The shelf hung inside a deconstructed closet with no door, a built-in desk of sorts, in my dining room.
It was one of the home improvement projects finished by my ex-husband when he was still my husband. He’d built the closet into a craft station for the kids and a desk for me. Now, it housed the printer and served as a catchall. (After all, the kids were texting, not crafting. I was working on a laptop, not a bulky, lime-green desktop.)
I’d neatly lined the shelf with instruction manuals, outdated school textbooks, and classics that had been part of my kids’ reading list that I swore I’d read again. The shelf was tidy, but staring at it I didn’t remember the last time I’d used or moved any of it.
I removed a few books, leafed through each one longer than I’d intended, and set them on the dining room table. With the next book came a lavender envelope. It landed on the floor with an audible slap.
I picked up the envelope. There was no name or address. No stamp. It was tacked lightly shut, so someone had licked its bitter glue strip. I popped it open. But what if it wasn’t for me? My house, my shelf, my envelope, right? Many scenarios popped to mind, none of them accurate.
On the outside of the card was a small, unidentifiable cartoon animal — a cutesy one. It held a sign that said, “Sorry.”
On the inside, I was bombarded by my dead husband’s handwriting.
I didn’t have to look at the bottom and see the signature to know who’d written it. I’d known that penmanship since I was nineteen. I didn’t need “Dear Amy” to know the card was, indeed, written for me. The first words were a familiar greeting.
My ex died two years after we divorced. I’d forgiven his transgressions, for my own sake and for that of our children, while he was still alive and for that, I was grateful.
We had maintained a healthy distance and peculiar closeness for the kids’ sake. My deductive reasoning told me this letter was written when he and I were still steeped in the charade of saving a marriage on life support.
I’ll try harder.
Try harder than whom? Or what? Against what were we measuring? Had this been written before or after a thwarted attempt to try?
I liked to believe that by writing this, at that moment, he planned to “try harder.”
In my heart, I commended the attempt. In my head, I knew that incomplete projects, whether bathroom renovations or marriages, were rarely realized if the resolution was simply “to try.”
I want the chance to make it up to you.
Not knowing the date or impetus for this letter I had no idea if this were a request for the first chance or the last chance.
His apology went on for the length and width of the two sides of the card. It was not a confession — it was a plea.
He wrote of our long history, the future, and of wanting our family to survive. Our family did survive, although not as any of us had imagined or wanted. Our children are grown and have thrived despite their loss. Under the circumstances, I’m sure that’s what he’d have wanted.
I had to wonder what happened after my ex-husband wrote this when he slipped it in between the books. Was he waiting for a special occasion to give it to me?
Maybe it was a card for my birthday. The year before my ex moved out, when we were “working on” our marriage, he gave me a candle for my birthday because I liked candles.
This was a big deal for us both. Admittedly, his gifts to me for almost twenty years were things he wanted me to have. Whether it was a bread loaf-shaped food container, a treadmill, or a sweater, he chose gifts because of the way he wanted to feel when he gave them.
He’d confessed to never considering if I’d like something. So this kind of gift-giving was new to him.
It was new to me to receive something without an agenda attached (reorganize, reduce, reinvent). He told me how he’d smelled the candles until he found a scent that said, Amy. That candle had nothing to do with him.
Perhaps the year after the candle, he’d planned to give me the card gift because he thought I wanted a written apology. But I never wanted an apology — at that time I wanted a husband. Maybe he figured that out, changed his mind, and hid the card. Or maybe his old gifting habit was hard to break, and writing the card, then hiding it, had nothing to do with me at all.
It would seem rather presumptuous, and careless, to think I’d never find the hidden card or that one of the children wouldn’t find it. True, I wasn’t Suzy Homemaker. True, it was likely almost a decade since he’d placed it there. But to slip this away and not retrieve it when he could have?
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During the two years, my ex and I were divorced before he died, he picked up the children every Wednesday night for dinner and every other weekend. We chatted, we joked, and we sometimes argued. Had he remembered the card, I have no doubt he’d have asked to retrieve it. And I would have let him, likely without too much snooping.
What if I had found the card when he was still alive? The week or month after he’d left? After he remarried? Would he have apologized for the apology? Would I have been privy to the ultimate act of take-backsies?
Years of what-ifs fluttered by. I held the card warily as if the ink would run onto my fingers and stain my full and present life, leaving an indelible reminder of revised dreams. I’d been single for about eight years at that point. This card was a part of my past. Except it wasn’t.
This letter wasn’t a memento. I wasn’t sure it even belonged to me. It was a mistake, a missed opportunity, or a message from beyond.
I tore it into tiny pieces, though not with malice or even much force. Then I tossed the lavender-speckled confetti into the trash can, slid the books back onto the shelf, and forgave myself for doing both.
Sincere apologies weren’t my ex-husband’s strong suit, but the fact that he had written such a letter at all allowed me to believe, after many years, that I hadn’t completely misjudged the man I’d married so long ago.
And that was the best gift he never gave me.
Amy Sue Nathan is an essayist, columnist, freelance editor, and blogger. She is the author of The Glass Wives.