Watching him swagger through the gate, his little sister half walking, half running to keep up, the image library flips to that very first “first” when the start of school wasn’t just the start of school. It was the start of something new for all of us.
A few short months after his father’s death came his all-important fifth birthday, a moment he had been planning since the day after his fourth. Then the first “after it happened” summer vacation. And then the start of kindergarten, a milestone that children mark in time and another moment when I would stand alone flanked by pairs.
The night before his very first day, we carefully chose the clothes and laid them atop unscuffed shoes. Folders and pencil crayons inside a new backpack and a lunchbox waiting in the fridge. Tucking him into bed, he looked up at me and asked for one thing.
“Mom, I really want a mayo sandwich for lunch on my first day.”
Mother Hubbard’s cupboard was nearly bare and a generous amount of peanut butter and jelly was already holding the last two pieces of bread together. A deal was struck. While he was at school, I would get the necessary supplies. I had a 30-minute window between conference calls. Five minutes there, five minutes back, and 20 minutes to get in and out.
Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
We measure loss in tears, cards and passing days, but death’s insidious companion wraps its serpentine fingers around you until you become an empty shell, your senses obliterated and your vision cloudy. Like a medical-induced coma, we move numbingly through each day until the raw edges stop bleeding. I don’t remember the details of the first days, weeks and months. I find messages sent that I don’t remember, pictures taken of days that are cloudy and vague. Featureless faces crowd my memory.
Like the one standing between me and that deli sandwich.
“You had a good look and so I thought I would take a chance. I see that you are not wearing a ring and I thought perhaps you are available and so I thought I would take a chance.”
Tick tock. My tongue went silent while his gained momentum. While he lauded my attributes and took a chance, I seethed inside, angry at the man who should have been with me at the gate that morning. The man who loved the way I looked on a sleepy Sunday morning as much as he admired me in 3.5-inch peep toes. The man who had laughingly promised I would never have to date again. On that first day I realized that was no longer blissfully oblivious.
"You had a good look and you weren’t wearing a ring so I thought I would take a chance. But now I am wondering if perhaps you are taken?”
Staring up at him, my palms gripping the handrail of the cart, I dipped my toe in the dating pool.
“Um, my husband just died?”
And with that I snatched my toe out of the water and watched him back away, arms upraised as though I had just whispered the words “syphilis” or “leprosy” and made a mental note to see if I know a lifeguard. Because this is going to be long and painful and I clearly don’t know how to swim.