They had only been gone a few minutes when I started to fall apart.
I had picked up the plastic bag of lunch dishes, figuring I’d wash them up and at least start my time alone with a clean kitchen. I expected to find my wife’s Tupperware; it never occurred to me that I’d reach into the bag and pull out a tiny, half-eaten container of Cheerios.
My little boy’s lunch.
Until that point, I’d been looking forward to my time alone. While Stacey took our son Tommy, then 10 months old, and flew to Arizona to visit her sister for two weeks, I’d have the whole house to myself. No waking up with a screaming baby in the middle of the night. No guilt about missing the family dinner when I had to stay late at work. Maybe even extra time to work on painting the porch or finishing the bedroom closet.
I hadn’t realized how empty our home would feel.
“C’mere, pup,” I called. Coltrane trotted over, as he always did. I clipped a leash to his collar, and we headed out into the night.
It had been over a week since they left, and Coltrane had been seeing more of me than ever. I had started coming home from work in the middle of the day to see him — ostensibly to make sure he had ample opportunity to do his business outside and not on the carpet, but really because I needed to dote on him. He was all the family I had left.
We walked up the alleyway and turned left onto Locust Street, Coltrane tugging eagerly while I shuffled through the streetlights’ monochrome glare. These nighttime walks had become our routine. Or, at least, our routine on nights when I didn’t bury myself in my work and stay at the office until well past midnight.
I’ve always struggled to balance my family life and my work as a reporter. But without the pull of my family to draw me home, I swung into a dangerously off-kilter orbit around my job. No reason to rush home to give my boy a bath or at least see him before his bedtime; no need to call Stacey and apologize again for being out half the night because of some stupid municipal meeting or car crash. Just endless hours to spend perfecting every story I wrote for the newspaper.
That night, at least, I was home. Coltrane and I turned onto Linden Street, past the high school, past one of the family’s favorite ice cream shops. I was avoiding the route Stacey and I usually walked, on those afternoons when we’d take Tommy out in his stroller while Coltrane tried to gallop ahead of us. I told myself that going by the high school was a smarter route, because it’d be safer and better lit at this time of night. Or something.
We eventually hit Pembroke Street, circled around, and wandered back home. Coltrane sacked out on his bed while I flipped on my computer. I needed to putter — work on Crunchable, straighten my home office, whatever. Just keep my mind occupied and delay going to bed as long as possible. Until 2 or 3 or even 4 a.m., if I could make it.
Because going to bed meant facing that lonely nursery and that awful empty pillow next to mine.
I rolled over in bed and laid my hand where my wife’s head should have been. How does anybody get through this? I thought. How could I survive if I ever really lost them?
Coltrane heard them before I did. Within minutes, Tom was crawling around the house while strewing his toys everywhere. And Stacey was back in my arms.
“I wasn’t sure you’d miss us,” she said.
“I love you,” I answered. I was trying hard not to cry. “Please, don’t ever leave me.”
She smiled and held me even tighter, as we watched our son and our dog gleefully tearing apart our living room.