In 1968, I am staring out the back windshield of my parents' car. Our house recedes, its boundaries shrink, the property surrounding it gives way to the street and the trees and the cars that are familiar, and then to another street, less familiar, and eventually to someplace I haven't been before. I am five. My father makes a turn, hand over hand, as my mother opens the map to where we are going. In the back seat, I settle down between my brother and sister. As the traffic light changes, the light of understanding dawns for me: The house is still there, behind us. The trees I know are there. The street is there. We are the ones going away.
Is my life with Gil like that? A home, like the house I still live in with our daughter, that existed before we came to it and persists after we go? Do the houses we empty need our memories to affix them to earth? Or do they fix our memories in place for us? Are we-the ones moving at the speed limit so much of the time, only slowing to obey a stop signal or because we get distracted and our foot drifts off the accelerator-are we dependent on those houses to contain our memories when we cannot anymore?
If a memory we make can exist apart from us, then a ghost might be nothing more than a memory so charged, so indelible-perhaps lost to its owners-that it finds a physical home for its care and preservation.
In the 100-year-old house I shared with Gil for only 18 months, I once walked among the unpacked boxes, myself an unpacked box containing Mona, and wondered who might have died here. I thank God I was in my life's backseat at that delicious moment, unfolding bed linens and musing on the house's history. Because my answer lay ahead, only a year and a handful of months ahead. And now the house is mine alone to tend, to keep or sell, to patch and pay for, to fix up or let go. No matter what I do or whether I move, it will remain the home we brought our daughter to and the home that slammed its door on Gil's dead body. The question for me is, do I stay and honor those memories? Would my staying honor those memories? Do they live apart from me, will they enliven the bones and walls of our house with the urgency of our honest love, the effortlessness of selflessness, the lesson I learned under Gil's husbanding care? In that case, would it be selfish for me to stay on here when I have already taken that lesson to heart? Would I become the ghost in these walls?
Pick a spot, any spot in this house, and I will give you a sampling of its invisible landmarks, rooms in time that open their doors when I least expect them to. I bring home the groceries, and the sound of the key in the lock makes me choke on his name and the bright greeting we always exchanged. Reflexively I might still glance through to the narrow galley kitchen and hope to find him puttering at the stove with one of his ballcaps covering dirty hair. In the dining room, he might just be sitting at his customary place. If it's lunch time, he'll be eating a tuna-avocado-tomato-and-swiss sandwich on an English muffin, the lunch he made almost every day with architectural care and savored with comics he creased and saved specifically for lunchtime reading. Or maybe he is there with the carpenter who helped him fix up the basement as an office for our business. And I come around to distract him or listen in, bumping my hip to his shoulder as he sits, until he absentmindedly loops his arm around my back and pats the side of my growing belly fondly.
Across the living room from that chair is another gateway, cleverly disguised as a sofa. It arrived 15 weeks after we ordered it, 10 weeks after Mona, and 6 weeks after we'd been promised. Gil argued fiercely for a mark-down for our trouble: One of his greatest joys was extracting good customer service from bad salespeople. "In the time it took you people to make and deliver our sofa, we brought forth and nourished new life!" he shouted on the phone. The sofa was his pride and joy: no drinks, no sticky substances, no shoes should mar its surface, though he wasn't a prig. He understood that sofas were for sleeping chiefly and for entertaining as a close second. He died there.
Upstairs as you turn on the landing, you can open my bedroom door to peek through to my future, fragile and intricate as a scene inside a confectionary egg. My bedroom is a reconstruction project: the boudoir and company headquarters of a woman in progress. One very late night a few months ago, I dismantled the heavy oak headboard and frame by myself and propped the tall box spring against the wall. The new steel-framed bed I bought has a sleeker and lower profile, as befits a woman who sleeps essentially alone but for her young daughter. Contrary to my old stringent rule of separating night from day, I now pay bills there, write there, read there, make phone calls there, and generally conduct my life's work from the safety of its prow.
The upstairs bathroom, physically on the upper back edge of the house, feels precarious and unsturdy, like an eroding shore. I avoid using it. I have tried, but I feel impermanent and permeable there, barely sure of myself as I stake out the new edge of my life, conscious even as I brush my teeth or apply my lipstick that a fault line lies at my feet, that still more of my life could fall in the ocean and leave me less to live on. Once not too long ago, it seemed that we ourselves, Gil and me and the life we were growing, were the ocean, that nothing could fall into the water without coming back to us somehow. We lived in abundant, warm, wet grace, and the claw-footed bathtub was its font. We took gorgeous baths here together, me leaning back against him in the water and enjoying the little ripples and rills of companionable silence that lapped at the edges where we touched. Later we bathed Mona there when she was strong enough to sit up. Later still, Gil disappeared into that bathroom a week after his first chemo with a head of patchy hair and emerged bald. There he struggled to perform the basic tasks of hygienic necessity, and when his hip failed he had me bring an office chair from the basement so he could roll from our bedroom to the bathroom alone. In that bathroom, I forced Gil into the tub for a final bath when he was far too fragile and I was frantic with exhaustion. That's when I finally understood I couldn't save him. In that claw-footed tub we had coveted when we looked at the house, where we had once basked in the animal peace of our pregnant year and later bathed our baby, I now cradled a wraith too weak to sit up.
Our wedding ketubah now hangs near Mona's crib where she and I can look at it together. Huge, hand-painted by a friend with inset portraits of Gil and me and a mythical, mystical rabbi, it is the perfect document for this room, where my living covenant with Gil sleeps and plays and hears the stories he left behind.
This column is my last letter to you from the road. I know it's supposed to sum up how far I've come. And I have come far. I have. Far enough to decide that recovering from grief is not like finding a new house in a better town. It's more like making your way through a funhouse, where you bump and bumble and scare yourself and change shape. You never know where you will come out, squinting in the bright day with the other rubes. But chances are when you get your bearings, you'll see this crazy house is the only attraction for miles. And to your amazement, you'll find yourself fishing in your pocket for another coin, to see if you can go back in, just one more time.
Read the first installment of Gil and Lisa's "Living with Cancer" column, Lost and Found, or choose another column here: