The first time my husband Joe died, I was devastated. At first, my children and grandchildren were the only reason I was able to get myself out of bed every morning. Then work gave me a reason to get out of the house. But I wasn’t the sharp-witted reporter I used to be. Although my editor and his superiors pretended to be understanding, they began hinting that it was time for me to retire. I couldn’t bear the thought of being alone in that house, haunted by memories, but I knew they were right- I was starting to miss deadlines, forget meetings entirely, turn in half-finished articles that stopped mid-sentence. I was losing my grip.
So when I woke up one morning and Joe was there next to me, I thought that I had finally lost my mind.
He probably thought I had too, since I woke him up by throwing myself onto his chest, sobbing wildly. At first I tried insisting that he had come back from the dead, but it soon became clear that no one else remembered his accident. The kids, our friends, even my sister looked at me with worry and pity, thinking I had been under too much strain at work or something.
We took a long vacation, a thinly veiled excuse to get me somewhere relaxing, hoping that I would let go of the idea that my husband had passed away and returned to us. Although I tended to hold on to him a little tighter, and let him out of my sight a little less easily, I slowly accepted that at the very least, I had to stop talking about when he had died. It was entirely possible they’d up and put me into a home.
My first instinct had been that somehow I’d been sent back to prevent his death, but I soon realized that time was right where it should have been. Though so many months had passed since the accident, it seemed as though they’d been rewritten, with my husband right there in the midst of it all. When I’d had some time to acclimate to the situation, I realized something even stranger. Someone carded me at the liquor store, and when they handed me my driver’s license back, I saw something that shook me pretty badly.
My birth year had been changed, moved forward by five years.
I spent a long while having the kids drag me around to different doctors, trying to dig up a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s, but they all said I was in fine shape. Even the psychologist, the only person I talked to about my husband’s death after those first few weeks, said that aside from that delusion, I seemed perfectly rational. Totally in control of my own mind. My editor nearly laughed me out of his office when I mentioned my imminent retirement.
“Give up my best writer?” he barked. “You’re here ‘til you forget where your office is, if I have any say.”
Ten years later, at our youngest granddaughter’s high school graduation, my husband had a heart attack and died again. The kids and my sister complimented me on how well I was managing to keep it together, how composed I seemed.
I hadn’t forgotten the last time, and although my heart broke, I woke up hesitantly every morning. Discovering that I was alone brought on a strange mixture of relief and renewed mourning.
After a year, I started taking on assignments abroad. My editor was hesitant- he thought it was a little late in the game for such a career change, to put it mildly. But I needed to wake up in some other part of the world. I couldn’t keep waiting for him to reappear.
It was nearly nine months later when I awoke alone in a hotel in Berlin- and found Joe sitting by the window, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee in his boxers.
I didn’t say anything this time, but I kissed him a little too hard before I went for the shower. As I passed the dresser, I picked up my passport for a moment, and when I opened it I saw again- my birth year had changed. Seven years this time.
It started happening more and more often. I started to wonder if this was some sort of purgatory, letting us live our golden years out over and over again. Sometimes the kids and their families got younger with us. We saw the youngest graduate probably seven or eight times, although I stopped keeping count after the fourth.
I was going on assignment in Europe or the Middle East or China or India, but I was younger and stronger and Joe wasn’t retired any more so we were apart more and more often. Every time I got on a plane, I wondered if I would come home to find him gone again. In my heart, I asked myself if it was easier to let it happen while I was away.
Then the jumps got bigger. On a rare day at home, I woke up to find the arthritis in my knees, which had started in my late fifties, was gone, and Joe, warm and alive and unshaven, was in the next room on the phone to our oldest daughter away at college.
The years keep moving forward; we’ve never re-lived a war or a presidency, even so much as a season. I’ve been in my late thirties for a while now, living a decade or so before it all starts again. Often I wonder if I made some sort of Mephistophelean bargain- we could live forever, be young forever, if I just suffered the grief of losing the love of my life again and again. I’ve never even dreamed something like that, so I suppose I’ll keep on going, never knowing why this is happening.
Joe jokes that I’m not the clingy kind, with my world-travelling ways- although I’ve had to ease up on that a bit since the children are back at home now- but I still worry when he’s the one gone somewhere for work, or when he comes up with some crazy idea for a vacation or anniversary. The truth of it is, I don’t take anything for granted. I keep wondering if there will come a day where he doesn’t come back, where I wake up day after day aching to see him again, to hear his voice, and I’m left alone.
Or worse, if I’ll wake up so young we won’t have met yet, and I’ll spend all my lonely years chasing after a life of which there’s nothing left; just the dream of an old heart in a young chest.
About the Author: Alyssa N. Vaughn is a writer and teacher from Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband, son, and two dogs. Her work has appeared in Unfading Daydream, Black Candies: The Eighties, and is forthcoming in the Mad Scientist Journal Fall 2018. You can find her yelling about movies, writing, and being a mom on Twitter @msalyssaenvy, or visit her website at blog.anvaughn.com.