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My husband, Coen, had a pair of shoes that I especially loved. They were made of heavy brown leather, with a thick sole and blunt round toes. Rugged-looking, as he was, although his feet were elegant and beautiful to look at. When he wore the shoes with corduroy pants and a soft yellow shirt and his farm jacket, he looked exactly like himself. I can see him now, walking up the laneway in the sunshine, smoking a cigar, the good old dog loping along with him, the crazy new dog nipping at his ankles. The shoes wore themselves into a fine patina of age and sturdy softness, like him.
I imagine he was wearing them the day he had his stroke. Visiting relatives in the Netherlands, he keeled over in the midst of a predinner borreltje – a little drink, as they say. He probably had a glass of Dutch gin in one hand, or maybe a cheese puff, and a cigar in the other. I imagine him perched on a stool in his brother's kitchen, laughing, that deep chuckle of his caressing every funny story and memory that they shared. Everything about to end.
I still hear the sound of the phone ringing – my brother-in-law's voice, my panicked flight over, hospitals, airlift transit back to Canada, more hospitals. Even after endless rehab and therapy, he needed full care. Only a few words and phrases came back – Got verdomme, he said, often. God damn it. But he could never call me by my name again. I moved from the farm to be close by and we began a different life. We learned to watch interminable rounds of golf and tennis matches and reruns of Hogan's Heroes, and he would sit in his wheelchair and hold my foot when I slid into his bed for a nap after my day at work. The shoes came along to the nursing home, placed on his feet for special occasions.
But he lost ground. Slowly, it became apparent he would spend the rest of his life in socks and slippers: not able to walk again, and rarely out of bed. And so the beautiful old shoes seemed superfluous. It bothered me to see them in the closet, a reminder of the sadness of a loss-filled life. As part of a big cleanout I put them in a pile of stuff for the Sally Ann. Sometimes, you just have to face reality. They are great shoes, I thought – let someone wear them.
But a week or so later, during that infinite time that stretches from 3 a.m. to 4 a.m., I realized my error. It struck me they were the shoes he should be buried in. I needed them. On a quest, I set off for the Sally Ann the next day, anxious they would be gone already. But no, I was in luck. There they were, looking a little dingier displayed on a wide shelf with other cast-offs, under cold fluorescent lights, but there they were, the very shoes. Rejoicing, I paid $15 to get them back and threw in a little one-person casserole dish as well. Retail therapy on the cheap. The shoes came back to the closet floor and lived in peace for another year.
The day he died, I called my daughters, and over the course of a few hours we gathered at his bedside. Only days before, we had been there together, eating pizza and laughing with him, although he was terribly ill and the girls had taken turns to have a private moment to say goodbye. Now, my eldest and her husband stopped by the house to bring the clothes we had chosen and prepared against this day. In death, his face was smooth, less rugged than before, and now beyond pain. We held his hands as we had held them through four years of sorrow. Because we had agreed we would not see him again, we put on his corduroys, and a yellow shirt, for the crematorium. Socks and the beautiful shoes. We talked and ate, and touched his face, and combed his hair, and in the late evening, called the funeral home to say they could come.
As the solemn young men arrived and gently moved his body into the zippered transport bag, I realized I wanted the shoes back. So the proceedings halted for a moment and we laughed. One last touch of his elegant feet. But even in his socks, it turned out the bag they had brought wasn't long enough. So we covered his face and draped his head in a towel while the zipper came up to his chin. A small blessing not to have to watch the zipper go over his face. We walked him down to the van, and off he went into the night.
My son-in-law has the shoes now, and I never need to see them. But when I am at the cottage, I wear his farm coat.
Martha ter Kuile lives in Toronto.