This story is by Dorothy Al-Ghosien and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The sun shone too brightly as I walked toward the distant crowd. Trying to hold back tears, I stopped walking and sighed several deep breaths. I looked around at the green grass, the fresh gaping hole in the green grass next to the crowd, and the rows and rows of stone monuments marking so many final resting places. Graham’s wife of 10 years had died in a car accident earlier in the week. It was like a nightmare, and we hadn’t yet found our way back to reality. Graham and I have been friends for over 20 years, ever since middle school. Lisa, Graham’s wife, had brought so much joy and stability into Graham’s life—it was hard to imagine Graham without Lisa. It was hard to imagine Lisa gone.
I saw Graham up ahead surrounded by his mother, his brother, and an aunt who each stood with a hand resting lightly on Graham’s shoulders, not sure of how to help or what to do. Poor Graham, he was in a hell of unexpected loss, and he looked it. “I’m so sorry,” I said as I hugged him and then added my hesitant hand to his shoulders. If there were healing words to utter in such a moment, I’d have given anything to know them.
The funeral was short, goodbyes having already been said many times since the accident. Then, as the sun glared, Lisa descended into her final resting place—and somehow Graham was expected to walk away and go on living, to return home to where Lisa should be, to wake up for the rest of his tomorrows without her. I saw the lost, desperate look in his eyes and had no answers for my friend. Graham’s relatives escorted him home, and I joined them and other condolence-givers at Graham’s house. With the funeral over, the dreamlike state of this nightmare was starting to set into the mold of reality. I saw Graham look around his house and see the reality harden. It had been a horrible, horrible week, and I didn’t see things getting better for my dear friend for a long, long while.
The following weeks, I had to go to an out-of-town seminar and got caught up in some business meetings, so I didn’t see Graham until almost three weeks after the funeral. We met for lunch at an outside café. I hoped the sunshine and outdoor music would help lift his spirits, but when Graham walked up, I could see he didn’t need the sunshine or the music—he seemed different, lighter, almost…happier? Graham laughed at my gaping mouth. “It’s okay, Pete. Life goes on. Yes, I miss Lisa, miss her terribly, but…I don’t know, I just feel different, like a light’s been turned on or something. I guess I’m getting on with my life.”
I stuttered my incomprehension, “But…you…”
“Stop. Let’s just eat—maybe you can find the words after, okay? Honestly, I’m okay, I’m good. I didn’t think I’d be this good so soon either, but I’m thankful I am. Lisa’s death was really hard, and…so sudden. I felt like my insides had been battered with a baseball bat. But now, I’m better. In fact, I feel really good.”
We ordered lunch, and I kept catching myself inspecting Graham as if he were an insect under a microscope. This couldn’t be the Graham I knew, the one who was so devoted to Lisa, not so soon after her sudden death. Graham kept shaking his head at me, as if to say, “Hey, man, it’s really me.”
We didn’t talk throughout lunch as I silently tried to wrap my head around Graham’s unexpected recovery. Then we ordered some beers, and as we sat back to enjoy the sunshine and music, I finally found some words: “When did you start to feel better?”
“I don’t know, I guess maybe a week after the funeral. I woke up one morning and felt…lighter. Sounds stupid, I know, but I swear, I really felt lighter. Like my mind wasn’t so heavy, like things were clearer, and, I don’t know—I didn’t question it. I mean, after the…all the crying and grief, I was happy to feel something else.”
“I didn’t think you’d recover so fast. I’m just surprised—don’t get me wrong, I’m super happy you’re doing good, but…”
“Yeah. I know. It makes me kind of uneasy sometimes, like ‘Did I really love Lisa as much as I thought?’ and stuff. I don’t know how or why I’m feeling better so soon, but, honestly, I was going to feel better sooner or later, and grief sucks. I’ll take the sooner.”
I saw Graham a few more times during the next two months, and every time, he seemed a little better. One day, while we were goofing around, he snatched my baseball cap and tried to hang it off his nose. We both laughed like we were still college kids, and it suddenly hit me: This was exactly like Graham was in college. I realized how much Graham had changed while he was with Lisa. I didn’t see it then—then it had just seemed like Graham had finally grown up.
“What’s wrong?” Graham had seen my brow furrow and ended his nose-hanging attempts.
“Nothing…I was just thinking how now you’re like you were in college. I didn’t realize how much you’d changed while you were with Lisa.”
“Yeah, you know, I think you’re right. I feel like my old self. I didn’t think Lisa had changed me that much, but I guess she did—or I guess I changed for her.” I could see how uneasy he felt to feel more like himself without Lisa.
As the months passed, Graham continued to adjust to his new life. I noticed that whenever he spoke of his life with Lisa, it was more and more like he was talking about someone else’s life, and he’d often let things trail off, unfinished. They’d been so happy, I couldn’t understand why he had so much trouble talking about it now.
Then, about eight months after Lisa died, I was on the other side of town near where Lisa had grown up and decided to stop for lunch. As I walked into the restaurant, I saw Carla, Lisa’s friend from college. “Hey, Carla, remember me? Pete, Graham’s friend?”
“Oh, hey! How long has it been? Join me!”
I sat down, and over lunch we talked about Lisa’s funeral and how sad and sudden her death was, and I told her that Graham had pulled through his grief, but how much he still really missed Lisa. I left out how happy he was now since I didn’t know how to explain it.
Carla started reminiscing about Lisa, about how they’d been friends throughout college, about how kooky Lisa’s mom had been. “Lisa’s mother was always so worried that Lisa wouldn’t find a husband. Can you imagine? Bright, beautiful Lisa not being able to find someone? But her mom kept pushing her to find someone, kept setting up blind dates for her all through college…Drove Lisa crazy! She even gave Lisa this bag of ‘husband sugar’—can you believe it? Have you ever heard of such a thing? And made her promise, made her swear on her grandmother’s grave, that once a day, without fail, she’d make tea or coffee for her husband and sweeten it just a little with the ‘husband sugar.’ Said it was a secret wives’ tradition that ran for generations through their family!
“Poor Lisa. When she met Graham, her mother went nuts with the ‘husband sugar’ crap. Lisa kept telling her ‘no,’ saying she would never, ever use anything called ‘husband sugar,’ but her mom kept saying it was just the sugar of some weird plant, harmless, so Lisa finally gave in. I don’t think Graham ever knew what really sweetened his tea!
“Funny thing is, Lisa ran out of the stuff right before she died. Said it was the last her mom had given her before her mom died—remember that? No one saw her mom’s death coming too. Poor Lisa, I thought she’d finally be free of the stuff, but, nope, instead she was freaked out her mother hadn’t told her where to get more! I don’t know, I guess the ‘husband sugar’ had become a ritual for her, a tie to her poor kooky mom and her kooky family…”
Carla interpreted my slack-jawed look as complete agreement in her disbelief of Lisa’s mom, but in reality, I finally understood why Graham was now Graham again. I wondered whether to tell Graham—he still felt guilty about how good and how back-to-his-old-self he felt after Lisa’s death. I wondered if Lisa had ever guessed about the “husband sugar.” She was pretty bright, and she seemed to have really loved Graham, but I also wondered how much less kooky than her mother she really was…and about the timing of her car accident.