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“Table for three?” The perky young hostess looked at me expectantly as I walked in the restaurant with my 19-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter. The foolishness of this outing was suddenly painfully evident. All I could do was nod and follow her swishing ponytail across the crowded room. There was nothing I could say to save the moment, just like there is no such thing as a table for three. My husband’s absence became all too present when she removed the fourth place setting and the three of us took our seats.

I didn’t realize that our first outing together after Joff’s sudden death four weeks previously would emphasize the gaping hole torn through the fabric of our family. My 53-year-old husband of 25 years was gone. I was no longer a wife. My kids no longer had a father. We were no longer a family of four. This painful reality washed over us in a wave of grief. We sat silently at the table, staring at closed menus, choking down our emotions as we tried not to acknowledge the empty chair across from me. Eating was out of the question. Finally, we ordered drinks.

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Earlier in the day, the suggestion to go out for dinner had seemed like a good idea. I needed time alone with my kids. We had been surrounded by people day and night since that terrible evening when Joff rode out of our gate to go for a quick “peddle” in the local trails. Without warning and for inexplicable reasons, his heart stopped. The fact that he died instantly doing what he loved, riding his mountain bike in the spectacular trails of North Vancouver, was small comfort to his devastated family.

Within the hour our home became headquarters for a community of grief. He was a good man, his death a huge, unbelievable loss for so many. Our kitchen island was constantly surrounded by friends and neighbours coming and going with good food, kind words and overwhelming sadness. You could see the pain in their eyes when they looked at us and shook their heads, unable to find adequate words to acknowledge this tragedy. I can only imagine what we looked like to them.

As well-meaning and nourishing as the food and friendship were, it was difficult to appreciate anything. I felt separate from myself, watching from afar as I went through the motions, functioning on some strange autopilot, filling the fridge and freezer, then the wineglasses. Always the wineglasses, which added to the haze and surrealistic quality of our sad world.

In the midst of this crowd of support, my kids and I could hide from each other. Sam would retreat to his virtual world in the basement and vent his emotions with assault rifles, taking down unknown enemies. Cassie would head to her room with her iPad, losing herself in YouTube stories posted by strangers with happier lives to share. I just kept answering the door and filling glasses.

I realized I had to do something. We’d lost Joff, now we were losing each other. Getting out of the house and having dinner at a restaurant seemed like an easy solution. Until we sat down. At our table for three. I think it was my son who spoke first. “This sucks.”

I tried to joke – “We could go back home and have casserole with the neighbours. Again.” Sam just shook his head and checked his phone. Cassie, trying to break the tension, opened the menu. “Maybe they have Elvis Cream Pie.” We all laughed.

Elvis Cream Pie was one of Joff’s “signature stories.” Unsuspecting servers were subjected to it every time we went out for a family dinner. When asked if anyone was ready for dessert Joff would request Elvis Cream Pie, and then have to explain what it was and why this ice cream, chocolate and peanut butter atrocity was his favourite. Sometimes, depending on the age of the server, he would also have to explain who Elvis was. Then finally, he would feign vast disappointment to learn that Elvis Cream Pie was not on the menu. It was a long-standing family joke that only Joff found funny. It got to the point where the kids or I would interrupt Joff’s story before he could even start – quickly declining dessert and requesting the bill. Now, we would give anything to hear him tell it again.

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I took a deep breath and a long sip of my wine as I realized that we had bigger hurdles ahead than an empty place setting at the table. The future I faced was far different than the one I envisioned for myself four weeks ago. Joff and I had spent the past two decades caring for older parents and raising our children. For the first time in years we were actually planning for just the two of us – holidays and adventures no longer curtailed by an elder in need or children who wanted to come along. I had no idea what lay ahead for me now.

My young adult children faced a future without their wonderful, goofy dad. He will not be there to guide them through their first home purchases, admire their career advancements, advise them in their relationships or celebrate with them when they become parents and begin their own family journeys. Nothing would be as we planned or what we hoped. Everything would be different without him. The empty chair across the table was broadcasting that harsh reality louder than any words could convey.

Each of us would have to invent a new future and redefine ourselves, as individuals and as a family, without Joff. Fortunately, we had a solid foundation of love, a community of support and an endless supply of wonderful memories to help us rebuild. I knew then that we would never be the same, but we would be okay.

I flagged the server to take our order. “I think we’ll start with dessert,” I smiled at the reaction from my kids. “One piece of Elvis Cream Pie. Three spoons.”

Michelle Perrault lives in North Vancouver.

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