He sits down next to me on the bench we have on our front porch. I want to reach my fingers up to the hair falling over his forehead but the warm breeze beats me to it. Instead I straighten out the scraggly hairs on his left eyebrow like I’ve done for so many years. Usually, he would jokingly swat my hand away but this time he just looks into my face. Searching, waiting.
“What’s wrong, Taneet?” he asks me.
I can’t look him in his big, brown eyes, the same as Annabella’s, so full of love. I drop my hands in my lap and play with my two karas.
“I feel like a fraud”, I whisper. He places his hand over mine so I stop fidgeting. The feeling of his hand on mine is like medicine on a festering wound. I clear my throat.
“It’s like…I was so quick to start calling you my ex-husband after I left. And since you’ve left me, I’ve been calling you my husband again. It’s weird and selfish. I have no right. I built this whole single mom life while we were separated and felt so proud of it. But since you’ve been gone, I’ve felt nothing but a complete void. An emptiness. A huge loss. Suddenly I’m a widow. I just feel like such a fraud. I don’t deserve-“
“Taneet. Taneet, stop. Stop”, he says.
“But I know what people have been thinking and saying about me. They think I have no right to grieve your loss. I used to just let people assume we were divorced when we weren’t. I tried to make myself appear stronger than I actually am. I could never bring myself to divorce you. I wanted to be a family again. For the girls. They wanted it so badly. I did, too. And when we were finally planning for you to move in here with us this summer…” I can’t catch my breath.
“Taneet. Stop. Look at me.”
I bring my gaze up to his and lower it again. I can’t look him in the eyes.
“Taneet. You only need to worry about two things: the girls. That’s it. I don’t care about anyone else. People are stupid. Who cares what they think?”
“Unfortunately, I do”, I say, looking down at my lap again.
He’s reaching into the pocket of his hoodie. I look over.
“This”, he says, “this is all that matters.”
He shows me a crumpled photo of the four of us in Cuba.
“Remember, Taneet. You are the captain of our ship. You hold us together.”
I take the photo with shaky hands and bite my lower lip.
“I’m sorry”, I begin to sob, “I’m so sorry, Andrew, I’m so sorry. I failed. I failed! I couldn’t keep our family together! I couldn’t keep you safe and healthy. I couldn’t take away your pain!”
I’m choking and hiccuping on tears now. He was never the best at comforting me when I cried. It made him uncomfortable. But he takes my face with both hands now and wipes my tears. He smiles and shakes his head.
“You gave me everything, Taneet. Our girls. You’ve done an amazing job. You’re a wonderful mother. Hey, hey, hey, stop.”
My snot is now shooting out of my nose and mixing in with my tears around my chin as he uses his sleeve to wipe my face.
“Taneet”, he continues, “people are always going to talk. It doesn’t matter. I was my happiest when I was with you. You know that.”
I continue to cry. I can’t seem to stop.
“We miss you. So much. The girls. The girls need you. I’m not enough for them. They need their daddy. Annabella will be a teenager in a few years! I can’t do this without you!”
“I’m here, I’m here!”
“No! You’re dead! You left us, you left us! You died! Why did you have to die?”
I’m shouting now, my throat raw, but he still looks at me and smiles.
“I’m always with you. Always.” He wraps his arms around me. He’s warm. The last time I touched him he was cold as ice. I allow myself to melt into him. I feel the summer breeze again, passing through our embrace. It feels like we are sitting here for hours and hours.
“I finally figured out the song you were always humming”, I say into his chest, my eyes closed, “when the girls were watching the Wizard of Oz the other day, it was like a light bulb went on and then- “
He’s gone. I can feel his warmth but I don’t see him anywhere. A familiar song takes my attention from the seat next to me and past the porch to the sugar maple tree in the front yard. There sits a brilliantly red cardinal looking right back at me. Singing loudly, assuredly.
I exhale into the passing breeze and it flows back into the cardinal’s song. Sweet, strong and familiar.