I recall the scratch of dirt beneath my knees as I knelt in the garden the day before, the air blowing through my open window as I drove to the hardware store, the smell of the pillowcase as I fell to sleep. Before details are crystalline but the minutes, the hours and days after remain a blur. Days later I sat outside in the warmth of the sun, cradling a hot cup of tea. Over and over in my mind, I replayed scenes looking for clues. His last words to me to me – did I want a cup of tea? What if I said yes to the cup of tea he offered instead of retreating into sleep? Would drinking a cup of tea have given him the will to live? Would he still be alive if I had just gotten out of bed for a damn cup of tea with him? I flung the hot cup I was drinking into the garden, the milky brew spraying the lawn before the old chipped mug landed between the tulips. I tried to picture him walking into cluttered garage in the early hours of the morning, past the lawn mower, rakes, shovels set against the wall – was he weeping? And when he died – and I hope to God that was quick – where did he go, this life that was ‘Neil’ – his essence slipping away over years until this terrible, final exit?
Molly might have found him and for that, I hated him. He must have thought of that possibility too and then did it anyway? Was his intention so cruel? This still triggers my fury. Molly was introduced to grief too soon – but how much worse would it have been were she to have been the one to find him.
I searched my memory for strange particulars: where was Tetley during the moments when I found Neil? I had been on my way to take him for his morning walk. Was I still holding onto his leash when I went to Neil’s body? I couldn’t place him there, so maybe he had retreated back into the house. For some reason, I wanted every detail about that hideous morning and it bugged me I could not remember Tetley. It seemed imperative I string together the morbid details even as I wanted to forget it all. I threw out the wicker chair and the clippers I’d used to cut Neil down with. The remnant of rope was still wound tightly around the beam for a few days. I must have asked someone to cut it off. Who did that? Or did I do it myself? Years later, this is a clouded memory – although I know the wood is forever imprinted by the twist of rope, to anybody else, looking like a slip of the saw at the lumberyard.
That morning I sat like an awkward guest perched on the edge of my couch. Chris had left Molly with her husband and kids to sit beside me. She held my hand. I’d never held my friend’s hand, how much smaller and softer hers was. The police waited in the garage with Neil’s body for the coroner to arrive, occasionally coming in the house to check on me. Neil was left slouched in the chair, now draped in a white sheet. One of the officers told me with barely masked outrage, that he had a daughter Molly’s age could not understand how a father would do such a thing. Molly. She was still across the street. What was she thinking? I needed to talk to her.
“What do I do? I need to tell Molly. How do I tell her?”
“I don’t know but you have to tell her something. She’s got to be wondering what’s happening. Come, I’ll go with you.” Chris stood up, drawing me with her.
“Goddamn him!” One of Neil’s scuffed shoes was poking out beneath the couch. I kicked it out of sight.
We walked down the driveway together, not turning our heads, neither of us looking back at the garage. We sidestepped the broken wine bottle.
“I have to sweep this up.” I said, pausing to push the larger pieces over to the side of the road, resisting the urge to pick up the UNPROFOR label.
Had he been thinking of our days together in Bosnia before he tied the noose? Did he remember how we held each other in his bed at the Holiday Inn through dark nights of heavy shelling? I felt so confident in this man and our love then, never imagining the enemy lurking within. That my protector would one day, ravaged by addiction, destroy the dreams conjured during those dark nights in Sarajevo. I threw the largest shards to the side of the road.
Molly sat on Chris’s couch next to Gary, her husband and their two kids, watching a movie. They looked so normal. I hated to disturb the scene.
“Molly, honey…” I called, motioning for her to come with me downstairs to the family room. Her eyes seemed focused on something distant as if to avoid looking at me. Her little back straight, she walked ahead of me down the stairs as if ready to receive a punishment. I wanted to hold her close and tell her everything was fine. It wasn’t. I sat next to her on the sofa in my neighbor’s basement, took a deep breath and blurted it out:
“Daddy’s dead, Molly.”
“You didn’t have to say it like that!” Molly said, looking at me as if I said something gauche. I had.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know how else to say it.”
Molly’s expression didn’t change from a mask of stunned control.
“Can I see him? I’d like to see him,” she said.
“But… he’s gone. I mean, his body is there but he isn’t, honey, not really. I don’t think it would be a good thing for you to see him this way. I don’t think Daddy would want you to see him like this.”
I thought of his sheet-covered body growing colder in the garage.
“How? How did he die?” she asked, still no tears, matter-of-fact.
“Drugs. He took too many drugs.”
It just came out that way – and it wasn’t a lie. Cocaine did kill him. Slowly but surely, the drug wreaked havoc on his body and brain. The noose around Neil’s neck flashed into my head, his feet off the ground — hanging. The terrible, gruesome image is forever branded into my mind. I could not share that with my eight-year old girl. Someday, yes, she will want to know and I will tell her. Not now.
“I need to get back to the house honey. Please stay here and I’ll come get you later, okay? I love you.”
I leaned forward to embrace her and she drew away from me. I understood – I didn’t know what to feel either and my touch might topple her precarious emotional balancing act.
Chris and I hurried back to the house pushing through the already bent branches in the hedge rather than walk up the drive and see his body, covered with a sheet but still in the garage.
I needed to call England to tell Neil’s family. Except for Lucy, I did not have regular contact with any of them. Before the past six months Neil had spent in his hometown, he only spoke with his mother every few months. Years sometimes passed with him not speaking to his siblings. I knew Neil’s mother never liked me – the ‘Yankee’ wife, and now she would hate me forever, cutting my head out of photographs. I called the brother’s pub and was relieved when he picked up.
“Neil’s dead, Kim. He killed himself this morning.” I blurted.
“Oh my god! Oh no, no!” he sounded winded.
“Please, can you tell every one there? I’ll talk to the girls later but I’d be grateful if you’d call them for me,” I said.
“Yes, yes. Oh my God! Take care of yourself, Tricia. And Molly.”
I was grateful he did not ask me more questions, probably too shocked by the news himself.
Other neighborhood friends appeared and my sister had driven up from the city in record time. We barely talked, drinking tea together as we stared at the living room floor. It was almost noon by the time the car from the State Examiner’s office arrived to take Neil’s body, now zipped into a bag, away in the long hearse-like vehicle. Unnatural deaths like his require investigation, possible an autopsy. I didn’t care since I had no idea what one otherwise did with a body. I watched from the porch. Just as Neil had threatened a few days ago, he left the house in a box. He was gone.
I felt a strange calm. For the next twenty-four hours a stream of friends passed through our little house. Molly played card games with my sister, happy for the company. She insisted on going to school on Monday. I understood her longing for the comfort of daily routine, the desire to pretend nothing had happened, that everything was normal. But when was anything normal in her life? What was normal about doing drug pick-ups with your father? Yet her father was the fun one – ready to make her laugh, tease and tickle, cuddle her. In her confusing soup of emotions, Molly told me she also felt relief. With her father’s death came an end to the chaos, the sense of never being sure when the earth beneath her feet would give way.
In the days following Neil’s death, I took spring-cleaning to another level, opening every window, stripping the beds and washing all the linens in the hottest water. I gathered scruffy pants, boxer shorts, and t-shirts and other clothing still scattered around our bedroom and stuffed them into a huge duffel bag and dragged it into a closet we rarely used. I lit incense in every room and imagined that the smoke disappearing through the windows was the fog in my head clearing away.
Years ago Neil and I had a macabre conversation about how and where we wanted our bodies to be disposed of when we died and he told me then, he wanted to be sent ‘home’. Home. Not even this house we loved so much was ever Neil’s home. He never found ‘home’ only the trappings of house, family of a wife and daughter, none of it ever sufficient. What was he searching for or fleeing from his entire life? It was right he be sent back to where it all began. Maybe his family in England, who asked his body be sent to them, could find solace in some closing ritual of burial or cremation. For me, it would not be enough.