“My husband was not supposed to die young.”
This is my first thought as I settle into an Adirondack chair on the deck. I pretend not to hear my joints crack and gaze upon the lake. It is just before dusk, the sun sitting atop the high trees to the west, a band of the white light ringing its early autumn form. I know far too well how in only a few moments, the east will be painted dusk rose, pale saffron and lavender.
The trill of my grandchildren’s laughter from the dock below catches my attention, suddenly, and I grin softly at their antics. My sons always bring them here for the Labor Day weekend, and now they are coming in from the boat. The boys shove at each other as they hop over the sides, pretending that they’ll push one another back into the water and guffawing as they lunge and dodge. The girls laugh as they push their sopping hair out of their faces, no doubt recounting who held onto the water tube the longest. They all leave puddles for footprints as their fathers hand them towels to dry off with, their swimsuits drip, drip, dripping onto the faded, rust-tinted wood of the dock. I try to recall how long Daniel’s been promising to repaint it and find that I cannot. It’s really no matter, though. Those bright, red faces are my joy.
“Oh, Henry, don’t you remember when it was us?” I wonder.
I gaze out to the west again, only to find that the sun has gone down now, and that the hundreds of thousands of trillions of peaks of the lake’s surface no longer reflect the golden glare, but the periwinkle light of the evening sky…
“He says to go faster!” I shouted over the roar of the engine and the wake. “What???” “Go faster, Drew!” I cried at the back of the salt-andpeppered head of the boat driver.
“The gauge is already at 3,000, Tess, so you can tell my son that if he wants to go faster he can get his ass off that tube and into a class for his license!” Drew shouted back.
I was still at the impressionable age between childhood and my teenage years where I found curse words hilariously taboo and clapped my hands over my mouth to laugh as I turned back to spot Henry. We took a sudden sharp turn that threw him outside of the boat’s wake, and he was skipping across the water like a well-thrown rock. Then he hit a wave that rolled in from the left, lifting the entire tube three feet off the water, and Henry at least another two. He lost his grip on the handles then and flew back to hit the water as I turned to Drew and shouted:
Drew gave a wide turn and circled back to where Henry lay floating in the water. “That fast enough for you, boy?” Drew called over the windshield with a chuckle. Henry tossed his mop of wet hair out of his face and pulled himself up onto the back of the boat with one haul. Once there, he unclipped his life jacket, wiped the remains of the spray from his face, and said, “You couldn’t pick it up a bit more, Dad?”
I could see, then, how the entire right side of his body was bright red from hitting the water, save where the nylon-lined padding had covered his chest, and I winced as I imagined the sting, but it didn’t seem to bother him. Henry was the strong, invincible age of fourteen, when nothing hurt.
“Well, Tess, are you up for another run, or should we pull it in for the night?” Drew asked. I handed Henry his towel as I checked the sky. It was just before dusk, and in only a few moments, the sun would sink beyond the trees and leave the sky to darken for the stars.
“Let’s head back,” I said. I slid into one of the open seats and wrapped my jacket tight around my still-damp suit. The wind was already starting to pick up off the water.
“You sure? I bet Dad could throw you like he did me,” Henry laughed as he dropped down next to me. He playfully prodded me in the side, and I squirmed away, trying to dodge his pokes and jests. I eventually ended up laughing with him as Drew started driving us back into the cove. Henry was my oldest friend, as he couldn’t afford not to be what with our parents sharing the lake house since before either of us was born.Alright, here we are,” Drew said as we pulled up to the boat lift. He and Henry jumped out the sides and held the boat steady while I stood in the center floor to balance the weight. Up above the deck, I could hear my mom and Julie laughing quietly over evening glasses of wine, and I could smell the burgers my dad was flipping on the grill.
“C’mon, kids,” Drew called, already ambling up the ramp towards the house.
Henry leaned down and clasped my forearm, effectively hauling me up and out of the boat. I stumbled for a moment, the dock too sturdy beneath my feet, and nearly pitched sideways, catching myself at the last moment. “Careful there,” Henry said. He tossed his towel under his arm and settled his t-shirt around his neck before starting up the ramp. I shook my head slightly to clear the traces of dizziness and followed after him.
The last one to make it off the dock, I cleared the jump from the end of the ramp to the concrete to avoid the ever-wobbling last few red-painted boards. Mom had been pestering Dad to fix those for weeks, but Henry and I enjoyed the game of who could leap the furthest over them. I landed with a smile, pausing for a moment to curl my toes against the ground. Summer was gone, but Labor Day always held the promise of recreating the season for a weekend and the reminder of what it was to walk barefoot on dusk-cool cornet.
We ate dinner slowly, enjoying our last evening on the water. Julie had lit mosquito-repelling candles around the deck and we sat outside, the parents sitting around the picnic table while Henry and I curled up in the maple-stained Adirondack chairs. We sat in a quiet sort of comfort, watching as evening boats headed across the jade green water, zipping in and out of the cove and back to their own docks.
As the sky began to darken, I smiled, thinking about the weekend. Like every year, it had been a lot of fun. Dad had let Henry power-wash the concrete patio. Mom and I had lain out on the dock in the lazy parts of the afternoon until we were evenly tanned. Julie and I baked handmade Monkey Bread together because my mother can’t bake instant cookies. Drew took Henry and me out on the boat for hours while the sun kissed my hair copper and Henry’s cheeks burned ruddy.
Henry…He was my best friend, and this Labor Day weekend had been much the same as all the ones before it, but something was different about him this year. Maybe it was the fact that he had started high school, and I was still stuck in junior high. Or maybe it was the way he’d shot up four inches overnight in July. It might’ve even been the way he smiled at me every time he helped me on and off the boat; the way the left corner of his lips lifted just a bit higher than the right, and he looked so valiantly sly…
Oh G-d. “Pull yourself together, Tess,” I thought. “This is Henry, not some trim-and-cool city boy from all of Lilly’s silly trashy teen romance novels…”
I leaned my chin into my hand and gave a sigh as my thoughts fought with one another. I was completely wrapped up in the World War III of my mind until I felt something prod my elbow right out from under me. I jerked forward and nearly fell out of the Adirondack I was sitting in, but a hand caught my elbow and pulled me back. I looked up with my heart in my throat to see Henry leaning over me, a concerned look marring his features.
“Careful there, Tess,” he said, his hand lingering on my arm as I caught my breath. I looked past him to the lake and saw that I’d been sitting out there for much longer than I’d thought. The landscape was painted seven shades of navy and the stars were dotting up above through the trees.
“Sorry…I didn’t realize it was late,” I murmured.
“You’re alright,” Henry said. He let go of me and sat on the arm of the chair next to mine, crossing his arms over his chest and gazing out onto the water. He’d changed into a pair of cargo shorts and a gray tee, and his hair had dried into a mess of dark waves. His cheeks glowed red in the evening darkness, and I noticed how the corner of his lips faintly twitched up as he stood there, thinking.
“It’s a shame we can’t stay longer, isn’t it?” he asked quietly, his tone wistful. “Yeah, “ I nodded, drawing my knees up into my chest. “We’ll come back next year, though,” he said with a sudden grin. I glanced up to see him looking down at me and couldn’t help smiling in return. “We will,” I said, standing up next to him. This was our beginning.
He had the stroke when he was just thirty-four. I was thirty-two. Daniel was three and Nathan had just turned ten months. A blood clot. A blood clot had killed my husband—my Henry, when he was thirty four. It had been a “Thrombotic stroke,” the doctors called it. I had no name for it. All I knew at the time was that I was young and scared, and I’d never see the man I loved again. I’d never hear him say my name, never see him toss the boys into the air when he got home from work, never wake up to him in the morning again. Henry was gone.
It took a year to fully wake up from the shock, but I eventually understood that while I couldn’t make new memories with Henry, I could always cherish our old ones. I could remember all the Labor Day weekends we spent together at the lake. I could remember the day our parents gave us the keys to the lake house. I could remember the tears of joy Henry cried when Daniel was born, and again when we had Nathan.
I still grieved, of course. My sons would know no father, and I couldn’t even think of trying to find another life partner. Henry had been it for me. But still, I smiled on his memory. I smiled on the days in the passing years that would’ve marked his fortieth birthday, Daniel’s graduation from MIT, Nathan’s first novel publication, the births of our grandchildren, our fiftieth wedding anniversary. And, of course, I smiled every Labor Day.
“Gran, why are you so quiet?”
I shake out of my silent reverie to find Tristan, my youngest grandson, leaning against the arm of the chair I’m sitting in. He’s so like Henry, with his ruddy cheeks, dark waves, and eyes bright with concern. “Oh, I’m just remembering ancient history, dear,” I grin, reaching out to pat the back of his hand. Over Tristan’s shoulder, Daniel smiles at me, and I watch as he guides his son back into the house.
I rise slowly from my seat and shoot one last glance towards the evening sky. The sun has set behind the trees, now, and the world is shading indigo with the night. The stars begin to twinkle overhead, and I whisper into the evening breeze, “Happy Birthday, Henry…”