doorbells in the night

One October night in 1985, while I was on the other side of the country dancing or playing basketball or walking around the quad stalking Andrew Whatshisname’s dorm, there was a knock at the door of my husband’s home. He was 13 years old. His mother, who answered the door, was 36, a full 8 years younger than I am now.

She must have known the minute she opened the door. Maybe before that – maybe when she pulled back the curtain to glance outside, or at the ring of the bell, or the sound of an unfamiliar car pulling into the driveway, turning off the engine.

I don’t know if she knew the man on the threshold. She might have known him, acquaintance or friend or a name tossed around the dinner table in earlier days, days of road trips and three-on-threes and dressing room shenanigans.

The man had come to tell her what she (surely) already knew: her husband was dead. A heart attack, or heart failure (we don’t know, need to know, but don’t) during his weekly hockey game.

How did she not die right there? How did she not melt into floor in a puddle of grief and tears and despair and never get up again? How in the hell did she wake her two sons to tell them that their father was never coming home?

My father-in-law was 40 years old when he died. He had suffered an earlier heart attack, and although he lived his life well and fully, he always suspected he would die young. He loved his sons purely and hard. And he was loved, purely and hard.

I am haunted by that October night. I would have been 17 years old, a freshman in college drinking too much and studying too little and not thinking the least bit about the heartbreak that was occurring on the other side of the country. But now I am the wife of the son. The son who loves cheese and red meat and hates to go to the doctor.

I couldn’t bear to lose him. Just the thought of opening the door to that news sends me over the edge. When I was young, I used to be amazed and impressed by child stars who were able to cry on cue. I couldn’t understand how they could simply will the tears to come and the emotion would follow. Now, I understand far too well. The mere thought of having to go on in this world without that man can reduce me to a blubbering heap.

On Monday, he went out. To his weekly hockey game. The fear got hold of me and shook me like a dog shakes his grimy piece of knotted rope. I knew it was irrational. I knew that there was no reason for him not to come home, sweaty and tired, at 11 o’clock at night, and yet I couldn’t stop the tears or the dread that had draped itself over me like a heavy cloak.

I got through it, of course.  I had to acknowledge my feelings and put them away so that I could go to sleep and wake up again in the morning, his body, familiar and comfortable, beside mine.  I don’t have a choice: I get up every morning, grateful that it is only fear that I carry, and not the heartache that my mother-in-law wakes with still, holds still, in hands and heart that have since held love, success, pleasure and joy.

There are no assurances in this life.  Gee and I have had the talk about healthier eating and cholesterol and getting regular check-ups, but nothing changes.  He’s a grown man; I can’t make him take care of himself.  I cannot make him appreciate the depth of my anxiety that history will repeat itself.  I can only love him, purely and hard and every day, and hope that the doorbell never rings in the night.

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