Present, Memorial Day Weekend
Sitting in the backseat of his steel gray Mercedes-Benz sedan, Ben switched the mobile phone to his other ear and removed the seatbelt out of his way, loath to strap himself in for any length of time. When its band rested tightly across his chest, he struggled to breathe, preferring instead to trust in his long-time chauffeur’s driving abilities more than a piece of nylon fabric hinged to a pulley. “I am in the car heading to the Club. I should arrive in twenty minutes.”
“Still happily married to the woman of your dreams?” his wife said, whimsy exuded from her lyrical voice.
“Ah, my beautiful Olivia. The last forty years have been amazing. So much ahead of us and still to come.”
“I love you more than yesterday.”
“But not as much as tomorrow.” He played along, enjoying their frivolous banter.
“Please get to the party soon. It’s not any fun without my best friend by my side. I look a bit funny dancing a rumba by myself. Remember when we crashed into the instructor taking those silly dance lessons, and she yelled at us for being fools… oh, I never laughed so hard.”
Ben glanced through the car window, surprised by the speed of the muddy water cascading down the mountains, as his chauffeur took the Interstate exit through their hometown. “Ha, yes! Quite a pair. No wife of mine should ever dance alone. At least not while I can prevent it. Isn’t tonight the first time the whole family has been together since last Christmas?”
“Yes. They’re all here now, reminding me so much of you in the early days. That rain sounds torrential, dear.”
Ben’s thoughts drifted while the chauffeur drove him to the banquet hall, lightning crackling in the sky and rain pounding the black-tarred roads around him. “Yes, but time flies by too quickly.”
“You’ve got a few months left, then you’ll retire and have nothing but time to be a grandfather and a father, doling out advice. Even if they don’t want to listen to us, they never do, do they? Wishing you could turn back the clock. At least we can finally take our trip to Europe… still there, Ben?”
Ben snapped from the storm’s lulling, hypnotic trance upon hearing Olivia’s raised voice on the phone. “Sorry. Just distracted, recalling their antics over the years. I do not know how we survived five boys.”
Ben heard her beautiful snicker, about to tell Olivia he loved her, but the car swerved as it neared the final exit on the slick asphalt curve, unaware traffic had come to a full stop ahead. He dropped the phone from the unplanned change in direction, retrieved it from under the front passenger seat and raised his head.
As he looked up, Ben’s heartbeat and breath paused significantly longer than usual, enough to recognize the encroaching overpass column directly in his purview and accept the impending fate laid before him. Whoever said life flashes before one’s eyes in your final moments clearly never lived to truly describe it. In Ben’s case, although they only lasted ten explosive seconds, those moments managed to include all sixty-nine years of his existence, each image punctuated by a blinding flash of pure white light and deafened by the harsh snapping sound of an old-time camera shutter.
CRUNCH. Grinding squeal. Bright light glimmers in a dark vacuum.
The enchanting depth of the pools that were Olivia’s cerulean blue eyes the night they first met at the opera. Their wedding day when he truly understood what it meant to find one’s soulmate.
SNAP. Utter blackness, followed by a perforated vibrant glow.
The Thanksgiving feast spent at the hospital when his sister-in-law Diane broke her foot trying to avoid dropping the turkey on Bailey, their ten-year-old shiba dog. Seeing his granddaughters nestled in tiny pink blankets when his sons brought them home the first day.
POP. Sharp, dark void. High pitch release of pressure, then a translucent shining flash.
The white-water rafting adventure on the Snake River in Yellowstone National Park where his boys rescued him from falling into the cold water only to stumble upon an angry moose searching for dinner. The final family portrait taken the prior year when everyone wore shades of black and white for a retro-style Christmas card setting.
BOOM. Screeching whistle. Bright light fades to total darkness.
The parchment letters which held the secret he kept from Olivia, pawned off on his attorney to handle once anxiety and fear defeated any chance of Ben telling his wife the truth in person.
The car hydroplaned atop a few inches of the warm, pooling rain and crashed into the steel overpass. The collision immediately torpedoed him through the front windshield, splintering what was the well-lived but haunted life of Benjamin Glass.
A final burst of the bulb’s filament into jagged shards.
Despite Olivia’s tendencies to lead and control, she’d little ability to plan Ben’s funeral services on her own. Diane recognized her sister’s fragile grip on reality teetered on the edge, volunteering to go with Olivia to the funeral home to manage most of the phone calls, selections, catering and organizing. Choosing Ben’s burial clothing served as the one funeral activity Olivia handled without any help. It was her first decision after pocketing an hour’s worth of sleep, realizing his death was anything but a dream upon noticing Ben no longer slept next to her. It highlighted a comfort she didn’t know upon how much she had relied until stolen by fate. Olivia thrust herself out of their bed, walked to the closet and pushed a slew of hangers across the sleek metal rod, reminiscing while passing each pressed and cleaned suit as though she watched every year of their lives disappear before her weary eyes. She searched for the one he’d worn to the Met’s opening opera the prior year. After weeks of shopping, she’d finally convinced him to expand his horizons with a new designer, selecting a modern-cut, three button black wool suit adorning him better than any other had fit in the past. Even Ben admitted she’d decided correctly. And he’d rarely admit so, given she’d laud it over him, teasing Ben for days. They enjoyed their game of one-up-man-ship over the years.
The burial service had ended thirty minutes earlier, and although everyone else had scattered, she stayed behind for her own final goodbye. Olivia’s memory focused on the somber tones serenading the lowering of Ben’s casket six feet into the ground. Once the skirl of the bagpipes blasted its sorrowful resonance, Olivia, standing a few feet from Ben’s fresh open grave, could no longer thwart the wrecking ball that planned to decimate any remaining strength. The slow, melodic sound sliced away at the newly loosened threads once tasked with keeping her heart intact and sheltered from acknowledging a widow’s pain. Her battered eyes betrayed any remaining fortitude she’d stored deep within her body and as the chords of Amazing Grace resounded from the chanter pipe, the cords of her soul, once intricately woven into Ben, ripped from Olivia’s chest. The flood of tears from her stinging red eyes trailed her cheeks as she walked to the car, leaving behind a single set of prints that marked an unknown future.
As she stepped off the cemetery’s grassy path, she pulled the black cashmere sweater closer towards her shivering skin to halt the biting frost setting up shop deep within her bones. Ben had always told her she looked beautiful when she wore black and gray, complimenting her on the elegant silhouette against her ivory skin and dark sable hair. She kept her shiny locks shoulder length, usually tied back with a clip, and although gray had appeared the last year, the varying shades were regal and striking on her patrician face. Olivia pressed her palm to her chest and lowered her head until she’d emptied a few layers of grief, a stream leveling off into the ocean. She opened the car door and slid across the back seat next to Diane.
All that remained before her impending post-Ben world began was to tell her driver he could leave the cemetery, but uttering those words resembled an impossibility. As if Diane sensed the struggle within her sister, she leaned forward and motioned to the driver to start the car, allowing Olivia a few moments to accept the beginning of her new life. While the car served as a false protection from the reality waiting outside the doors to its passengers, it also evoked an atmosphere full of budding nostalgia.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. G. He was a good man,” said Victor, reminding her of previous adventures. He’d been her driver for twenty-five years, taking her to each child’s pediatric appointments, all her charitable foundation work and every dinner with friends and family. “I’ll take care of you today, Mrs. G.” Victor checked the rearview mirror and nodded when he saw Olivia’s eyes, a quiet acknowledgment she’d heard his words. They sat in silence as he released the brake and inched the car away from Olivia’s newest prison.
Olivia and Diane had come from a poor upstate New York family where they shared a bed until they were nine-years-old, later pushed out of the door to work as housekeepers by thirteen. Their parents told them only enough money existed for one to go to college, even if they could secure a scholarship to pay for most of it, and Olivia earned the lucky windfall. Diane believed school held no importance to her, appearing content to remain in the small comforts of her home. Supporting her sister seemed easier for Diane than choosing her own path in life, focusing on anything but what she ought to do for herself.
“Was a beautiful ceremony,” said Diane. “And the cherry tree you planted alongside the grave, Liv. Touching. You’ve created a lifetime of memories for your family today.”
“Everyone at the house by now?” Olivia pressed her fingers to her temple, pacified by the warm blood swimming through each one under her clammy skin.
“Yes, they’re setting lunch. Only your boys. We’ve spent enough time with friends and neighbors. I even asked George to stay away for today. Wanted to help you without worrying about him.”
George, Diane’s soon-to-be ex-husband, had attended Ben’s funeral service and conveyed his sterile condolences to Olivia. Though he’d been married to Diane for thirty years, George barely knew his wife’s family, not ever having an interest in other people’s children nor any of his own. Diane had finally grown tired of his cavalier attitude and vigilant penchant for ignoring their marriage, requesting a divorce earlier that spring.
“Good idea. You really should have dumped that unfortunate man years ago.” Olivia placed her hand on Diane’s, noticing the age spots more prominently displayed on her sister’s than her own. Her voice stammered, but she held firm until finishing her thoughts. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me these last few days.”
Despite being a few years younger, most people assumed Diane was at least a decade older than Olivia. She’d grown out her hair the last few years and tightly braided it to her lower back, wearing the same dress as she had to her nephews’ weddings and other recent funerals. She hated to spend any time fussing with her appearance. “It’s a shame Ben’s brother couldn’t make the funeral.”
Ben was the youngest of several siblings, but the only remaining brother was too feeble to attend the services. When Olivia called her brother-in-law, he could barely even speak on the phone from the impacts of grief and his aging mind. His children stopped in for the wake, but chose not to stay for the graveside burial.
“No, his family has withered. Ben only had us left. It’s unbearable to watch our children go through this agony. You first focus on your own pain, but watching them suffer steals all remaining breaths.”
Diane fumbled with the clasp on her purse and handed Olivia a tissue. “And without any warning. It’s awful, but you’ll know how to help them through it.”
“I can see the pain in Ethan’s eyes, but he’s strong and will grieve privately. He’ll miss Ben the most. Ethan’s always been so focused on spending time with all of us, his grandparents… oh, I can’t…” Olivia dabbed her eyes with the tissue.
“And to lose his father when he’s so close to becoming a doctor. Ben would have been so proud when Ethan fulfills his dreams.”
Olivia nodded. “Matthew had to tell his daughters their grandfather died. They’re too young to understand, but it was dreadful for him to show them Ben’s casket. And he keeps talking about all the father-son weekends, fishing and camping at Lake Wokagee. They’d planned another one this summer.”
“They loved those trips. Well, maybe not all of them.”
“True. Theodore’s alienated himself even more than usual the last few days.”
Theodore was Ben and Olivia’s eldest son, and though she would always call him by his proper name, everyone else chose Teddy. Ben had groomed him to take over the law practice at the end of the year, coaching his son on how to act as a stronger, more respected leader and less antagonistic man. Teddy’s actions were always packaged with a rough edge, and the tone of his words and speech pattern echoed robotic. Although Teddy had shown up to football Sundays and movie nights, interacting with his family always resembled more of an obligation rather than an enjoyment.
The car turned, passing the corner where Ben had always dropped off the boys for the school bus in the morning on his way to work. A few heavy drops fell from Olivia’s eyes. She let them roll across her cheeks, reluctant to grant them total control. She imagined Ben lining each son side-by-side, inspecting his loyal soldiers and patting their heads as he christened each one ready to begin his day.
“At least Caleb’s back for a few more days,” Diane said, rubbing her sister’s back. “You’ll get to spend more time with him.”
Caleb had only visited for the anniversary party the prior weekend, but stayed in Connecticut for the funeral to grieve for his father’s passing. Olivia once thought Caleb would stay home with her and Ben when they grew older, but soon abandoned hope when he had disappeared to Maine ten years earlier.
“Caleb’s hurting. I know my son. I wish he weren’t all alone; he needs someone to lean on… a girlfriend, a wife. The guilt over living so far away must be consuming him.”
“Caleb’s strong like you in so many ways, holding back to protect himself from the intensity. I’m sure he’s got friends to look out for him. What about Zach? You still worried he’s using…”
Olivia interrupted. “He drove back to Brooklyn last night for work. I heard him come in early this morning. I never know what Zachary’s doing anymore.”
Olivia thought Zach often spiraled on a bender when leaving his five-year-old daughter in her and Ben’s care, unsure what trouble he’d engaged in. She and Zach hadn’t been close the last few years, and despite a few attempts at a reconciliation, it always proved futile.
“Five boys without a father. We should have had more time.” Olivia leaned forward and reached a hand to the front seat to sturdy herself, her head sloping towards the floor as her voice cracked.
Diane rested her head on her sister’s back. “I know, Liv. But you’ll support them. You’ll remind them of Ben. And they’ll find a way to get through their grief. Takes time. Pain’s different for everyone. Replace it with memories of something positive.”
Olivia summoned memories of Ben’s marriage proposal, when he’d arranged a private afternoon lunch in the southern nursery of Connecticut’s finest botanical gardens. Dressed in a heather gray knee-length chiffon silk dress with sleek embroidered violet straps wrapping around her neck, Olivia meandered the slate stepping stones to a patio shrouded by voluminous twenty-foot cherry trees. Ben stood underneath their cascading flowering branches, shadowed by the umbrella sky of brilliant pink, red and white hues, holding a single sprig of cherry blossom. On the far corner of the patio, before the grafted trunks of the cherry trees met the pristine, freshly-mowed green lawn, a four-piece string orchestra crooned romantic melodies. When Olivia stepped inside the trellised gazebo, she smiled at the intensity of the fresh-cut lilies, reminiscent of the bouquet he’d brought her on their first official date. A waiter poured them each a glass of Dom Perignon, and as she reached for the champagne, Olivia felt the thick edges of the goblet press into her fingers, inhaled the scent of the sweet liquor and shivered at the sprinkles of the bubbly effervescence dancing on her face. The quartet played Roberta Flack’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Ben dropped to one knee. Olivia’s hands trembled until Ben took one into his own. As the strings of each instrument blended immaculate harmonies and the musician’s lyrics rumbled in the background, Olivia felt the reverberation through the wooden floor of the gazebo.
Olivia could still hear Ben’s words flutter in her ears the way a butterfly glides with gentle wings… Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife… to complete the picture of the future I have wanted… ever since the day we met at the opera… even in the car moments after Ben’s burial, when realizing she wouldn’t ever again see his face.
Olivia acknowledged Diane’s comfort with her eyes, as the car pulled onto their street. “I’m unsure how to do this… to start a new life without him by my side. We were together for over forty years. Boys have all left home. I’ll live here on my own now. I’ll eat breakfast alone every morning. I want to crawl into bed and close the door to my new life.” Olivia’s breathing labored as she panicked and shook.
“Calm down, honey. Relax. Breathe for me. You’re not alone. I’ll help every day if you need. We can stay outside. Don’t have to see anyone yet.”
Olivia considered her sister’s suggestion, wiping tears from her eyes and clutching her chest. Her sanity told her she didn’t need to return to the house. Not a single part of her was ready for this new widow phase, where she woke and fell asleep alone in the bed she’d shared with Ben for so many years.
“At least this misery ends tomorrow when we read Ben’s will. I expect it to be straightforward and quick. It should offer some closure and help me decide the path to my future.”
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Forward to Chapter 2