I was 46 when my homemade strawberry preserves jelled for the first time, probably because I finally caved and used enough sugar. I was sure I could get around using the huge amount of sugar the recipe called for, but I was wrong. Alternatively, I could have used tapioca starch or pectin, but I was stubbornly determined to make them the old-fashioned way.
The day the preserves came out perfectly was the day my first husband finally died. He had been dying for a long time. It was Friday, a rare brilliant spring day in New England. Jeff had been effectively dead for the better part of a year, but effectively is not dead. A body who clings to a semblance of life is still alive. Now he was truly gone. I had not come to terms with it though I’d certainly had plenty of time. Probably no amount of time would have been enough.
Other than Jeff’s dying, it was a good time for us. Garry and I were happy. We were good together. Busy with careers and active socially. Yet there was that underlying sadness that could not be avoided, the expectation that death was near. Happiness and sadness don’t cancel one another. Good things are not a balance against pain; feelings aren’t an equation. You can’t add columns of positive and negatives in your life and come up with a number in the middle. In the real world, joy and misery cohabit. Emotions are messy.
My head was a wheel of memories, a slide show carousel. Faces, places, good years, bad. Bittersweet, sad, joyous, funny. Strawberry jam that never jelled.
I married Jeffrey at 18 and thought myself very mature. He was almost 30, but he thought me very mature too. Both of us were wrong. Yet we muddled through. We were hard try-ers. When we had no idea what to do, we faked it. Eventually, we became the people we had long pretended to be and it turned out, not the people we needed to be for each other.
Though we went in different directions, we stayed friends. No matter where on Earth I was, I knew Jeffrey was there for me. We had a better divorce than most marriages. Decades passed. Jeff’s health deteriorated. He survived things that should have killed him, so it was a shock he should die of a thing which was supposed to extend his life. The valve replacement surgery should have given him years. Decades. When the call came late one August evening, reality upended and everything screeched to a halt. No, his body wasn’t dead, but his brain was. The future would be without Jeff. I would never again call to tell him about something funny and hear his sarcastic, drawling response.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Someone rewrote the script when our backs were turned.
Fall passed and winter too. Jeff remained in a vegetative state. Someone who looked just like him was wearing his body. The shell remained alive through the seasons. We visited. I stayed for weeks to help care for him. Finally, as spring was nearly summer, the piper played and the ashes were scattered.
Just the other day, Garry caught a glimpse of someone in a crowd who looked just like Jeff.