I woke up in the bed that I had shared with Barbara for so many years. My head felt heavy, cloudy, and a wave of disappointment fluttered over me when I looked at the empty space beside me. The pillow sat unmolested, still round and puffy as if it had never once been used. I sat up and looked around the room rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
The blinds bowed under the intensity of the sun outside. The muted light seemed filtered and eerily fragile. Spots danced in my field of vision blocking a clear view of the room. Darkness hunched in the corners and I could barely discern if they were empty or if something lurked there. A chill ran down my spine as if I just realized someone or something watched me as I sat there on the side of my bed.,
“Hello,” I called out, my voice raspy and barely audible. My throat hurt and my mind spun in circles. I wanted to lay back down. No answer came to me. I sat there for moments longer, waiting.
I finally willed myself to stand up on my shaky legs. I wobbled like a strong wind had taken hold in my room, but I managed to stumble to the window. I braced myself on the window frame, stuck my thick fingers in between the blinds, and peered through the gap to the outside. A beautiful morning warmed my spirits, but the scene felt like one of those faded, old photographs that Barbara and I had in our photo albums we kept on the shelf in the living room. Something odd lurked beyond my window, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
I shook my head and looked outside again hoping that my imagination had gotten the best of me. Nothing changed. The sunlight sparkled in an unnatural way. It reminded me of when I used to run among the bed sheets hanging on the clothesline as a kid – I could only see the world through the thin, white sheets.
Agitated, I turned away from the window and left the room. All of the blinds in the house were closed tightly keeping the light at bay. I could smell the hot vinyl of the blinds even though it didn’t feel that warm outside. My sense of smell surged like I had suddenly become more aware of the odors around me. The air I breathed felt cool and soft. I reached for my nose to touch the cannulas, but they were gone. I didn’t remember having them removed.
My gait felt unfettered, light, but I paid no heed to the strangeness of it all. I had some subconscious goal in mind; I just didn’t know what. When I walked into my living room, the door to the patio stood ajar. At first, concern flooded my mind. I swiveled around to see if someone else had come into the house.
“Carla? Rudy?” I said to the room.
I repeated myself, but no one answered. My heart raced in my chest. I didn’t feel alone anymore. I couldn’t see anyone, but I could feel a presence. The sensation startled me. My breathing increased. An old man like myself couldn’t defend himself much against an intruder.
I stepped toward the door and peered out onto my patio. The old bench that Barbara and I often sat on in the mornings and evenings when she was around stood empty at the back of the patio. The sight of the bench calmed me down, and I decided to take a seat there. I needed to be some place close to Barbara. Nothing would make me feel better.
Once I sat down, I did feel better. Birds chirped in the bushes. A bee whizzed by making the rounds among the roses in my backyard. The grass seemed greener than I remembered, but maybe the odd, sparkling light made it appear that way.
I glanced up at the power line that swung between the poles at the back of my house. The clean black line sat empty barely swaying in the breeze. I exhaled and relaxed. I only momentarily looked at the patio door, still ajar, to see if anyone had decided to join me. I no longer felt fearful. I felt happy, content.
I heard an excited chirping and turned to find the bird that sang so forcefully. A lone cardinal sat on the wire now, looking and chirping at me. I smiled. “It’s just you and me, buddy,” I said under my breath. The bird continued to sing, and I closed my eyes concentrating on his melodic song. The sun bathed my face in warmth, and the sweet smell of the roses swirled around me like the intoxicating perfume that Barbara often wore.
I opened my eyes ever so slightly and peered at the cardinal. It had been joined by another cardinal and they sang together side-by-side. I laughed to myself. My laughter belied pangs of loneliness. I missed Barbara.
“Jim, I knew I’d find you out here,” a voice interrupted me.
Startled, I turned quickly toward the patio door and saw Barbara standing there smiling at me and looking many years younger than she did the last time I had seen her. “Barbara…,” I said. I sat there with my mouth agape unable to form more words or get up from the bench.
She walked over to me and sat down beside me. She took my hand in hers. “I’ve missed you, Jim.”
I stammered as if I had seen a ghost, “I…missed…you, too.”
Her gaze moved to the cardinals sitting above us. She smiled and looked back at me. “I see the birds are back.”
I shook my head and gripped her hand harder. Her hand felt solid, real. I put my other hand to her face and rubbed her soft cheek. “Where have you been?” I asked.
“I’ve been here the whole time. I’ve always been with you.”
“Why did you leave?”
“I didn’t really leave you.”
Confused, I stopped talking. My hand dropped to her shoulder, and I leaned in to kiss her. Her warm lips felt familiar and inviting. This couldn’t be a dream. Maybe I had dreamed that she was gone.
“We should call the kids. They’re worried. They think you’re gone. I need to tell them it was all a misunderstanding.”
She shook her head and pulled my hand to her heart. “Jim, the kids will be okay. They know we’re together now.”
“They know. Just sit back and enjoy the moment.” She dropped my hand to her side but still held it firmly in her grasp.
“Carla will be upset.”
“She’ll be fine eventually.”
“How do you know?”
She laughed and smiled at me. “Mothers always know.”
I didn’t understand it at all, but I didn’t want to question it. Barbara was back. I squeezed her hand and sat back against the bench. She scooted close to me and I felt the warmth of her thigh against mine. So many beautiful memories with Barbara flooded my mind rollicking in succession like a movie reel. We sat in silence watching and listening to the cardinals sing. Somehow I knew she would never leave me again.