July 27, 2012: Four months ago, my husband died.
Tomorrow, July 28, 2012: the 34th anniversary of the day I met David.
I graduated from high school in May of 1978, heading to Cedar Falls, Iowa, to earn money for college. I was a waitress at a Sambo’s restaurant and David was a regular customer, a student at UNI, the college I would be attending that fall. He was one of our “coffee customers,” coming in a few times a week to sit at the front counter and drink copious amounts of coffee while sneaking in some conversation time with the waitresses. I’m not sure why, because I’d never done it for another customer, but one day when I waited on him, I gave him a free slice of pie along with his coffee. He promptly asked me out, later claiming it was an attraction to my legs, but I still think it was the pie. When I said yes, he followed me back to my brother’s house, where I was staying for the summer. I gave him the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich I’d ordered as the free food I was entitled to on my shift. He ate it in his car while I changed from the ugly white uniform, white tights and nurse shoes into jeans, a comfortable top, and sandals. He took me to a bar in the mall, where we shared a beer and a basket of the free tortilla chips and salsa that was at every table. (free pie, free BLT, and free chips~anyone else see a pattern here?) We roamed the mall, stopping to see a visiting petting zoo, where his hand grazed mine as we simultaneously put them on top of the fence to peer over the side. Sparks definitely flew. His pinkie finger grasped onto mine, and we walked through the mall that way, not quite holding hands, but close enough. Embers restaurant was our next stop, for coffee, a shared salad, and hours of animated conversation. Then we drove around Cedar Falls looking for a cemetery. Why? Because David had asked me what I wanted to do, and for some inexplicable reason, I told him I wanted to walk through a dark cemetery with him at my side. We never found the cemetery, but we did walk up and down the dark alleys of Cedar Falls, stopping to swing on a tire swing in someone’s back yard. It was 3:00 a.m. before we shared our first kiss, and then we kissed so much that the next morning my lips were bruised purple, as if I’d been eating berries all night. I got less than an hour of sleep before my sister-in-law woke me up to care for my young nephew.
Just a year ago David and I drove through the UNI campus, visited the married student housing where we’d lived the first years of our marriage, and searched for the alleys we’d likely walked on that first date. Sambos and Embers long gone, we ate lunch at a Hy-Vee deli instead.
“Why did you want to find a cemetery that night?” David asked me, and I still didn’t have a real answer.
“It sounded like fun,” I shrugged.
Who would have imagined 34 years after that search for a cemetery, I’d be ordering a gravestone for the cemetery where the body of my loved one lay? This was my third visit to the monument office. The previous two visits ended in me crying and Sue, the co-owner, gently informing me I was not ready. I had no idea what I wanted when I walked into that office the first time, nor did I imagine the wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors of headstones available. I desperately wanted someone else with me that day; anyone else who would make the choices for me. I desperately wanted to BE someone else, not a 52-year-old widow having to choose her husband’s gravestone. My second visit was a more informed one; I’d spent time at the cemetery and took pictures of stones I liked. I managed to decide on a size during that meeting, ordering the cement base so that at least the girls and I wouldn’t have to visit a plot of grass with a funeral home metal sign sticking out of it.
Still, the weight of choosing and ordering a gravestone lay heavy on my shoulders. Each time I drove past the monument office and failed to stop, I felt the anxiety mount. Ordering it would be like tying up the last loose ends, my final step in taking care of all the details burying a husband entails.
“This is for you, the widow,” Sue had told me the last time I was in her office, when I’d confided that some of my children weren’t sure of the ideas I’d shared. “When you’re gone, they can argue about it.” I smiled at the image of one of my children sneaking into the cemetery in the middle of the night with a chisel and the intent of removing the black and white inlay of a photo I’d considerer including.
This is for me. And David. I reminded myself when I made the choice this morning to include the single photo David and I had always agreed on; one taken in a Chuck E Cheese photo booth, the photo I’d submitted to a newspaper for our 30th anniversary. David had enjoyed the many compliments of the photo at his workplace, knowing it was a private joke between us; the photo had cost a quarter.
“What is the single thing you would want to tell someone facing the death of a spouse?” asked a woman working on a series of books designed to assist those who lose someone.
“Dying is expensive,” I’d immediately replied. Depending upon size, color and design, the gravestone alone is well over $2000.
“Do you want to pay this off in installments?” Sue asked me after she’d tallied up the cost of my choices, with an additional $180 just for the black and white picture that meant something to me and the man who could get enjoyment (and a wife) out of a free piece of pie.
“No, I’ll pay for it in full,” I said as I wrote out the check for an amount that would have horrified my husband. David was a man who couldn’t fathom spending $12 on a pair of elastic waist shorts in the summer of 2006, shorts he needed when he left the hospital after a surgery that necessitated a cumbersome feeding tube coming out of his abdomen.
It was when I wrote out the check I realized the significance of the date; four months after David’s death on the 27th, nearly 34 years after our first date.
I felt as if a great weight had lifted off my shoulders when I left the Monument Company today. The last loose end finally tied up. Completed. Voila! Done.
Now all I have left to do is live the rest of my days without the love of my life.