Chapter One: Life Revisited
Everything stopped. The sun came up, the clocks ticked on but nothing moved. I was always a morning person: the first one up in the house, the first one dressed, the first one down in the kitchen, the first one at breakfast.
But now I was still in bed, without a clue as to what time it was. I could hear the hum of the air conditioner, feel a chill in the room and yet my pajama tops were drenched through with perspiration. Were the girls upstairs in their rooms, silently waiting for me to come up to tell them what we would do with this, the first day of our lives on our own? I was fighting the act of awakening. I kept my eyes closed in hopes that sleep would overtake me once more, buying me more time before I would have to take a deep breath and then release it, acknowledging that I was alive. The future was a totally unpleasant prospect and I wasn't quite ready to deal with it. We had buried my wife, Joan, the day before at the Pound Ridge Cemetery in New York. She had just turned forty and had died of cancer, the most surprising thing she had done in a life filled with surprises.
I clung tenaciously to the darkness behind my closed lids, trying to keep the daylight at bay, much as I had as a boy when it was time to leave the local movie house, knowing that I left Humphrey Bogart or Errol Flynn still battling villains on the screen, while outside I squinted at the glaring harshness of the four o'clock sun and faced the heat of another endless summer's day.
Nancy was ten and Ellen was fifteen. It was July 12, 1973. Eight days before, on the Fourth of July, I had turned forty-six. It might as well have been sixty-six for all the lethargy and despondency I felt in my aching mind and body on that dreary morning. I pushed myself out of bed and crossed to the closet, looking for a robe that I almost never wore. Robes always made me feel either sick or old or both. Mine was a gift from Joan's mother, and I had feigned delight and pleasure when I opened it in front of her at an earlier birthday, knowing that I would never wear it, that it would only take up valuable space in my small closet. How ironic that I would be putting it on today, the day after her daughter died. But I needed a robe that morning because I did not want to face the girls in sweaty pajamas, although I had neither the strength nor inclination to get out of those pajamas, nor could I imagine myself doing so in the foreseeable future. What for? There was nothing outside that small town house on East 62nd Street that I wanted or needed to see. Nor anyone besides my daughters. I neither asked for nor invited friends or family to pay us a condolence call. At least not on that first day. The few really close friends I had would call later that morning, but they understood when I said, "Not yet. Give me today alone with the girls." Despite the fact that I had been aware for the past year and a half that Joan was going to die, I was unprepared for what I experienced on that first morning. It was not exactly grief, because, in a sense, I had been grieving those last few months of her life. This was a feeling of numbness, inertia and confusion, leading to a frightening inability to make a decision, trivial or otherwise. I have no memory of when I first saw the girls that morning, but Nancy told me recently that for some inexplicable reason, what she pictures in her mind today was the three of us in semidarkness, sitting on the steps leading from the kitchen down to the basement. An implausible place to meet, and yet, for that morning, as plausible as any.
The thought uppermost in my mind was to distract the girls from dealing with the past, and to get them busy with getting on with life, making some small attempt at normalcy. I am always amazed at the resiliency of the young. They looked at me, waiting to hear what my plans were, ready and eager to comply. Neither girl had intended to be home that summer, both having made plans, not fully realizing the graveness of Joan's condition. Nancy was summoned back from camp when Joan passed away sooner than I ever imagined, and Ellen had canceled a student trip to Europe to be with her mother for her last few months. I suggested getting away from New York, as far away as possible, distancing ourselves from loss and sorrow. The summer house in Pound Ridge, New York, that I had bought expressly as a gift to Joan, where I hoped she would recover from her illness, was just a marginal choice to revisit. I offered to take them both to Europe, reasoning that traveling and being together would be, if not a fun-filled vacation, at least a chance to heal ourselves in new surroundings, in a place with fewer memories. Nancy surprised me when she opted to return to camp. It also gave me a sense of relief to know that this ten-year-old knew what was best for her. Ellen and I left together for Europe a week later.
I made the mistake of returning to all the same hotels that Joan and I had stayed in, something that proved harder for me to deal with than for Ellen. But slowly, day by day, I began to see a change in Ellen, a maturing, perhaps growing up faster than she normally would have if Joan were still alive. She started to point out things in shops in London and in Paris that might go nicely in our house. As it had been with Joan, who always brought home pretty and useful items from our trips, it was now with Ellen, who kept her eye open for unusual pieces I never thought remotely interested her before. In a sense, she was emulating Joan, perhaps not consciously, but in the normal way that a child takes on some of the traits of the parent of the same gender. By the time we returned home in late August, Ellen walked into our kitchen, opened the cabinets and said, "You know what, Dad? We need new dishes." Nancy came home a few days later, taller, tanner and a good deal happier than when she left. We were all so glad to see each other, and our conversation that night was about what we had done that summer and not about the tragedy we left behind. But it was certainly not gone from their minds; I noticed that clearly as Nancy climbed the steps that night and glanced quickly in my bedroom to see the made-up bed which Joan had occupied for so many months during her illness.
Later I heard laughter from their rooms and then the sound of tapes playing the Broadway musicals they loved so much, and their singing the lyrics to their favorite songs, loudly and slightly off-key. Eventually they switched to television and called down to me, "Dad, come on up and watch with us." I knew once I got in their room, they would bar me from leaving, forcing me to watch every fashion show, sitcom, summer rerun and old black-and-white movie. As I ascended the stairs, smelling the fresh popcorn they had just made, while scorching the bottom of the pot, I said to myself, "Thank you God for making daughters."
Copyright © 1999 by Neil Simon