This story is by Lori Lee Palmer and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“So, it’s been a year, Alice. How are you going to mark the day? Finally let me fix you up with one of Hal’s golfing buddies? Or help you create an online dating profile?”
“Ha, ha. Very funny. I don’t need a man in my life. I keep busy.” Alice sighs. She wants this conversation to be over. Candace is her oldest friend and she means well, but she can be pushy.
“There’s more to life than just keeping busy. Don’t you want love, excitement, romance?”
“I can get all those things by reading a romance novel. I’m perfectly happy being alone.”
“Wouldn’t Adam want you to find another partner? Wouldn’t he want you to be happy?”
Blood rose to Alice’s face. “What Adam would or wouldn’t want is irrelevant. Talk to you later.”
“I wish you’d let me…”
Alice smirks and disconnects her phone. Today isn’t just the anniversary of her husband’s death. It’s the anniversary of her freedom. The freedom to do what she wants without putting another person’s needs first.
Adam went into deep, silent moods whenever they disagreed. At least the silent sulking was preferable to the angry outbursts she thought of as his tantrums. She and Sara cowered in a corner when Adam was so enraged he threw a chair across the dining room, splintering the wood and making it irreparable. The five remaining chairs in the set testified to his temper. At least he never hit her or Sara. Abuse or infidelity would have been the only justifications for leaving him. His dark moods weren’t enough of a reason for her to break up their family. She took her marriage vows seriously and now feels a sense of pride that she stuck in there until death did they part.
Alice shakes her head to dislodge the negative memories. She thinks about the years after they retired and no longer had the stresses of balancing work and family. She looks around the room at the souvenirs they picked up during their travels. Paintings of mountains and wildlife from the summers they spent in Colorado. Brightly colored Day of the Dead figurines purchased in Mexico make her smile at their irreverent attitude toward death. A tiny red phone booth and a double-decker bus replica scream “cheerio from London!” Some people would call her decorating style eclectic (being kind,) but her daughter Sara calls it a mismatched disaster. The few years they spent traveling were the best of her life, even if they did sometimes get on each other’s nerves being together 24/7.
Adam suffered his fatal heart attack shortly after they returned from their last vacation to New York. Alice’s heart beat so hard and fast when she woke in the middle of the night and found him collapsed on the bathroom floor that she was afraid the emergency medical personnel would have to bring in two gurneys. The attack was sudden since Adam hadn’t complained of chest pains, but not entirely unexpected because of his high blood pressure and frequent neglect of taking his medication. Alice wept when the doctor told her Adam had passed on, but after she dried her tears she breathed a sigh of relief that it was over so quickly. He wouldn’t have wanted to live an incapacitated life. And she wasn’t cut out to be his nurse.
Alice sips her coffee and looks out the window of her office. The formerly masculine room has a light and airy feel now. Tearing down the old, dark wood paneling was the first remodeling project on her list after Adam’s demise. Her standup desk faces the window to the backyard where she can admire the flower garden she recently planted with the advice of a landscape professional. The day had started out rainy and dreary, but the sun comes through the clouds and raindrops sticking to her roses twinkle in the sunlight. She decides to cut roses to bring to the cemetery. Sara will expect to see fresh flowers on her father’s grave when she visits later in the day.
The weather on the day of Adam’s funeral was similar to today, only the rain didn’t let up until after the graveyard service. When the sun poked through the clouds Alice’s heart lightened, and she knew life after Adam would be fine. She had to smother her inclination to smile. How would it look if she was a merry widow on the very day her husband of over thirty years was put in the ground?
“Meow!” Alice’s tabby kitten weaves in and out between her legs. She reaches down and picks her up, snuggling her face against the kitten’s soft fur. Punkin is her constant companion – her emotional support animal – though she would never try to take her on an airplane or anywhere else pets didn’t belong with that flimsy justification. Adam didn’t like pets in the house, let along in grocery stores or restaurants. A smile lifts Alice’s lips with the thought of one of Adam’s pet peeves, of which there had been many.
After gathering a bouquet of roses from her garden, both reveling in their glorious scent and cursing the sharp thorn which cuts into her thumb and necessitates the use of a bandage to stop the bleeding, Alice navigates the narrow cemetery roads and parks near the Johnson family plot. The large headstone proclaims ownership of an area which includes the remains of Adam’s parents and the presumed future site of his siblings, their spouses, and Alice herself. Alice never had the heart to tell Adam her preference would be cremation. The thought of rotting in the ground was unnerving to her. She would rather have her ashes spread over water and become fish food.
The cemetery is quiet on a weekday morning. She hears the faint whirr of a lawn mower in the distance, and the smell of freshly mown grass tickles her nostrils as she inhales deeply. She replaces the faded flowers in Adam’s graveside vase, and brushes leaves off his headstone. Tears fill her eyes when she allows herself to be still and contemplate the loss of her husband. Although he was sometimes difficult and opinionated, he had been her partner for more than half of her life.
Alice startles and gasps when she hears a man clear his throat behind her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. Are you alright?” He holds out a package of tissues. Alice’s first reaction is to refuse, but with tears streaming down her face and her nose running, she really does need a tissue. She takes one, uses it, and then looks up at her benefactor. Before she can utter her thanks, he says, “The first year is the hardest.” Alice looks at him in wonderment, and he nods to the date on the headstone.
Alice opens her mouth, and then shuts it as her eyes water again. Only a faint moan escapes. The man kneels down beside her and pats her back. “There, there,” he says. “It’ll be alright.” Alice gulps a few breaths of air. She reaches for another tissue, and repeats the process of drying her face and running nose.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with me.” Alice stands and backs away to create space between herself and the gray haired man with kindly blue eyes. “I thought I had gotten on with my life, and was beyond grieving. I’ve hardly shed a tear in months.” She sniffs.
“Anniversaries can be hard. You never know when it’s going to hit you, or how hard. My name’s Jim, by the way. My wife Susan rests over there.” He waves with his left hand. She glances in the direction he points and notices a late model black Mercedes parked off the narrow path. She gives him a quick once over and notices a handsome man about her age. His khakis and golf shirt signify an active lifestyle. She looks in his eyes and sees pain that mirrors her own. “Would you like to go for a cup of coffee?” he asks.
Alice’s eyes narrow as she contemplates his offer. Is this a date? Is she ready for a new friendship, or even a relationship? What will Sara think? What will her friends think? Alice tilts her head to rid herself of the intrusive questions – none of which matter. A cup of coffee is just a cup of coffee. Who knows if it will lead anywhere or not?
“Sure, I’d love to.” She smiles and blushes. She could use some excitement in her life. And maybe, just maybe, a second chance at love.