Eleven days after my wedding, two men from the crematorium arrived to take my husband’s body away.
“Do you want his ring?” they asked, pointing to the black titanium band on his left hand.
“No, he should wear his ring,” I said. He should wear it into the afterlife.
A quick look passed between them. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I replied, and turned to my mother-in-law Linda for approval.
“Honey, you should keep his ring,” Linda said gently.
I gave the crematorium men a slight nod. They slipped the ring off his finger and handed it to me.
* * *
Kaz and I once made up a story of how we met. “You fell on your bike and I stopped to help you,” he said in his baritone voice. This actually happened on our second date. “Sounds good to me,” I said. But we never told the made-up version. Whenever people asked us how we met, we would look at each other, shrug and tell the truth: we met on Match.com. My profile advertised “Curves and Curls – what more do you want?!” His moniker was “Nerdy4Music.”
After years of dating more men than I care to mention, in April 2007 I received an email from Kenneth Allen Smith. “My name is Ken, but everyone calls me KAZ,” he wrote. He was an employed, never married, childless, bald, badass, bespectacled black man, born and raised in Washington D.C. by a single mother. He had equal parts swagger, sensitivity and sweetness, had traveled the world, had real rock stars for friends, was witty, funny, charming, pragmatic, Scorpion sexy, so smart he beat his own computer at chess, and he rode a Honda RC51 sportbike. To quote a female colleague (who once yelled this at a party), Kaz was the coolest motherfucker on the planet.
At the time, I didn’t understand why such a cool guy was dating me, a somewhat neurotic, struggling filmmaker who was not thin. “I like spending time with you,” he explained. “You’re smart, funny, beautiful, good in the kitchen and good in the sack, and you’re sexy as fuck.” I still didn’t buy it.
In 2010, after two years together as a couple, during which we almost broke up once, we learned that the headaches and blurry vision he’d been experiencing were the result of a terminal brain tumor. Neither of us could believe it. Why would a healthy, physically active, forty-two-year-old man get the same disease that killed Ted Kennedy? It was too random to be true.
And yet, for me at least, it felt strangely inevitable. My mother had been ill for much of my childhood and died when she was fifty-six (I was twenty-two). Now, the man I loved more than anything, the best man I’d ever known and probably would ever know, was going to die young, too.
Within days of the diagnosis, he proposed. Kaz didn’t make rash decisions. It had taken nine months for him to say “I love you,” and after two years he was still reluctant to move in together (a source of frustration for me — at thirty-nine, dragging a backpack around every weekend was getting old). But the tumor changed things.
“I don’t know how much time I have left,” he said. “But I know I want to spend it with you.” He bent to one knee. “If you’ll have me.”
As I looked down at him, I was more afraid than I had ever been. Commit to someone with a terminal illness? “Yes,” I answered. I, too, wanted to be with him as long as possible. Deep down, I also might have thought we could beat this cancer bitch, statistics be damned.
Life moved forward. We moved in together, a huge transition for any couple but especially for one dealing with cancer. We supported each other through two resection surgeries, three clinical trials, dozens of MRI’s and doctors’ appointments. We tried to marry, but various factors kept getting in the way. He wanted to do it quick and easy at a courthouse. I wanted our friends and family around. Both of our families had money and debt concerns. Plus, I’d never planned on changing my name if/when I got married, and Kaz was old school. “You can keep your name professionally if you want, but I’d be really disappointed if you didn’t take my name,” he told me.
Then, in November 2010, he was in a motorcycle accident that left him unable to work. Even more devastating, he could no longer ride the motorcycle, or walk without assistance. He sank into a deep depression. As his illness progressed more rapidly, my caregiver responsibilities and the pressure of dwindling time intensified. We started arguing. Whereas before I had always been the one waiting for him to catch up, now he rounded the corner of acceptance before me. I still refused to accept it, like a ship captain who keeps trying to steer a sinking vessel. At one point, I thought I would surely have a nervous breakdown if I didn’t leave.
Instead, I got a cold.
One day in late March 2011, my job sent me home because I was feverish. I walked into the apartment early and was surprised to find Kaz sitting on the couch fully dressed.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I feel weird,” he said.
His body was shaking like a leaf. I grabbed a blanket and draped it around his shoulders. “I’m so pissed we never get to hang out anymore,” he said. “Something always happens and we can’t just hang out. It hurts, it really hurts.” His gaze drifted up to the corner of the room. “I’m sorry, babe,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry…” his voice trailed off.
The doctors later told us if I hadn’t come home early, the seizures would have killed him. They still almost killed him, but the doctors worked hard to keep him alive, while I sat by his bed and prayed. Please don’t take him right now. Please let him wake up. Please don’t let it end like this. Please give us another chance. Please let us say goodbye.
Forty-eight hours later, he finally opened his eyes. I had never been so happy in my life.
“When are you going to be Mrs. Smith?” he asked in front of his team of doctors and his mother, who had just flown in from D.C. “Are you going to hyphen or not hyphen? I’m okay with second billing,” he continued.
My face flushed as everyone turned to look at me. “Let’s talk about it later,” I said quietly.
The next day, I was sitting on his bed massaging his hands with lotion while a young nurse changed the bags on his IV drip. Kaz looked at me intensely.
“Do you have any idea how much I love you?”
“I think so,” I smiled.
“I have never loved anyone as much as I love you. I have never wanted to marry someone as much as I want to marry you. I didn’t think it was possible.”
I heard the nurse sniffle behind me.
“I want you to be Mrs. Smith,” he said, ignoring the nurse.
“Then you have to get better,” I said.
* * *
On Good Friday, April 22, 2011, we stood on the Griffith Observatory veranda overlooking the Hollywood Hills, surrounded by several protective rings of our closest friends (we didn’t have a location permit). I wore a sleeveless blue cotton dress that I had purchased that morning. Kaz wore a black suit, shirt and shoes, and a blue and purple-flowered tie. Our officiator and friend, Chandra, read the vows:
“Do you, Kaz, choose Niva as your wife? Do you promise to share in all life offers and suffers, to be a constant friend, a faithful partner, and true love from this day forward?”
“Hell to the yes!” Kaz said loudly. Everyone laughed.
“Do you, Niva, choose Kaz as your husband? Do you promise to share in all life offers and suffers, to be a constant friend, a faithful partner, and true love from this day forward?”
“I do.” I smiled.
Chandra pronounced us man and wife. I bent to kiss Kaz in his wheelchair, and then leaned back to look at him. We had done it. Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
“Wifey,” he whispered the next morning.
* * *
Three weeks later, I stood in a large warehouse, watching two men push a gurney towards me with a large cardboard casket on top. I wanted to see Kaz one more time. They wheeled the gurney before me, so I could see the word “Smith” written on top. Then they removed the cover.
I stared at him for a long time. His eyes were closed, and he was wearing the clothes I had given the men who picked him up ten days earlier, on May 3, 2011. He had all the same tattoos. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking at someone else. The Kaz I knew and loved was not in that box. I didn’t know where he was.
“Goodbye, babe. I love you.”
The men replaced the cover, opened the furnace door with gloved hands, and pushed him inside. The room suddenly felt warmer, and I sat down, lightheaded.
* * *
A month earlier, when he was in the hospital, he had told me he wanted to be cremated, with his ashes spread out on Angeles Crest Highway, the mountain road where he had ridden his motorcycle every weekend. He told me who should receive his things, how to divide his money and what songs to play at his memorials. I wrote everything down in a list, fifty words to sum up a life.
As I added the last item, he said, “I miss us.”
I looked up from the list, my heart in my throat. “I miss us too.”
“I’m so glad we stuck it out,” he said. “I know we both thought about leaving.”
“I’m honored to be here with you, babe.” I leaned forward to kiss his hands.
Afterwards, I referred to that list like a bible, using it to guide me through the memorials, the obituary notices, the giving away of possessions, the canceling of credit cards and all the other tasks that must be handled after someone dies. The day I showed up at his bank, a heavily made-up teller kept looking between the death certificate and the marriage certificate. “I don’t understand,” she said. “You married eleven days before he died?”
“Why? How did he die?”
I didn’t explain it to her. It was none of her business.
“I’ll need a court order to switch over his accounts,” she said, shaking her head. “This just doesn’t make any sense.” I wanted to scream. He died at forty-three years old. Nothing made fucking sense. Instead, I looked squarely at her and tried to keep my voice steady. “I have all the proper forms, signed and notarized. If you don’t help me transfer the accounts, I’ll close them and go to another bank. Do you understand?”
“I have to speak to my manager,” she mumbled and rose from her desk. As she walked away, I stared outside at the traffic on Vine Street and thought about throwing myself in front of a double-decker tourist bus.
* * *
When we moved in together, Kaz and I had talked about making some changes to the apartment. After he died, I decided to go ahead with those plans. I asked Chandra, an interior decorator, to help redesign the space with Kaz in mind. We chose furniture in grey tones with chrome details and black-and-white checkered tiles for the kitchen, an ode to his old racing flags and love of chess. We hung his favorite rock posters, African masks and Chris Cooper lithographs. We put pictures of him on every bookshelf.
Several weeks later, Chandra and I sat on the patio drinking beers. “How do you feel about all the changes?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I hope he approves.”
“I think he does. I can feel him here really strongly.”
“I thought it was only me.”
“No, dude, he’s totally here.”
I nodded. So I’m not going crazy.
I often felt his body pressed against my backside and his arms around my waist when I was in bed. Other times, I felt his hands cupping my breasts from behind. Sometimes the lights would dim, and I felt him as a breeze against my face. Most cherished were the times he visited me in dreams. In one dream, as we were getting undressed, he said, “I’m afraid if I keep coming to you like this, you won’t be able to move on.”
“That’s okay,” I said, already half naked. “I don’t want to move on.”
When he was alive we used to write each other emails throughout the day. Now I wrote him letters. I told him about the long process of legally changing my name, first going to the Social Security office, then the DMV, my bank, and human resources. I told him how I was still getting used to being called “Mrs. Smith” and saying “my husband,” let alone saying “my late husband.”
During the day, I left the television on the channel that broadcasts the AMA, MotoGP and World Superbike races. After work, I watched all the same shows we used to watch together, still sitting on my side of the couch and directing my comments, jokes and questions to him. I got used to having one-sided conversations. I started telling close friends that Kaz was actually still in the apartment; he was just invisible.
One night, a former lover came to visit. I started crying and the man held me, which felt good. It had been so long since real arms held me. But as the man’s hands moved down my back, and his lips found my neck, I went limp. I didn’t have the energy to refuse him, but didn’t fully engage either. I kept looking over his shoulder, wondering if Kaz was in the room, or if this made him leave. Afterward, I couldn’t sleep.
I wrote to Kaz: “I don’t know if you saw what happened the other night, but I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Honestly, being with him just made me miss you more.”
* * *
Around our first wedding anniversary, I took my wedding ring off at the gym and forgot to put it back on. When I realized my finger was bare the next day, I felt naked. I spent the rest of the day praying that the ring was where I thought it was, and that I hadn’t somehow lost it. I rushed into the bathroom when I got home and found it in the side pocket of my gym bag, which I had left on the counter. I slipped it back on and vowed to never take it off again.
But as time went on, Kaz’s presence seemed to recede, like an echo, and the emotional limbo between newlywed and widow in which I’d been living began to fade as well. One day I did take the ring off. At first I wore it around my neck along with his ring. Then I started leaving both rings at home in a jewelry case, a decision fraught with angst and guilt. I recognized that losing the feeling of being married was part of the healing process, but it was also painful, like we were “breaking up” on some cosmic level.
Then I realized that it wasn’t as much of a break-up as it was a shift. I still felt him inside and around me, but in a different way than before. I could feel him encouraging me to move forward with my dreams and desires.
When he was in the hospital, we once had a conversation about my career. For years, I had bounced between writing and directing small projects and working all kinds of day jobs. “What do you think I should focus on?” I asked him.
He thought about it for a moment. “I think you should focus on writing.”
“How would you feel if I wrote about us?”
“I hope you do write about us,” he smiled.
Today, three years later, I am starting to envision my future. I see film festivals and book signings; a house with land, animals and a fireplace; African plains, Parisian boulevards and Jerusalem sunsets; and a community of artists dedicated to the pursuit of personal expression.
A while back, I spent time in Vermont on a writer’s residency and was drawn to the quiet, open sky and the no-nonsense atmosphere of the rural Northeast. Shortly after the third anniversary of his death on May 3, I felt an overwhelming urge to leave Los Angeles, to breathe fresh air, meet new people and experience seasons again. A few weeks later, I gave notice at my day job. Soon, I’ll be driving across the country with my dog to live and write in the Catskills, about two and half hours outside of New York City.
What I’m less clear about is who (if anyone) will be with me in the future. I’ve been on a few dates in the past couple of years, but nothing major. As I told a friend recently, my current love life is “an empty beach.” The truth is, I’m not the same person I was when I married Kaz, nor am I the same person I was after he died. At some point, I became bi-curious, something I would never have had the courage to admit if it weren’t for Kaz and everything we went through together. I don’t know when I’ll be ready to love again, but I credit Kaz for teaching me how to love and be loved. I know he would want me to be happy.
* * *
Niva Dorell Smith is a filmmaker and freelance writer currently based in Los Angeles. She is working on a memoir titled The History of Us and writes regularly about grief, writing and her dog at www.ridingbitchblog.com
Sophie Goldstein is a 2013 graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Her work has appeared various publications including The Pitchfork Review, Seven Days, Irene 3, Sleep of Reason, Suspect Device 3 and Best American Comics 2013. Check out more of her illustration and comics at redinkradio.com