by R.J. Fox

“Tell Emily I love her.”

Her husband’s dying words. His death bed epitaph to Amy, his wife of 25 years.

On the heels of not saying a single word for over two weeks, two days after being placed under hospice care.

It would be another two weeks before he passed, so she certainly didn’t expect those to be his final words.

But in the end, that’s exactly what they were.

Though James rarely expressed romantic sentiments, she certainly never doubted that he loved her as much as she loved him. She could at least take solace in that. Yet, here he was confessing his love to someone she didn’t even know. And it hurt more than she cared to admit. Perhaps had he confessed this to her at some point, it would have lessened the sting, rather than leaving her in a cloud of mystery.  Had her never confessed his love to someone else, it wouldn’t never would have bothered her that he never told her that he loved her. If she didn’t expect it when he was healthy, she certainly wouldn’t have expected when he was too far gone – too ravaged by aggressive cancer combined with failed chemo to express statements of love. But Emily changed all of that.  

At least, she had no regrets on her end. In the two weeks he lay in a coma state, she made told him she loved him countless times. And though he didn’t respond, she was hopeful that it still reached him deep inside his heart and soul. Though she wasn’t 100%  certain, she was pretty sure he squeezed her hand in response one of the times. Perhaps it was wishful thinking. A meaningless reflex. But she refused to believe that.

She kept reminding herself that all that really mattered most at this point was making sure he remained as comfortable as he could under hospice care. And that all the arrangements were taken care of. Their two grown children – Lucy and Michael – had that all covered, leaving her with the primary task was to stay by his side every moment of his remaining time on earth. An early finish line that took her and the kids by surprise.

She was grateful that she at least told them that he had loved them shortly before his coma. That gave her some solace, at least. She was also grateful that they didn’t hear him profess his love for Emily. She wondered if she would tell them later.

If there was one silver lining to his unexpected illness, it was that it finally put to rest a longstanding feud with Michael. If only had it been that easy when the final curtain wasn’t already closing. Funny (on second thought, it wans’t funny at all) how death has a way of way of repairing old wounds, if only to leave a behind much deeper suffering in its awake.

The past no longer mattered.  Or, so she thought.

She tried to regain her focus and stop worrying about something she had no control over. But no matter how hard she tried to fight it, she couldn’t get it back.

Only one thought continued to plague her: 
Who the hell was Emily?
A constant loop.

She considered the possibility that his proclamation was a drug-induced, quasi-coma hallucination. But he had said it at a time when he seemed more coherent and alert than at any other point under hospice care.

She had so many questions that she wondered if she would ever have answers to. Was Emily someone from his past? Or, present? She kept coming back to the theory that he was confused. If by some miracle he awoke from his coma, would she ask him about it? Or, would she let it go? Her grief was deep enough. Why deepen it?  Then again, if she didn’t ask, would it haunt her for years to come? After his inevitable passing, would she look for evidence? Or, would she feel too guilty snooping through his stuff for clues posthumously? Then again, he was the one who brought her up in the first place. He didn’t have to mention her at all if he wanted to keep it a secret. Then again, it wasn’t like his judgment was sound.

She tried reminding herself once again that time wasn’t on her side. So why waste it dwelling on something that really didn’t matter right now?

Because it did matter.
Emily mattered.

Her husband wanted it known that it was Emily who was loved. Not her.

Five days later, he passed. She was by his side, along with their children. She was holding his hand when he took his final breath. It was the best anyone could hope for when they pass. 

As Amy stared at his now lifeless body, her brain refused to process the fact that he was gone forever. Even though she knew he was.

Her children hugged her, then left the room to give her one last moment alone with her first and only love.

The funeral came two days later. As expected, it was a great turnout. Nothing competes with Italian weddings and funerals. In fact, it rivaled the 500 guests at their wedding. Had it been up to her, it would have been capped at 250. But when his mother demanded to pay to keep the Italian tradition alive, what choice did she have? At a funeral, there are no invites. The generous turnout was a welcome distraction from her grief,  but also overwhelming at times. And there were several strangers she did no recognize.

Was one of them Emily?
Would she even want to know?

She suddenly found herself becoming angry. Why couldn’t he take it to his grave? He was so close to doing just that! Maybe it would have been different if she told him who it was. But to just drop a line like that without any explanation was torture.

She tried to focus on her grief, but all she could think about was Emily. And there was nothing she could do about it.

And then he was buried. Along with all his secrets.
One secret in particular.

A few weeks into the new “normal”, Amy realized that the ghost of Emily wasn’t going away any time soon. Though she avoided it at first, she soon began the inevitable task of snooping: through his computer, e-mail, drawers, etc. And though she felt guilty for snooping through his stuff, she figured he had it coming to him. And she was angry. Particularly angry that he covered his tracks so well.
He could find no evidence of anybody named Emily. Not in his e-mail. Nor, his social media account. Nor, in his phone.

But then it dawned on her. What if Emily was from before they knew one another? A childhood crush? Someone he took to a high school dance? Someone he transported back to the present through the fog of his clouded, drug-addled mind that was reaching the finish line of life?

Just when she gave up on ever finding an answer, she found a possible clue: a small, wrapped present tucked deep inside his sock drawer. Was this the smoking gun she had been looking for? Should she even open it? What would opening it prove? And what good would not opening it do?

She decided to sleep on it for a night. What harm could that do? Keeping it wrapped felt like a part of him was still alive. A gift from beyond the grave.

But intended for whom?

She was pretty sure she knew the answer. But would there be any proof?

She decided to sleep on it and placed it next to her nightstand before she went to sleep. The next morning, she opened it. It was a simple gold bracelet. Though there was nothing unusual about the bracelet itself, she knew right away that it was never intended for her: she was allergic to gold. He knew that.

And she wished she had never opened it.
But it got her no closer to solving the mystery.
Who was Emily?

Several weeks passed. And no further evidence surfaced.

She finally gave up. That fact that there was someone else was a reality she had to learn to accept. Not that it really mattered. It was all in the past now. And the past was the only place where he could remain, despite everything feeling very much in the past. No apologies or reconciliation required, let alone possible.

Nothing would bring him back to life.  No matter what, he was dead. Dead, dead, dead. Knowing the truth wasn’t going to change that fact. And he was just as dead to Emily as she was to her.

But wait! Did Emily even know? It was quite possible she didn’t. He saw no evidence of missed calls or texts on his phone. Wouldn’t she have tried contacting him? Was it possible he had some hidden form of communication that she wasn’t privy to? A burner phone? Should she hire a private investigator? Then again, why put herself through that? Because she feared she would otherwise never find closure. And would never grieve properly. Until she finally solved this mystery.

She wondered if she should solicit her kids to help? Did she really want to drag them into this? She decided to keep it to herself. For his sake. And for the sake of their children. 

A few more weeks passed. And then an unexpected knock at her door. She looked through the peephole at a woman no older than 20. Probably another damn solicitor. But when noticed a car was parked in her driveway, she realized that solicitors don’t usually park in your driveway. Did this person have the wrong house?

Though she considered ignoring the stranger until she went away, she realized she didn’t have a choice. The knocking continued. 

“Hello, may I help you?” Amy asked.
“I know you don’t know who I am,” the girl said. “But I know who you are.”
“I’m sorry?”
“My name is Emily Ford…”
Amy’s brain struggled to process any of this.
“You don’t know me, but I know your husband—”
“How dare you…” Amy said, feeling the urge to strangle somebody for the first time in her life.
“I’m sorry,” Emily said.  “I could leave. I didn’t mean to—”
“How did you expect someone to act when their deceased husband’s mistress shows up on their doorstep?”
“Wait. Is that what you think I am?” 
“I’m his daughter. He was in college.”
Amy felt the anger awash away, as confusion and relief settled in.
“Come on in…” Amy said.
Emily entered.
“Have a seat.”

Emily sits down on the couch. An hour later, Amy finally knew the whole truth: Emily was the product of a college one-night stand. Several years before she and Jim had ever met. He was fully prepared to be a father. However, the mother preferred to raise the child on her own. She even refused child support. They worked out a deal that he could send letters and presents for birthdays and Christmas, but that there would be no other contact. Once she was 18, she would be allowed to pursue a relationship with her father if she so chose.

She turned 18 last week. And now, here she was, in her father’s living room.

“He never met you in person?” Amy asked, still in shock.
She shook her head.
“I found out about his passing through a Facebook post. I realize that me coming here was a risk. And I understand and am sorry if you are upset.”
“No. I’m so happy you came.”
She truly was.
“Hang on a moment. There’s something he would have wanted you to have.”
Amy retrieved the bracelet, which she now realized was probably intended as a birthday gift. Or, perhaps graduation gift.
“It was wrapped. Clearly intended for you.”
“How do you know it was for me?”
“I’m allergic to gold.”
Emily put in on. Held it against her wrist and smiled.
“It’s lovely.”
“Your father was a great man.”
“I know.”

The two women sat there, staring at the bracelet that in that moment, brought her husband – and Emily’s father – back to life. If only for that moment.
It was exactly how he would have wanted it.

About the Author:

R.J. Fox is the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, a memoir, and 15 feature length screenplays. His first book – a memoir entitled Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine was previously published by Fish Out of Water Books. His debut novel Awaiting Identification was released last spring and was placed on MLive’s top 10 Michigan books of the year. Both books – which were initially screenplays – are currently being developed into feature films. He is on board as a co-producer for Love & Vodka.  He also recently published a collection of essays entitled Tales From the Dork Side. His work has been published in over 30 literary magazines and journals. He is also the writer/director/editor of several award-winning short films.  Fox graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and a minor in Communications and received a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. In addition to moonlighting as a writer, independent filmmaker and saxophonist, Fox teaches film and literature in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, where he uses his own dream to inspire his students to follow their own. He has also worked in public relations at Ford Motor Company and as a newspaper reporter. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI.