Not My Beautiful Wife

(This is the fifth in a short series of posts)

I make phone calls all morning, and finally, I reach my first husband at his office.

Hello, darling, I say. He understands instantly why I have called.

Andrew and I always had a plan. We would stay up late at night in bed, laughing, devising ways to escape the city in the event of an attack by Godzilla or Mothra. We had our future mapped to the moment; we anticipated every contingency and had more insurance than any two young people should have had. And even now, as we talk, our voices betray that intimacy of a first marriage – where you have been young together, and loved each other in a way that you make up as you go along, and you have listened to each other throwing up in foreign hotel rooms, and have been so irrationally mad at each other that you once cancelled the other person’s credit card mid-business trip.

But my voice catches, and I cannot ask him: How did I get here? Tell me, darling, what comes next?

What comes next is that JRA plans and hosts an abbreviated shiva, but I cannot make a shiva call because I have out-of-town commitments that I must keep, and anyway I am struggling mightily with this new vocabulary of tangential Jewishness.

Arrangements are made, and dates are set, and time begins to move very fast indeed.

I drive to Scarsdale one Sunday to ride bikes with Lady H and she takes off down the Bronx River Trail like a bat out of hell, leading me and JRA on the ride in the cold, pale January afternoon. She struggles on the hills but conquers them, a far cry from a few months earlier, when even the slightest incline terrified her. As the day grows smaller, we head back down the trail, along the river, and a large, blue heron stands silently in the water, staring at me as I ride.

H! H! I holler to my budding ornithologist companion, What kind of bird is this? But she has ridden too far ahead to hear me.

JRA pulls her bike up beside me to look. It’s funny because the one person who would know isn’t here to identify it, she says with a small smile. Pete had been a lover of nature and an avid watcher of birds, and I feel a wide, dull ache in my chest flap brokenly.

The heron is still staring at me as we ride away.

The first of two services for Pete is planned for the end of January, and Andrew tells me that he and his wife will be there. He and I talk a few times before the day-of – about love, and life, and loss, and interfaith relationships. His wife is a professor of Jewish Studies, and he is a lapsed Catholic; they are raising their children Jewish. It all sounds very complex, and it reminds me of when I had to convert to Catholicism in order to marry Andrew – the Bishop came to a church in suburban Maryland to perform my confirmation – and Andrew’s parents had flown in from Connecticut in support, but to this day I believe it was to ensure that I actually went through with the whole thing.

On the day of the service at the JCC, we all drive out from the city to Westchester in a car filled with flowers and food and wine to remember and to celebrate Pete. JRA and I go to the JCC ahead of the crowd to begin setting up for the service, and for one brief moment, we are alone in a room, just the two of us – no parents, no friends, no Lady H. We have been in this sort of waiting room prior to events before but they have always been happy occasions – my weddings; her wedding; just before Lady H was born – and now, here we are, preparing to celebrate the end of the beginning.

Friends begin arriving, and the service begins, and it is beautiful. It is mostly people I haven’t seen since my first wedding, or since JRA’s. People tell stories and share memories, and Dorota reads the Horace ode in Latin that a friend read when JRA and Pete got married. And because Pete had been an avid singer before muscular dystrophy had restricted his voice, his college acapella group, the Pirates, sing a sea shanty.

As the Pirates launch into the Mingulay Boat Song, my eyes scan the crowd for Andrew, who is a few rows ahead of me, sitting with his wife. I think back to that October day, ten years earlier, when JRA and Pete were married in Boston, and she and I had shared the same wedding veil, and she had floated down the stairs wearing it as the Pirates serenaded them. I watch Andrew’s wife dab her eyes with his handkerchief, and I watch him put his arm around her and draw her close, just as he had done to me a decade before on the opposite occasion.

The next day, JRA sends me a photo taken from her front porch – it is of a murmuration of starlings; hundreds of them. They have inexplicably descended upon her street – swooping down upon her yard and doing loops over the wheelchair ramp on her lawn.

If I were the type of person who believed in signs, she says, trailing off.

And for the first time in many weeks, I feel the ache in my chest flutter a little, and start to grow wings.

1 Comment

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  1. Flashed back to when you were confirmed and the memories of Andrew’s family showing support was so pivotal to all the memories of your marriage to him. You are a master of weaving words and I for one am so touched by this piece.

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