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Till Death Don’t Us Part: A True Story of Awakening to Love After Life Karen Frances McCarthy

The End

‘We’ll be Friends Forever, won’t we, Pooh?’ asked Piglet.
‘Even longer,’ Pooh answered.

~ A.A. Milne

I was starving when I got back from the army base at Fayetteville, North Carolina. I ordered lunch and called Johann from my motel room. We’d only been engaged four weeks, and I’d spent two of them stuck in the sweltering South, writing a follow-up story about a Colonel I’d met in Iraq. I thought I’d never get back to New York and away from fast food, lousy motels, and the exponential aging that comes with being called ma’am by soldiers half my age. Mainly, I wanted to get back to him. There was no answer. I dialed again. Voicemail. He was probably off with James on their usual weekend bike ride up the Hudson River and out of the city. “Food for his soul” he would have called it had he believed in a soul.

“Call me,” I texted. “I miss you.”

I was eating a veggie burger and pouring over my notes when the phone rang.

“James is trying to reach you.” It was my friend Roisin. She was anxious.
“He’s at St. Luke’s Hospital with Johann.”
“What happened? Was he in an accident?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I’ll call James.”

I dialed quickly and walked to the window for better reception.

“He just collapsed,” James said. “We’d cycled out to Jersey and went by Riverside Park on the way back. He said he wasn’t feeling well, so we stopped to rest. He was holding his arm and then he fell off the bench and smashed his head on the ground.”

James’s words heaved from his mouth.

“His heart?” I said. “It’s okay. He’ll be fine. He’s only forty-one. You’re at St. Luke’s! That’s only twenty blocks from the park. He’ll be fine. Did someone give him CPR?”
“Some woman tried, and then a parks department guy took over.”
“Okay, that’s good. He’ll be fine.”
I was saying “he’ll be fine” like a mantra that would make it true.
“Was it vigorous?” I added.
“Not really,” he said. “They didn’t breathe into his mouth because his face was covered in blood.”
A chill crept up my spine.
“I think he’s dead,” he said.
“No!” I was shrill. “He’ll be fine, I’m telling you he’ll be fine.”
“Hang on,” James said. “Cops are here. I’ll call you back.”
“Don’t …”
He hung up.
I frenzy dialed him for ten minutes until he answered.
“He’s dead,” he said.

Night fell over Fayetteville. My cold, half-eaten veggie burger sat on the tacky motel table. Life gutted between two bites. My back ached from the lumpy motel armchair into which I’d slumped from dusk into darkness. It never occurred to me to turn on the light. My mind accepted James’s words in fragments for fear it be overwhelmed by their assault. My capacity to make the most basic decision was absurdly diminished. I sat. I lay. I stood. I paced. Catatonic one hour and panicked the next. Wasn’t there something I could do? Surely something would make me feel less lost, less adrift.

I’d given James the number for Johann’s ex that afternoon to pass along to the hospital administrators. It felt like an important thing to do, although she may have been listed as his emergency contact since she was the mother of Tommy, their ten-year-old son and next of kin. What next? His family in Germany? He’d all but lost touch with them since he left East Berlin a few years after the wall came down. I had a number for his step-mother, but she didn’t speak English, and I’d no information for his estranged biological mother. I shifted around the room, picking up my phone and putting it down. I didn’t even know if I should call. Was it up to me? Or his ex? Or the hospital? Why hadn’t I learned German? Why was I so useless?

Later that night, when all competence and comprehension had withered from my shrunken mind, his ex called me. She and Johann had lived separate lives for so many years that she didn’t know who else to call. In my haze, I heard her say she spoke German. I heard myself give her what numbers I had since she was better equipped to break the news to his family. She’d arrange a quick and private funeral, I heard her say. Whatever the acrimony between her and Johann had been, her only concern now was protecting Tommy, she said. He needed the support of his family and friends, so a private mourning for him was the only way, she said. He was all that mattered now, she said. She was moving from one pithy statement to the next before I’d absorbed the meaning of the first. I just heard myself punctuating each sentence with, “I understand” like an echo that denied my needs or rights. It didn’t occur to me to ask to come to the funeral, and she didn’t extend an invite. It didn’t occur to me until later that I’d also need the ritual and the gathering of supportive friends. Such was the shriveling of self I experienced in the darkness of his death.

For the next two days, the curtains remained drawn and the “do not disturb” sign hung on my door. Every so often, I’d hear the charwomen pushing their trolley down the hall. I’d stick my head out for more coffee and decline room service. Leave the mess and death, my expression said. Nothing bright or fresh belongs in here. I didn’t belong there either, but I couldn’t face New York. I belonged nowhere.

On the third day, a friend persuaded me to caretake a house in the Chesapeake Bay area for the homeowner she knew who was traveling for a couple of months. Where that was, I neither knew nor cared, but anything was better than going home.

I picked up a beat-up red Mustang convertible in Fayetteville for $1200. The Ford decals were missing, and the creaking door had to be lifted to close. I was pretty sure it had been in an accident, then dragged out of a salvage yard, slapped together with some spit and spray paint, and rolled back onto the road. Much like me. That day, we were two wrecks on a blistering hot mountainous drive to nowhere.

I followed my GPS off the interstate onto a narrow road that fed into a tiny town organized into geometric streets lined with brightly painted houses that watched over the hum and swish of sprinklers hydrating perfectly landscaped gardens. The place was deserted and the heat oppressive. I pulled up in front of a hulking forest-green house partially hidden behind tall pine trees that housed hundreds, maybe thousands, of cicada that screeched through my throbbing brain. In some quirk of bad taste, the owner had given the house a dark pink trim and decked out the porch in chimes and lamps that were now covered in cobwebs. I dragged my bags up the steps under the watchful eye of a suspicious cat. A curtain twitched opposite, probably someone horrified at the jalopy I’d parked in their perfect neighborhood. I didn’t care. I wasn’t there to make friends. I was there to hide. Talking exhausted me. Not talking exhausted me. Sleeping exhausted me.

As instructed, I retrieved the key from a shed in the overgrown garden along with the house manual for feeding Busker the cat, watering the plants, using the cleaning supplies, scraping the lint out of the dryer, and another ten pages of stick-up-her-arse instructions. I’d been angry and bereft and anxious about Johann for five hundred miles. We were supposed to be eloping and adventuring in South America; instead, I was walking into the triviality of a stranger’s world order.

Inside, this place looked less like a house and more like a mausoleum with mahogany stairs, doors, and floors. I hated mahogany. The half-pulled blinds let in just enough light for the gasping plants to survive, and the stagnant smell of mildew made me heave. I filled Busker’s bowls and hauled my bags up two flights of stairs to the sparse attic apartment that was to be my home for the next two months. It had a bed, a makeshift table with a gaudy brass lamp, and an old chest of drawers. The bedding was clean at least, white, not muddied like everything else in this place.

I lay on the bed, in the cool air streaming from the attic fan, staring at the dust particles floating in the shafts of sunlight that limped through the small window in the sloping ceiling. Tears came again. I didn’t want to cry. For hundreds of miles, I’d dripped tears and snot, until my head throbbed and throat was raw. My heart raced and pain pinched my breath as it had been doing for three days now. I didn’t unpack, or eat, or shower. I just lay on the bed, scrolling through old photos of Johann on my phone. I knew that was a bad idea. I knew better than to scratch at moments that had been sculpted in another time, but I did, compulsively, in an absurd attempt to cling to the life we had and the promise he’d made to be with me till the end of days. There he was on my tiny screen, handsome in a German Roger Moore sort of way, smiling across the dinner table the night he proposed. I couldn’t take my eyes off him then. But now? Now, that memory hurt my heart.

I tossed my phone aside and sank deeper into the pillows on a stranger’s bed in an ugly house at the end of nowhere, falling asleep watching leaves dance in fading sunbeams as dusk murdered the day.

It was late afternoon when I woke again. Pain fractured my brain. I dragged myself downstairs and brewed the last grains of some bitter coffee I found in the pantry, and then went into the garden to drink it in the shade of pine trees. Busker curled up at my feet. They say animals can sense a person’s distress. I didn’t know if Busker did, but the warmth of his tiny body on my feet was the only comfort I knew that day.

The sky was so blue here, unblemished by the clouds that usually offer protection from the throbbing sun. It sapped the last of my feeble energy reserves and forced me back up the creaking old stairs and into bed. Twenty hours later, I woke again with a splitting headache and a furry mouth. I told myself to get up, find my toothbrush, and dig up some coffee, but I couldn’t move. For twenty hours, I’d been oblivious, and now I was back. I wished the world would die.

Something caught my eye.

Something was moving on the bed — small, round indentations were tip-toeing up the duvet like the imprints of invisible animal paws. I lay still, straining to see if something were casting shadows, but the sunlight created linear streaks not circles across the bed. I couldn’t understand how these depressions were being made. They approached steadily and stopped close to my head. I waited, but they didn’t start again. Finally, I dismissed the imprints as a trick of the light playing on my eyes and rolled over, desperate to escape into the oblivion of sleep.

My phone beeped with a text from my friend Sara in LA.

“I know you feel like shit. Shower. Get dressed. Sometimes that’s all we can do.”

I did stink. I didn’t care, but I needed coffee and Busker needed cat food, so I showered, dragged my wet hair into a ponytail, put on fresh clothes and dark sunglasses, and drove to a drugstore I passed on the way into town. It was a real drugstore, like the ones I’d only seen in American movies when I was growing up in Ireland. It was selling pop and ice cream across a Formica bar to a couple of kids sitting on silver stools. I picked up cat food, a large bottle of Advil, and vacuum-packed Bustelo. I needed food too but hadn’t the energy to cook. I found a stack of cup noodles. “Just add water,” the package said. That would do.

“Betty, this is the last time I’m letting you off, okay?” the red-faced cashier said to a humped, old woman in front of me in the queue who didn’t have enough money to pay for her groceries. The cashier stuffed Betty’s few purchases into a plastic bag with mutters and tuts. She apologized to me for the delay. I shrugged. Betty looked bewildered, or maybe she was humiliated. I really wasn’t paying much attention.

I was halfway up the mausoleum steps with my grocery bags when I met the middle-aged man next door.

“Hello,” he said. “I’m Gerry. Welcome to the Bay.”
“Thanks,” I said. I might have smiled. I’d been disconnected here, and glad to be, until Gerry. I had to get away. I slipped back inside, for once glad to go back to the brooding mahogany and the musty smell that lingered inside on the dead air.

At sunset, seeing the street was clear of neighbors and the danger of small talk, I ventured the half-mile to the seafront with the cat trotting after me until he got fed up and went home. On the strand, parents were packing up their kids’ beach toys and ushering them homeward. Some people were still fishing off a pier. Other than that, I was alone. I stepped into the cool water, digging my toes into the sand. It was fresh here and salty, not like New York. I thought there’d be nothing here to remind me of Johann. But there was the sun. Always the sun. We often sat on the East River at dusk, watching it set and the lights of the Manhattan skyline come on.

Our first sunset hadn’t been on the river’s edge exactly. It was at a summer party on the rooftop of an industrial building turned into artist lofts overlooking the waterfront. Sara was in town and invited me along. Her friend Hans, an East German arthouse filmmaker, was known for throwing the building open to the local artists and writers and most of its barflies. I was new to the neighborhood and knew no one. We weren’t long at the party when Sara and Hans started getting cozy in the corner. I leaned against the low wall around the roof, the only sober person in a sea of booze and a cloud of weed, watching beautiful people drift and flit and hug and kiss while they shared beer and vodka and spliffs.

The sun was setting when a tall, blonde guy I’d seen in passing at a Polish café a week before arrived with a handful of Europeans  —  French and German by the sound of them. I didn’t know him as Johann then. Their small group trickled into the larger one on the rooftop like rivulets of art and sophistication. I watched him. I couldn’t take my eyes off him to be honest. He was surrounded by chattering people who were getting drunk and high. He was listening to them, that much I could tell, and every so often he’d say something I couldn’t hear, and they’d all laugh. He was the center of that group but detached somehow, as if he were entertained by the drama of people offloading drunken secrets that tomorrow they’d be ashamed of sharing. He seemed private, saying little and revealing nothing. We were both alone, I thought, me by myself and him in a crowd.

After dark, an awful arthouse movie that Hans had made was projected onto a makeshift screen. I was sidling toward the door when Johann intercepted me with two bottles of Pilsner.

“You look lost,” he said in a crisp German accent. He offered me a bottle.
“Thanks, but I don’t drink,” I said.
“Then both for me,” he said.
“You like German beer?” I asked.
“As often as possible,” he smiled. He had a shy smile, which made this gorgeous social animal even more alluring.
“Johann, we’re leaving,” someone shouted. The Europeans were packing up and getting out. “Gustave invited us back for eats.”
Johann took a card out of his pocket and scribbled something on the back.
“My address. Brunch at eleven at my place tomorrow. They’ll be there,” he said, tilting his head back toward the crowd, “but don’t let that stop you.”

He glanced back before disappearing out the door in the midst of the group. I’d spoken to him for less than five minutes, but my heart fluttered when he looked at me.

The palpitations I’d had since the day he died were pinching my heart again. I left the empty strand and slouched back to the mausoleum where I found Busker crying on the deck beside empty bowls. I opened a tin of cat food while he meowed and danced under my feet in his eagerness to get to his dinner. The mausoleum manual said to feed him in the sunroom because he sprayed the furniture, but the sunroom was like a greenhouse; it was always hot as hell in there. I guess the owner preferred to bake the creature than have stinky furniture. I preferred she have stinky furniture, so I fed him in the cooler kitchen, brewed some more coffee, and watched this little cat devour his dinner. He was scrawny but cute, a little prickly, but there was something sweet about him all the same. While he ate, I watered the wilting plants and raised the blinds so some light could get in before everything in this house was dead. Johann said once that he was afraid of getting old and not being needed or useful. I understood him now — caring for a cat and a handful of plants was all I had to hold onto.

“The End” is an excerpt of Till Death Don’t Us Part: A True Story of Awakening to Love After Life by Karen Frances McCarthy published by White Crow Books.

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