Present Day, Saturday, 27 May
“I am in the car heading to the Club. I should be there in thirty minutes.” Ben responded on his mobile phone, while sitting in the backseat of his steel gray Mercedes-Benz sedan and shifting the seatbelt out of his way. He struggled with breathing when the strap rested tightly across his chest, preferring to trust in his long-time chauffeur’s driving abilities more than a piece of nylon fabric hinged to a pulley.
“Sounds pretty nasty outside with that rain. I just slipped away to check your timing. I’m so excited for tonight’s party. Ready for another forty years being married to the woman of your dreams?” his wife teased.
“Ah, my beautiful Olivia. The last forty years have been pretty amazing… so much ahead of us and still to come.”
“We’ve been lucky. I love you very much. Please get to the party soon. It’s not any fun without my best friend by my side. I’d look a bit funny dancing a rumba by myself. Remember when we crashed into the instructor taking those silly dance lessons, and she yelled us for being fools… oh, I never laughed so hard.”
Ben glanced through the window, noticing the thick, muddy water cascading down the mountains as his chauffeur took the Interstate exit through their hometown of Brandywine, Connecticut. “Ha, yes! Quite a pair. No wife of mine should ever be alone on the dance floor. At least not while I am alive! I think tonight will be the first time the whole family will be together since last Christmas… right?”
“Yes. Feels good, doesn’t it? They’re all here now. Remind me so much of you.”
Ben’s thoughts drifted while the car drove him to the banquet hall, lightning crackling in the sky and rain pounding the black-tarred roads all around him. “Yes. I have so much more to tell them… feels like time is flying by too quickly.”
“You’ve got a few months left… then you’ll retire and have nothing but time to be a grandfather and a father, doling out advice – even if they don’t want to listen to us, they never do, do they? Wishing you could turn back the clock. At least we can finally take that trip to Europe… are you still there, Ben?”
Ben snapped out of the storm’s lulling, hypnotic trance when he heard Olivia shouting at him on the phone. “Sorry. I got distracted thinking about all their antics and accomplishments over the years. I do not know how we survived five boys…”
Ben heard her beautiful snicker and was about to tell Olivia he loved her, but the car swerved to the right as the chauffeur neared the final exit on the slick asphalt curve, unaware traffic had come to a stop ahead. He dropped the phone from the unplanned change in direction, retrieved it from under the front passenger seat and raised his head.
As he looked up, Ben’s heartbeat and breathing paused significantly longer than usual, enough to recognize the encroaching overpass column directly in his purview and accept the impending fate that laid before him. Whoever said your life flashes before your eyes in the final moments prior to death clearly knew what they were talking about. And in Ben’s case, although they only lasted ten explosive seconds, those moments managed to include all sixty-nine years of his life, each image punctuated by a blinding flash of pure white light and deafened by the harsh snapping sound of an old-time camera shutter.
CRUNCH. Grinding squeal. Bright light glimmers in a dark vacuum.
The enchanting depth of the pools in Olivia’s cerulean blue eyes the night they first met at the opera. Their wedding day when he truly understood what it meant to find one’s soulmate.
SNAP. Utter blackness, followed by a perforated vibrant glow.
The final family portrait taken the prior year when everyone wore shades of black and white for a retro-style family Christmas card setting. The Thanksgiving feast spent at the hospital when his sister-in-law Diane broke her foot trying to avoid dropping the turkey on Bailey, their ten-year-old shiba inu.
POP. Sharp, dark void. High pitch release of pressure, then a translucent shining flash.
Seeing his granddaughters for the first time when his sons brought them home from the hospital in tiny pink blankets. The white-water rafting adventure on the Snake River in Yellowstone National Park where his boys rescued him from falling into the cold water only to stumble upon an angry moose searching for dinner.
BOOM. Screeching whistle. Shadows exposed and a final burst of the bulb’s filament into jagged shards.
The parchment letters which held the secret he kept from Olivia, pawned off on his attorney to handle, because he was too weak to tell his wife the truth in person.
The car hydroplaned atop a few inches of the warm pooling rain and crashed into the steel overpass near the exit ramp. He was immediately thrown through the front windshield, his body serving as the torpedo that cracked the window, thus ending the life of Benjamin Glass.
CRUNCH. Grinding squeal. Bright light fades to total darkness.
Wednesday, 31 May
Once the skirl of the bagpipes blasted its sorrowful resonance, Olivia, standing just a few feet from Ben’s fresh open grave, could no longer thwart the wrecking ball about to decimate any lasting strength within her mind. The slow, melodic sound sliced away at the newly loosened threads that had once kept her heart intact and sheltered from truly acknowledging a widow’s pain. Her battered eyes betrayed any remaining fortitude she’d stored deep within her body and as the chords of “Amazing Grace” resounded from the chanter pipe, the cords of her soul once intricately woven into Ben ripped from Olivia’s chest. Although she couldn’t escape the somber tones serenading the lowering of Ben’s casket six feet into the ground, Olivia forced herself to leave her husband’s grave. The flood of tears from her stinging red eyes went unnoticed as she walked to the car, leaving behind a single set of prints that marked her unknown future.
Despite Olivia’s attempt to hide behind rough exteriors, Diane understood her sister’s fragile grip was teetering on the edge of despair. It was Diane who went with Olivia to the funeral home to plan the service, managing most of the phone calls, catering and organizing the last few days. The one funeral activity Olivia handled without any help was choosing Ben’s burial clothing. It was the first decision she made the morning after her husband died. She woke after pocketing about an hour’s worth of sleep, realizing her husband wasn’t lying next to her, a comfort she didn’t know upon how much she relied until stolen by fate.
Once Olivia accepted his death wasn’t a dream, she pushed herself out of their bed, eager to forget the pain. She walked to the closet and pushed hangers across the sleek metal rod, looking at the sliding of each pressed and cleaned suit as though she were watching every year of their lives pass before her weary eyes. She searched for the one he’d worn to the opening opera at the Met the prior year. They had shopped for weeks, hoping to find something new as the one he’d worn the previous few seasons had begun to fray. She had finally convinced him to try a designer other than the ones he had been wearing, pressuring him to expand his horizons beyond those of a corporate attorney. Once he caved, they selected a more modern-cut three button black wool suit that fit him better than any suit had in the past. Even Ben had admitted it was the right decision. And he would rarely admit she had made the right decision given that she’d laud it over his head, teasing him for days. They enjoyed their game of one-up-man-ship over the years.
Ever since the final call with her husband, a biting frost had settled in Olivia’s bones. As she stepped off the cemetery’s grassy path, Olivia pulled the black cashmere sweater closer towards her shivering skin. Ben always told her she looked more beautiful when she wore black and gray, complimenting her on the elegant silhouette against her ivory skin and dark sable hair. She kept her shiny black locks shoulder length, usually tied back with a clip, and although it had started to turn gray the last year, the mixtures of the varying shades were regal and striking on her patrician face. She lifted the pearls Ben had given her as an early anniversary present, feeling the need to touch something he had recently chosen for her. Olivia pressed her palm to her chest and lowered her head until it emptied a few layers of grief.
As she stared through the gray-tinted window at her husband’s final resting place, Olivia recalled the joy she felt being in the same car on the way to her fortieth anniversary party, her mind focused on celebrating her relationship, socializing with her friends and spending quality time with her family. Since her husband’s accident, she comforted friends and family, staying strong throughout the entire ordeal. But today was different. Today, she’d endured the graveside service, concluding the entire emotionally-draining burial ceremony of the man she’d been married to for most of her adult life. Ben was her partner, her lover, her best friend and her source of energy and will, but now that had all disappeared. All that remained before her impending post-Ben world began was to signal to Victor that he could leave the family cemetery, but uttering those words was a struggle.
Diane sat waiting in the car beside her sister. Her face displayed the same high cheek bones and blue eyes as Olivia, but despite being a few years younger, most people had assumed Diane was at least a decade older than her sister. She’d let her hair grow out the last few years and tightly braided it down to her lower back, wearing the same dress she had to her nephew’s weddings and several recent funerals. She hated to spend any time fussing with her appearance. Olivia and Diane came from a poor family where they shared a bed until they were nine-years-old, were pushed out the door to start working as cleaning ladies by thirteen and told there was only enough money for one of them to go to college, if they could secure a scholarship that paid for most of it. Olivia was the lucky recipient, but school was never that important to Diane, who was afraid to go out into the world on her own, fearful she’d never find success outside the small comforts of home. It was easier for her to support her sister than to choose her own path in life, focusing on anything but what she ought to do for herself.
Olivia steadied her legs and faced Diane. “I don’t think I can leave him.”
“I understand, Liv. Was a beautiful ceremony. And the cherry tree you planted ‘longside the grave. Touching. You should feel proud of the memories you created for your family today.”
Olivia nodded. “It was beautiful. I know I can’t stay in the cemetery but I can’t bring myself to…”
Diane leaned forward and motioned to Victor to start the car, allowing Olivia a few moments to focus on the beginning of her new life.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. G. He was a good man,” said Victor. He’d been her driver for twenty years, taking her to each child’s doctor’s appointments, all her charitable foundation work and every dinner with her friends and family. “I’ll take care of things today, Mrs. G.” Victor checked the rearview mirror and nodded when he saw Olivia’s eyes, a quiet acknowledgment she’d heard his words. He released the brake and slowly pulled away.
“Everyone will be back at the house by now?” Olivia inquired as she pressed her fingers to her temple, feeling the warm blood swim through each finger against her clammy skin.
“Yes,” Diane confirmed. “They’re setting up lunch. Only your boys’ll be there. We’ve spent enough time with friends and neighbors. I asked George to stay at work today. Wanted to be with you without worryin’ about him.”
George was Diane’s husband and they lived a few towns away. They never had children. George didn’t want to be a father and Diane didn’t want to fight with him about it. He attended Ben’s service and conveyed his sterile condolences to Olivia, but even after being married to Diane for twenty-five years, George barely knew his wife’s family.
“Good idea. The poor man gets so nervous around me.” Olivia reached out and placed her hand on Diane’s, noticing the age spots more prominently displayed on her sister’s hands than her own. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me these last few days.”
Diane nodded, as they sat in silence for a few minutes while Victor exited the cemetery. The car served as a false protection from the reality waiting just outside the doors to its passengers.
Olivia recalled when Ben proposed on her birthday in late March, also the first day of spring. He’d arranged a private area for an afternoon lunch in the southern nursery of Connecticut’s finest botanical gardens. Olivia wore a heather gray knee-length chiffon silk dress with a methodically pleated bodice, sleek embroidered violet straps that wrapped around her neck and a softly ruched waist. As she meandered the slate stepping stones leading the path to a patio shrouded by voluminous twenty-foot high cherry trees with flowering branches cascading above the trellis, the umbrella sky of brilliant pink, red and white hues enthralled her imagination. Ben stood underneath the trellised gazebo, raised a few feet off the pristine, freshly-mowed rich green lawn, holding a single sprig of cherry blossom. When she approached, Ben delicately placed it in her hair, the color adding the perfect contrast to the shimmering sunlight. Behind the gazebo on the far corner of the patio, before the grafted trunks of the cherry trees met the luxurious grass, a 4-piece string orchestra softly crooned romantic melodies. When Olivia stepped into the gazebo, she first smelled the fresh-cut lilies tied to each of the white posts in the corners of the octagonal structure. Their intense, sweet odor enveloped the atmosphere and brought a smile to her face, recalling the bouquet he brought her on their first official date. A waiter poured them each a glass of Dom Perignon, and as she reached for the champagne, Olivia felt the thick edges of the goblet press into her fingers, inhaled the scent of the sweet liquor and shivered at the sprinkles of the bubbly effervescence dancing on her face. The quartet stood behind them and played Roberta Flack’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Ben dropped to one knee. Olivia’s hands trembled until Ben took one into his own. As the strings of each instrument blended immaculate harmonies and the musician’s lyrics rumbled in the background, Olivia could feel the reverberation through the wooden floor of the gazebo.
Olivia could still hear Ben’s words flutter in her ears like a butterfly’s gentle wings… Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife and completing the picture of the future I have wanted ever since the day I met you at the opera… even now in the car just moments after his burial when realizing she wouldn’t ever again see his face.
As the car stopped at a traffic light, Olivia spoke. “I’m glad you only invited my boys back to the house. It’s harder than I thought it’d be to watch them go through this agony. Your first thought is for your own pain, but when you see your children suffering, it is so much worse.” Olivia’s voice stammered, but she held firm until she finished.
Diane fumbled with the clasp on her purse, then handed Olivia a tissue. “Those boys have lost a good father. And without any warning. It’s awful, but you’ll know how to help ‘em through it.”
“I can see the pain in Ethan’s eyes, but he is strong and will grieve privately. He was going to bring Emma with him from Boston for the funeral, but we decided it wasn’t the right time to introduce her to the family. I think he’ll miss Ben the most. Ethan’s always been so focused on spending time with all of us, his grandparents… oh, I can’t…”
“And to lose his father when he’s so close to becoming a doctor. Ben would have been so proud to see Ethan fulfilling his dreams…”
Olivia nodded. “I’m grateful Matthew has Margaret and their daughters to keep his mind from focusing on Ben’s accident. Matthew and his father had such a strong relationship… all those father-son summers, fishing and camping at Lake Wokagee… they were planning another one this summer.”
“I know. But Matt’s always been the one to count on, and he’ll step up and help Teddy keep things running smoothly. Wasn’t Teddy supposed to be taking over Ben’s law firm by the end of the year?”
“Yes, but Theodore’s alienated himself even more than usual the last few days. He was finally starting to share his feelings, but he’s shut down and returned to his robotic tendencies. Ben had been coaching him, but even as a boy, you know, Theodore was never particularly close to the rest of them… he’d show up to family football Sundays and movie nights, but it always seemed more of an obligation rather than enjoyment…”
The car slowed to turn, passing the corner where Ben would drop off the boys for the school bus in the morning on his way to work. A few heavy drops fell from Olivia’s eyes. She let them roll across her cheeks, unwilling to grant them total control over her. She remembered the many times she’d gone with Ben, imagining how he’d lined up each one side-by-side, inspecting them like soldiers and patting them on their heads as he christened each one ready to begin their day. If only I’d be able to feel your touch one last time, Ben.
“True. Teddy’s always been a lone wolf. You talked to Sarah ‘bout how he’s doing?”
“Not really. She’s there for him but I haven’t pushed too much. She’s been stressed lately ever since the hospital put her back on nighttime rotation, and she and Theodore decided they want to start their own family.”
“But at least Caleb’s back for a few more days,” Diane said, rubbing her sister’s back. “You’ll get to spend more time with him. How’s he handlin’ his daddy’s death?”
Caleb was only visiting for the anniversary party the prior weekend, but then stayed in Connecticut for the funeral to grieve for his father’s passing. Olivia once thought it would be Caleb who stayed home with her and Ben when they got sick or grew older, but soon abandoned that hope when he disappeared to Maine ten years before.
“Caleb’s hurting. I know my son. I just wish he weren’t all alone; he needs someone to lean on. He probably feels some guilt for being so far away. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand why he left.”
Diane responded, “Caleb’s strong like you in so many ways, holding back to protect himself from the intensity of it all. I’m sure he’s got friends to look out for him. What ‘bout Zach? You still worried he’s using…”
Olivia sighed. “I don’t know. He appears to be looking after Anastasia. But I can never tell with him. He drove back to Brooklyn last night to work. I heard him come in early this morning while I was still in bed trying to get some sleep. I never know what Zachary’s doing anymore.”
Olivia thought Zach was on often on a bender, but couldn’t bring herself to ask him where he’d been when he left his five-year-old daughter in their care. They weren’t close the last few years and despite a few attempts at a reconciliation, it always proved futile.
“Five boys without a father. It shouldn’t be this way. We should have had more time,” Olivia choked out, reaching a hand to the seat in front of her to sturdy herself.
Diane rested her head on her sister’s back. “I know, Liv. But you’ll be there for ‘em. You’ll remind ‘em of Ben. And they’ll all find a way to get through their grief. Takes time. Pain’s different for everyone.”
Olivia acknowledged Diane’s comfort with her eyes, as the car pulled onto their street. “I’m not sure how to do this… how to go inside and start a new life without him by my side. We were together for over forty years. Boys have all left home. I’ll be living here on my own. I’ll eat breakfast alone every morning. I want to crawl into bed and close the door to my new life.” Olivia’s breathing labored as she began to panic.
“Calm down, honey. Relax. Breathe for me. You’re not alone. You’ve got me. I’ll be here to help every day if that’s what you need. We can sit outside a bit, Liv. Don’t have to see anyone yet.” Diane cradled her sister, silently offering a sense of relief.
Olivia considered her sister’s suggestion, wiping tears from her eyes and clutching her chest. Her mind told her she didn’t want to go back in the house. Not a single part of her was ready for this new phase of life, a new widow phase where she woke up and fell asleep alone in the bed she’d shared with Ben for so many happy years. She sniffled and breathed deeply, thinking about the day she met Ben, forty-two years ago in New York, when they both joined the same legal firm. After the firm had won a few high-profile cases that summer, the team gift was an invitation to a Puccini’s Turandot performance at the Metropolitan Opera House. When she entered the ornate hall, Olivia stood in the foyer searching for someone she knew to watch the crowd before the performance began. The room was wide and open with tall gold-plated ceilings, holding sweeping silk draperies against the thick white marbled columns. Bowls of fresh purple and yellow freesias uncurled their soft petals against each of the pillars, the peppery strawberry scent drove Olivia to feel dreamy. She glided towards the West entrance, stepped up the small set of stairs and quickly lost her footing. As she leaned to the left, narrowly missing a waitress carrying hors d’oeuvres, someone caught her arm and she fell against him, jolting at the charge of electric surging through her from his touch. Olivia blushed and thought an office romance wasn’t the best of ideas, but it didn’t stop her from pursuing Ben. Olivia graciously thanked him for saving her from an embarrassing fall, her eyes stared into his for a moment longer than she expected. When he learned it was her first opera, he ordered drinks to toast to the future. He probably meant the future of that season’s opera performances, but Olivia’s first thoughts were of their future together. They sat next to one another in the third row, front and center, immensely enjoying the Turandot performance. It was that night at the opera when they shared their first kiss. It was brief, a goodbye kiss after the performance ended, and his masculine scent fashioned a chill down her back. She had worn three inch pumps that evening and still had to stand on the edge of her toes to reach his lips, and when they pulled away from hers, a wave of euphoric serenity chased out everything around her, except for that moment with Ben. She’d never forget that kiss, not even in his death.
Diane touched her sister’s arm to let her know the car had arrived home. They locked eyes and shared a moment only two sisters could share without words.
Olivia replied, hesitating with each phrase, “I’d like to stay outside longer, but we need to check on the boys. After we get through Ben’s will tomorrow, I’ll be able to relax for a few days. Once it’s calmer, I can think about my own future.”