- a photo of your loved one
- a box of tissues
- an air of interest in someone else’s story
- comfortable shoes
- a calendar
- an excuse to leave
Claire stood outside the Black Dog Cafe. She could slip in, order a coffee to go, and get a sense of the group while she waited.
Oh for heaven’s sake, you fool. She took a deep breath. You can do it. Just try it once then decide later.
Of course, Claire wouldn’t share how she really felt now Jim had died. The burden was gone. Not just his care, but the ever-present weight of concerned friends. We are here for you, their eyes said, we are so sorry this is happening. But also a hint of thank God we’re not going through this, even as they praised her strength and courage.
Jim had not gone gently into that good night. All her husband’s sweetness, optimism, humor – gone. He swore at her, his eyes filled with terror. Spasms and cries of “Mama” in a curled up ball. She held his hand, praying he would go soon, for her sake as much as his. As the space between each breath stretched, she listened for a gasping rattle, the signal that this would be his last.
She was in the bathroom when he died. When she returned, nurses were smoothing his hair, pulling the covers over his still warm body. They left her alone with her husband, and she kissed his forehead, whispered “thank you,” before stepping out to speak with the floor nurse.
The cafe was crowded on this wet Saturday afternoon. By the fire, an overstuffed chair held a mother reading to her toddler noisily slurping hot chocolate. A thin man sat hunched over a laptop at the large table where groups usually met. Across from him, an older woman read a thick paperback, every now and then nibbling at an almond croissant.
Maybe she had the wrong day? Standing in line, Claire scanned the cafe. She had been here with Jim, before he got sick and couldn’t leave the house. Mostly she had come alone to read by the fire, or indulge in a decadent pastry with a friend. Why hadn’t she insisted he come here with her more often? The line moved quickly, and soon she was digging into her purse while the cashier, a teenage boy struggling to start a beard, waited.
“A double short Americano,” in a soft voice. She cleared her throat. “Please.”
The boy rung up her order, his hands at home on the register. She had never seen him here before. As he counted the change, Claire smiled. “Thank you. This is such a wonderful place. My husband and I used to come here.” The boy nodded politely. There you go again, silly old fool. No one wants to hear. She was holding up the line.
The boy called her order to the barista, a young woman with spiky purple hair and a nose ring. When the barista reached for a mug, Claire caught sight of a tiny tattooed hummingbird hovering by her left ear.
“What a pretty design.”
“Thanks,” the barista warmed up the mug with steaming water. “It means unexpected strength and beauty.” Dumping the water out, she asked “room for cream?”
The barista tilted her head and repeated “room for cream?”
Claire drank her coffee black. Jim always brought her the first cup of the day, freshly brewed, hot and strong. She blinked at the young woman. “Yes,” she answered without thinking. “Strong and black. Just two shots and a bit of hot water.”
Nodding, the barista tamped grounds and pulled shots, Claire watching her quick and sure movements. In the first months of his illness Jim insisted he make their coffee until the morning he spilled boiling water down his pajama front.
Mug in hand, Claire turned to the crowded tables, eyes filling with tears, unsure where to move. No one knew she was here. She could quickly drink her coffee and leave.
The barista leaned over the bar and whispered, “the Death Cafe meets downstairs,” her eyes on a door Claire had never noticed before. Balancing her coffee, Claire threaded her way through the tables and comfy chairs toward a long hallway leading to the service entrance. Placing her free hand on the door handle, she hesitated, then turned the worn brass knob.