough that it might work.
“Ben?” I call out. I had planned to follow it up with some sort of statement, but my mind is a blank. I haven’t spoken to Ben since he said he’d be right back. the first thing I say should be important. It should be beautiful.
“If you can hear us, Ben, we just want you to know that we miss you,” susan says, directing her voice toward the ceiling. she points her head upward as if that’s where he is, which tells me there has to be some small part of her that believes in heaven after all. “I miss you so much, baby. I don’t know what to do without you. I don’t know how to . . . I know how to live my life thinking that you’re there in l.a., but I don’t know how to live my life knowing that you aren’t on this earth,” she says, and then turns to me abruptly. “I feel stupid.”
“Me too,” I say. I am now thinking it matters significantly whether you actually believe the dead can hear you. you can’t just talk to the wall and convince yourself you aren’t talking to a wall unless you believe.
“I want to go to his grave,” she says. “Maybe it will be easier there.”
“Okay.” I nod. “It’s too late to go today but we can go up first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Okay,” she says. “that will give me time to think about what I want to say.”
Susan pats me on the hand and gets up. “I’m going to go to bed early then. My mind needs a rest from this.” Maybe she really does need a rest, but I know she’s going in there to cry in peace.
“Okay,” I say. When she’s gone, I look around the room and walk aimlessly around the house. I go into Ben’s bedroom and I throw myself on his bed. I breathe in the air. I stare at the walls until I can no longer see them. I know that I am done here. I may not be ready for my life back, but it is time to stop avoiding it. I lie in Ben’s room for as long as I can stand it and then I get up and rush out.
I walk over to my room to start to gather my clothes. I want to do it quickly, before I lose my nerve. there is a part of me that wants to stay in this purgatory for as long as I can, that wants to lie out by the pool all day and watch tv all night and never live my days. But if Ben could hear me, if Ben could see me, that isn’t what Ben would want. also, I don’t think I’d want that for myself.
I get up in the morning and collect the rest of my things. I walk out into the kitchen and susan is there, dressed and ready to go, drinking a cup of coffee, sitting at the kitchen counter. she sees that my things are packed behind me and she puts down her coffee. she doesn’t say anything. she just smiles knowingly. It’s a sad smile, but a proud smile. a bittersweet and melancholy smile. I feel like I’m going away to college.
“We should take two cars,” she says. she says it as a realization to herself but also, I think, to spare me from having to say it. From having to spell out that after this, I’m going home.
Susan gets there a bit before I do, and as I drive up, I see her standing at the entrance to the cemetery. I thought perhaps that she would have started without me. that she might want time alone with him, but it looks like she needs a partner in this. I don’t blame her. I certainly wouldn’t be doing this alone. I park the car and catch up to her.
“Ready?” I say.
“Ready,” she says. We start the long walk to his gravestone. When we get there, the headstone looks so brand-new it’s almost tragic, like when you see grave markers so close together you know it was a child. susan kneels on the ground in front of Ben’s grave and faces his headstone. I sit down next to her.
She breathes in deeply and seriously. It is not a casual breath. she pulls a piece of paper out of her back pocket and looks at me, shyly. I nod my head at her, urging her, and she starts to read. Her voice is without much emotion at first; she truly is reading the words on the page rather than speaking.
“I just want to know you’re okay. I want to know that you didn’t suffer. I want to believe that you are in a better place, that you are happy and have all the things in life that you loved, with you. I want to believe that you and your father are together. Maybe at a barbecue in heaven, eating hot dogs. I know that’s not the case. I know that you are gone. But I don’t know how to live with that knowledge. a mother is not supposed to outlive her son. It’s just not supposed to happen.”
Now she starts to lose her public speaking voice, and her eyes drift from the page onto the grass beneath her. “I know that you believed it was your job to protect me and take care of me. If I had one last thing to say to you, Ben, I think I would want to tell you this: I will be okay. you don’t need to worry. I will find a way to be okay. I always do. don’t worry about me. thank you for being such a wonderful son. For being the son that you were. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from you other than just more time. I want more time. thank you for loving elsie. through her, I can see that you grew into exactly the type of man I hoped you would. and the two of us . . . will be okay. We will make it through. so go and have fun where you are and forget about us. We will be okay.”
That is what true love is. true love is saying to someone “Forget about us. We will be okay,” when it might not even be true, when the last thing you want is to be forgotten.
When susan is done, she folds the piece of paper back up and wipes her eyes, and then she looks at me. It’s my turn and I have no idea what I’m even doing here, but I close my eyes to breathe in deeply, and for a second, I can see his face as clear as if he were right in front of me. I open my eyes and . . . here goes.
“There’s a huge hole in my heart where you used to be. When you were alive, I used to sometimes lie awake at night and listen to you snore and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have found you. I haven’t wanted to be whole again without you. I thought that if I were okay, it meant that I had truly lost you but . . . I think if you heard that logic you’d think I was an idiot. I really do think you’d want me to be happy again someday. you’d probably even be a little mad at me for all the wallowing I’ve done. Maybe not mad. Frustrated. you’d be frustrated. anyway, I’m going to do better. I could never forget you, Ben. Whether we were married right before I lost you or not, in the short time I knew you, you worked your way right into the soul of me. I am who I am because of you. If I ever feel one tenth as alive as I felt with you . . .” I wipe a tear from my eye and try to gain control of my wavering voice. “you made my life worth living. I promise you I am going to do something with it.”