As she approached the small chapel, she heard voices speaking in a hushed tone. Checking the name in the placard on the wall in the hallway just outside the doorway, she confirmed that she was, in fact, in the right room. Quietly, she noted that a small group of five people, none of whom she recognized, were standing near the front of the chapel, talking quietly, so she turned and went back to the reception area to wait.
“May I help you?” a kind young woman in a conservatively tailored black suit asked.
“No, thank you,” she replied. “I’m just waiting for the other folks to leave so that I can pay my respects privately.”
“All right then,” the young woman said with a slight, knowing smile, nodding toward a small room just inside the lobby. “I’ll be in the office. Let me know if you need anything.”
“I will. Thank you,” she responded.
A few minutes later, when she heard the other folks coming down the hallway, she rose from the chair in which she was seated and strode toward a rack of pamphlets and other reading material mounted on the opposite wall, her back to them. She waited as the young employee emerged from the office and saw them out, only turning around after she heard the front door shut. “You can go on in now.”
As she entered the chapel, she felt slightly light-headed, so she sat in the back row near the door for a few moments while she regained her composure and strength. Finally, she rose and began slowly walking up the aisle toward the front of the room. She stopped several times, hesitating as so many emotions threatened to derail her journey. Eventually, however, she found herself standing before him.
She gasped involuntarily when she finally looked down at his face. Had his name not been posted just outside the doorway, she would have sworn she was in the wrong room. The old-appearing man in the casket bore no resemblance to the handsome young man she had loved for so many years. Putting her hand to her mouth, she fought to regain her composure, mindful that other mourners could arrive at any time to pay their last respects. She began to quietly sob as she studied the profound changes that time — and alcohol — had wrought. His once-thick, chestnut hair was gone, replaced by a thin spate of receded silver strands. Despite the mortician’s best efforts to make him appear youthful and at peace, she noted the deep-set wrinkles, especially around his eyes and mouth.
She reached into her pocket and retrieved the envelope containing the page that bore her final words to him, scented by the expensive perfume he used to buy for her. She quickly lifted the edge of his jacket and slipped it between the fabric of the coat and his shirt so that it would forever lie on his chest just above his now-stilled heart. Then she carefully rearranged the lapel so that no one would notice the envelope’s presence.
Half-staggering backwards, she sat down hard on a chair in the first row directly in front of the mahogany casket and let the tears fall for the first time since she had read of his death two days earlier. Her face in her hands, she did not hear his sister, Annette, enter the chapel and was completely oblivious to her presence until she felt Annette’s arm slip around her as Annette seated herself on the chair next to hers.
“I knew you’d come,” Annette said softly. The two women sat in silence for a few minutes as she strove to regain her composure while Annette absent-mindedly rubbed her shoulder.
Finally, she raised her head, took a deep breath, and said, “I didn’t even know if I could come.”
“I knew that you would come to pay your respects and say good-bye . . . again,” Annette replied gently. “I put you on the list of approved visitors that I gave to the funeral director,” she smiled wryly. “Just in case.”
“Such a waste,” she said plaintively.
“He drank himself to death. Nobody could stop him,” Annette said virtually without emotion. “Nobody. The last couple of years, he just gave up completely. He withdrew. He wouldn’t leave the house. He just wanted to be by himself all the time. We all brought him food, cigarettes. I refused to buy his alcohol, so he paid his employees to bring that to him, I guess. He got it somewhere because every time I went to see him, he had a drink in his hand. He tried to push me away, just like he did everyone else.”
“So many people loved him,” she replied.
“I know,” Annette sighed. “The media started calling just a couple of hours after he died. I don’t know who told them.”
“Probably a hospital employee,” she answered. “That’s how those vultures find out everything that should remain private, like which star is the latest to check into rehab.”
“I’m sure,” Annette said resolutely. “Well . . . they would have found out eventually, anyway. At least they haven’t descended upon this place. It’s obscure enough that they haven’t tracked it down. By the time they do . . . ” her voice trailed off.
“Will he be buried on the property?” she asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
“That’s what he wanted,” Annette confirmed. “We’ll have a public memorial service later. I don’t know when. I can’t even think about that now. There are a lot of details that I have to take care of, starting with straightening out his finances. What a mess,” she shook her head sadly. “At the end, he wasn’t taking care of anything — not his businesses, not his finances. Not himself, obviously. I have to try to figure everything out.”
“Did he have a will?” she inquired tentatively.
“Yeah,” Annette said with sorrowful disgust. “He finally had his lawyer draft it. But . . . ”
“He never signed it,” she finished the sentence.
The two women looked at each other knowingly before sitting in silence for a few more minutes, each lost in their own memories. Finally, she stood up, walked to the casket and gazed down at him, the tears flowing again. Annette joined her.
“Why couldn’t he believe it?” she sobbed. “Why couldn’t he believe how loved he was?”
“It was the disease,” Annette said resolutely. “He knew he was loved, but for whatever reason, he couldn’t feel it. I’ve always believed that’s why he began drinking in the first place. And then, as the years went on and . . . ” she let her voice trail off, hesitant to finish the sentence.
“Go ahead and say it,” she said. “After I left him.”
“Nobody blames you,” Annette responded sternly. “Nobody. And you can’t blame yourself, either. He is right where he was going to end up, no matter what. If you had stayed with him, he would still be right here, right now. Nobody could save him. And he refused to save himself. It was his tragic flaw. Of Shakespearean proportion.”
“When I heard that he retired, I really thought that things would get better,” she explained. “I spoke to Josh and he said that he was going to take some time off — ‘get some rest’ were the words he used. I thought that meant that he was either going to rehab or he would get interested in things again, spend more time outside . . . get healthier.”
“We all did, but just the opposite happened,” Annette sighed. “Instead of getting busy with all of the projects he claimed to have planned, he became more and more of a hermit, isolated. And the drinking escalated. You can’t drink more than a fifth of vodka every day for that many years without there being consequences.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, my God,” she said, the tears beginning to fall again. “I had no idea it was that bad . . . ”
“At least,” Annette said. “We’ve started going through the house and grounds, but I don’t think we’ve found all of the empty bottles yet. They’re everywhere. I think it actually might have been closer to two fifths. We’ll never really know, of course.”
Just then they heard the young woman entered the chapel and they turned back toward the door.
“No rush, ladies,” she said. “I just wanted to let you know that the appointed visiting hours have concluded so no one else will be allowed to enter. But you take all the time you want.”
“We’ll be leaving in just a few moments,” Annette said.
“No problem,” the employee replied. “As I said, take your time.” She turned and walked back toward the office.
“I need to get going, anyway,” she said to Annette as they turned back toward the open coffin. “I have a flight to catch.”
The two women collected their belongings and walked down the hallway arm in arm. After being shown out, they walked quietly toward the parking lot. When they reached her car, she stopped, looked Annette squarely in the eyes and said, “I need to tell you something.”
“I loved him. I’ve always loved him; I never stopped,” she explained.
“Sweetie, I know that,” Annette assured her. “We all know that. Nobody ever doubted that for a moment.”
“And I didn’t leave him,” she continued, needing to purge the secret she had maintained for so long. “I would never have left him. But when I tried to talk to him about his drinking, he got so enraged. He was completely unreasonable, so I usually just backed off. But I decided that no matter what the consequences, I had to help him. I was determined to convince him that if he would just go into rehab, I would stand by him — we all would — and our lives would be so much better.”
“That night, I decided that we were going to talk about it, but . . . ” she continued. “I didn’t know he was capable of that much anger. He stomped out of the house and didn’t come back for hours. When he did, he was sober, but he wouldn’t even talk to me or look at me. The next day when I left for a few hours to run some errands, he put all of my belongings on the front lawn and changed the locks. He refused to let me back in, and wouldn’t take my calls. I had no choice. Fortunately, I had some money so I was able to get on my feet fairly quickly. But that was the last time we ever spoke or saw each other. I just told everyone that we split up, but the truth is that he threw me out.”
Annette continued listening intently.
“The only person who knows the truth is Josh. I told him, but swore him to secrecy. I didn’t want you or anyone else to get angry and try to intercede on my behalf because I was afraid that he would cut you out of his life, too. His ability to hold a grudge was unbelievable. I figured that even if he turned his back on me, at least he had you. And Josh, of course. Josh assured me that he never let on that he knew the truth.”
Tears were streaming down her face, unabated, now. “I never would have left him, Annette. You have to believe that.”
Without saying a word, Annette put her arms around her, hugged her close, and allowed her to cry for a few moments before whispering in her ear, “I knew.”
Pulling away, she stared into Annette’s eyes, her mouth hanging open. “What? You knew?”
“He told me,” Annette said softly. “I never believed for a moment that you had left him.”
Now it was Annette’s turn to rid herself of the secret she had carried with her for too long. “I waited until just the right moment. You know how he was . . . you had to wait for the opportunity, when he was in precisely right right frame of mind, and then seize the moment because it might never come again. I went over to the house a few weeks later and, as it turned out, your name came up. I sensed that would be my only chance to talk about it, so I confronted him then and there. He confessed what he had done.”
She continued staring at Annette in utter disbelief. “Then . . . ”
“Then why didn’t I call and tell you? Why didn’t I convince him to call you?” She nodded as Annette continued speaking. “I tried. He refused. And he absolutely forbid me to call you and let him know that I knew. He swore me to secrecy. He made it very clear that the two of you would not be getting back together under any circumstances. He huffed and puffed like he always did. And, as you say, I was afraid that if I crossed him, he would cut me out of his life completely, too. Then who would he have? Josh meant well, but he was in no position to take care of him. And his employees were just a bunch of enablers.”
“Besides,” she added, “I knew what was really going on.”
She searched Annette’s face.
“Don’t you see? He loved you, too. He loved you so much that he wanted to save you. He knew he couldn’t save himself. No one will ever convince me that he didn’t have a death wish. He couldn’t overcome it, so he was determined not to take you down with him.”
Tears continued rolling down her cheeks and her stomach churned as the import of Annette’s revelations overtook her.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” she mumbled nearly inaudibly.
Annette gently grabbed her upper arms and looked her squarely in the eyes. “He didn’t want you to watch him kill himself slowly. He loved you too much,” Annette said matter-of-factly. “Sweetie, he loved you far more than he loved himself. He did the one thing for you that he was incapable of doing for himself.” They remained motionless for a few more moments, each processing Annette’s words in their own fashion. Finally, Annette released her grip and broke the silence. “How is Jerry? And the kids?”
“Fine. They’re all great,” she said. “Jerry thinks I had to go on a brief business trip out of town which is why I need to get back home. The kids have a lot of school activities . . . Kevin is playing basketball and loving it. Hoping for a scholarship.”
“I’m so glad,” Annette replied genuinely. “All right then, I’d better let you get going so that you don’t miss your flight. We’ll stay in touch?”
“Of course,” she said. “We’ll speak soon.” They hugged again before she got into the rental car and began driving in the direction of the airport, ready to return to the happy life she had made without the man who would always be the one true love of her life.
Inspired by the Cafe Writing February Project: Love Letters:
What can I tell you by letter? Alas! nothing that I would tell you. The messages of the gods to each other travel not by pen and ink and indeed your bodily presence here would not make you more real: for I feel your fingers in my hair, and your cheek brushing mine. The air is full of the music of your voice, my soul and body seem no longer mine, but mingled in some exquisite ecstasy with yours. I feel incomplete without you.
Oscar Wilde (in a letter to Constance Wilde)