WHAT THE DEAD DON’T KNOW

WHAT THE DEAD DON’T KNOW

My husband, Michael, doesn’t know that President Obama won reelection. He knows nothing about Hurricane Sandy. He doesn’t even know that the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in a sweep over the Tigers. Most important perhaps, he doesn’t know that his only granddaughter is enjoying her first weeks in preschool and is about to turn five.

I think the first thing that he wasn’t aware of was a dream I had after saying goodbye to him before his death. In the dream, he is hovering close to me. We are in downtown Phoenix, close to his restaurant, Tom’s Restaurant and Tavern, on the northeast corner of Washington and First Avenue. He is walking a dog, which must be our dog, SiSi. Then he falls behind me and becomes a black shape covered with feathers and what appears to be yellow Post-its. He and the dog lift off the ground as they go fluttering past me and then disappear over the low wall of the ice cream shop that stands on the corner.

What the dead don’t know piles up, though we don’t notice it at first. They don’t know how we’re getting along without them, dealing with the hours and days that accrue so quickly, and unless they divined this somehow in advance, they don’t know that we don’t want this inexorable onslaught of breakfasts and phone calls, and going to the bank completing our unfinished business—all this stepping along because we don’t want anything extraneous to get in the way of what we feel about them or the ways we want to hold them in our mind. But I think they’re in a hurry too, or so it seems. Because nothing is happening with them, they are able to fly away, over that wall, while we are still chained and handcuffed to the weather, to the iPhone, to the election results, to the neighbor who recently broke up with his wife and moved a new woman in with him, and to the neighbors from England who moved into the “big house” on our street with their twelve year old son. We’re flying off in an opposite direction at a hundred miles an hour. It would take days just to fill Michael in on what’s been happening.

Two years have passed since Michael died, and though I’ve forgotten some things about him, my fears about that are going away. There will always be enough of him to remember, and some of it, comes back with a driving force that often surprises me.

But wait, there is so much more Michael doesn’t know. So many of his favorite things are now moved. Photos of us are hidden in a large dresser drawer in the loft area. His assortment of coffee beans in the freezer are long gone, a collection of watches, sweaters, and his various jackets have been given away. His bicycles, a street and mountain bike, are no longer mounted on a wooden stand in the garage and many of his tools have been given away to friends.   

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My visits to Michael’s grave don’t last long. I set a single flower across his monument, place a stone on the edge, and tidy up the surrounding area. If there had been rain the night before, I’d collect the dampened business cards or notes to the dead and brush off the clumps of dirt that hide his name. I visit in the early morning or just before sundown. Directly south of his plot is an empty area—a large patch of grass with no monument.  He doesn’t know that I thought about purchasing it when he first passed, but the idea of buying a plot in advance seemed more of a bad omen, than a comforting thought.

His gravesite is shaded by tall Oleanders with bright pink flowers that dance from side to side. They act as a wall for the dead as they deafen the sound of traffic on the main street. But, I forgot, it doesn’t matter, the dead don’t sleep at night. 

I sometimes park the car in the oldest part of the cemetery and walk among the dead. These are granite headstones, for the most part, and some are worn down to an almost identical whiteness. Some of the lettering has been blackened with age. I go from grave to grave, studying the familiar epitaphs as if I know them.  I read the inscriptions, then I imagine what the people were like. Carol Schwin, She can now rest, or Lilly Rosen, A Golden Wife and Cook.  Michael’s stone has a simple inscription, Beloved husband, father, son, and leader. As I read it now, cliché comes to mind.

What I noticed most though, is that time had utterly taken away the histories and attachments and emotions that had once closely wrapped around these dead, leaving nothing but their families and names and dates. They have only a wall of oleanders to protect them. It was as if they were waiting to be born.

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About TRatner

Terry Ratner is a freelance writer, registered nurse, and writing instructor in Phoenix, Arizona. In June of 2004, she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Writing has always served a purpose in her life, but it wasn't until her son died in a motorcycle accident in March, 1999, that she began to publish her works. What's unique about Terry is the way she balances the life of a nurse with the life of a writer. "Nursing allows me to give back to the community and then write about those experiences." Ratner teaches creative writing in a variety of settings from community colleges to a school for homeless children (Thomas J. Pappas) to wellness communities throughout the Valley of the Sun. In 2004, Terry launched an Arts and Healing program for children undergoing dialysis at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center. She has published numerous personal essays, cover stories, interviews, and book reviews for a variety of national and regional publications. Her manuscript, a work in progress, features a series of twelve essays, ten of which are introduced with black and white photos, dealing with issues of family and identity.
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