This is a love story that never ends. Maria and Jeremy had been married for twelve years, prior to her untimely and unexpected death from cancer at the age of 35. I came to know them well, during the time Maria was on hospice.
Maria and Jeremy had met at a live stage production of The Westside Story. Thereby, a tradition was born: Jeremy would sweep Maria into his arms, swirling her around the room in a waltz, and singing, “Maria, Maria, I just met a girl named Maria,” followed by Maria chiming in, rather out of tune, with “I feel pretty, I feel pretty”. Then, mostly because of Maria’s inability to carry anything close to a tune, they’d both burst into laughter. It was “their” song. I was regaled with their song frequently, usually at the beginning of my visits, for as long as Maria was still feeling well enough to do so.
Jeremy had asked Maria to marry him just six months after their first date, and in addition to a beautiful platinum and diamond engagement ring, he’d given her a bottle of perfume called “Maria”. It had a beautiful, subtle scent, one I’d never smelled before. She had a special place for it on her dressing table, placed atop a delicately, hand-crocheted doily, which had been made and handed down to her by her grandmother. She wore the perfume only on special “date nights”.
Before Maria’s diagnosis, she and Jeremy spent most of their free time together, and Jeremy would often joke that they were “In love beyond repair.” They desperately wanted children, but Maria could not become pregnant. After much consideration, they decided to undergo what turned out to be a long, tedious, and difficult period of fertility treatment. Maria finally became pregnant and carried the pregnancy, without complication, to term.
Jeremy and Maria were outwardly thrilled at the birth of their child, a daughter who they named Ava. Thrilled wasn’t adequate to describe how they felt about Ava; they had gone through so much together to give her life, and finally, they were blessed with her.
The delirious happiness the couple shared was to be short-lived, however. When Ava was two years old, Maria was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments, which were harsh on her body. She fought a fierce fight, but the time came when the side effects from her treatment were intolerable. The doctors estimated she would live for another six to nine months, if she continued her treatments, and somewhere between one and three months without treatment. Maria made the difficult choice to discontinue her treatments. She told Jeremy that she would rather have a few more months of quality life with Jeremy and Ava, than a life without quality and little interaction with Jeremy and Ava, should she continue the therapy. She was referred to hospice.
Maria was beyond amazing, and never before or since have I seen someone do something as selfless as what Maria did. Once the treatment side effects began to wane, Maria set about to find a suitable replacement mommy for Ava. Jeremy, understandably, wasn’t crazy about the plan, but he went along with Maria’s idea, actually meeting several women at the invitation of Maria. Maria explained to me that her plan wasn’t to find “the woman” for Jeremy and Ava, but to give Jeremy definite guidelines about traits she would want in the woman who, should Jeremy remarry, would become the new mommy for their beloved Ava.
Jeremy told me, “I’d invite someone of Maria’s choosing over, I’d prepare dinner, and we’d have a pleasant, if not somewhat awkward, evening together, getting to know one another. Once the evening was over, Marie’d give me the thumbs up, or the thumbs down, then proceed to make a list of positive and negative traits she’d observed.” She told me, “If the time comes when you choose to remarry, which you’d better, these lists are just so you won’t forget the traits that we’ve agreed are important that you remember to look for in a woman, who’ll be a good mommy and, for you, a good wife.” Jeremy became teary, always, when he shared with me that Maria made it clear to him, frequently, that she didn’t want Ava to grow up without a mommy, and she didn’t want him to be alone.
Maria died two years after being diagnosed with her cancer. Ava was five years old. Jeremy was devastated. After Maria’s death, I would stop by their house from time to time, to check on Jeremy and Ava, mostly to say “hello”, and to see how they were doing. At one fascinating visit, I had just pulled into the driveway and climbed out of my car, and as I strolled up the sidewalk to the front door, I heard Jeremy faintly humming, “Maria, Maria, I just met a girl . . .”. Ava’s round little face peeked through the drawn curtains, as I rang the doorbell. For a moment I thought my knees were going to buckle. My throat was tightening up with emotion, and I nearly fled back to my car. I couldn’t face little Ava with tears streaming down my face.
“Daddy! It’s the nurse, Daddy!” I heard her shout, excitedly. I wondered, for a moment, if she thought I’d brought her mommy back home. I nearly panicked at the thought.
The door opened, and there stood Jeremy, the tune, Maria, trailing off to nothing. He reached out and hugged me, and welcomed me in. As gracious as ever, he offered to make me coffee, which I eagerly accepted, hoping it would give me some time to reign in my emotions. Jeremy disappeared into the kitchen, humming a tune I didn’t recognize, and Ava jumped into my lap, ragged “blankie” in tow.
“I have a secret,” Ava whispered, with a giggle, into my ear.
I widened my eyes. “You DO?”
Ava shook her head, “yes”, looking as though she was about to burst if she didn’t tell me. She put one finger up to her lips. “You can’t tell,” she said, with the full earnest of which a child her age shouldn’t be capable.
“Ok. I prooomisssse,” I said, trying to match her level of seriousness.
She pressed her lips against my ear. “Mommy came to see me.” She tilted her head down and peered up at me from beneath her long, thick lashes.
“She DID?” I asked.
She shook her head “yes”, then whispered into my ear, “But I just saw her,” with great emphasis on the “saw”.
“Did she say anything to you?” I asked, matching her level of whisper.
She shook her head, “no”, then whispered, “But she pulled my blankie up.” She smiled, and I watched as her eyes became even larger, brimming with tears. I thought they were happy tears, mixed with sadness and hope.
I hugged her closed, then whispered into her ear, “It would be okay to tell your Daddy, you know.”
Her eyebrows furrowed together, great concern knitting her face into a grimace.
“It might make him feel better to know your mommy came to see you.” Another big hug. She jumped down off my lap, and ran-toddled into the kitchen, from which her father was just emerging with two brimming, steaming mugs of coffee.
I listened and watched with a warm feeling in my belly as she blurted out her story to her father. Jeremy looked quickly up at me, eyebrows arching, then set the mugs on the nearest table and leaned down to scoop Ava up into his arms.
“Is that okay if she came to see you, Ava?” he asked.
Ava shook her head emphatically, “Yesssss!”, then wiggled to free herself from his arms, scooped up her blanket and ran off in the direction of her room. “I’m going to play, now!” she announced, as though nothing out of the ordinary had just taken place. Of course, the child knew nothing out of the ordinary had happened; it appeared that, to her, what had happened was the most natural thing in the world. And it was. She simply hadn’t been, yet, socialized out of believing in what she knew to be true.
Jeremy and I sat and talked quietly for the next hour about how he and Ava had been doing, what was new, what was of concern, what was funny and what was sad. Finally, I asked Jeremy, “What was that song you were humming when you were in the kitchen making coffee? I know it wasn’t Maria.”
Jeremy grinned. “Oh, that.” He blushed, and admitted, “I was almost hoping you wouldn’t ask. It’s my new song, I’m a Nut.” He looked, rather guardedly, at me.
“I’m a Nut?“
“Yeh. There’s a story.” He took a cautious sip of his coffee. “But you’ve gotta promise not to have me hauled off, if I tell you. Because you might just think I’ve lost it.”
“I doubt it,” I said, matter-of-factly.
“I think Maria’s been here, and until Ava just told me she’s seen Maria, I’d planned not to tell anyone.” He sighed. “Sometimes it seems to me that Ava has more to teach me, than I have to teach her!”
“Because I was sure I was losin’ it.” He was thoughtful for a moment. “It seems, I’m the one that’s freaked out, not her. She seems to know stuff that I don’t.”
“Jeremy, I can assure you I won’t think you’re nuts. Because I can also assure you that I’ve heard lots of things like it before — or something like it.”
He took another sip of coffee. “Remember the perfume that Maria used to keep on her dressing table on that doily, right in that exact spot?”
“Yeh, I remember that. Always right in the same spot.”
He was quiet.
“C’mon, Jeremy. What’s up?”
His eyes teared. “I guess I feel sorta guilty, because I put that bottle away in a drawer, about a month after Maria died. It just hurt to see it there.” He looked at me again, a bit less cautiously. “I don’t think she liked that.”
“Because I woke up the other night, and I’m usually a dead sleeper — I mean, nothing this side of a bomb wakes me up.” He paused again, and took a loud slurp of his coffee. “Well, I woke up, because I smelled that perfume. Like it was on me.” Another loud, nervous slurp of coffee. “Well, I had to use the bathroom, so I got up, and as I walked past Maria’s dressing table –” He stopped, looked around the room, then back at me. ”–I walked past Maria’s dressing table, and –” He sobbed, as he set his mug of coffee on the table next to his recliner.
I waited, saying nothing, sitting with the silence. Silence can be very heavy for something that is weightless. But it can be the heaviest thing in the world, at times. And, it is the most needed thing, at times. I sensed this was one of those times. So I listened, and let the silence of discomfort be heavy.
When Jeremy calmed, he said, “I’m sorry.”
“Why? You know, Jeremy, there are things that truly happen, but our culture denies those things. That means there’s something wrong with our culture — not you.”
Jeremy visibly relaxed, and he took a long, slightly trembling sigh. “Thanks for that.”
He continued, “So, anyway, I walked past Maria’s dressing table, and there was that bottle of perfume, setting on the doily, in the exact, perfect place where Maria used to set it. But I’d put it away in a drawer — I know I did.”
I smiled. “Do you think she was here, Jeremy?”
Visibly relaxed, now, Jeremy returned my smile. “Yes. Thanks to Ava. Now I not only think she was here, I know she was here.”
We sat, saying nothing, for a long while.
Then, Jeremy said, “And the most comforting thing to me is that, twice since her death, I’ve heard her out-of-tune voice, very faintly in the distance, singing, I’m So Pretty.“
“What do you think that means, Jeremy?”
He paused for several minutes, then said, “She wants us to know she’s okay. She wants us to not only listen, but to hear. She wants us to know that love never ends.”
©Janet Mitchell, January 2012. All Rights Reserved. Any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction.