I miss the phone calls before flights the most. They were always so genuine and intimate. Everyone knows the plane you board could go down, but nobody wants to acknowledge that, so it goes unsaid. I’d tell her we’re about to board and she’d tell me she’d say a quick prayer and that she loved me. But not in the same way she’d say it before I left for the gym or to get food. The pre-flight I love yous were heavy and reminiscent of the ones we first shared back in high school when I love yous weren’t thrown around so casually.
Since Jess passed, I find myself overcome with emotion before I get on a plane because I realize I don’t have anybody to ignore life’s finality with me. I board and sit in my seat and wait for the plane to take off before I try to fall asleep. Nobody’s waiting for me to land and that scares me. I start to think about how if I did die, nobody would stumble to their knees in shock. Coworkers would be upset, I’m sure, but mostly because I was there one day and gone the next. My death would simply remind them that one day, they too, will die.
My parents have been dead for nearly twenty years now. Jess’ father died eight or nine years ago, and her mother followed him into the afterlife a few short months later. I’ve got no kids, no siblings. I haven’t had good friends since college. I don’t say this to garner sympathy for myself, I’m just laying this out, almost to myself. To analyze just how alone I am in this world right now.
She died four years ago, July 7, on a Tuesday. She’d been sick with breast cancer for nine months — nine months of agonizing pain. She suffered profoundly for practically all of it, which made dying easier for her. She began to tell me that towards the end. “I just want to die,” she’d repeat, with tears rolling down her cheeks from her sunken eyes. It broke me, watching her suffer like that. She’d sit in my lap, all 87 pounds of her, lean her naked head against my chest, and throw up into the trash can I’d have on the bedroom floor. I’ll never forget the smell of disease that filled our house. She was quieter the last few months, but I wouldn’t want to talk to anybody either if I were dying a grueling death. The last thing she said to me made me cry, the first time I did so in front of her since we received the diagnosis together.
About seven months into dating, we went to a terrible country concert with a group of friends. We got drunk, then got lost, and ended up having to wait a while to take the latest train from the city. I watched over her with intoxicated eyes, prepared to protect her from the ghouls and ghosts of the night. She tapped the melody of “Just the Way You Are” by Billy Joel on my thigh and when the train came, led me to our seat. We sat towards the back so that nobody could sit behind us, and we laughed about the pretzels we stole from a street vendor earlier. She went rummaging in her purse and I looked out the window, watching the city skyscrapers wink at us as the train carried us back home. Then she tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a small piece of folded paper. I opened it, squinted at it, and then began to laugh.
Her eyes pulled me in and her kiss taught me that love tasted like strawberry lip gloss and cheap vodka.
Those first couple years, she’d say it to me occasionally, and for some reason, it meant more to me than when she said, “I love you.” Time has a way of sobering up love, of flattening it out a little and erasing some of the youthful passion that sprouts during the onset of a relationship. It happens to everyone, and it happened to us. Things I used to find cute eventually annoyed me. My jokes didn’t make her laugh all the time. The “Olive yous” dissipated more and more until they disappeared entirely. That’s what made that final one so difficult to bear in front of her. I wasn’t expecting it. My tears fell fast and heavy, slipping from my eyes onto her face. I sunk into her chest and wept so intensely, I didn’t feel her pass. She must’ve made a noise — a whimper, a gurgle — something to indicate her last breaths were being taken. My groans drowned out her death. I laid beside her in the hospital bed with my left leg over hers, physically mourning the only woman I had ever loved. Her sister got there two hours later and when she came into the room to say good-bye, I went outside and sat on the floor in the hall, crying into thin tissues that fell apart too quickly.
I don’t remember anything else about that day. No matter how hard I try, I can’t recall any of it. I do remember waking up the next day and wondering where she was. Neither of us were intensely religious, but we both had grown up Catholic and went to church together on Sundays when we’d wake up early enough. She’d put on a pot of coffee and we’d go to the 9:30 mass at St. Rita’s before getting breakfast at a diner in town. We didn’t talk about it regularly, but we both believed in God.
I know Christians are told that death shouldn’t be sad, that it’s a celebration of the soul being reunited with God. I believe that, but with Jess I can’t think that way. I’m not on the other side eagerly awaiting her homecoming. I’m not an angel or a saint, guiding her into the afterlife. I’m just a husband who lost his wife. I’m human and I’m lonely and I want her to whisper “Olive you,” in my ear again and again and again. I want to kiss her lips and hear her laugh and watch her eat popcorn too fast while we watch movies together. I want her on the other side of the phone, telling me she’ll say a quick prayer before my flight takes off.