…(And Now I See Little Deaths Everywhere)
My husband’s birthday is this month and even though he is no longer with us, my daughter and I will still celebrate. Joel had MS but a few months after he turned 50, he died from complications of Multiple Sclerosis and West Nile Virus. Dying from a mosquito bite seems so quaint in the age of coronavirus.
He has been gone for almost seven years. Seven Years. He has missed the entirety of our daughter’s teenage-hood. Graduations and driving and boys…. And so much more. Our neighborhood alone, thanks to both the economy and the current pandemic, has changed so much. Businesses have shuttered, his favorite places, have passed away, too.
The Pier 1 where we bought a large, heavy mirror to hang over the mantle in our first house has gone out of business. We were so happy in that house that once belonged to Tom Hanks. We moved in with our dog and cat who prepared us to be parents. The backyard had a huge pool with both a slide and a diving board. When our baby was a toddler, Joel would hold her above his head as they slid down the slide and somehow, gently land in the pool with barely a splash, much to our daughter’s delight.
The mattress store closed, too. The one where we spent hours lying on our backs, going from bed to bed, him laughing at me because I insisted that we get a firm mattress. “Hon,” he said lying down on the one I had chosen, “We may as well just sleep on the floor. I can’t believe they even call this one a bed.” We ended up getting a “medium firm” mattress which I still have. I wonder if my husband (he will always be my husband) knows that I continue to sleep on my side of the bed.
Joel loved a good sandwich although his favorite sandwich shop is also gone. He and our daughter would go there on Saturday’s after her soccer games and order their turkey subs piled high with lettuce and tomatoes, extra pickles on the side.
Our beloved yoga studio was forced to close its doors recently — the one that he discovered when the MS was getting worse. “Feel my shirt!” he said excited when he got home from his first class. “It’s soaked!” He liked this new exercise that was good for both his body and his mind. He would sweat the way he used to in his weekly basketball games that the MS robbed him from playing in. The endorphin rush that was essential to his well-being was surprisingly found on a yoga mat. We would practice together, and at the end of each class our fingers hooked together across the wooden floor as we lay there in shavasana. I still have some of his ashes in my yoga bag, but I no longer have a studio to go to.
There have been so many reminders of what used to be… so many losses… little deaths everywhere…. but seeing the pie place go out of business is what really did me in. I had heard the rumblings on a few online neighborhood groups but I simply couldn’t believe it. This old-timey diner, known for their pies, had two locations and was a staple in our community for over forty years. The one a few freeway exits over announced it was closing first, and then, inevitably, the one near us.
Every year for Joel’s birthday, even in his absence, we get a fresh peach or strawberry pie with extra whipped cream. It doesn’t matter that the pie already has whipped cream borders and tastes so sweet that every bite makes my teeth tingle. Fresh fruit pies were Joel’s thing, not mine. I prefer cake, just the frosting really, especially if it’s chocolate. But on Joel’s birthday, we would pile into the car and make our way just past Koreatown to have green corn tamales from El Cholo. We’d then head home where the pie we picked up earlier from Four ’N 20 would be waiting for us. It was our thing, his thing, and it’s a ritual my daughter and I look forward to every summer.
So when I drove by and saw the closing sign, a fact I had to check in-person, I literally reached for my phone to call Joel to tell him. Those pick-up-the-phone moments are always fleeting — they come and go in my mind within seconds. I know my husband is no longer reachable, at least not in that way. I sat and stared at the sign, tears pouring down my face. I took a photograph as proof. I wanted to show our now adult daughter who reacted much the same way as me. She gasped and said, “What are we going to do for daddy’s birthday, now?” “I guess we’ll have to try some other place.” I told her. But we both know it won’t be the same.
My husband’s loss is somehow made more profound with all of these smaller deaths that I see almost everywhere I look. Each one a reminder that my husband had habits and routines and places he loved. He lived a life — a permanent 50 — that we will celebrate this month although I can’t help but think in “real” time, he’d be turning 57. How could I be married to someone so old?
If he were here, I know Joel would feel for the small business owners and everyone affected by the virus. He would often tell our daughter, “There is more good in the world than bad.” He was kind and open and accepting, whereas I am cynical and often times scared without his warm smile and reassuring squeeze of my hand.
“I hate everyone,” I’d tell him.
“I know you do,” Joel would say. “But I love you, anyway.”
Love you, too, hon. Happy Birthday.
Melissa Gould’s essays have been published in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Buzzfeed and more. She is an Award Winning screenwriter who has worked on such shows as Bill Nye the Science Guy, Beverly Hills 90210, Party of Five, and Lizzie McGuire. Her memoir, Widowish, will be available February 2021. Find her at www.widowish.com.