The suns sets, leaving all the bright colors in the room muted by dusk and candle light.
Before I know it, before I’m really ready, I’m lying on a blanket in the ring of candles, Maisie kneeling beside me, as Ms. Josephine circles us, praying as she lights each one.
I meet Ms. Josephine’s eyes as she nears, and she nods at my panicked look.
Yes, this is it. Was I ready? I thought I was. I thought I could do it for Maisie. But now that the time is here, I’m not really sure.
I remember what dying feels like. The feeling of emptiness it brought to the center of my chest, the heaviness of my thoughts and the weightlessness of my limbs. I remember the way it filled everything with blackness, and I’m afraid. Not as afraid as before, but enough to make my heart pound and my muscles tight. Enough to want to run the hell away.
But I’ve already chosen fight over flight, and the only way to fight this darkness is to end it. In my soul, I know I can’t stay in this state, and I need to move on. This world is no longer my home. Hadn’t been since the lab bruisers had done their work, since Travis had buried me in the dirt. It was time to go.
To what, I don’t know, but I know there has to be something after this. That part doesn’t scare me. I’m kind of excited to see what the afterlife holds, now that I know there is a God and spirits, and way more to this world than I thought possible before.
I am ready, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it. I’m full of regret that it has to be this way, that I won’t meet my child, won’t get to grow old and gray with my wife. Grief is heavy in my chest over the loss of those years and experiences. And I’m angry, because I was robbed of them by Biff and the lab. But I’m also thankful for Mrs. Josephine, that she gave me a little more time to set things right, to spend with the love of my life.
All the emotions at once are jumbled up inside, and they come in waves.
I look at Maisie, focusing on her face instead of what Ms. Josephine is doing. I’m trying not to let her see all the fear in me; for me, for her, but I can’t help gripping both her hands in mine. She’s my rock, my anchor. This is to keep her and our baby safe. But I’m worried about her. Will she be okay after I’m gone? I know my family will continue to take care of her if she needs it, but my death had changed her. This experience would inevitably change her again. Would she be okay?
Truthfully, this would hurt her, but Maisie was too full of love and life to remain a widow forever. Some other man would come along and put the smile back on her face that my death took away. He might be the one to raise my child. My wife and child would be the stars in someone else’s sky. Could I live with that?
No way. No way could I live knowing my family was someone else’s. But yeah…I could die that way.
Unlike last time, I feel death settling on me like a cool sheet. It doesn’t hurt, it isn’t heavy. I’m floating, drifting, and any minute now, I’ll just float away.
I’m no longer afraid.
At least this time, the last thing I will see before I close my eyes is the beautiful face of my wife, her love for me in her eyes. I get to pass in the comfort of her arms, surrounded by her love.
I really can’t think of a better way to go.
It’s surreal to think we are here for the specific purpose of Grady dying, and when I leave this room, this house, it will be alone.
But I get to say goodbye to my husband this time. That’s something, right?
I should be thankful for that, but I can’t summon gratitude right now as I grip his hands in mine. Fear and regret and anger and pain are taking up all my emotional bandwidth.
Besides, I know the truth now. ‘Getting to say goodbye’ is just trying to be okay with someone passing before it happens. It’s trying to make them believe you’re okay with it before they go. Making them believe you’ll be okay without them so they can pass in peace.
But having a goodbye is harder. It’s more painful. It does give one closure, and that means I’ll have one less regret this time around. But damn it, no one tells you how much closure hurts.
Grady and I repeatedly say goodbye, tell each other how much we love the other, while I pretend I won’t be utterly wrecked when he’s gone.
And it’s all a lie.
But a necessary one. After all, I’ll have the rest of my life to find peace about Grady’s death. He only has a short time to do that. So if I have to be strong now to help him, I will. It’s only because I love him so much that I even have it in me to try.
“You’ll tell our child that I was happy? That I wanted to meet them?” His voice chokes off, and he swallows and continues. “That I loved them?”
I nod. I can’t stop the tears, and I’m not even trying to now. “I’ll tell them. I promise.”
And I would. I would tell our child every wonderful and noble thing about their father. That he had a strong moral compass, and died doing what he believed was right, died trying to protect others. Both times.
But I’d probably leave that last part out of the bedtime stories.
I give Grady a tearful smile as I brush the hair from his clammy forehead. I feel like a broken vase, bound together with glue that’s still wet. I’m just waiting for a firm squeeze before I crumble into all my previous broken pieces from the last time I lost him.
And the squeeze is coming very, very soon.
Whatever Ms. Josephine is doing is working. Grady is tired, struggling to keep his eyes open. His voice is getting softer, his grip on my hands weaker.
Death clings to him, waiting.
At least this time, he won’t die alone. “I’m here,” I whisper, tears falling. “I’m right here. I won’t let you go.” At least this time, he’s dying in peace instead of pain. Comfort instead of horror. With me beside him, instead of alone in the dark.
I hold on to him as if I can keep the breath in his body, as if I can anchor his soul to this earth and keep him from slipping away. But I can’t. I feel him going, and squeeze harder, sobbing. I can’t let him go.
“You’re my everything,” he says. Then, a smile in his eyes and on his lips, he slips away. That quick.
That moment between life and death was so brief that I wasn’t entirely sure. “Grady?” I put a hand to his cheek.
But his eyes are empty, his face and hands slack, and I’m certain he’s no longer there.
My Grady is gone. For good, this time.
I break, no longer worried about what it would do to him to witness it. He won’t. His hand still in mine, I drop my head to his motionless chest and sob.
Ms. Josephine scoots closer and wraps her arms around me, hand on my head. “Sister, you will make it through this. I promise you.”
But she’s wrong. I was wrong.
I can’t live without him.