“There’s something I have to tell you,” John said.
Do you remember ever wanting to hear the sentence after that one? I don’t. “There’s something I have to tell you” has never, in the history of man, been followed by “We won the lottery” or “I have discovered a cure for blindness.” This is especially true when the person uttering that sentence is your husband, and he is about to die.
I’m not a big believer in deathbed confessions. I intend to keep it all to myself, unless my own “There’s something I have to tell you” is “You were always my favorite,” to whoever walks in the room.
Everybody should be at my deathbed. You won’t regret it.
John and I were lying in the cramped hospital bed that I had installed in my bedroom because I had decided to go full pioneer woman and tend to him myself. I’m still not sure why. Normally I am the queen of outsourcing. Also, I am a terrible nurse.
But my decision to care for him at home was made in an instant. He wanted to be here. Our 16-year-old twin boys desperately wanted him here. And so did I, despite the fact that this was the first time we had lived together in 25 years of marriage. We had always kept separate homes.
A week earlier we had learned that John had three separate forms of cancer: pancreatic, liver and prostate. A “cancer overachiever,” as I told him. I can’t remember the Yiddish phrase his doctor used to describe the usefulness of chemo or radiation, but it roughly translated to “pissing in the wind.” Solid, barrel-chested, bearded and floppy-haired, John had always looked like a Bugs Bunny cartoon version of the opera singer he was. I adored his looks. Now he was a skeleton.
John spoke with difficulty as he held my hand. “So, there’s something I have to tell you,” he said. “I made a certain promise to Amy.”
Amy was his former wife. She had died of breast cancer about 30 years ago, before John and I met.
“I promised her,” he said, “that we would be buried together.”
It turns out that when John said he had kept Amy close, he hadn’t been speaking metaphorically; she was in his closet at his studio apartment. Could I fetch her? Also, could I find her passport and death certificate? I would need them to carry out his plan.
There was a field in Northern England where John had played as a child. He wanted to be buried there. With Amy. But not scattered. The field still existed, but the area was no longer so rural, and John didn’t want to end up blanketing a local parking lot.
So I was to take his box of ashes and Amy’s, get a shovel and probably a flashlight, because this was illegal so we’d need to do it at night, the funereal equivalent of a dine-and-dash. Joining me would be John’s 90-year-old sister and his nephew, along with our sons, Henry and Gus, who were currently far more focused on the adventure of the illicit burial than on what it all meant.
“I’d always been sure you’d go first,” John added, sadly.
The fact that I am 30 years younger had in no way deterred him from this thought. John seemed the grumpiest of men, but in key ways he was an optimist.
“And of course I would have followed your instructions for your own burial,” he said. “I would have cremated you and placed you in the mausoleum with your parents. I know you wanted nothing more.”
This didn’t seem the time to point out that for at least 10 years I had been telling him that I loathed the mausoleum, that I had arranged for my body to be donated to a medical school, and that I had put aside money for a big party afterward.
John never listened. That, combined with his almost comical frugality (I already had been warned I would need to find the cheapest cremation place in New York) had often threatened to sink our marriage. But I guess I could save that conversation to have with myself, late at night. Plenty of time for that. Not much time for anything else.
We talked and talked. “I was a good husband, wasn’t I?” he said. “At least I didn’t chase after girls.” (No, I thought a little churlishly. Because then you would have had to pay for them.) “You were wonderful,” I said. Both thoughts were true.
He wanted to make sure I understood his plan. But about 30 minutes into this conversation, he suddenly looked sheepish, as if it had just occurred to him that his wife of 25 years may not actually be on board to carry out this promise he had made to his former wife more than three decades earlier.
“You don’t have to do this right away,” he said. “In fact, you could wait until you go, and then have the boys take all three of us. That would be fine too.”
“Um,” I said.
Amy was Midwestern, blond, aristocratic and gracious, an accomplished equestrian and mezzo-soprano 17 years older than John. Before she got sick, they had worked their way across Europe, singing at all the big opera houses. She was everything I am not.
John and I used to joke that the only thing he and I had in common was a mutual antipathy for fish. Amy and John shared everything. He loved us both, and he made a family with me. But I never kid myself.
I explained the situation to my friend Hilary over lunch, including the part where I could hold off on the burial until my own demise. “I really don’t want to be their ashy third wheel,” I groused.
“Here’s what you do,” Hilary said. “You put Amy in some sort of suspicious container — something metal that the T.S.A. people can’t see through in the screening. Amy looks like a bomb. Oops! The T.S.A. will just have to keep her. Oh well! You tried.”
I could have explained instead of laughing, I suppose. But it’s hard, without sounding saccharine. One of the things I loved about my husband was that he kept his promises — even stupid ones that made no difference to anyone but himself. You wanted a light bulb changed? It was going to be changed, exactly at the time he said, and it would be with the 60-watt bulb, not the 100, because … who the hell knows, he had his reasons.
This punctiliousness and attention to detail meant he didn’t make promises freely, and he said “No” to life far more often than he said “Yes.” But also, this reliability was at the center of his John-ness. He lived small. But he loved deep.
John couldn’t quite remember where Amy’s papers were, but he knew they were in his apartment, and I did too, since he threw out nothing. During the search I found other things I wanted to ask him about. Why did my peace-loving husband have a police summons for disorderly conduct in 2002 that he never mentioned to me? Why were there photos of him happily rowing a woman I had never heard about in a pond in Central Park, and why was she dressed as a mime?
By the time I decided to ask, he could no longer speak. He had the most beautiful voice, a basso profundo, and I am glad our last conversations did not involve the police or mysterious mimes.
I found the papers in about 30 seconds. He didn’t even need to tell me where he put them. I knew my husband.
John died three days later, on his 86th birthday, which, since he was a fan of order and symmetry, seemed purposeful. My son Henry’s response, when I broke the news: “Well, the good news is, now you get to be the favorite parent.”
In August, Henry, Gus and I will be headed to England. The cremation was super-cheap, and the container is plastic. I have gotten four Newcastle United stickers so that Henry can decorate it with his favorite team. Amy and her papers are with us, too. I will let my sons carry John, and I will carry Amy. I want her to get there safely.
She has been waiting to join John for a long time, though I doubt he ever said to her, “Hey, do you want to be secretly buried in an English field in the middle of nowhere?”
In my life, I have been so lucky. Though I do wonder: Is this my love story? Is it theirs?
Maybe it’s ours.