We had our annual January snow-followed-by-rain-followed-by-deep-freeze event last night, so this seems like a good time to return to this post–the transcript of the first time I stood up in front of a crowd and told a story, live. It was at a storytelling event in late February, 2020, right before everything shut down. It was great fun, and I’ve done it again since, in that brief window when it was semi-OK to gather, socially distanced, masked, wih proof of vaccination in hand, indoors, for an event.
That day will come again, but “In the Meantime, Carpe Diem.”
I told Mike, “do not, DO NOT, shovel that walk.” Mike had an extreme obsession about shoveling. He would set his alarm for every two hours during blizzards, suit up and go outside to shovel the driveway at 2 am, 4 am, 6 a.m., even during Snowmaggedon, when the wind was blowing 60 m.p.h., so hard that it would all just come right back again.
The “do not shovel” morning was in 2016, when we had three inches of snow followed by rain followed by a hard freeze. The driveway and walk were coated with a kind of heart-attack broûlée. And it all was due to melt the next day. So I told Mike, “don’t you do it.” And I hopped in the Subaru and left for work.
I worked five minutes away at the time, so I could come home for lunch. That day, when I did, I saw that Mike had shoveled the front porch and the walk to the driveway.
I was furious.
Because Mike was 13 months into the 18 to 24 months he had been given when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. Exertion like that could kill him. Why would he risk dying before he had to die?
Maybe it was an Alpha Male thing.
Because a year before, when I was 54 years old and weighed 35 pounds more than I do now, I fell madly, schoolgirlishly and very obviously in love with a 35 year-old Bulgarian carpenter – right in front of my dying husband – which was reprehensible, ridiculous, sad, embarrassing – and funny.
When we were confronted with the certainty that Mike would die within the next two years, I thought, what are we going to do?
I know! LET’S REMODEL THE KITCHEN!
Mike spent a lot of time in the kitchen, cooking for and cleaning up after cooking for our angelic, autistic daughter. He was a stay-at-home Dad. He spent his days toiling away on hideous, multi-colored, striped, 1970’s indoor-outdoor carpeting, blackened with decades of grime. He spent hours washing dishes in a harvest-gold double sink. He cooked on a cheap department store stove with no hood that barely concealed the mouse highway running behind it. I just couldn’t let him die without ever having had a decent kitchen in our house.
So, I found a contractor and signed the checks. I hadn’t figured on falling madly in love with the crew chief. But I did. I don’t know what came over me – I couldn’t help myself. He was young and strong and he knew how to do everything. He had black hair and green eyes and a magnificent deep voice. And I didn’t care that he was getting paid for it – it still mattered to me that he listened to, and actually remembered, everything I said to him. He did what I asked him to do- eventually-and he never yelled at me. Anyone who has been married for more than twenty years knows how rare that is.
The day of the Alpha Male shoveling, when I got out of the Subaru at lunchtime, I grabbed my cheap plastic grocery store shovel and tried to shovel the driveway, just to keep Mike from doing it.
And the Bulgarian appeared, and grabbed my shovel.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to shovel a path, just a path on the driveway for you, Annie.”
“Oh no you’re not. You smoke. Nobody who smokes lifts a snow shovel on my property. Don’t you do it.” And I was sort of dancing around in front of him (and he’s at least 14 inches taller than me) trying to block him from shoveling the smoking-man-killing heart-attack-snow-with- the-ice-on-top, but he shovels right by me, and then he stops and looks at my plastic grocery store shovel and says, “Dat’s not a shovel.”
And he marches right back into my kitchen and through the door into my garage and grabs my good stainless steel garden spade and starts hacking away at the smoking-man-killing heart-attack-snow-with-the-ice-on-top while I’m following him down the driveway shouting at him, “please, please stop! It’s upsetting him – (meaning shoveling was meant to be Mike’s exclusive domain, even if he intended to die doing it). Please stop!”
“God Dammit! The both of you! I can’t come home from work and find the two of you face down in the driveway and neither one of you with enough strength to call 911! Jesus! Everyone wants to give Mommy something more to worry about!”
And I jumped in my Subaru and drove off, back to work, still cursing. And as I drove away I saw the Bulgarian turn around and give the strangest look, as if he didn’t understand – or as if he did, all too well.
He knew I had a crush on him. At first he was embarrassed, and then he played along, and then he just started openly making fun of me, in a subtle, Eastern European kind of way.
Like the time his drawers came off.
Three weeks after the kitchen was finished, I had loaded the heaviest pots in the middle, rather than the bottom drawer, because that’s where Mike wanted them. When the drawer fell off its rails, like I knew it would, and then the bottom one did too, the Bulgarian came to fix them.
When he squatted down to look at the drawers that had fallen off, he looked up at me with his gorgeous green eyes and he said with that magnificent voice, “Annie, what have you done to my drawers?”
Which is quite possibly the best set-up line I had ever been fed.
But did I say, “Why, my dear, as you well know, to my infinite regret, I haven’t done a damn thing to your drawers. These kitchen drawers, on the other hand, came off all by themselves.” Bat eyelashes.
No, I didn’t say that. I just blurted out, “You didn’t stop smoking!!!” Because it was after New Year’s and he still smelled of cigarette smoke, even though he had told me it was his resolution to quit.
The Alpha Male incident was the last time Mike shoveled, but it wasn’t Mike’s First Last Thing. There was his last birthday, his last Thanksgiving, his last Christmas.
The first time I realized I was witnessing a last thing was before all of those, in the fall, when I came home and found Mike on the roof.
He could barely stand up for ten minutes and he had hauled the ladder out of the garage and climbed up to the roof, intending to clean out the gutters – one last time.
Mike lived long enough to cook his last pot of spaghetti sauce and his last batch of chicken soup in the new kitchen.
And now, when I rinse dishes in the big new white farm sink, before I load them into the new stainless steel dishwasher, I see Mike there, by the new stove with the new hood, doing what he loved to do – cooking something for Angelic Daughter. And I also see the Bulgarian there, puzzling over how to cope with some weird previous do-it-yourself modification from some past owner.
That kitchen is filled with memories of love, kindness, bravery, humor – and forgiveness – for, and from, two men I loved.