A man struggling with cancer took a sudden turn for the worse. One day he sat sprawled in the sun reading a book that he balanced on the pinnacle of his hard old belly, and the next day his legs failed him. Time felt short. A hospital bed was brought in so that he could remain with his family, receive friends. And he had plenty. For fifty years he’d lived at the same address. Friends lumbered in. Great grandchildren deposited their toys underneath the wheeled bed and built miniature worlds near their parents’ agitated feet. Each day the man slipped further away. His breathing became labored. His crumpled skin radiated heat. Within a week, the man was so wasted that there was no more belly to rest a book on; the bed that contained him looked clownishly large, in fact.
One of his daughters-in-law, still new to the family, stood by the old man’s bed with the rest. She bravely moved in close and held his hand—it was expected of her now, though odd because she would never have dreamed of touching him even a few weeks before. This was the barking patriarch, not someone whose soft white hair you quietly stroked. Privately, she found it interesting to be so close to someone so old and to be able to stare unabashedly (freckles faded, hands more a collection of ossified knuckles than muscle and movement). His eyelids fluttered, tissue thin. In his morphine-clouded expression she felt she could see the boy he’d once been, the hard-working father he became, the wise-cracking granddad, and now the wasted creature that he finally was. She asked her mother-in-law, his childhood bride, if she could still see her young man in this withered face, and the old woman laughed harshly and said, are you kidding? Still, a collection of her rough efforts at still life were arrayed before her husband’s bed like lingerie.
Hiccups plagued the old man now and it angered the young daughter-in-law that he had this, too, to contend with. The family tried to help him suck bitters from the end of a Q-tip. They all wanted him to be able to focus on the job of breathing, or perhaps deciding not to breathe anymore, without that foolish distraction. Hiccups here seemed like trickery—a hopeful, youthful, silly sign of life–while his son was gently telling him that it was okay to let go. And the old man did let go that same day about an hour later.
Fast forward one week exactly and the young daughter-in-law found herself celebrating a friend’s wedding. The reception was held in a tricked-out barn next to an apple orchard and the October backdrop of surrounding mountains could not have been more blindingly golden.
Beforehand, the wedding ceremony took place at a Greek Orthodox cathedral with all the attendant ritual. The language itself was archaic, referencing husbands as veritable Gods, with wives their agreeable supplicants. The service was hushed, glorifying, sheened with jewel-colored afternoon light. The bride and groom were married with rings in the first moments of the long service; next came a long explanation of the origins of the practice, and why God deemed marriage sacred; part three was a pretty ritual of placing crowns attached to each other by silk ribbons on the couple’s heads. More chanting and song followed, and finally a circular walk repeated in trinity to symbolize the first walk as man and wife. Throughout, the priest’s chanting was echoed by a woman who faced the nave of the church. Her voice was ethereal, in contrast, and by way of enormous speakers it rose like smoke into the high skeletal arch of the cathedral dome.
On consideration, the young daughter-in-law felt that her own husband had been less shaped by their own recent wedding than by his father’s death. He had a knack, her husband, for choosing exactly the right music for the mood, and on the morning of the funeral, he had chosen Louis Armstrong: that graveled lament. He dressed exactly as he had for their wedding, but she observed that the man and even the suit itself took on an air of authority that might have been lacking before. This day, burial day, his mother bumped softly up against objects like a butterfly and so he gentled steered her forward, and forward again. When it came time to pay—for whatever—he stood solid in shiny wing tips and peeled off bills from a roll that emerged naturally from his trouser pocket. Whereas before he merely occupied space, now, he claimed it.
On her way home from the wedding reception, the young wife stopped in to see her mother-in-law, whose still-new grief was adrenalin-fueled. She explained where she’d spent the day and the old woman clapped her hands delightedly and pulled out her own wedding album for a show and tell. The book was a swollen yellow and the spine crackled as she turned its pages. There was the flawless young bride, her penciled lips. Her trim, corseted waist. Her feathered hat pinned at an impudent angle. Those same sparkling eyes which were now even brighter, framed as they were in a mass of tight wrinkles. And there was the old man made young again, crisply attired, sharp-of-jaw. In the pictures the young wife saw her own husband staring back, heedlessly certain of tomorrow.