She still kept the t-shirt and singlet the paramedics cut off him under his pillow. It had been over a year and his scent had long gone yet she often held them up to her face, inhaled deeply, as if by breathing in for long enough his wonderful smell would magically appear. At times she would look at them in wonder, he had sweated profusely in the moments of his dying, and yet the grey t-shirt and white singlet were now as if they had been laundered, just like the other t-shirts and singlets that lay in his cupboard, except these had jagged slashes up the centre and over the shoulders. He was still wearing his pyjama pants when they gave her those timeless aeons to lay on the floor beside his cooling body for one last cuddle. She was not good with names, but she would never forget Paige, the policewoman who said “Take as long as you want, I won’t call the coroner’s office until you’re ready” and then melted quietly away into another room as Tess lay beside him and whispered to him of the wonder of their life together. She was glad they had removed that long tube from his throat; he would have hated that, he who used to gag on a panadol. She pulled a blanket from the couch and covered him, trying to bring him warmth, brushed his hair with her hands, then chided him for leaving without her. “I know we discussed this, talked of one of us going first, but I’m not ready for you to go without me. Why couldn’t you wait for me? We’re a team; we do the hard stuff together. The scent of your hair, the sparkle of your eyes, the solidity of our silences, and the hugs; I don’t think I can survive without the loving warmth of our hugs. I want to be cross with you for leaving, but I know it was not your choice. Come get me soon.” It was her friend Emma who had eventually helped her to her feet, and told Paige she could now call the coroner. She had rang Emma at some stage during that hour when her family room had morphed into a hospital emergency room complete with drips, and machines that tried to zap the life back into her husband. It was when she had seen his tummy start to rise and fall again and had said “Oh good he is breathing again” that the tall one with the gentle eyes had said “Tess we are breathing for him at the moment, he is gravely ill and I think it would be a good idea if you called someone to be with you.”
Emma was the only one who came to mind. Everyone should have a friend like Emma, a friend who would come without question whenever she was needed, who never presumed to know the unknowable, never felt the urge to offer meaningless clichés, a friend who was gifted with the ability to just be there, listen, see what needed doing and do it, and never doubted Tess’s ability to make her own decisions even in the most traumatic of circumstances. Emma’s husband Don made a pot of tea and they went to sit in the study while they waited for the people from the coroner’s office. She knew she could not endure watching that moment when they pulled the zipper of the body bag over his beautiful face. Not long after her son’s death there had been an add on the television, something to do with an anti drugs campaign, where they had shown a lifeless looking young man laying in a body bag with just his face exposed. Every time it came on she would bleat like a ewe standing over the body of her dead lamb, and curse the advertising people for their over the top insensitivity. Didn’t they know that young people thought they were invincible and it was their families, and the families of those of all ages who had died suddenly, that were ripped open by their body in the bag stunt?
As they drank their tea she told Emma and Don about the line from Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it changes in an instant.” She said it had only been a few short months ago, on their last overseas trip, that they had sat together at a theatre in Boston and watched the amazing play that Joan had adapted from her book. It had been December and after the play they had gone out for dinner, and had a snowball fight in the car-park of the restaurant. She told them she and Harry had not sat down to dinner, they had gone to bed, the last thing he had done was make her laugh. They were both in bed and the overhead light was still on, neither wanted to get out of bed to turn it off. Harry had picked up Big Ted, the bear he had given her to ease the ache of longing in her arms after the death of their son, and said “How about I chuck Big Ted at the light switch and he can turn it off on his way past.” She had got up laughing, turned the light out then climbed back into bed and kissed his cheek saying “You’re a funny bugger aren’t you” and fallen asleep still chuckling. She had woken an hour later as he collapsed across the bed on his way to the bathroom. He then stumbled into the family room after her as she raced to grab the hands-free phone from the kitchen bench and frantically dialled 000. She guided his grey, sweating body to a chair as she spoke to the operator “The lady wants you to squeeze my hand darling” she said, he gave the gentlest of squeezes and in an instant he was gone. “He is looking at me but not seeing me” she cried into the phone “Try and get him into a sitting position” said the operator, “He is sitting” she cried. “The ambulance is only a couple of minutes away and I will stay on the line with you ‘till they arrive. Go and unlock the front door and put a light on.” By the time she had clasped his hand again two strangers were coming into her home, their hands full of equipment. They slid his body onto the floor asking “How long has he been unresponsive?” “Only a moment or two” she replied. As one started to slide a tube down his throat the other one grabbed a walkie talky type thing and said “We need a mica unit here stat.” And so the hour of fighting for a life that she knew in her heart was no more, began. As she finished her tea she looked up and saw the tears running down Emma’s cheeks. It was the first of many times she would describe the events with an almost clinical precision, for a while it was almost a compulsion; she wanted to speak the words over and over again to anyone who would listen. “I can’t believe he’s gone” said Emma. Paige the policewoman came into the study, handed Tess a little booklet put out by the coroner’s office and gave her a number she could call at any hour of the day or night if she had any questions. She walked with Paige to the front door, and told her she would never forget her kindness and compassion, she remembered feeling the gun press into her side as she gave the policewoman a hug of gratitude. It made her think of the old Mae West saying “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you pleased to see me?” She used to say it in devilment to Harry some mornings when she awoke to that familiar pressure in the small of her back. She walked back into the kitchen where Emma and Don were rinsing the cups, “Thank you both so much for being here” she said “but I need to be alone now and you two need to get some rest.” “If you’re sure” said Emma, and she loved her friend even more for not questioning her need for solitude. She fell into them both for a moment as they said their goodbyes and promised to return later that day. They offered to make phone calls, but Tess wanted to do this herself. She would wait until about 7.00am and then begin the process her and Harry had gone through together after the death of their son. For her there was a deep sense of intimacy in sharing the news of the end of a beautiful life, and she experienced this sense that in doing this herself she was administering to him, the last rights of their life together. After Emma and Don left she went to the CD cupboard and dug out the old Gladys Night and the Pips CD and played “their song” You and Me Against the World. She picked up Big Ted and swayed slowly around the room with him, she sat for the final verse “And when one of us is gone, and one is left alone to carry on, well then remembering will have to do, our memories alone will get us through, I’ll think about the days of me and you, of you and me”.