STORIES that stretch your mind

The Best Metaphysical Fiction of the year from Thresholds Quarterly

Ray Bradley

He was alone. The children had been gone for years, and now his wife had been taken. It had been cancer, invading the body as rot besets wood, destroying cells, leaving them incapable of sustaining life. Mercifully it had been quick. But now it was over. His life’s partner was gone, and he was alone.

The marriage had been such a close one, two people, inseparable, working together, playing together, raising their children together. So when death came it was as though half of him had died. He was devastated, so broken-hearted he wanted the other half of him to die. Why should he go on without his mate? How could he go on? I didn’t see how he’d make it.

At the funeral he said he wouldn’t view the body. He wanted to remember “his Marge” as she had been before she became sick – vibrant and healthy. The gaunt face and frail body, the thinned hair, ravaged by chemotherapy, the pallid skin, they weren’t the “real Marge.” He would not expose his memory to that vision. But he did. He stood beside the casket, holding the cold, rigid hand of the one he loved, looking longingly on her face, as though he could bring her back to him by visually absorbing her image. When they prepared to close the casket, he threw himself on the lifeless body and sobbed. At that moment I was certain he wouldn’t last a month.

But he survived. In times of sorrow those who love and care gather to comfort those who mourn, a phenomenon that is truly one of God’s great blessings. Family and friends rallied around him. His two sons stayed with him day and night, constantly providing love and support. And he grew stronger. The moments of despair became fewer, the sorrow more bearable, the memories less painful. And then he was through it. Life by himself slowly began to take on meaning. It still wasn’t easy, but each morning he found a reason to face the day. He could even endure the nights. Finally, his sons left to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Days became weeks, each filled with the tasks that come with the ending of a life — mailing thank-you notes, deciding who gets what personal item, attending to the multitude of changes to records and accounts. His phone bill was astronomical. He called everyone, trying to bring others into his world of one. And he traveled all over the state, visiting old friends and familiar places, looking to fill the void in his life. Then, gradually, the calls made became fewer and the miles driven less.

It was in the second month that he met her. She was an old school chum. They had dated in high school, but were never more than friends. Her husband had died a year earlier, and she still hadn’t adapted to being alone. They came together as two hurting people, in need of companionship, looking for a compassionate ear, someone who could understand their loss. They met for coffee, occasionally lunch, sometimes just to walk and talk, simply to be with another human being. The times together were good, but there were no romantic implications; their memories wouldn’t allow them to love again — at least not so soon.

He took her to meet his sons. Although forewarned before the visit, they responded coolly. Oh, they were polite but, still, were less than enthusiastic about their father’s new friendship. It was not an unreasonable reaction. After all, the grass on their mother’s grave had barely time to take root, and their feelings were no less tender than the new grass. The older boy seemed to accept the idea of another woman better than his brother. He saw his father’s loneliness, his need for someone to be with and to talk to, someone to hear his thoughts, thoughts that otherwise would be but pointless words spoken to an empty room. This woman could ease his father’s pain. She could fill a void even if she couldn’t replace what had been there, any more than water could replace fine wine.

It was the younger boy who worried me. It was as though his father and the woman’s friendship had dishonored his mother. The boy became distant. He didn’t visit; he seldom called. His brother tried to talk to him, to tell him about desolation, an affliction that withers and kills. But his words weren’t welcome. The younger boy remained unmoved. The chasm grew, and his father, a proud man, fueled the rift. It was his life. He’d live it as he wished.

As if to make his point, he and the woman married. Family members weren’t consulted; they weren’t even invited to the wedding. A justice of the peace in a distant town performed the ceremony. People were shocked. It had only been four months. How, in such a short time, could he become so attached to this woman? How could he marry her? Surely he didn’t love her.

Love her? No, not as he had his Marge. It was too soon for that kind of love to find a way into his broken heart. But he cared for her deeply — and he needed her. She was a presence that filled his days. She gave him new interests to opiate old memories. She buoyed him in his moments of deepest despair, and he wouldn’t give her up to appease those who criticized him, any more than a drowning man gives up a life ring because those on the shore call to him loudly to swim and save himself.

The marriage, however, cemented the younger son’s estrangement. Even the strained relationship that had existed between them before ceased. The son, having lost his mother, now gave up his father, casting him out of his life as one would shed an unwanted coat on a hot summer day. I saw a son hurt by what he perceived to be an affront to his mother’s memory and a father blind to the insensitivity of his actions, both father and son unable to understand the other’s pain.

Now I watch their grief-inflicted wounds fester without the healing love that each could provide to the other. I would, if spirit were like flesh, shake them. “Why,” I would ask, “can you not see what matters? Why can you not set aside your insistence on being the injured party? What is so important in being right?” God tells man to rid himself of all bitterness and anger, to not hold hateful feelings, but to be kind and tender-hearted, to forgive. Such wise words. Why do father and son not learn from them? Why can they not forgive?
And their grief afflicts me. I am saddened to see two so close to my heart inflict such pain on each other. Healing requires love not anger. But it is easier for me to understand, for I no longer can feel anger. As with all mortal weaknesses, I am beyond that one, too. Love is now my natural sentiment. It fills my being; it is my all.

So I pray for them. I pray for love to heal their hearts. Pray? Yes, I still pray. Is there any other way to talk to God, even here where I am.

I was Marge, and I pray for my son and my husband.•

Drawing upon experience gained as a thirty-four-year player in the corporate world, an ardent sailor, and a student of human nature, Ray Bradley has penned numerous short stories and later mystery and suspense novels. Ray and his wife, Carolyn, divide their time between Mount Dora, Florida and Ashville, North Carolina.

©1998 Thresholds Quarterly Vol. 16 No. 5

Copyright© 2002, School of Metaphysics

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