It was about this time each morning she felt normal again. Nothing seemed unusual as she dressed her daughter for school, hunting for her second shoe under the couch. Pouring a bowl of Cheerios, she would tell herself, "Chris already left for work this morning. Nothing strange about him not being here." She had practiced the lie so many times that for a brief moment, she could believe it, and the aching reverberating through her body would hush and give her peace.
She would continue her morning in a state of blissful denial, brushing teeth and combing pigtails. Then came the arduous task of crossing the garage. It was impossible to ignore the vast vacancy where his car had been parked. Her self deception couldn't withstand the blatant absence his missing car screamed at her. Each time she would attempt to convince herself it would be there when she got home, but the cold garage shook her to reality. She could stand in the oil stain for hours, if it weren't for a little hand that would grip her fingers and ask, "Go school?"
Her job, once a burden, bought her a few hours of mental freedom. Co-workers politely smiled as they passed her, not many knowing her personally enough to ask how she really was. The few who engaged in conversation were always found later, immersed in hushed circles. "She should really try a therapist...How's the baby doing?...It's so awful, he was so young." She would walk firmly past, pretending not to hear or that it was just gossip about some other tragic soul.
The drive home always consisted of the same awkward moment. A small voice would ask from the backseat, "Go see Daddy now?" Her eyes would burn with salted tears, and her lungs turned to lead. A moment of recovery and she could answer, "No, baby. Daddy's in Heaven."
She did her best to infuse normalcy into their evenings; dinner, bath and a story before bedtime. The same old routine the three of them had performed for months. She didn't have any reason to rush through the process like she used to. Now, she would turn out the light and instead of slipping out of the room to continue her evening in peace, she would crawl into the tiny toddler bed with her daughter. She would stroke her hair and sing softly, desperate to commit each moment to memory. She would wake up hours later, cramped and stiff, but relieved she wasn't alone.
Ordinarily, she could wander across the hall and put herself to bed, but one night she found herself wide awake. She held her breath, certain she would hear Chris snoring at any moment, but her ears were flooded with the still night. Her mind flashed to moments of that evening. It was warm and still light out. She had figured he must have been stuck in traffic, since she rarely had dinner ready before he was home, but tonight it was getting cold on the table. She heard a car door close outside, and was preparing for her best "Where the hell have you been" speech, but halted at the sight of a somber police officer at her front door.
Her gut ached at the memory, crippling her with nausea. She sank to her knees, overcome with heartache. She had thought it a thousand times, "Why me? Why my husband? I'm a good person and don't deserve this." She was ashamed to not be one of those brave souls talk shows love to represent. People who rise above tragedy and elevate mankind's spirit with their bravery in the face of devastation. She would rather crawl into a hole and die. But there was a small person across the hall who needed her. That was going to help her make it, and possibly the only reason she would.
In front of her was their bedroom closet. She had not opened the right side of it since she had to find his suit for the funeral service. "He's not coming back," she told herself as she reached for the handle and pulled the door open. Faintly, his cologne clung to the air and wafted past her head. She pulled shirts and sweaters from hangers and carefully folded each into a duffle bag. She left two items hanging, his favorite shirt that still held his shape, and his old high school letterman jacket. He would come back and haunt her if she gave it away to a stranger. She stared at the uneven closet for a moment, trying not to see the metaphor of the vacant space. She spread her clothes out along the bar, until she consumed the entire space. It was her closet now, her garage, her life to live. She would have to fill the void he left behind and be a mother and a father. But she could do it. It would just take some rearranging.