Letters From the Edge

In grief, picking up the pieces -- of mail

Illustration: A man sits at a table, head in hands. A cat paws at a letter also on the table

Awareness was seeping into Jon’s brain.

Light was sneaking through the cracks between the Venetian blinds and was surreptitiously usurping the darkness in the bedroom. The small amount of light already there made Jon aware that it was morning, or maybe afternoon. Despite his growing consciousness, Jon continued to lie on the left side of the double bed, on his stomach with his eyes closed. He regretted being awake. He had no motivation to get up and did not want to think about the coming day. In fact, he didn’t want to think about anything. Maybe if he kept his eyes shut, he might sleep a little more and everything, and everybody, would go away.

After a while, he reached with his right arm and felt the right side of the bed. No one had been there. The covers hadn’t been pulled back. The area wasn’t warm. There was no depression where someone had been sleeping. In a secret child-place in his head, Jon had hoped that there really were magic and miracles, that he would feel Mira beside him, and that all was now the way it used to be. But, there is no magic. Miracles occur in storybooks. Mira wasn’t there.

With effort, Jon rolled over and sat up on the edge of the bed. He sighed deeply when the effort was completed. Without looking, he reached for his glasses on the nightstand. His head was down and his shoulders were slumped. He had lain down fully dressed sometime late last night, or perhaps early this morning, and was consummately rumpled. Some of his clothes had twisted around his body and become uncomfortable, now that he thought about it. The radio on the dresser was quietly playing uninterrupted classical music.

Jon hadn’t shaved in several days, his hair resembled an anarchists’ convention, and his breath stank like the inside of a garbage disposal. He had managed to take off his shoes before lying down and briefly scanned the floor to see where they were. He didn’t want to walk on them and roll an ankle.

Then again, perhaps he might roll an ankle, fall, and kill himself. He had heard of people tripping over their shoes in the morning, striking their temples on the corner of a dresser, and dying of some improbable brain injury. Jon brightened incrementally. That had possibilities. No, on second thought, he would likely just be badly injured, be in great pain for months, become a drug addict, and have more liens put against his house to pay the additional medical bills. With his glasses firmly in place now, he noted the location of his conspiratorial shoes.

Jon sat for a while on the edge of the bed, reviewing which day of the week it might be. Mira’s visitation had been Friday, and the funeral and dinner had been Saturday. Maybe today was Tuesday.

He had been there, of course, at the visitation, the funeral, and the dinner. Jon had not wanted to attend the dinner. He wanted to be left alone but attended anyway. He could hear Mira’s voice in his brain telling him that he should be there. She was right. Other people needed him to be there. But just because she was right didn’t make him want to be there.

The dinner was akin to an Irish wake. Jon pretended to eat and listen to the various stories told about Mira while carrying around a mixed drink of unknown composition. Several plants were now likely dead from alcohol poisoning as Jon discretely poured whatever was in his glass into conveniently distributed potted plants. Then again, maybe bacteria in the pot’s soil metabolized the ethanol prior to it reaching the roots. This can’t be the first time those plants were baptized with adult beverages.

In the course of almost 25 years of marriage, Jon had either been there when the stories’ events happened or had previously heard secondhand accounts several times before. The anecdotes highlighted Mira’s fine character, her career and personal accomplishments, which were many, and her remarkable fortitude, especially during the last two months. These were all kind and considerate people trying to console both Jon and themselves. They also had loved her. Jon tried to smile and appear appreciative. He really was appreciative. But the stories, though well intended, magnified his sense of loss.

After dinner, the guests filled Jon’s car with leftovers and promises to be there if he needed anything, and Jon drove home to an empty house save for Zorro. Mira had named the cat Zorro because of the white Z pattern on the chest of the otherwise anthracite-colored cat and also because Zorro had once been quite a swashbuckler. A ragged left ear attested to his adventures. During the last two months when Mira had been living at the hospice, Zorro and Jon had become good buddies.

Previously, Zorro would curl up on Mira’s lap when Mira was tapping out messages to friends on her laptop, reading, or writing letters. At night, he often slept on Mira’s chest, just under her chin. After Mira left, it was a few days before Zorro decided that Jon would have to do. It was obvious to Jon, however, that he was a last resort. When the leftovers had been packed into the refrigerator, Jon dropped onto the couch and went to sleep. A bit later, Zorro stretched out along the top of the couch and kept him company.

On Sunday and Monday, the doorbell rang intermittently. Well-wishers brought more food, cards, and flowers. One of Mira’s friends even volunteered to do the laundry. Jon invited each in for coffee and thanked everyone for his or her kindness. And, no thank you, but Jon would do the laundry himself. It would give him something to do. Besides, he still had some clean clothes.

Fortunately, no one stayed long. Jon didn’t feel like sustaining a conversation with anyone about anything. When the doorbell stopped ringing Monday afternoon, he turned his cellphone off. He turned on the radio, tuned in some quiet classical music, and went to bed early.

So it must be Tuesday. He reached over to the nightstand again to feel around for his watch. He held it to his face and squinted. The watch said it was 7:33 a.m. Wednesday. Jon stared at the watch face for a moment and shrugged.

* * *

The quart of milk in the refrigerator had gone bad. It smelled like a dead creature. Cold cereal was out of the question. Jon poured the liquid remnants down the drain and then chased it with lots of hot water. Perhaps the dead creature would not climb back out of the drain if it were thoroughly scalded and drowned. He then made breakfast for the two of them from leftovers.

Zorro initially sniffed at two spoonfuls of some kind of tuna fish casserole Jon had quickly found in a Pyrex dish. Eventually Zorro overcame his suspicions, or perhaps he was just overcome by hunger, and ate some of it. Jon had a cold meatloaf sandwich. The meatloaf cook had used cornflakes as filler, so Jon rationalized that this was sort of like having cereal in the morning.

While he was eating, Jon noted that the meatloaf had been in a Corning Ware dish. It was a nice-looking dish. This observation prompted Jon to realize that he hadn’t thought to jot down which food container belonged to whom. Some of the other leftovers were also in nice cookware pieces from sets, like the tuna-bearing Pyrex dish. Bother, bother, bother. He would have to make some phone calls later, and he didn’t feel like talking.

Jon lingered over his second cup of coffee. After he inertly listened to the 8 and then the 8:30 news and weather on the radio, he trudged outside to the mailbox. It was probably packed. He hadn’t emptied the mailbox since Saturday, and he was on everyone’s junk mail list. Yes, he found that the mailbox was full.

When he opened it, some of the mail pieces bailed out like airborne rangers. He gathered all that had fallen to the ground and what remained in the mailbox into a jumble. He trudged back into the house with the jumble in his arms and dropped it onto the kitchen table.

The obviously mass-produced fliers and oversized, colorful envelopes from politicians, insurance companies, credit card companies, and the like were to be dropped onto a throw-away pile on the floor as quickly as he recognized them. He didn’t want to even open them. What a waste of trees, ink, and time, he thought. The normal-sized bills, cards, and letters were to be placed in a second, to-be-opened-later pile on the table. Perhaps he could face paying the bills after another cup of coffee.

Jon had just begun to sort through the top portion of the mail heap when the edge of one envelope further down in the stack caught his eye. It was a rose-colored envelope containing maybe a card or a letter. Perhaps it was another sympathy card. He pulled it from the middle of the stack to have a look.

It was the same kind of stationery he had bought for Mira when she moved to the hospice. The return address was his address, and the handwriting was distinctly Mira’s. Taken aback, astonished, and confused simultaneously, for a few moments Jon simply stared at the address side of the envelope.

He checked the postmark. It had been mailed this past Monday evening locally. He held it up to the light to see the outline of the contents. It wasn’t a card. It definitely was a letter. Jon put the envelope back down on the kitchen table, finished off the remaining swallow of coffee, got up, and went over the kitchen counter to retrieve a sharp paring knife.

Sitting back down, he held the letter up a second time to the light to make sure he could cut it open along the top edge without cutting the letter inside. He then cut open the envelope and blew gently into its cut edge to create an opening. He turned the envelope upside down and shook the contents onto the table. The pattern and color of the letter paper matched the envelope. The letter had been folded neatly into thirds and fitted into the envelope just as people were taught to do years ago in grade school. Mira did everything properly like that. Jon unfolded the letter and saw that it was covered with Mira’s handwriting. Even without having read it, he enjoyed seeing again the pattern created by Mira’s loops, curves, and crossed Ts. Mr. Palmer would have been proud of Mira’s cursive. There was no date and no inside address. It read as follows.

Jon,

I love you so very much. I am so sorry that I will not be with you for the last half of our great adventure together. I feel sometimes like I am dropping out just as we are getting to the really good parts. I can’t complain, though. The first half has certainly been marvelous.

I know how it has been for you. You work all day. You come and stay with me and silently note the damage that is being done to me bit by bit. Then you go home late to take care of everything there. I see the sadness behind your cheerful smiles and careful hugs, and I see the fatigue accumulating in your face. Please take care of yourself. You are my personal emissary now for the rest of the adventure, and I don’t want you to miss anything.

When you read this, it will be Wednesday morning. I want you to do the following things for me today.

Make the bed and change the sheets. Zorro hates to nap on an unmade bed.

Call Josh and tell him you will be back at work this Friday.

Call David and have dinner with him this evening.

Expect a call from Mica tomorrow. Sis will give you a list of who belongs to which dishes currently parked in the refrigerator.

I know that you feel bad and are probably shunning company. Do your best to put that aside. It is time to get on with things. Do these things for me because I love you so much.

Love always,
Your Mira

Jon finished reading the letter and was smiling. Mira had just, albeit ever so gently, kicked him in the butt. She had always been amazingly organized to the point of being spookily prescient. She had three different jobs after completing college. All were for the same company using her uncanny organizational skills. Initially Mira was a supply chain analyst. She moved into project management after a few years and lately had been a project scheduler and planner. At work, they had nicknamed her Carnac the Magnificent because she usually had solutions worked out before most even knew there was a problem. At home, though, Jon thought of her as the long, cool woman in a black dress who had it all.

Between wash loads later that day, Jon called David. The first thing David said on the telephone was, “Dad, I got a letter from Mom today!” During dinner that evening, David told Jon that in his letter, Mira had told him how proud she was of him going to graduate school, how she thought his girlfriend was terrific, and that he should make sure everything was OK with his dad. During dessert, David attempted to ask Jon very nonchalantly whether he was going back to work on Friday. This was a classic Mira double check.

On Thursday, Mica called as foretold. She told Jon that if he had all the dishes and cookware washed, she would deliver them to their owners. Mica told Jon he probably didn’t want to talk to anyone anyway and was glad to do this for him. After a bit of gentle prying by Jon, Mica admitted she had also received a letter from Mira.

In the weeks that followed, Jon received more letters from Mira. In subtle ways, each one was amazing. Three weeks after the first one, he received a sweet note reminiscing about when they met in college. It was postmarked from where the college was located and arrived on the anniversary of their first date.

That first date had been Dutch to an all-you-can-eat spaghetti restaurant. As students, they had both been very broke. Over plates of red spaghetti and flickering faux candlelight they both concluded they had to be together from then on. Ever since then, fall weather reminded them both about the wonderful hand-in-hand walk back from the restaurant to Mira’s dormitory.

A month later on his birthday, a hand-drawn card by Mira, a small bouquet of flowers, and an iced cupcake were delivered to Jon at home. The card had a note inside that said, “No, I didn’t bake the cupcake. Happy birthday, Jon.”

On their wedding anniversary a few weeks later, Jon received a postcard. It was from where they had spent their honeymoon on the West Coast and postmarked from that location. The postmark date was just three days prior. On the address side it said in Mira’s handwriting, “Wish we were there again.”

On David’s birthday, Jon received a copy of David’s birth announcement. It had been mailed from the town in which David had been born. Attached were a note and an old-fashioned nylon stocking. The note said, “We made such a beautiful baby. Do you remember the holiday toast?” Boy, did Jon remember.

It happened at a Christmas dinner with Mira’s family when David was 5 years old. Each person around the table was supposed to make a witty or cheerful holiday toast before dinner. When David was asked to make a toast with a glass of sparkling water, he grinned, stood up with his glass, and said with great pirate gusto, “Here’s to rum and long-legged women!”

When the words popped out of David’s mouth, everyone’s astonishment momentarily sucked all sound from the room. Then, the crash of laughter drowned out everything. Tears ran down Mira’s mother’s face as she laid her head on Mica’s shoulder. Mira hid her very red face in her hands as her body shook. Jon’s open mouth wouldn’t shut as he sat down dumbfounded, glass still in hand. After a time, Mira’s father wiped his glasses with his table napkin and quipped that since no one could top that, it was now time to eat. From time to time during dinner, though, sporadic laughing would break out. In the meantime, David beamed and ate well.

A follow-up, gentle investigation by Jon after dinner found that David had learned that particular toast from a pirate movie he had watched with his older cousins the night before. All the pirates in the movie had certainly thought it was a great toast. For years afterward Mira’s family kidded Jon that David had apparently been spending a lot of time with his dad away from his mother.

Jon received a sixth item almost six months to the day after Mira’s funeral. Like the others, it was in her handwriting using the stationery Jon had bought for her. This time, however, the cursive letters on the outside of the envelope did not flow as smoothly as before. Her hand had lost strength. The letter was postmarked locally and had been mailed just two days before. Jon did not open it for several hours. He put it in his shirt pocket and carried it around with him all evening.

After supper and dishes, Jon adjourned to the living room couch with a hot cup of tea. Setting the tea down, he reclined on the couch. Zorro joined him and stretched out along the top of the couch in his usual spot. Jon took a small pocketknife from his pocket and proceeded to open the envelope. He unfolded the letter and read it aloud to Zorro.

Dearest Jon,

The hardest part of all of this is knowing I can’t be with you in the time to come. I love you so much. I so much wanted to do so many more things with you as we grew older. We would have been a grand old-geezer couple. Please know that the times you thought that the drugs had put me to sleep, I was well aware you were there holding my hand or quietly reading to me.

I am sorry but I have left a few things undone and need you to complete them for me.

Give Mica my blue va-va-voom evening dress. You know the one. She has always admired it and she will be dazzling in it.

Give David my engagement and wedding band. David will be needing them soon to give to Evelyn. They are as much in love as we are, and I expect they will be engaged any day now.

Give Evelyn my pearls as a wedding present. Pearls don’t belong locked away in a box. David is so smart to have chosen her, and I want her to have them. They will look so good on her. They will likely marry right after David completes grad school.

Lastly, I have two requests for you, dear husband. The first is for you to go to London and see the museums. Spend a week or two there. Call the travel agency in town and talk to Sylvia. She has it all planned out and is expecting your call. You have always wanted to do this. Take some of the money from my insurance and spend it foolishly on yourself. Please do this. It will make me very happy knowing you have.

The second is harder for me to say. You are about the finest husband a woman could ask for. In fact, many fine women pray that they might meet someone just half as nice you. Please do not put yourself on a shelf and spend the rest of your days at work and puttering around the house. I do not wish that you be alone for the rest of your days. I wish that you be happy and enjoy all the days that are allotted to you. You have a big heart. I know I will always have a special place in it. I don’t mind sharing some of it with someone else who can make you laugh again.

My darling Jon, I will always love you, but I have run out of stationery and time. Take care.

Love forever,
Your Mira

* * *

When Jon stopped reading aloud, Zorro opened an eye to see why things had become quiet. Jon sat up, took a sip of hot chamomile tea, put the cup back down, and then petted Zorro. Jon said aloud, “I’m not alone as long as you’re around, buddy.” Zorro, however, didn’t want to be petted and jumped down behind the couch out of Jon’s reach. “Oh well,” Jon sighed. “It’s time to get some stuff done anyway.”


Randy Noon headshotRandy is a licensed professional engineer. After leading failure investigations at a Midwest utility for many years, he is now catching up on playing music, reading, and making new friends via ham radio in retirement.
Mid-America Mensa | Joined 1993