In contrast to the tension of another workday and sour news, it had been a somewhat relaxing drive home and not too hot to require air conditioning. As he pulled into his driveway with the window still down, he could hear yelling and crying from his wife and kids through the partially open front door. Although certainly loud enough to be heard outside, the noise was not so disturbing or unusual to cause an alarmed notice from any passerby. And on this day … well … he was inclined to just sit and listen.
The reality of the moment — when he had been so looking forward to some peace — reflected a microcosm of his entire existence: his life had become a perverse parody of what he had intended. For months, a phrase that had been echoing through his brain now found itself resounding with renewed earnestness, “What happened?” He was haunted by the words on numerous mornings when hitting the snooze button three times, pointlessly attempting to stave off the inevitable. The words permeated his consciousness when sitting through vacuous meetings with coworkers reciting details that none in or outside the conference room would ever care or recall. The phrase loomed large on many a Sunday evening as he contemplated the next morning, like an echoing refrain to a judge reading off the crimes of a convicted felon’s pending execution.
And yet the microcosm itself seemed fairly innocuous. Jeffrey, the six-year-old, was, as per usual, unwilling to extricate himself from a video game to clean his room and was loudly proclaiming his need for more time. His wife had, once again, reached her wits’ end reminding the gamer and was now well into the phase of escalated vocal volume. Sophia, the four-year-old, was sobbing for them to stop.
It’s not that this greeted him every day, or even every week, but it was a frequent enough melodrama that it could be viewed as either a banal rerun or an aggravating assault on a fatigued mind.
Unfortunately, on this day it was the latter.
Within a few moments, instead of the calming influence his presence sometimes affected, this entrance was the equivalent of throwing water on a stove-top grease fire: the squabble was amplified into a shouting circus of domestic chaos. So much so, that a passerby walking her dog called 911.
The police arrived promptly, acquitted themselves professionally and quelled the stress-storm with well-practiced aplomb. Although they soon departed the living room — since the household instantly metamorphosed into a unity of awkwardly polite cooperation — the fact of their visit rendered the family into a stasis of subdued introspection.
Regardless of whether one might view the situation through the lens of familial mortification or an opportunity for learning, a good head-of-household might seize the moment for the purpose of reducing the potential of such a remarkable visit in the future. This might be accomplished through a calm discussion, ensuring that each person had a chance to fully convey their thoughts while outlining how things could be better handled in the future. Or, perhaps he could have taken everyone out for a neighborhood walk, as a salutary gesture of solidarity. Or, even bring all out for a casual dinner, fostering confidence that this episode was merely a hiccup and normalcy was as close as the next hamburger. There’s probably a number of things that he could have done to reduce the duress of the moment and solidify family cohesion.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he quietly went back out the front door, into the car and slowly drove away. The police were still parked in front of the house documenting their visit. Later, it was revealed that their report noted: “He left the home without incident.”
What their report did not state, nor could have been known at the time, is that he never returned.
He didn’t even advise his place of employment that he quit: he simply vanished.
His cell phone was disconnected and his email and social media accounts were deleted. None of his friends or extended family members knew where he went.
Over the passing weeks and months, there were speculations that he may have lined up an out-of-state job. The idea was posited, and then universally rejected, that he was secretly running some type of criminal operation. Someone recalled that he once said he wanted to live in Costa Rica. Another suggested that maybe he took up an offer from several years ago, when a college friend was recruiting him to join his startup across the country. Someone else remembered that he had once declined a higher-paying position in Dubai. But money was never a problem with him. Hence, the question arose, was there another woman?
Over time, an appropriate amount of funds to pay the mortgage, utilities, insurance, credit cards and all routine bills continued to be deposited into the family bank account on the first of each month.
The refrain of “What happened?” which had been haunting one man, spread to those he once knew.
Some might argue that he had often seemed more enamored of work than his family. It’s true that he considered his primary role to be the provider, and in that regard, he could not be faulted, even if his memory invoked dismay in the family, friends and associates he abandoned.
But where did he go?
After three years, the kids repeated these questions less and less. But more and more she found herself pondering, “Was it me?”
But for those close enough with whom she shared her concern, each concurred that it had nothing to do with her. The prevailing view was that she was the victim and he must have had some deep issues — more so than anyone could have known.
Nevertheless, “What happened?” and “Was it me?” routinely insinuated into her consciousness, like an insidious odor creeping into the house no matter how tight the windows and doors were closed.
Shortly after the fourth anniversary of his departure, she received a letter. The envelope was addressed with his handwriting. It had no return address but was postmarked from across the country. You might think she would open it immediately.
But she didn’t.
She found herself battling an erupting contest of curious vs. furious with the latter rising ascendant.
As much as she wanted to know something/anything at all — she had forged a sealed septic tank of bitterness and betrayal, so noxious and for so long, that she feared opening it would unleash a disturbance from which she might not mentally recover. In the moment, she was convinced that if he showed up at her door, she would beat him with whatever she had to hand and considered that no reasonable jury would feel compelled to convict her of a crime, given the circumstances.
She buried the envelope under papers on the desk. For days it called whenever she was near. She resented the hatred and fury that consumed her even while buying groceries, running errands or shepherding the kids off to school.
Irritation became her default and she found it increasingly difficult to sleep. A gnawing stomach ensured she would not find a moment of repose.
After a week, she awoke in the middle of the night sweaty and distressed and made a decision: she would shred the unopened envelope and she would do it now.
Tossing on a robe while heading downstairs, she retrieved the buried envelope from the desk and hastily positioned it above the shredder.
Under the late-night light, poised atop the awaiting blades, the handwriting caught her notice. Although it was clearly her husband’s, something about it was different. She drew it closer to the lamp and inspected the characters, independent of the context. There was an unsteadiness in the writing, which had gone unnoticed the first instant she held the envelope and stashed it away.
The anger of the moment evanesced into the surrounding blackness, leaving her quiet and puzzled.
She opened the envelope.
Cancer. The word jumped out at her. Even though it had no more emphasis than any other. The handwriting was indeed unsteady, but the words were clear enough: he didn’t have long to live.
A stillness pervaded her every cell. Her whole mental environment calmed down for the first time in too long to recall.
It was only now that she recognized how much dissonance had reverberated as an ever-present cloud of unease, nettling her daily endurance.
The festering rage that she continuously wrestled, simply vanished.
The words spoke to her. They conveyed a voice as distinct as if he was right there talking aloud.
He went on to say that if he had any idea he might have survived this long, he would have made different choices. On the day he left, he intended to clear his mind and return soon after. However, he became consumed by the news he never conveyed: the doctor advised he had only months to live. She paused briefly and vaguely recollected that he had a doctor’s appointment at that time, and perhaps another some weeks earlier, but he had never complained of any health problems.
He went on to apologize for not being a good father or husband and said she deserves better. The only thing he felt confident about was making money and the only way he felt he could be of service to the family was to make as much as possible in the little time he had left. Furthermore, he did not want her or the children to experience him as he debilitated away in his final days.
Mostly, he wanted to convey some good news. The extra time had provided him opportunity to make more than he originally imagined and she will be the sole beneficiary.
Finally, he advised that after he passed, an attorney would contact her to facilitate the financial transfer along with some recommendations for local financial advisors, although she could find her own, if she preferred. He also provided the attorney’s contact info.
He added that if she felt it appropriate, he would appreciate her telling the kids that their dad is imperfect, but that he loves them more than they will ever know. He concluded with the following: “I do not expect you will ever forgive me. Thank you for being you.”
The sudden quietude of the moment earlier, collapsed upon her like a wall of sandbags yielding to a flood. All the efforts she had been exerting to maintain a face of daily civility became submerged by a tidal wave of grief.
Her legs buckled. But she caught herself on the desk, easing the fall to her knees. Her breath flushed from her lungs and she quietly gasped for air.
Somehow she managed to rise to her feet again, but only long enough to stagger across the room and direct her fall onto the sofa. Lying face down, she expelled aching sobs into an unsuspecting pillow. Suppressed emotional turmoil wept from her core, previously contained by nothing less than sheer will.
The pillow absorbed incessant tears, mucus and saliva and also served as a sound muffle, helping to keep her weeping discreet so as to not disturb the sleeping kids. Ultimately, she succumbed into a profound slumber.
Sophia, now eight, awoke her in the morning and asked why she was sleeping in the living room. Her mom groaned a barely audible reply that this is where she dozed off and asked if she would make her own breakfast and get ready for school.
After several minutes, the crumbled letter beneath her shoulder caught her notice. She sat up, straightened the paper and reviewed the text anew.
A sense of urgency arose from within, attendant with a resolution about how to answer an expiring husband gone AWOL.
She stood tall, tightened the belt around her robe, marched into the kitchen and announced to Sophie and Jeffrey — who were ignoring each other while eating cereal — that she received a letter from their dad.
Instantly, they each froze in place and returned a mutual gaze.
She paused, “He’s sick.”
Then she cleared her throat and went on to say she needed to get some additional information and would tell them more when they came home from school.
At the moment, she didn’t know how the next few weeks would transpire. But she was confident a reunification would result. Regardless of how things played out, at a minimum she intended to retire the besetting angst of “What happened?” and “Was it me?” once and for all and for everyone.
Before heading up the stairs in preparation for the day, she announced loudly, so that her words would traverse the hallway and permeate the kitchen, “He said he loves you more than you’ll ever know.”
by George Alger