The man she loved and had spent her life with was dead. All the ways she had ever thought she might feel in this situation eluded her as she rose. Hattie continued to study Ben's features which seemed to change again and again in the shifting light. She knew suddenly one important thing about her life with Ben. She had lived beside him through the glorious and quotidian days of a long marriage, and yet they each had their individual loneliness. Hattie's body trembled again at the terrible knowledge that she had never really known Ben at all.
When she climbed the stairs again, Hattie felt a weariness so intense that she could hardly lift her feet to clear the treads. At least, she thought, she could rest. But during the night, her first night of widowhood, sleep moved away from her like an elusive lover. Each time she felt herself moving toward it, she'd be pulled back, imagining she heard thick, phlegmy breathing on the pillow next to her. As she tossed and jerked the covers this way and that trying to find a cool space to rest, she struggled to make sense of her own emotions which didn't feel like the grief she felt entitled to. If she had to name her state, she would think, confusion. As though too much was happening at once, too many images crowding in around her, too much for her to process especially with the house full of people all afternoon and evening. She simply couldn't think. Occasionally, she'd imagine herself placing the ring, touching Ben's dead flesh, how strange he looked and felt; then the thought would frighten her and quickly disappear to surface again in images of Ben holding baby Alice on his lap.
Since Alice had moved to Pittsburgh two years before and with Ben on the road, Hattie's life had been solitary and private except for the good friends and neighbors. The day had been too much for her and the viewing and funeral the next day would be even more taxing. She knew she needed sleep, yet how was she to turn off her mind enough to rest. How was she to endure it? When she thought of the numbers of women she knew who had been widowed, she was astonished that they were able to survive the rituals of bereavement.
And Ben. How could she even make herself begin to realize that the central person in her life was gone? Ben. How could she cope with everyone talking to her, trying to comfort her but saying things she didn't want to hear, making her remember this or that good time they had with her and Ben? But what about the other times they had shared, the not so perfect times. Did anyone else remember them? She felt her mind refuse those images.
Still, another thought pulled at the edge of her consciousness, one that she couldn't quite bring into focus. She dozed fitfully until two, then fell into a deep sleep for three hours. She woke up with a start, knowing with certainty what the elusive thing which had been bothering her, was: she still didn't know what Ben had started to tell her. What had he been thinking of in the moments before he died?
She must have slept again for when she woke next, the room was stuffy, much too warm for early May and gray with predawn light. She lay there, willing herself to get up; even imagining herself seated on the edge of the bed ready to stand. The house was completely still; Alice slept down the hall in her childhood bedroom. No traffic passed on the road since the milk truck's four a.m. run. She squinted at the clock: 5:15. She must have dozed again.
When she heard the hall floorboards sigh, a small kernel of happiness bloomed in Hattie's heart. It was a night long ago, before Ben had begun to travel, before Alice and she had begun to misunderstand each other. The covers moved and her daughter's small, sleep-warmed body slid in next to her. For a moment, milky sweet baby breath feathered Hattie's cheek, then the child turned and nestled close, her back curled into Hattie's chest. Greedily, Hattie inhaled Alice's scents and drew a few strands of her daughter's downy blond hair into her mouth. Only partially awake, Hattie adjusted her body around her daughter and Ben moved slightly to make room in the cave of his arms for his wife and child.
Copyright Karen Blomain, 2001. All rights reserved. Reproduced by the permission of the publisher, Toby Press.
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