“Tell Emily I love her.”
Her husband’s dying words. His death bed epitaph to Susan, his wife of 25 years.
On the heels of not saying a single word for over two weeks, two days after being placed in hospice.
It would be another two weeks before Tony passed, so she certainly didn’t expect those to be his final words.
But in the end, that’s exactly what they were.
Though Tony rarely expressed romantic sentiments, she certainly never doubted that he loved her as much as she loved him. She could at least take solace in that. Yet, here he was confessing his love to someone she didn’t even know. And it hurt more than she cared to admit. Perhaps had he confessed this to her at some point, it would have lessened the sting, rather than leaving her in a cloud of mystery just before he passed away. Had her never confessed his love to someone else, it wouldn’t have bothered her that he never told her that he loved her. If she didn’t expect it when he was healthy, she certainly wouldn’t have expected when he was too far gone – too ravaged by aggressive cancer combined with failed chemo to express statements of love. But Emily changed all of that.
At least, she had no regrets on her end. In the two weeks he lay in a coma state, she made sure to told him she loved him countless times. And though he didn’t respond, she was hopeful that it still reached him deep inside his heart and soul. Though she wasn’t 100% certain, she was pretty sure he squeezed her hand in response one of the times. Perhaps it was wishful thinking. A meaningless reflex. But she refused to believe that.
She kept reminding herself that all that really mattered most at this point was making sure he remained as comfortable as he could until eternal rest. Their grown children Savannah and Ryan took care of the final arrangements, leaving her with the primary task to stay by her husband’s side every moment of his remaining time on earth. A life cut unexpectedly short.
She was grateful that he at least told their children that he had loved them shortly before his coma. That gave her some solace, at least. She was also grateful that they didn’t hear him profess his love for Emily. Why make their pain worse?
If there was one silver lining to his unexpected illness, it was that it finally put to rest a longstanding feud with their song. If only had it been that easy when the final curtain wasn’t already closing. Funny how death has a way of way of repairing old wounds, if only to leave a behind much deeper suffering in its wake.
The past no longer mattered. Or, so she thought.
She tried to regain her focus and stop worrying about something she had no control over. But no matter how hard she tried to fight it, she couldn’t get it back.
Only one thought continued to plague her:
Who was Emily?
It even overshadowed the reality of his passing.
She considered the possibility that his proclamation was a drug-induced, quasi-coma hallucination. But he had said it at a time when he seemed more coherent and alert than at any other point under hospice care.
She had so many questions that she wondered if she would ever get answers to. Was Emily from his past? Or, present? She kept coming back to the theory that he was confused. If by some miracle he awoke from his coma, would she even ask him about it? Or, would she let it go? Her grief was deep enough. Why deepen it? Then again, if she didn’t ask, would it haunt her for years to come? After his inevitable passing, would she look for evidence? Or, would she feel too guilty snooping through his stuff for clues posthumously? Then again, he was the one who brought her up in the first place. He didn’t have to mention her at all if he wanted to keep it a secret. Then again, it wasn’t like his judgment was sound.
Though it perhaps served as a helpful distraction, she tried to convince herself to focus on her grieving, rather than dwelling on something that no longer mattered.
But it did matter.
Especially to her husband. Enough to direct the words Susan longed to hear for herself.
“Tell Emily I love her.”
When he took his final breath, she was holding his hand. Did he even notice?
As Susan stared at his now lifeless body, her brain refused to process the fact that he was gone forever. Even though she knew he was.
The funeral took place two days later. As expected, it was a great turnout. Nothing competes with Italian weddings and funerals. In fact, it rivaled the 500 guests at their wedding. Had it been up to her, it would have been capped at 250. But when his mother demanded to pay to keep the Italian tradition alive, what choice did she have? At a funeral, there are no invites. The generous turnout was a welcome distraction from her grief, but also overwhelming at times. And there were several strangers she did not recognize.
Was one of them Emily?
Would she even want to know?
She suddenly found herself becoming angry. Why couldn’t he have just taken it to his grave? He was so close to doing just that! Maybe it would have been different if she told him who it was, but to just drop a line like that without any explanation was torture.
She tried to focus on her grief, but all she could think about was Emily. And there was nothing she could do about it.
And then he was buried. Along with his secret. What other secrets did he harbor?
A few weeks into her new “normal”, Susan realized that the ghost of Emily wasn’t going away any time soon. Though she avoided it at first, she soon began the inevitable task of snooping: through his computer, e-mail, drawers, etc. And though she felt guilty for snooping through his stuff, she decided that he had it coming to him. And she was angry. And especially angry that he covered his tracks so well.
He could find no evidence of anybody named Emily. Not in his e-mail, social media accounts, in his phone.
Did she even exist at all?
But then it dawned on her. What if Emily was from before they even knew one another? A childhood crush? Someone he took to a high school dance? Someone he transported back to the present through the fog of his clouded, drug-addled mind that was reaching the finish line of life?
Just when she gave up on ever finding an answer, she found a possible clue: a small, wrapped present tucked deep inside his sock drawer. Was this the smoking gun she had been looking for? Should she even open it? What would opening it prove? And what good would not opening it do?
She decided to sleep on it for a night. What harm could that do? Keeping it wrapped felt like a part of him was still alive. A gift from beyond the grave.
But intended for whom?
She was pretty sure she knew the answer. But would there be any proof?
She decided to sleep on it and placed it next to her nightstand before she went to sleep. The next morning, she opened it. It was a simple gold bracelet. Though there was nothing unusual about the bracelet itself, she knew right away that it was never intended for her: she was allergic to gold. He knew that.
She wished she had never opened it.
But it got her no closer to solving the mystery.
Who was Emily?
“Tell Emily I love her.”
Several weeks passed. And no further evidence surfaced.
She finally gave up. That fact that there was possibly someone else was a reality she had to learn to accept. Not that it really mattered. It was all in the past now. And the past was the only place where he could remain, despite everything feeling very much in the past. No apologies or reconciliation required, let alone possible.
Nothing would bring him back to life. No matter what, he was dead. Dead, dead, dead. Knowing the truth wasn’t going to change that fact. And he was just as dead to Emily as she was to her.
But wait! Did Emily even know? It was quite possible she didn’t. He saw no evidence of missed calls or texts on his phone. Wouldn’t she have tried contacting him? Was it possible he had some hidden form of communication that she wasn’t privy to? A burner phone? Should she hire a private investigator? Then again, why put herself through that? Because she feared she would otherwise never find closure. And would never grieve properly. Until she finally solved this mystery.
She wondered if she should solicit her kids to help? Did she really want to drag them into this? She decided to keep it to herself. For his sake. And for the sake of their children.
A few more weeks passed. And then an unexpected knock at her door. Probably another damn solicitor. A car was parked in her driveway. Solicitors don’t usually park in your driveway. She looked through the peephole at an unrecognizable woman around 30 or so. Did this person have the wrong house?
Though she considered ignoring the stranger until she went away, she realized she didn’t have a choice. The knocking continued.
“Hello, may I help you?” Susan asked.
“I know you don’t know who I am,” the girl said. “But I know who you are.”
“My name is Emily Ford…”
Susan’s brain struggled to process any of this.
“You don’t know me, but I know – knew – your husband. Quite well, in fact—”
“How dare you…” Susan said, feeling the urge to strangle somebody for the first time in her life.
“I’m sorry,” Emily said. “I could leave. I didn’t mean to—”
“How did you expect someone to act when their deceased husband’s mistress shows up on their doorstep?”
“Wait. Is that what you think I am?”
“I’m his daughter. He was in college.”
Susan felt the anger awash away, as confusion and relief settled in.
“Come on in…” Susan said.
“Have a seat.”
Emily sat down on the couch. An hour later, Susan finally knew the whole truth: Emily was the result of a college one-night stand. A few years before she and Tony had ever met. He was fully prepared to be a father. However, Emily preferred to raise the child on her own. She even refused child support. They worked out a deal that he could send letters and presents for birthdays and Christmas, but that there would be no other contact throughout her childhood.
And now, here she was, in her father’s living room. A grown woman. Her husband’s daughter.
“He never met you in person?” Susan asked, still in shock.
She shook her head.
“I found out about his passing through a Facebook post. I realize that me coming here was a risk. And I understand and am sorry if you are upset.”
“No. I’m so happy you came.”
She truly was.
“Hang on a moment. There’s something he would have wanted you to have.”
Susan retrieved the bracelet.
Emily teared up as she put in on. She held it against her wrist and smiled.
“Your father was a great man.”
“You have his eyes,” Susan said.
The two women sat there, staring at the bracelet that in that moment, brought her husband – and Emily’s father – back to life. If only for that moment.
It was exactly how he would have wanted it.