They had married after their residencies at Columbia, and moved back to his hometown in Dobbs Ferry. Both of them practiced at West Chester Medical Center.
“He would have been 6 this weekend,” Pilar said.
It was retinoblastoma. He was diagnosed at 3 years old.
“Thomas couldn’t handle it,” she said. “I don’t understand why, even now. But he couldn’t. He just shut down.”
Their son had his eye removed in a surgery when he was 4, and it was hoped that this put an end to the cancer. But they discovered that tumors had begun to form in his brain.
“After the surgery, Thomas could barely look at his son. He barely spoke to him. Mateo used to cry to me that he had made daddy angry, asking me, ‘Why is daddy mad at me, mommy?’”
They tried therapy, both separately and together, but nothing seemed to help.
“It got to a point where I knew I had to choose my son’s well-being over my marriage,” Pilar said. “So, I took this job, and I moved us here to Philadelphia. I hoped that the doctors here could help us battle this terrible thing that was happening, and give my little boy a chance, you know?”
Roger did know. He listened, and remembered the slow and horrifying progress of Julie’s disease, and how, with each treatment, with each surgery, there was the hope you clung to for a while, until the next awful piece of news. But he and Julie had stopped loving each other years before she got ill. They had lived in a kind of emotional divorce for years, but stayed together largely, then, because of the illness, and because it felt like the right and reasonable thing to do. It was an experience filled with a sense of duty more than the desperation of love. Similar, since the experience of the ravages of disease was something he knew. But worlds apart, he understood, as he listened to the weighted pain in Pilar’s words, heard the tears she swallowed down as she told this story.
Mateo was getting sicker. And a little after his 5th birthday, they had to face the fact that he was getting weaker and had to be hospitalized.
“But he so wanted to have Christmas in our new home. We had spent some time making ornaments, buying a special tree that would fit perfectly in the space. So we put the tree up early, before he went into the hospital.”
Roger nodded. “I had just moved in across the street, and noticed the tree.”
“Well, I have to admit that I was guilty of magical thinking. We put that tree up together, it was our project, and I hoped that the tree would somehow bring about another remission. But he was rushed to the hospital, and never came home.”
Roger didn’t know what to do, whether he should reach out to take her hand. But just as he was about to try, she crossed her arms across her chest, holding herself tightly, as if holding herself together.
“He was in and out of consciousness for a while, but whenever he was awake, he would talk of the Christmas tree. I took pictures of the tree and brought them to the hospital, and talked always with him about how I would keep the tree up as long as it took, for him to come home. That we could have Christmas any time of the year, all year long if he liked, and that baby Jesus would wait for him. But now I know that baby Jesus was waiting for him, just not in this world.”
She said that the night Mateo died, he consoled his mother, telling her not to cry. “It’s okay, mommy. When I close my eyes I can see our tree. So, if my eyes stay closed forever, I will always see our tree.”
Roger waved away a waiter who was about to approach.
“I will never take it down,” Pilar said, “because if the tree is the last thing my child saw as he left this world, I want it to be the sight that connects us forever.”
Roger nodded. “I understand,” he said.
“Sentimental, I know,” she said. “But who does it hurt? What could it matter to anyone else?”
Her mother has urged her to come back to Barcelona, she told him, where her family remains. She could easily find work, of course, and begin life again.
“But my child is buried here. How could I leave him? This is how I make sure that he is not alone: I stay.”
They walked home without saying much of anything. Roger gave Pilar a hug at her door and she kissed his cheek.
Back inside his own apartment, Roger stood looking through his window at the tree. Obviously, he couldn’t expect her to take it down. But neither could he now stand to see it, to look at it every morning, every night. It reminded him of the kinds of love that he never really understood. It reminded him of the ways that people who really love stay connected over time and space, something he never felt was true for him. When Julie died, he felt guilt and relief in equal part. He didn’t feel love. He felt anger and bitterness about the ways that life had cheated him. But he didn’t feel grief.
Except for rage, he realized, he was a man without the capacity for human feelings.
He thought he could make himself worth something again. The power walking, the suits, the consulting work, the teaching. But he only succeeded in rebuilding the man he had always been; he had no clue how to create the man he should be. He would never be good enough for someone who loved in the way Pilar did. Given the same situation, he’d have taken down the tree, moved back to Spain, thought of it as cutting his losses. He wouldn’t, or couldn’t, feel the pull that tied Pilar to this place, and he’d never understand the energy that flowed between her and her son, back and forth between the two worlds. He understood that this tree glowed with the light of that kind of love. What right did he have to even look at it?
He bought new, heavier curtains for the windows, which he now kept closed. But still, each time he was on the street, his eye was drawn upward to the tree, as it stood in the window. Even in his bedroom, without seeing out his windows, he knew the tree was there, felt the tree. Felt it mocking him.
He stopped jogging, fired the housekeeper, went back to wearing sweat pants and t-shirts. With one phone call, he relinquished his responsibility to his night class, claiming a personal emergency, and requesting a replacement be found immediately. One by one, he completed jobs with clients and sent them final bills – a kind of private joke.
Pilar left messages which he didn’t return.
He went to the liquor store one afternoon and carried home some boxes, and began to pack up the belongings in the kitchen. That kind of love created a world he didn’t understand, and it was too painful to be so close to it when he knew he’d never be able to find a way in. What was worse, he knew that he didn’t want to find a way in. He had no desire to even reach out to Pilar, where she stood in her grief. It was difficult. It was messy. It terrified and repelled him. And realizing that about himself was more than he could stand.
He had a living, breathing son with whom he had been estranged for over five years. For the first time. he looked up Willie’s contact information on the internet. He wrote down the address and telephone number.
Over the course of several days, he hauled most of what he packed to the storage facility. He spent time there, going through the boxes of his papers and legal documents, numbering them and keeping track of them on a legal pad. He realized that the most personally significant things had been cared for by Julie, and carried off by the children right after she died. It was she who had kept the photo albums, the majority of the children’s belongings, their school records. Willie and Jessica had already divided that up between them after the funeral. He hadn’t even noticed they were missing.
He took the most pressing documents with him back to the Quarry Street apartment, which was now empty except for a single arm chair, an old TV and his bedroom furniture. He spent his last night in the apartment writing an email to his attorney, putting the papers together and writing three letters: to his son and his daughter and to Pilar. All three were brief, but as honest as he’d ever been. Then he slid the keys to the storage locker and the apartment into a small package, addressed to his lawyer, sealed it and walked everything to the mailbox. Willie and Jessica could take whatever they wanted, or they could take nothing. Roger understood that it didn’t matter.
For a moment or two, he stood at the mailbox and watched other people hurrying by. Maybe, he thought very briefly, there is another way. But if there were alternatives, wouldn’t he have discovered them long ago? He felt the urge to cry, but wouldn’t allow himself. What good would that do now? He did what he’d always done -- swallowed it down, and pretended that the Scotch he tasted on his tongue was the flavor of determination. Finally, Roger slid the envelopes into the mailbox together. The wind stirred the leaves on the tree beside him. He felt the air blow across his face as, after only a short hesitation, he dropped his lawyer’s package into the box, almost grateful as he heard it land inside with a quiet, determined thud of finality.