An Old Man

Sean Dietrich


He stands before his mirror, adjusting his collar, fixing his white hair until it’s just so. He’s thinking of her.

She always took care of him. He was used to having her do all the little things. Not just the laundry and cooking. Any trained dog can learn to do his own laundry. It was things like stocking his favorite snacks in the pantry, always refilling his prescriptions or remembering to replace the toilet paper.

Above all, he says he misses having her beside him in bed. King beds don’t feel the same without the weight of another person beside you. A bed can feel like a tomb when you sleep alone.

Her dog, Martin, misses her too. The first day she didn’t come home, he took Martin on a walk and the loneliness was overwhelming. This Labrador was her friend.

Martin sleeps beside him at night now, in her old spot. But it’s just not the same.

He’s switched to using instant coffee because he can never remember to set the coffeemaker. Besides, he doesn’t see the point of making a full pot for just one person. It’s funny how dependent a man can become on another. He says he hasn’t made his own coffee in half a century. Or eggs. He can’t figure out how to flip them without breaking the yolks.

He says, “Nobody tells you that you’re going to be afraid a lot when you lose your wife. You know, even though you’re the man of the family, and always have been, she was kinda your strength.”

He’s adapting though. In the last few years he’s come to truly enjoy his daily walks with Martin. They follow the same route she used to take through the neighborhood. When he gets home, he and Martin eat lunch. Then they piddle.

He says the memories of her don’t hurt anymore, they just make him warm.

“We watched each other grow up,” he says. “A wife isn’t just a wife, she’s your whole life.”

He saw her through every adult rite of passage, and she helped him turn into a father. He watched her give birth to his two children and transform herself from a girl into a beautiful mother.

They enjoyed old age together. Sometimes she’d catch him falling asleep on the sofa during his legal thriller TV shows and she’d nudge him awake by saying, “C’mon, let’s get you to bed, Daddy.”

“Daddy,” he recalls. “She always called me Daddy.”

This name started when their kids were little. She never quit calling him that.

On the day of her service, he stood with a stiff face while everyone else cried. This is just how men from his generation were taught to act. He wished he could have wailed and bellowed like his daughter, or howled like his grandson. But he stayed flat-faced and pumped every hand in the receiving line.

Right before they closed the lid, he took one final look at her. He leaned into her box to memorize her. He wiped his face with his sleeve before anyone saw him weeping.

“Okay,” he told the man. “Take her away.”

They closed the lid. He sat on the front pew and he says the rest of the day was a blur.

Today he walks into the kitchen, all dressed up and whistling. Martin follows, trotting behind because all dogs knows good things come from the kitchen.

The old man makes himself another instant coffee in the microwave. Martin is sitting pretty beside him because Martin is obsessed with food and thinks he’s going to get a treat.

The old man is thinking about the last week of her life, and all they said to each other before she went on. It sort of makes him laugh.

“Don’t forget to walk Martin,” she told him. “He needs his walks.” “There’s frozen beef in the refrigerator, don’t let it go bad, make sure you eat it all.” “You’re gonna need to call and refill your Lipitor, I forgot to call last Friday.” “Please don’t cry for me, I’m not scared.”

He tells me with a chuckle, “It was like she was going on a trip to her sister’s or something. Here she was dying, and she was worried about me eating the frozen beef.”

The microwave beeps. He mixes instant coffee into the hot water. His daughter’s family arrives on the doorstep. Everyone is dressed up. His grandson has a little bouquet. His daughter has a bigger one.

They all get into a car. Even Martin jumps in. Nobody is sad. Everyone is smiling. He’s telling his daughters things about their mother that they never knew before.

Like how she once cut the tip of her finger off while chopping onions. And how she once helped a young lady in church to get sober. He’s telling them about when he first met her. How dainty she was. How good she smelled. How after a few minutes of dancing with her, he never wanted to be more than three feet away from her.

They arrive.

“You ready, Daddy?” his daughter says.

He steps out. He finds her marker amidst the sea of gray headstones. He could find this stone with his eyes closed. He stands before her, hands in his lap. He’s grinning, but he’s also leaking pretty badly.

“Oh, Maddie,” he says with a smile. “Happy fiftieth wedding anniversary, darling.”

Hug the ones you love. Often.


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