I didn’t know him well but I knew him enough, and I’ll tell you what he once did on those warm spring and summer nights, and why he tried to repay a debt he believed was beyond payment. I’ll tell you what he once told me, and I’ll let you decide whether what he saw was the truth or the remorse that had come to well up in him. I have never answered that question for myself. I suppose it doesn’t matter either way. Real or not, he was still haunted.
He was what we in the country call a Good Man. He shied from neither work nor church, donated annually to both the rescue squad and the fire department. He raised three kids with a wife he’d met when they were freshmen in high school. He never made trouble. Don’t listen to those who say a person must do great things in life to be known as great. This world is full of great people. They are the ones who keep their heads down and a semblance of joy on their faces, who work hard at building their lives and wish nothing more than the freedom to do so. That was him.
And yet we can all be Good when we step beyond our doors. Inside our homes, hidden from the eyes of the world by pulled curtains and drawn shades, that is where we often find our truest selves. It is a hidden tragedy of life that we save the worst parts of us for the ones we most love, giving to them the darkness we take such pains to hide from others. That was him, too. It’s hard to keep a secret in a town this small, but that was one. No one ever knew he abused his wife until she passed.
The cancer took her—not his fists, but a lump of tumor that had lodged itself inside her stomach. I didn’t go to the funeral. I heard it was fine as funerals go, sadness with hope thrown in. It was all sadness for him. They buried her at the foot of a knoll where the oaks grew tall and wide, and all he said after was that his wife would approve of such a place to rest.
I don’t know when he began spending the nights by her grave. I suppose it was gradual, daily visits that turned into once in the morning and another time in the afternoon, first minutes and then hours. Her passing became a reckoning for him, and he vowed to care for his wife in death as he should have cared for her in life. All those nights of having her there in bed, of waking to the smell of coffee and eggs, gone now and forever. He said he slept in the cemetery to feel her again for the first time in years. It isn’t often, just when he feels lonely and sorry. Sometimes, those two feelings are the same.
He told me this, too:
Deep in the night when there was only the dark and the stars, the dead would sometimes wake him. He would sit up and stare at the crest of the knoll overlooking his wife’s grave, and he would see the shadows of the lost in the midst of a long walk that never ended. Those shadows never bothered him. He said he doubted they could even see him. But he knew why they wandered. He said those were the ones who’d lived their lives burdened by the things they’d done, just like he did now. Even in death, their burdens followed them.
That was nearly twenty years ago. I don’t know that I’d call him a Good Man now, with all that I know. But I can say he’s a better one. And I can say he still sleeps at the cemetery sometimes.
We all have our shadows. They linger in our memory, haunting us in the remorse of those things we’ve done and the regrets of those things we’ve left undone. We endure our sins. We suffer their consequences. We trust that time will put enough space for forgiveness between our Then and our Now. Sometimes, that’s just what happens. Other times, those shadows rise up again. That’s when we’re left with the choice to leave our past behind as a marker that reminds us of how far we’ve come, or falling for the lie that who we once were will always be who we are now.