by Wayne Augden
Doug learns something about himself through grieving with a friend
We sat on the first pew a few feet away from the casket of the woman we loved. The minister spoke in a low, quiet voice about the gentle woman who had touched our lives. I tried to concentrate as he encouraged us with words of comfort and heart-felt praise to say good-bye, but I couldn't, not yet. I glanced at Shawn, and saw the same dry-eyed expression he'd worn on the day he came to tell me about Patty.
Kayla and Dane sat between us. Kayla looked up at me, and I tried to smile, as if to say everything would be all right, but she wasn't fooled. She took my hand and rested her head against my side. Dane sat by his father, a mirror reflection of the dark haired, heavy-limbed man beside him. He takes his father's lead in everything, from how to hold a glass of water to how to hide his feelings.
I sat with them knowing we had to go on, and I whispered to God, "How are we supposed to do that?" Kayla squeezed my hand, and we stood for the closing prayer.
"Thanks for coming," Shawn said, three weeks later, as I put down the boxes.
"It's all right," I said standing in the bedroom they shared. For a second, I'm overwhelmed. The room was so her. "Where do we start?"
Shawn shook his dark head in helplessness. "How about with the clothes?"
It's a good place to start. Stooping down, I picked up a box and placed it on the bed, and began to take her dresses out of the closet. I smelled strawberries. She liked scented things. Strawberry baby powder, peach skin creams, and shampoos that smelled like flower gardens.
"Doug?" Shawn looked at me.
"Strawberries," I said.
He nodded, understanding, and turned his back on me dipping into one of her dresser drawers. After a minute, I glanced over and saw him holding one of her slips to his face and I looked away.
"I used to tell her she smelled good enough to eat. She always laughed it off," he said. His voice broke, the meaning too heavy for the words he used.
I knew what he meant. Tears clouded my vision. Turning back to the closet, I brushed them away and took a deep breathe trying to calm myself. How can I help him, Patty, when I can't even help myself?
Her dresses are full of life. As I take them down, I can remember when I first saw her wear each one. She wore the floral print at church, the plum and navy blue stripe for Kayla's birthday party, and so on. Each dress holds a memory. A time and place, and I wonder who will wear them now.
"Such a pack rat," Shawn said. He held two crayons and a half-eaten roll of lifesavers in his hand. Tears glistened in his eyes.
I looked at him and smiled. "You know how sentimental she was."
"To the point of being silly," he said, "she never wanted to throw anything away.
I remembered her standard line. "Shawn remember this," and shaking my hands like she used to do, I said, "But I'm going to use that."
We looked at each other and started to laugh. We laughed till we were breathless and tears were running down our faces.
"Why is it women don't want to throw anything away," he asked.
"You're asking me?"
"You two talked a lot about different things," he said.
"Yeah, but I don't remember ever talking about that."
He emptied another drawer. "Did you talk about me?"
"We talked about everyone," I said. "You know what gossips we were."
"Was she happy, Doug," he asked, his face haggard, and drawn. I watched as the pain took him over.
"I've never known a happier woman," I said, and turned back to the closet, and resumed my task. There's one for you, Patty. You wanted me to reassure him.
I shook my head, took the last of her dresses from the closet, and began to fold them.
Shawn cleaned out her dresser and started on her chest of drawers. I looked at their bed covered with her most intimate things and realized there were things I still didn't know about her. Her lingerie laid on the bed within easy reach of my hand, but I left it alone. I couldn't touch it.
We finished packing her clothes, except for a few things Kayla wanted and began going through the rest of her things. Stacks of shoe boxes crowded the upper shelf of the closet. In her dresser, there were several drawers packed with old papers, letters, and cards.
"Jesus," Shawn said, "she has cards in here from when she was just a girl. She even has some from you in here."
"Let me see."
He passed them to me, and I flipped through them until I came to one with a picture of a little boy hugging a little girl. "You're my sweetest Valentine," it said, and I remembered her kissing me that day for the first time.
I started to hand them back. "You ever read them?"
"Nah. Patty's business was her business," he said. "She didn't read my stuff. I didn't read hers."
"She wouldn't have minded."
He sorted through a few papers. "I know, but I wouldn't have liked some of the things I'd have read."
"She couldn't help how other people felt about her."
Shawn looked at me. "Some people couldn't help how they felt about her either," he said.
I walked to the closet, took down a few boxes and laid them on the bed. "Having feelings for someone isn't wrong," I said. "It's how they're expressed that causes problems."
"Did you have feelings for her?"
I emptied a box and started looking through it. "You know I did," I said. "We'd been friends since we were kids."
"Were you in love with her?" Shawn turned back to the chest of drawers and took out another stack of papers which he laid on the bed.
"Maybe. I guess so," I said. "I tried not to be, but I was."
"I didn't want to love her," I said. "I wish I hadn't."
"I don't," he said, his voice quiet. "She took a lot of comfort in knowing you loved her."
Surprised, I asked. "You knew?"
"You handled it well," I said.
"I knew I could trust her," he said, looking at me. "And you."
"You had a lot of confidence in me."
"More than you had in yourself," he said. "Is that why you left?"
"I didn't trust myself," I said. "I found it easier to deal with from a distance."
"It must have hurt to leave."
He tossed a pile of papers in the trash. "Did it help?"
I didn't see her every day," I said. I went to the closet and took down the walnut keepsake box I'd bought for her on her thirtieth birthday. "That helped."
Shawn opened it. Letters, and then I saw the return addresses on them.
"That's right," he said. "They're all from you. She kept every one of them. Every once in a while, I'd find her in here rereading them."
"I'm surprised I wrote that much."
"She loved your letters," he said and dumped another armload of old papers in the trash.
"Did you read them?"
"No, but I saw her face as she did. You have any idea how hard it was to watch my wife react to your letters, knowing that somehow you could touch her in ways I couldn't?"
"I'm sorry, Shawn. I never meant . . ."
"I know you didn't," he said. "I loved her, Doug, and I gave her security, but I couldn't touch her."
"You're not giving yourself enough credit."
Tears spilled out of his eyes. "I'll take credit for what I did, not for what I didn't. There were things I couldn't . . . wouldn't give her, and they were things she needed."
I looked at him filled with pain. "What are you talking about?"
Shawn rubbed his eyes. "About being willing to put someone before yourself," he said, "not physically, or financially, but emotionally. I could do it to a point, but I always held back."
"Shawn, we all hold something back," I said.
"You're wrong," I said, putting the letters back in the box. "Do you want these?"
He shook his head, and I put the letters back in the box and laid it aside. Then returned to the closet for the last two boxes.
"She loved you," he said as I set the boxes down on the bed. "You were always there when she needed you."
I glanced at him, and just over his shoulder on the wall was one of their wedding pictures. The bridesmaids beside Patty and me on the other side of Shawn are facing the camera, smiling, but Patty and Shawn are looking at each other. They loved each other so much back then.
"She told me about that night she went to see you," he said.
I remembered that night. How she had appeared at my door, so sad and beautiful with her long auburn hair, and tears trailing down her cheeks. Lonely and confused, she'd made an emotional confession asking me to please let her stay.
"She needed someone to talk to," I said.
"And I wasn't there for her," he said. "She told me she went to see you, and how you told her to go back home. She told me you called her selfish and bull-headed." He shook his head. "You were kind of hard on her weren't you?"
"I didn't think so at the time," I said.
"You could have had her," he said.
"That's a hell of a thing to say."
"I know," he said embarrassed, "but it's true. I know you loved her, and I think maybe she loved you, too. You had a chance to find out, but you passed it by. Why?"
"Because it wasn't me she needed," I said. "It was you."
"Is that why you turned her away?"
I looked at him. "I don't know why, " I said. "I'd like to say I turned her down because I have high moral standards, or because of our friendship, but to be honest, I don't know."
"I think you were scared," he said. "I think you've always been scared."
"Of what," I asked, looking at him.
"Of getting involved with someone, and having to make a commitment."
"You don't know that," I said.
"You're right. I don't," he said, "but I think that's why it was always so easy for you to love Patty. She wasn't a threat. You could love and care about her, but she couldn't do the same, and I think you wanted it that way."
I toyed with a piece of her jewelry and let his words slice through me.
"Ever since you were kids, you determined how close you and Patty were going to be. Why?"
"You're right," I said. "I was scared." I looked at him the truth I'd tried to hide seeping out against my will. "A man shouldn't try to give any more than he's capable of giving," I said. "I could never have loved her like she needed to be loved. You said a minute ago you held back. Well, I did, too."
"Because I knew I could never be completely selfless. There were things I wanted, and I was afraid I wouldn't be able to have her, and do them, too. Patty wanted someone who could put her first. I couldn't, so I stepped away. I felt, that for me, loving her from a distance was best, and that's what I did."
Shawn looked at me. "Ever since I've known you, Doug, you've always tried to play it safe. You'll give, and you'll help people, but the minute somebody tries to reciprocate you shut down. The closer someone tries to get to you the more you back off. You did it to Patty, to me, and even to the kids."
I didn't know what to say.
"She loved you, but you always turned away," he said. "It's time to stop turning away."
I glanced at the wedding picture on the wall, and just, for a second, it seemed it was me she was looking at instead of Shawn, and I was the one who looked the other way, but, maybe, just maybe, in the future I wouldn't. . .