“When you died” by Melanie Hoffert

Melanie Hoffert

When you died

I took your blue extension cord. That thing must reach fifty feet. It came in handy the other day when I needed to charge the lawnmower and couldn’t find our orange one. I took your step ladder and those many packages of plastic razors. Did you even shave? Your skin was like that of a Sphynx – so thin and soft. I took six boxes of Band-Aids; it seemed like a shame to throw them. And there were the yellowed divorce papers I grabbed, which document my wife’s childhood through the eyes of the courts. You were her unbound side: no bedtime, pizza for dinner, freedom; her father her orderly side: beds are to be made, all things have a place. I hear you both daily in whispers accenting our lives. 

I took a gaudy Styrofoam Christmas wreath wrapped in ruby-red ribbon and adorned with tinsel and metallic stars. The wreath isn’t your daughter’s taste, I realize, but it brings to mind the larger-than-life way you navigated the world with your wigs, printed tights, wide-brimmed hats, and glittering make-up.  

Months later, after the bank had foreclosed on your home, I snuck into the garage. Well, by that time, perhaps it is more accurate to say that I broke in. I rifled through the storage containers stacked there. Your children had left them out of sheer exhaustion, along with your piano and most of your furniture, clothing, books. One bin contained items you had kept for your daughter: trinkets stamped with her school mascot, toothless pictures, newspaper clippings, and trophies. I gathered those layers of her life, curated by you, and took them with me, figuring that she’d later regret leaving them behind. 

I also took the bin that contained your planners, scribbled with decades’ worth of appointments. Seeing your familiar handwriting, the same loops and bends in the apple pie recipe that hangs on our refrigerator, made you feel present. In those pages, you had plotted your life in a scattered patchwork of work meetings, to-do lists, bill reminders, and doctors’ appointments alongside spiritual affirmations and inspirational quotes. 

When you jotted that number for a babysitter in 1986, you didn’t know how your life would end, but now we do. A hip fracture. Routine surgery. Cardiac arrest. Your heart stopped for nine minutes on the operating table, but they brought you back. And then, because you didn’t wake up, the doctors cooled your body – forced hypothermia. This, they said, may preserve your brain. This, they said, may keep you with us. Two days later, when you woke, we wept in celebration. You didn’t join us. Instead, you met us with an empty stare, your arms animated with jerky, unnatural motions as if you were directing an orchestra, as if, from an ancient time, you were calling men back in from the sea. We couldn’t stand to watch. 

Then the miracle. One morning you were present again. The jarring motion subsided. Still intubated, you smiled sweetly and blinked on command. 

After she looks through them, I suppose your daughter can recycle those planners one day. 

I took a spade and your weed trimmer. With that spade, I dug up what I could from your garden: Echinacea, lilies, phlox, and other plants I can’t name. I hauled them in the back of my car, mounds of earth and roots and green, and sunk them into the ground at our house.

Your daughter is not all that into plants. Even your memorial garden, which has bloomed for two summers now, doesn’t catch her eye though I feel a tug in my gut when everything wakes up and deepens with pigment. If you were here, we would shoot each other a mischievous look and roll our eyes at how our shared love – your daughter, my wife – can be so oblivious to the natural environment. 

I took two pairs of scissors; before I had them, I could never find one when I needed it. And I took ten cellophane-wrapped teeth whitening kits. You probably signed up for some Internet deal. The kits contain instructions on making a mouth mold; you did not yet have time to soften the plastic and bite. We will never unwrap these boxes, but I can’t let them go. 

Even though I don’t care for their stiff ink, I took your piles of Bic pens. Leaving them behind seemed like sacrilege for a writer. I did leave many other things, however, including your seasonal affective disorder lamp. I still kick myself when it gets dark and we can hardly make it through winter in this northern land without cracking. 

A week before you died, your daughter screamed in agony that you’d never meet the baby we wanted to have one day. I reminded her that you were still breathing, looking around, now responding. But she knew, as a daughter would, that we were near the end. This reminds me: We couldn’t figure out why you would have a child’s pillow shaped like a lamb, still wrapped in plastic. Nobody was pregnant. I thought we might stumble upon your intention for it, so I took that too. Maybe we can give it to our baby someday. 

You were brave to nod your head yes – did you mean it? – when the doctor said slowly, loudly, that you might die if they pull out your breathing tube. That there are risks. We all saw it though, the nod, your blink of awareness. Your other daughter sang sweetly in your ear, “You are my sunshine,” while our shared love squatted on the floor and held your hand. She couldn’t watch them work. I kept my eyes on your soft face, recounted how you liked your coffee, dark with thick cream pooled on the surface; how you’d sit at our cabin surrounded in a nest of mail that you brought to sort, tearing envelopes as you watched waves churn; how you’d lecture your daughter on my behalf not to pass gas like a teenager; how when asked if you wanted an English Muffin in the morning or a gin and tonic at night, you always paused before saying “yes” as if to allow for the pleasure born of anticipating life’s small rewards to swell. 

When the tube came out, you mouthed our names, airy and hoarse. I anticipated a calm celebration, a reunion. I anticipated the years ahead: our soon-to-be wedding and then, later, trips across the ocean where we would lend a hand to steady you on cobblestone streets. You did not give up when liberated from the ventilator. I watched you fight, willing your lungs to greedily accept the oxygen and pass it along to the rest of your body. I saw that you were not ready for it to all end as your vitals began to plummet. I soon knew that she was right: you would never meet our baby.

The abrupt separation of a daughter and mother leaves a deep ache in one’s bone; stirs a primal awareness that indiscriminate loss is around every corner. In those days that followed, I wanted to ease your daughter’s pain. But those who stand as witnesses to death eventually learn there is no remedy; no antidote; nothing we can offer to stop the agony. This is when the impulse to intervene becomes physical, embodied. And so when you died, I did all I knew to do. Like an archeologist saving relics for a future time, I collected you. 

Melanie Hoffert is the author of Prairie Silence (Beacon Press, 2014), recipient of the Minnesota Book Award in Memoir and Creative Nonfiction. She has been published in several literary journals, including Orion, Ascent, Fugue, and The UTNE Reader. The Baltimore Review and New Millennium Writings each selected her work as the recipient of their CNF Writing Award. Melanie currently splits her time between her home in Minneapolis and her cabin in rural Minnesota, where she is finishing a memoir called Water Land. melaniehoffert.com

This creative nonfiction piece originally appeared in SAND 22.