In the days following Jon’s death before we flew to his parent’s home to have him buried, my house was full of people wanting, needing I suspect, to do whatever they could to help me. My mom went through all of the dirty laundry in my house meticulously removing anything of Jon’s, washing it and putting it away so that I didn’t have to come home only to weep over Jon’s dirty underwear.
Up until today, her efforts were a huge success. I’ve since had to was some of Jon’s clothes, but only because they were t-shirts I had been sleeping in. That was ok.
But today I was putting a load of laundry in the wash and found myself getting to the bottom of the basket. At first that felt great. The bottom of the basket! I haven’t seen that in, well, forever! But then out came Jon’s swim trunks. And not just any swim trunks, the ones he wore on our camping trip the weekend he died. They were still covered in sand and stained with his sweat. At first I just stood there, not sure what to do. Do I wash them? Do I throw them away before it hits me? They are old and worn out so throwing them away wouldn’t be a bad idea. Instead, I neatly folded them, placed them on top of the dryer, tucked my head into my hands, elbows propped on the stiff fabric and sobbed. Eventually I gathered them in my hands again and sat down on the floor to cry some more. The area where my tears fell quickly turned from moist to soaked. I worried my kids would hear me, but couldn’t stop.
When they finally came into the laundry room looking for me I was sitting on the floor with a dumbfounded look on my face, tears still streaming down my face. All three of them came bounding fearlessly and selflessly to my aid. All the times I have wanted to take pain away from them and now they are the ones wanting to take my pain away. It broke my heart even more. How could I let them see me like this when I know they’re hurting too. They need me to be strong. It shouldn’t be the other way around. But unmoved they told me to come eat dinner and just like that, my spell was over.
When I came out, my ex-mother in-law had arrived with Chinese takeout. I can only assume she saw I had been crying. She lost her husband to an eerily similar situation only one year ago. She told me that before I got home from work she saw I had gotten a card in the mail. She remembered all those days of coming home to sympathy cards and said they always made her sad, so she thought I’d need to not have to worry about dinner. My heart melted. This woman who not so long ago was just as much a mother to me as my own who now has no reason to take care of me, was worried because she knows all too well the pain. I looked at the table set with brightly colored plastic plates and varied silverware and my kids smiling and laughing as they helped themselves to lo mein and fried rice and orange chicken.
Lilli asked where the red chicken was. She hadn’t asked for red chicken (bbq pork, but she’s always called it red chicken and it stuck.) “Where’s the dumplings,” Zoe continued. She hadn’t asked for dumplings. Chinese takeout was Jon’s favorite. Anytime I asked him what he wanted for dinner the answer was always, “Chinese?” I form that in the phrase of a question because that’s how it always sounded. I like cheap Chinese, but I always frowned on the idea of drowning my kids in sodium and msg. He answered my question with an inquisitive suggestion because the answer was almost always no. But when the answer was yes, he was like a little kid who just got told he could have a second helping of ice cream. Two things could always be counted on from Jon’s trips for Chinese takeout: House Special Lo Mein and fried dumplings. There was no need to ask for them, they appeared, as if by magic, without fail.
My heart broke for the two of them as I realized they now had to request such obvious components of an impromptu Chinese dinner. But again, they were unwavered. So I remembered those nights with a smile rather than the tears I had only moments before shed at the thought of Jon and I’s final weekend. I remembered opening our fortune cookies and both of us silently inserting “in bed” after the fortune. We’d laugh and the kids would have no idea why. We once considered letting Lexi in on the joke, but decided to wait a year or two for middle school to finish corrupting her before we added to it.
We did everything as a family. Chores were done as a team. Grocery shopping was a family adventure. Choosing which movie to watch on Netflix was a democratic process. And Jon was the one who started it all. It’s hard to remember that, while the scenario has changed and our family has gotten smaller, that’s still there. It often takes my kids doing what Jon would have done or mentioning his name when something familiar pops into conversation to remind me that his leaving did not break us. It just set us back a little. I don’t want what he left to go away. I want to carry on all of those traditions – the good ones anyway. But I also feel like I need to find some new ones to sprinkle in with them. Because if I don’t, there’s this anchor holding me to what was and stopping me from venturing into what will be. The girls and I can’t live in the past, but moving into the future still seems so painful. Balancing how to integrate then with now and still to come is something I’m still learning. But my girls have proven to be the best teachers.