B.B. Boudreau

Novelist | Singer

To Peter

January 19, 2024
The finality of even anticipated doom is like a wrecking ball.
We received the actual words from the doctor the other day,”we’ll prep him to go home so he can say his goodbyes. . .”

It certainly wasn’t unexpected. We have known for weeks that Pete wouldn’t survive the cancer. We were hoping he’d live a bit longer. Every day there were more signs that this was going in a bad direction. We could hope. He could get strong enough to face more chemo.

But when you hear those final words from a doctor, it drops like a heavy winter blanket that hampers your movement as well as your thoughts. The concept of fairness is far gone—that time that you reminded God that this is not fair—why are you taking such a good and kind man? A son, a husband, a father, a grandfather? That was way back at bargaining. This more closely resembles anger.

We’re into the next or at least another stage of grief here: maybe depression? As the wife of Pete’s father, I can maintain some distance from this scenario, so Al is in Las Vegas with his dying son and I am at home with the dog in Gloucester. Friends ask if I am going. No. I need to stay detached, at least for the time being. I need to stay somewhat removed so that I can monitor my husband objectively, even if it’s just over the phone. Now I’m sick with some sort of respiratory illness. My defenses are down. My immune system is compromised, and I’m tired. I’m tired for him, I’m tired for Pete.

The dog smiles at me, but even he is aware that something is amiss. He cuddles and kisses me more. He sleeps on my feet as I binge watch Dexter. I know one of the stages of grief includes apathy and disconnection. I am completely inert, motionless. I want someone to tell me an endless story in which I can lose myself. Dexter is the perfect antidote. Eight full seasons of indulgent screen time. Bonus: people in the story are worse off than I am.

Sunday, January 28—the day Peter dies
It happened around 6:00 a.m. our time. I knew as soon as I saw Al’s name on the screen. My husband’s gravel voice and its grim message emerged from the speaker. My first thought—finally, finally—he is finally out of pain. My second thought—oh, please husband, come home right now. You need to escape all the pain that is now over. Certainly coming home will erase some of that. Certainly, with an uncertain feeling.

No, no, no, no. It has only just begun. Where are we in the stages of grief? I can identify them all–have felt them all, whether there are five or seven. But I find that there’s nothing linear or progressive about it. The brain fog lessens to release my synapses from dysfunction, but nothing seems important anymore. Apart from perhaps what a comic the dog is.

Sailor is my only real escape. He has no idea about Peter’s death, 2,700 miles from here. He only met Peter one time on a visit to our house. Pete’s death has not altered his behavior a bit. He is smiley and happy like usual. I take him to the beach and chuck the ball as far as I can, and he flies after it. My arm is sore with the repetitive one-way movement. The pain is good in that it makes me feel something.

I continued to work the week of Peter’s death. As long as there was a tangible task, like interview prep on Monday and interviews on Tuesday, I was fine. By Wednesday, everyone in my work world knew that Peter had died. They fell silent as I entered a virtual meeting room, perhaps trying to interpret my greeting and my expressionless face with its plastic smile. Because everyone knows that losing a child is likely one of the worst experiences possible in life. They have been fabulous—the braver, or maybe more familiar with death quick to push that pink elephant out of the room and offer their condolences. I am grateful. I say thank you quickly then mutter something like, “it’s been very hard on Al.”

But what about me? Obviously, as I sit editing this piece to tatters, unable to do much more than put dishes in the dishwasher–I am affected by his death. Majorly.

The confusing part is that Peter was not my child. Peter was my husband’s son. I lost a child by proxy. It is a nebulous, nowhere feeling of loss. I didn’t know for whom to grieve. Of course, I grieved for Peter. But the physical distance between us tempered the pain, and only snuck into my world when I spoke with Al on the phone multiple times per day. My grief was for Al. I focused intently on the tone of his voice as he delivered the same news day after day. For minutes in between we just breathed together. I listened mutely to Al’s faltering description of his poor baby boy’s pain. I know he had to let it out. I know that he had to exorcise that mental picture of his slowly fading boy, screaming for mercy when they rolled him over to change the bedding. Fucking incompetent medical staff. A hospital is one place you should never be in pain. I know Al was balling his fists in Neveda to prevent himself from choking someone.

January 29, 2024
As soon as Peter passed, Al and the family returned home to their fatherless household. I’m sure they tried to eat, maybe run a load of laundry in the fruitless hope that chores might erase the horror. Relieved in some awful way to be released from the grisly image of their skeletal loved one clinging to life like the last leaf of autumn.

Al called me just hours after Peter’s passing. “Buy me a ticket. I’m coming home.” I went through the on-line motions and found a ticket for the next day. A ticket to freedom, respite, escape from hell back to “normalcy” that would never be his ever again.

I sent the appropriate emails to work. Peter’s gone. My finger hovered over the “send” key for a moment. Was it too soon? What would people think? Did I type the correct words? Does it sound too distraught? Too dispassionate? Should I wait?

The next day, I went to the airport far too early, anxious for this to be over, knowing it wouldn’t be for quite a while. I sat in the cell phone lot for almost an hour listening to the recent audiobook, waiting for the phone to ring announcing Al’s arrival, watching the minutes click by on the digital clock—an exercise that certainly lengthens the wait. Finally—the phone rings and I answer. The plane is on the ground and he is on his way back to the world of the living—the world where pain is only episodic and will be gone tomorrow when you wake up.

I wind the car around and around, following the signs that send me into the maze that is Logan’s answer to organization. If I miss a turn, I know it will throw me back onto the hamster wheel of the airport roundabout. Suddenly he is there on the sidewalk. He looks better than I expected, almost himself. He hasn’t aged 10 years. He is sporting a forced smile until he sees Sailor at the back window, and then the genuine smile bursts onto his face. He opens the door and Sailor launches himself out to daddy, winding through Al’s legs like a startled snake. They dance on the sidewalk for several do-si-does. This makes me smile for the first time in several days, a gesture that somehow doesn’t fit on my face very well.

The ride home is filled with stilted conversation about the flight (obligatory) punctuated with snippets of how it was to lose Peter. I haven’t yet cried. My movements have been rehearsed and robotic for a while, like someone is directing me—move your arm this way, step forward, step back, now make the coffee, walk for the hundredth time through the living room with no purpose in mind.

It is late. We climb the dark stairs, dump Al’s suitcase in the bedroom, pour a drink. “Peter” we say in unison and clink glasses. Now we hug for a long, long time—something absent in our daily routine of the past three weeks. He is Home. We finally pull back, kiss and force our mouths up into a smile. At least we have this—each other. Sailor pushes between us and we both look down to that tooth-filled smile. Daddy is home. His world is once again complete.

February 7, 2024
We are more than a week past his death. Why am I still numb? Delayed grieving, or that grieving that is brought on after you think the time has passed.

Why do I still find myself incapable of making a decision more important than what I will eat from the menu? I don’t mind being indecisive for a given amount of time, but what if this doesn’t end?

I walk the dog, wondering what other people who lose loved ones do after they are gone. My escape is soothing. I watch Sailor snuffle his long nose into shrubbery to read the daily news. Who has been here? What did they have for breakfast? What’s that? A rabbit? A squirrel? He prances past me with a silly grin on his face. I shuffle after him, helpless and numb. He trots a certain distance, then swings his head to check back before he is off again on another exploration. He is my salvation. I still have a warm body to hug. Meanwhile, Peter’s wife is now without that warm body—desolate, wondering what to do, who to call.

February 11, 2024
Superbowl Sunday. We don’t have a team in the race, but I love Kansas City and Patrick Mahomes. Al backs the 49ers who had a better season record. He and I have $1,000.00 on the game. Those big bets are always fun, partly because no money need be exchanged as it’s all in one pot anyway.

We’re mostly non-verbal as long married couples can comfortably be, thank the universe. We have our routines, but lately the teasing has ramped up some—we’ve always been good at that, and it feels good to get some of that back.

Good news—the Chiefs won, and I am $1,000.00 richer. But I have yet to see that money.
Peter loved football.

February 18, 2024
The memorial service was yesterday. We watched the live stream, straining our ears and eyes to hear the tributes and see the photos on a screen that often whited out in the filming. We had been coming out of our stupor, but the frustration of struggling to view the memorial service kicked us back a few notches.

Al refused to travel back to Vegas. He is done with that city where his boy died. I can’t say that I blame him. He went to hell’s door and back as a witness to a cruel death. I am glad that he is back with me, where I can hold him tight and tell him everything will be okay.

February 22, 2024
I noticed just the other day that we are teasing each other again. We are kibbitzing over regular chores.
“You have a lot of work to do,” I tell him as he gets ready to leave for his pool game.
“Go pound sand,” he replies.

This is us. This is what we do. I know there are couples out there who are sweet and polite to each other all the time. How do they do it? We engage in rougher play. Pretend we are going to punch each other. Fart audibly and then add, “That’s for you!”

But the beast is still here with us riding shotgun. Al is mute most of the time. “How are you doing?” elicits either a non-response, or a brisk “Fine,” but I keep asking because I’m supposed to. I have been watching him carefully. How does he look, act?

People are moving more easily in our company. For days after Peter’s death, condolences opened every conversation, in person or over the phone. Thank you. Yes, it’s been very hard. We listen over and over again to the phrase “parents should never outlive their children,” or “It’s not the natural order.” At times, I am annoyed to hear the same thing yet again, often in the exact same words like we’re rehearsing for a play. Then I forgive them when I realize that there is no good response available in the English language, nothing to be said that would ease the loss of a child. Everyone I meet or speak to knows. That kind of news travels like a drought-fueled wildfire, and I am grateful, because I’m exhausted from sharing the news that my husband’s son has died.

There is no graceful, shortcut way to reveal that information. He was not my son. He was not my stepson. He was only two years younger than I am. He was like a brother gifted to me mid-life. He was not my child. He was Al’s child. While I never had children, I know for certain that no matter how old a person becomes, the parent always sees the baby, the child learning to walk and talk. They can’t help it. The child’s hair may gray, the skin may sprout lines, but the parent’s vision is filled with a fat baby face full of new life. The child may have children, even grandchildren of their own, but they will forever remain the adolescent in dirty jeans and a torn T-shirt who doesn’t notice the dirt or the rip while they race out to play with friends. Parents cannot see children for the adults they became. They will always be children.

March 10, 2024
More than a month has passed since Peter died. I awoke this morning at 4:30 to change the few remaining non-digital clocks to 5:30 as we Spring Ahead, a much easier fix than Falling Back. Who invented this stupid practice? It is not natural—the World doesn’t swing like that. The natural northern world gets darker and darker in its descent into winter, then lighter and lighter into spring recovery. No doubt someone made money creating this foolish system. There is simply no other explanation. Now everyone is screwed up for at least a week. Did we actually lose an hour of sleep? Impossible. No, the day just jumped ahead one hour without our permission.

I remember thinking months ago, Peter is living his last fall, his last winter. This thought stabbed my heart with guilt. He could survive this. He could miraculously recover and go on for years to come. Somehow, I knew this wouldn’t be the case. I knew that Peter would die soon. Those last few punishing days in hospice left me with the hope that it would All. Be. Over. Soon. The guilt of the relief. Those same, platitudinal words on the lips of friends At least now he is at peace. How does anyone know that? Of course, they are well intentioned thoughts, and what else could they say? No language is equipped with the vocabulary sufficient to comfort that kind of loss, so we say what we can because we know we must.

The response I most prefer is “I can’t imagine.” That is the most accurate, the most honest of statements about the loss of a child, unless the responder has actually lost a child. They can’t imagine. I still cannot imagine, because I don’t have children. I don’t have “stepchildren.” I am married to a man who has children, whose children came into my life as full-blown adults. I am therefore unequipped to know how that feels. When a friend says, “I can’t imagine,” I am so thankful, relieved in my response, because I know it’s the most honest of condolences.

Most days now I can go hours without thinking about Peter’s death. The searing pain for my husband’s loss is gone. The numbness has passed. We are back to our regular routine, albeit a little slower than before. We have passed through that door of can’t imagine, a door we can never reenter.

We can’t let him go. We have to get beyond, but we can’t let him go entirely. So we have established a ritual that reminds, yet doesn’t torture. Every evening when we mix our daily cocktail, we raise our glasses to Peter. We have agreed to do this for a year, but I know it will last much longer, maybe until the end of one of our lives. At that time, the one remaining will be left with a solo ritual, clinking an imaginary glass in empty space. There will be hundreds of Peter toasts.

I shame myself for failing to keep a journal of the last months of Peter’s life. It has all become a muddy blur, sullied by grief and numbness, stepping through day after Groundhog Day of limbo. When did this or that happen? What could’ve changed the outcome? I know it’s a futile exercise fueled by the guilt of remiss. It is that terrible coulda, woulda, shoulda that I despise. It coulda been, but damn it, it wasn’t. He didn’t survive. He died after all those thoughts had spent themselves in wasted energy.

We look through hundreds of photos, and now, finally, I cry. The photos that most bring tears are the shots of all five brothers, standing angled to the camera backside to frontside in the same oldest to youngest line up. They have been taking those photos all their lives. One large one hangs in our hallway. Paul was about nine, Michael was five. The last Five Brothers photo was taken this past summer. Paul was 62, Michael was 58. Same order, same brotherly smiles. That order has been severed, a limb cleaved from the body, now incomplete for perpetuity. I wonder whether this ritual will now end, or will they take a photo with only four? And then three, then two, then one? Stupid thoughts. But it was a constant. Those photos, taken almost every year of their lives, back to front, faces aging slightly, bodies growing first up and then out, wins and losses piling on through time.

We will get through this. I am thankful and greatly relieved. We have survived what is essentially the worst experience that can happen in life. We will go on. We will continue to look at the Five Brothers photos, and soon good memories will sprout laughter about this funny thing or another that happened. We will clink our glasses and speak his name, “To Peter.”

Michael, David, Chuck, Pete and Paul Boudreau
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