The banquet hall dazzled with gold lanterns and flickering tealight candles. Before me stood everyone who ever mattered. Some gave small waves of greetings, while others smirked with pride and sympathy.
As I walked down the aisle, I nod. My lips curled in an unsure smile. Each step marked my way to new territory. A sense of freedom like Moses and the Red Sea.
It felt funny. Kind of like someone on the ascend of laughing gas – part euphoric, part desensitized. I knew this day would come. Never knew who would be on the journey. Fortunately, I’m the lucky one.
Just like 1968, I appeared at the end of the aisle. Him on the right. Me on the left. Only difference today, his image loomed from a wooden frame. The mahogany urn, containing his remains, sat on a pedestal nearby surrounded by more candles. Oh the symbolism.
A tear slid down my cheek which I wiped away quickly. No sense in getting everyone in a tizzy, worrying about my welfare or giving pity.
I took my place behind a clear, plastic podium. I felt naked. Speaking in front of people was never my thing. That belonged to Harold. He’s dead now.
I closed my eyes wishing for a thick wooden lectern of yesteryear. I’m sure most think I’m stopping to pray. Why am I not praying? Could it be because my prayer was finally answered?
Air left my nostrils, emptying my chest and releasing the remainder of my heavy load. I open my mouth, but none of the words planned escape.
“Today I celebrate my pardon. My release from a prisoner’s hell.”
Eyes widened as loud gasps departed the open mouths of friends and family. My son and his self-entitled wife rush to my sides like two prison guards ready to take me away.
He covered the mic before speaking through gritted teeth, “Mom! What are you doing? This is Dad’s memorial!”
“And this is the memory I have of him.”
I slapped his hand away from the mic, dismissing him and his bobble-headed companion to their seats.
“Let me explain. Or as the younger generation says, speak my truth.”
I inhaled. Not for need of air, but to build courage to continue.
“Harold and I were married for fifty years. Fifty! That’s an achievement in the eyes of most. But fifty years of what? There was no love. There was no commitment. No respect!”
I grabbed the podium sides for balance.
“That man belittled me at every turn under the guise of a joke. He handled the finances, made all the decisions, while treating me like hired help. In the eyes of everyone he seemed like a great husband, devoted father, and a pillar of the community. It was ALL lies. Not only did he verbally abuse me, but he’d hit me too if I said or did anything that seemed to oppose him. Or just because. I wasn’t away at ‘retreats’. I was locked away in the attic. Told to stay there until I ‘behaved’. No food. No water. For days on end.”
I looked over at my son’s tear-stained face. I wanted to stop. In my heart. For his sake at least. But my lips and resolve wouldn’t let me.
“I was so hungry. I’d eat the accumulation of dust and dead bugs. One time, I lucked up and found a rat. Never in a million years would I have touched or eaten such a filthy creature. But I wanted to survive. I had to survive.”
I refocused on the crowd.
“Why do you think I lost all that weight? Why do you think I have this limp? The cuts on my arms? Oh, and this one above my lip. There was no ‘hiking accident’ or ‘fat camp’. The real accident…I met this man and married him.”
A whimper left my mouth. I pointed to the urn.
“I can barely see out of my right eye because of him.”
I paused and lowered my head. Shame conflicted with my courage.
“Why did I stay? Why didn’t I tell anyone? I did… to both. Each time he found me and the beatings worsened. I told Mama who said, ‘I needed to do better and it would stop’. My sister was no Macy’s Day Parade. ‘Wives are supposed to obey their husbands and serve them’. What was I! A dog? What about husbands loving their wives? Ain’t that what the good Book says?”
A few guests nodded in agreement.
“What about the many affairs Harold had? And children he aborted to save his image. The hush money stolen from the company till, excused away as an employee with sticky fingers. Bob Myer was fired behind that. And all the while, the money went to help Harold sin and then cover it up.”
I raised my hands in pretend surrender.
“You didn’t come to hear all of this. I know.”
I returned my hands to the podium.
“But I’m truly done. I’m free! Fifty freakin’ years. Fifty!”
My shoulders lowered. Calm and relief filled my soul. But one inkling of rage just wouldn’t leave.
My legs see-sawed towards Harold’s portrait and urn. I swatted at both, knocking them to the floor.
“Now get up and clean yourself off!”
I stood there shaking. Actually believing his ashes would reform to a human-like being.
My son somberly walked over and escorted me from the banquet hall. I held my head high, knowing that on this next side of life, I’d live in freedom.