Even in death, your teeth are perfect.
I stand next to your open grave almost six years after you left me. The gravedigger stands across from me, waiting. I accuse him of having deliberately removed your bones without waiting for me to be here, because I see nothing but dirt in the pit.
Eftyhios says, “No, he is here, look.”
In Greek, “Eftyhios” means joy, happiness. This gravedigger has worked in this Athens cemetery for more than 20 years; he knows his decomposed bones. I give him the bottle of red wine, chlorine, powdered soap and white bedsheet I was asked to buy. I cried in the supermarket with such a shopping list. My last one for you.
I look into the pit like a weary archaeologist, nearly missing what is right under my nose — bones laid deep in the dirt, ripped pieces of lace from inside the coffin lid, long bones where your arms were, those arms that once held me. Then I see more: a jawbone, ribs, thigh bones. Your strong thighs wrapped around me so well.
Words once flowed from that jawbone, kisses and goodbyes at airports, ferry docks, comforting murmurs as we drifted off to sleep. For 30 years I listened to you speak, but I cannot remember your voice now as I stand numb beside your grave.
When we bury our loved ones in Greece, tradition requires that we exhume the bones after three years for lack of space; it’s rare to get a two- or three-year extension. I used every excuse to delay it. I told the authorities about relatives who could not travel from New York to be with me for my first time experiencing this upsetting occasion, or my elderly parents who could not be left alone in Andros and needed me to take care of them. All true. And they worked for a while. I paid steep fees to keep you where you were.
But the pandemic created an urgent need for gravesites. The cemetery was running out of room. And I no longer could delay making this site available for someone else.
I got a menacing phone call from a public servant in the municipality who said, “If you do not come to Athens to deal with your husband’s bones, we will open the grave without you and put the bones in a box.”
Stuck on the island of Andros with my parents in full lockdown, I said, “I’m a reporter. If you touch one pebble from his grave, I will write about you.”
Not long after, some kind soul from the municipality called and apologized. She told me not to worry about exhuming your bones just yet. When travel rules changed, we would speak again.
I thanked her and cried.
On Andros, I forced myself to walk, discover villages, paths I had never explored. I even tested myself by becoming a winter swimmer. Every empty beach had its own beauty and silence, and the shores waited for me to dive deep into their waters.
I spoke to you many times out loud while I swam or sat shivering in the cold alone, punishing my body because I kept living. Nothing could take the pain of loss away, not even frigid waters that burned my skin.
In my unpublished novel, I wrote a scene about savano, the white cloth in which we wrap our dead after their bones are washed and bathed in wine. When I wrote the scene in the novel, I imagined a scene in some Bible movie shown around Easter when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to anoint the corpse. Little did I know I would play the leading role in a similar ritual in my own life.
Eftyhios opens your savano and lays it flat next to your open grave. He asks, “Do you want to see his skull?”
“Sure,” I say, as if someone asked if I want a glass of water.
He jumps into the pit on what would have been your chest and bends to lift your skull, a dirty ceremonial bowl lifted in the air toward me. Bone mixed with dirt covers the back part, which is smooth and whole, unlike the broken front, evidence of how violent your fall down the stairs was in our home that night while I slept.
I stare at it and imagine someone serving me a bowl of boiled wild greens covered in glistening olive oil and lemon. I nod, unable to comprehend that it is you I am looking at.
Pieces of you come to the surface. Eftyhios removes the kneecaps, arm bones, thigh bones, rib cage. There is little of you left, but there is all of you inside me, and there is most of you laid out on the white bedsheet.
He tells me the eye socket, jawbone, chin — all broken in the fall — will be carefully collected and gathered, washed, sanitized and made ready to be put into the metal box I purchased from the cemetery office so I can take you to your final resting place.
I can’t see the coffin lid or any part of the shiny wooden coffin itself. It has all disintegrated, as has my future.
While Eftyhios carefully digs out each remaining bone, I ask him if I could speak to him in private, so I walk away from my quiet brother-in-law, godson and sister-in-law who are observing the process, probably numb like me.
I whisper to this big, muscular, tattooed man: “I am leaving for Andros tonight, and if I cannot have all of him right now, I need to take some part of him with me.”
“I will take care of it,” he says, taking my little red pouch from my hands. He walks to the grave and returns with something in it. “I put a small finger bone in here for you,” he says. “The finger is the strongest bone. Make sure you soak it in wine and let it dry.”
I thank him in a teary voice. Gruesome? Perhaps, but I need something of you with me, and this will have to do.
The person at the municipality assured me I could take the box with me today. I planned on taking the evening ferry back to Andros with you by my side. But apparently that was not correct information. I must wait some weeks for the health department to give its seal of approval before I can take your bones anywhere. The trip back to my safe space will have to be taken alone, without all of you.
On the ferry to Andros, I save no seat for you because you are tucked away in my bag, keeping me company. We watch the moon peek out over the Attica mountains as we pull away from port and see the golden reflected path stretch out to hold us on this last journey.
When we land on the island, I begin the long drive home and catch a glimpse of the whitewashed steps leading to the village church where we had our simple, traditional wedding 30 years ago. We celebrated our union in the same church where my grandmother Amalia was married, and where my mother was christened. I miss you like crazy. Grief does not fade; it lives next to me as I drive, as I create my art, even as I laugh. I am laughing again, just know that.
Turning by the last bend on the road to Apikia village, I see the elegant Tourlitis lighthouse out at sea and count the moments between strobes of light. Any sailor can figure out where he is from those beams.
That lighthouse is now my guide. I turn to it when I am down or even hopeful in winter and fall, in summer when the house fills with friends and family. I cannot have you in this life, in this home you built for us. I cannot have your bones either, but I do have you in our child, in my memories of us as a couple in love.
When I finally arrive home, the first thing I do is open a good bottle of red wine, one that you and I would have liked. I pour a glass for me, and I pour some over your finger bone in your wine glass. I let the wine soak into your bone. And I raise my glass.
Here’s to you, my Rouli. Here’s to how lucky I have been to love you, to live with you. You were so rare, so kind, so quiet in the coarse flow of life. Here’s to my accepting that, at least physically, you are gone. Here’s to hoping I can feel again. Here’s to hoping I can live again. Cheers.