Four Years

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Yesterday I ran while the kids rode their bikes. It was a perfect warm morning, minus quarantine. Not many people were out, so at least we didn’t have to crisscross the street too much trying to avoid other humans and their germs in this strange new reality.

Near the end of our route we came across a dead bird.

Peter jumped off his bike and stooped over the carcass, his face pinched.

“Can we take it home?”

I explained decomposition.

“But what if he wakes up?”

“It doesn’t work that way. Kind of like your–”

“I know. My daddy.”

His brother and sister were ahead, waiting at the corner for us. I told Peter we should go.

“I’m going to say namu amida butsu first,” he said, and then he pressed his hands together. He knows we do this at the cemetery. After he said it three times and said goodbye, he got back on his bike.

He rode slowly in the direction of our home. I jogged alongside him.

“I feel sad.”

“About the bird?”

He nodded.

“That’s so nice you stopped for it. You showed that little bird that it meant something to you. That’s the best gift you could give it.”

He nodded.

It’s a really hard concept to internalize. I’m still working on it.

 

Today, four years ago, my husband passed away on a Wednesday morning, smack dab in the middle of our baby-rearing years. It happened unexpectedly without even a goodbye, forcing us into a new trajectory that irreparably changed our lives. It is still difficult to reconcile the unfairness of it all.

Recently I was talking to a friend who became a widow a few years back. She asked if I talk to Kenneth.

“Um, I still cuss at him. Does that count?” I quipped.

I knew she was rolling her eyes by the sound of her “Oh, Terrrrrrrreeeeesa.”

There are occasions when I become exceptionally overwhelmed by single mothering and working and taking care of the house– moments when the tediousness of the daily grind and loneliness wear me down a little more than usual– and I find myself wishing in my head that I never met Kenneth. Sometimes it feels like I invested in a con. Sold an empty promise. A bill of goods.

In the heat of my anger, I think about how if I had a time machine, and if I could go back to that fateful staff development day in January 2007 when I had just finished giving a presentation and he lingered in my classroom, I would have told him to get the hell out. Hard pass. No thank you.

On paper I should have never married this older Japanese man who wore all black and had a faux hawk and pierced ears. But I couldn’t stop the way I was drawn to his energy. He was over-the-top passionate about a wide spectrum of causes and interests: anti-fracking, anti-nuclear energy, politics, chess, teaching, philosophy, unions, his music from the 80s, and so much more. I had never met anyone like him. Half of these things I had never really thought about before we met. For nine years we spent almost every waking moment together– even teaching in classrooms next door to each other– and we never ran out of things to talk about.

I broke one of my main dating rules at the time: never, ever, ever, ever date anyone with kids.

He had a son from a previous relationship.

I went through hell because of that kid and his mother.

I ask myself over and over again why I didn’t walk away. On paper and off paper there was evidence that I should have.

But I didn’t.

I can’t explain it. I can only say with certainty that it never felt right to live without him– until I had absolutely no choice.

The kids recently found their dad’s leather jackets and tried them on. Kenneth had tons of them– part of his signature goth look– and unlike his other clothes I purged from the house shortly after he passed, I couldn’t bring myself to toss the jackets. I divided them up amongst each child and put them in the corner of their closets so they could do what they wanted with them someday.

Ethan put one of them on. Peter threw his arms around his older brother’s waist and exclaimed, “My new Daddy!”

It’s true that Ethan has an uncanny resemblance to his father with the hair and glasses and propensity to randomly rant about global warming.

Lately Peter Jack has been holding on to his father’s belongings. I caught him with an expired driver’s license in his pocket, passing it off as his own. He has also been carrying around his father’s old cell phone, pretending to answer text messages and take phone calls. He digs around in every nook and cranny of this house, scavenging whatever he can find that was his dad’s.

It occurred to me that he has reached a cognitive milestone of needing to know more about who his father was.

“Is there anything you want to know about Daddy?” I asked.

“Yes!”

“What do you want to know?”

“Um, what was he like?”

Such an open-ended question reflecting the vastness of what he doesn’t know. Peter Jack is a 5-year-old boy who does not know what it feels like to have a father. This is what I mean about the unfairness of the universe. The tragedy of it all.

Also: Kenneth as a father. He wanted to raise his children in his childhood home.

“I hope I live long enough to see my grandchildren,” he once told me. “I think I’ll like being a grandfather.”

It seems unbearably sad to know that instead of bouncing gurgling grandbabies on his knees, he became a stranger to his own 5-year-old lookalike son. He never even got to see any of our children graduate from kindergarten.

I want to pour everything I know about Kenneth into Petey’s brain, but I don’t know where to begin– how to accurately capture the force that was his father.

This mysterious father of his who could work himself up in a split-second about the injustice of GMOs.

A man who never backed down from speaking his mind.

Loved poetry.

Hated corporate greed.

Someone who was paranoid about pesticides and hot particles and spiders.

The kind of person who would for sure agree to go to a protest he believed in and bring a sign to wave.

A voracious reader.

But he read so slowly you might think he was a special needs learner, except he would remember every last detail and use it in a lecture or debate, and then you would realize that he was one of the most intelligent people you probably ever conversed with.

Kenneth knew the intricate rules of grammar, but he couldn’t spell if his life depended on it.

This weird man would stay up late watching movies and listening to his 80s music, writing affirmations 30 times on a page in his journal. Stupid things he swore by, like:

I feel terrific.

I am responsible.

I love myself!

“Why would you have to write those things down? Don’t you just…know them?” I asked.

Oh, do not even question the logic behind his beloved gurus Brian Tracy and Tony Robbins. Just don’t.

On the wall in the closet of his childhood bedroom, he scribbled things during various times in his life: I love Madonna. I love Patty Kattan. Cocteau Twins. Deathrock forever. Janie Frankovich is over.

Kenneth loved the ladies. So much that when I met him, he had taken boot camps to learn how to pick up women and considered himself a PUA– an acronym for Pick Up Artist. It didn’t matter how much we all laughed at him for it. He would look at you straight in the eye and swear by the methods.

“It works,” he said like a salesman peddling a vacuum cleaner at your door. “I got you, didn’t I?”

His favorites: Scarlet Johansson and Kirsten Dunst. And me, of course.

He was fiercely loyal to me. I’d have to beg him to go out with his friends and let me have the house to myself.

Kenneth was the kind of man who animals immediately trusted and liked. When it came to people, most either loved him or hated him. There was no middle ground, which is exactly how Kenneth lived. He made no apologies for it.

He was a compassionate teacher who always made time for his students. The kind of teacher who hosted chess club at lunch for the nerds and misfits to have a place to go. Being a teacher was his dream job.

Lord of the Rings was life-changing and Star Trek was everything.

He was a total pack rat– his clutter was a source of many arguments in this house. He tried to show me an Einstein quote that compared a cluttered desk to a cluttered brain. I didn’t go for it.

But for someone so disorganized and always losing his glasses and wallet, he somehow managed to be savvy with investing and saving. And he would be sure to explain to you how you could open up a 403B too and start the important step of saving enough for retirement.

He was thrifty, but more generous than most people I know. He would have given you the shirt off his back– as long as you didn’t vote for George W. Bush.

For me, he would regularly fill up my gas tank and make me coffee every morning. He was my most loyal fan and advocate.

“You’re a great writer,” he told me.

“You’ve never even read my writing.” I had never shown him even a paragraph of my work. I was always too embarrassed.

“Yeah, but you’re great at everything you do, so I know you’re a great writer.”

Nobody had ever told me that before. For a girl who has spent her entire life feeling like she has never been good at anything, this was groundbreaking. He is the only person who was ever unequivocally on my side. I never had to question if I was pretty enough or smart enough or good enough around him. He never stopped telling me how brilliant he thought I was.

Kenneth was the kind of person who put his family first. He helped take care of his elderly parents. He had the fondest memories of his childhood and was hopelessly nostalgic. He insisted we buy the same white van as his sister. His logic: it worked for her family, so we should duplicate.

He was an exceptionally caring and devoted father, and I recognized that the first time I saw him with his firstborn. He never raised his voice. Never lost his patience. He did everything he could to be there for the child against unimaginable obstacles thrown at him.

When we had our first child together– Ethan– and our son started to talk and say “I love you” to him, Kenneth got tears in his eyes and told me, “I never knew what it was like to have a child who loved me.”

He would tenderly brush Eloise’s hair and dote on her. He had really wanted a daughter.

“Daughters take care of their fathers,” he explained.

Eloise is sensitive just like he was. They also share a love of lounging. She got three years of being a “Daddy’s Girl.”

He made up nicknames for the kids like “Boon Boons” and “Chub Chubs” and talked to them in high pitch voices.

For a man who was indifferent about having any more kids when we first met, he quickly moved into the “at least four” category. We got to three.

After he passed, several people told me that Kenneth confided in them that getting married and having children was his greatest joy in life. Like everything else in his life, he got there in his own time, marrying later than the norm.

If there is anything for my children to know about their father, it is that they were his greatest source of pride. He died a happy man.

I think we have a tendency to sugar-coat a person’s existence after they pass away. I’ve sat with the details for four years now, picking them apart. Analyzing them. Reflecting. Wondering. Second-guessing. Feeling guilty. Sad. Bittersweet. It wasn’t all good. There were difficult things about him.

Kenneth’s firstborn and the mother of that child had been a major source of conflict in our lives from the beginning. I can’t even begin to write about what we went through– it was that traumatizing. I used to ask Kenneth why he even started a relationship with her.

“How could you be so stupid?” I asked on multiple occasions.

Everyone who knew this woman could attest to the crazy look in her eyes.

“If I didn’t fail in that relationship, I wouldn’t have worked on myself,” Kenneth explained. “If I didn’t work on myself and change my life, you would have never gone for me. If I hadn’t had a child with her, I would have never had children with you.”

Kenneth was a flawed person who gave me so many reasons to walk away, but so many more reasons to stay and love.

I often think about how we get to where we are.

The decisions we make right now that will pave the way for all of our tomorrows. The chances we do or do not take. I think about what I will accomplish because I married Kenneth. I think about what I have done since losing him. I think about who I have met. Who I will meet. Who I won’t meet. I think about Ethan, Eloise, and Peter Jack.

Everything and everyone is interconnected in some way.

Nothing is wasted.

If there is anything I can say about life four years after Kenneth’s death, it is this: you stop looking for the physical form of the person you loved, and eventually you start noticing them everywhere– in the streaks of sunlight between clouds. Flowers blooming in your garden. The bursting excitement and trepidation of exploring a new place. A dragonfly darting past you. In your son’s shoulders. Your favorite meal. Meeting a new person you know he would have liked. The incense at church. A photograph. The silence of the night and the fullness of the moon. In all of your happiness and success.

I believe Kenneth is nowhere and everywhere.

I believe he is an energy and presence we can’t see, but can feel. It is something we carry inside of us.

My today and tomorrows are stitched together by his essence. In this way, I feel he is gone, but not really.

Today: juicing, cemetery, Indiana Jones, tofu steak dinner, and ending the day falling asleep with a dogpile of kids in the bed. Just the way he would have wanted it.

2 Comments

  1. As always beautifully expressed
    My husband of 44 years has Alzheimer’s for quite a while now……….your words touched me deeply.
    Thank you

    Like

  2. I was one of the nerds in Chess Club. I graduated in May 2016, but I still remember Mr. Shimogawa and impacts he had on students. Thank you. It’s so beautifully written.

    Like

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