It was a frigid February morning just before Valentine’s Day when I had the sudden inspiration to wake her so we could watch the sunrise together. Part of me said, “don’t do it…let her sleep,” and I know she was thinking the same thing as I gently shook her awake. But she hadn’t been sleeping soundly, and only groaned a little when I pulled her to a sitting position and sat down on the bed beside her.
Šarka, our young cat, came bounding into the bedroom, flew through the air—her feet only momentarily making contact with the comforter before going airborne again—and careened back out into the hallway. “That little monster,” Petra muttered, twisting her face into an exaggerated scowl.
“How many times did you get up with her last night?” I asked. The cat, just a year old, was several months into a stage where her favorite game was to wake us up at all hours of the night, banging and scratching on the bedroom door. Most nights, I got up and dealt with her—either by holding and petting her until she went to sleep, or by dousing her with water so that she’d have to give herself a bath and allow us at least twenty minutes of peace and quiet.
That morning, I had to get up earlier than most, so I’d used my earplugs to insure a good night’s sleep, and Petra had taken “monster duty”. “I don’t know,” she answered sleepily, stretching her arms into the air over her head. “Three or four times.” She looked at me for a few seconds and then started to lie back down, moaning, “I want to sleeeeeep.”
I caught her by the arm gently. “Wait. I want to show you something; then you can go back to bed.” She let me pull her out of the bed, as Šarka made another “fly-by” through the room, stopping under the bookshelf this time.
“What is it?” Petra asked, using English for the first time since I’d woken her. Up until then, she’d been speaking her native Czech, while I’d been speaking English. Though I could still barely speak Czech beyond broken phrases, I could understand a lot, and she often used it when she was talking about simple things or certain subjects I had a good grasp of. Also, she frequently reverted to it when she was sleepy.
“Nothing bad,” I assured her, leading her into the kitchen, a short walk in our three-room flat. “I just want to show you something.” Then, as we got to the window, I stopped and let her eyes find the vibrant, colorful sky. “Look,” I said softly in her language.
“Yeah…” she whispered, an angelic smile filling her face. We could see a broad expanse of sky from our seventh-floor windows, with only a few tall buildings rising up to break the sky-line here and there. Nearly the entire panorama was painted with bright pink and some faint purple streaks, as the winter sun rose on the eastern neighborhoods of Prague.
I looked at her and, without warning, felt tears well up and a tightening in my chest. I turned back to the window, opening my eyes wide and willing them to dry. I’d had to fight back tears several times in front of Petra over the past few weeks, and I didn’t want her to see me again.
I started to speak, thinking to say “I wanted you to see it,” but I stopped, realizing that the end of the sentence—“one last time”—would be implied even if I didn’t say it. But I’d caught my breath to say something, and she’d heard me. As my best friend and lover turned toward me, an expectant look on her face, I said the first thing that came to mind.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it.” Not exactly Shakespeare.
“Thank you,” she said, putting her arms around me. We hugged in the kitchen, holding each other for longer than usual. Šarka came in and meowed at us to make sure we knew her food bowl wasn’t full, and Petra looked down at her and uttered a playful curse at her in Czech. I laughed, and she stepped back from me and looked me in the face.
Immediately, a pained but patient look swept across her face—motherly you could say—and I realized a tear had spilled over each eye. “Sweety,” she said, using the Czech word, which is much prettier, and drawing it out in a voice that said, “awww…don’t cry”.
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling pathetic. “I should have let you sleep,” I added, regretting my rash decision now. “I just—“
“I’m glad you waked me up,” she interrupted, hugging me again. Switching back to her native tongue, she asked me when I’d be home that day.
“About 10:30,” I answered, pronouncing it poorly. “Then I have to leave again at…1:00.” I switched to English to ask her, “Do you have any appointments today?”
“Vera takes them all today,” she said, kissing my eyes. We were still holding each other, and Šarka was getting irritated that we weren’t paying any attention to her. She stopped rubbing against our legs and looked up. “No,” Petra told her in Czech. “You’ve had enough food already. You’re a naughty girl, and naughty girl’s don’t get extra breakfast.”
Šarka answered with a plaintive meow.
“She speaks good Czech,” I said in Czech. “Better than I.”
“But please,” Petra said dismissively, her usual reaction when I criticized my language ability. After more than two years in the country, I was ashamed I didn’t speak it better, but she was always positive and praised my efforts.
“I love you,” I said, kissing her on the forehead softly. She looked up and we kissed again on the lips. “I’ve got to go. You go back to bed.”
She bent down and picked up Šarka, holding the immediately-purring cat up between us. “Say bye-bye to Daddy. Have a good day.” I kissed them both and went into the hallway to put on my coat and shoes.
As I rode the lift down to the ground floor, I made a conscious effort to store everything from the previous few minutes in my memory: standing at the window with my lover, the beautiful sky in front of us, the smell of her hair on my nose as we leaned against each other, Šarka at our feet.
At that point, we didn’t know Petra was dying. Whether I had some sixth sense or was just fearing the worst, I had already begun trying to make mental preparations in case she didn’t survive the cancer doctors had found in her the previous December. One surgery was past and a second was on the way; there was still hope for success. But I had begun to think about the possibility of a future without her and what a complete upheaval of my life it would mean.
Should I stay in Prague? How can I, without her? Where will I go? Should I go back to the states? Who will take care of Šarka? I can’t just leave her here. These questions plagued me at all hours of the day, and it was often hard for me to think of anything else. Some of my students noticed the change and asked me if I was okay, but I didn’t feel like I could say anything yet…didn’t want to jinx Petra’s treatment.
But more important than the logistical question of where to go, the question of how to go on without her made me sick with dread. It’s not that I (or she, for that matter) believed there’s only one person out there for everyone. I’d been in love twice before Petra, and we’d both been married once. But breaking up with someone or getting a divorce was so different from your partner dying, especially in the middle of a successful relationship.
I’d told Petra many times over the two years since we’d met that she’d ruined me, that I’d never be able to be with another woman again after her. She always laughed, but I was serious, and it was true. Six years my senior, with a whole world of experience from growing up in the bleak years of Communism, she was a perfect blend of lover, friend, and mother.
She had a confidence and poise like few women I’d known, was quick to laugh, and almost literally never got angry. Her sense of humor was wonderful, and she was completely uninhibited sexually in a manner that was simply unknown in my previous world. In that aspect of our lives, the bedroom (or a deserted cemetery, once) we were compatible to an extent I thought only existed in cheesy novels or silly Hollywood films.
After the second surgery, the doctors recommended chemo, but the tone in their voice told Petra that there wasn’t really any hope with the extent to which it had metastasized. We talked about it, and I was completely honest with her. “From the selfish part of me, I want you to do anything you can that might let you be with me one day longer,” I told her the Thursday evening when we sat down to discuss everything.
“But it won’t—“ she began, but I interrupted.
“Wait, wait. Let me finish. But I don’t want you to waste away and be miserable…and ultimately I wouldn’t like that anyway.” At that point, a fist-sized knot gripped my throat, and I couldn’t continue.
“I don’t think it would really be living, if I did that. You understand?” I nodded. “I’d rather be me and healthy for a few months, to spend that time with you and my family, than to be in the bed for another year.” She leaned over to hug me, as I closed my eyes and cried silently. I started to reach up and hug her in return, but a loud sob erupted from my gut, and my arms fell limp. I cried for a long time, a rag-doll in her arms, while she rocked slightly and ran fingers through my hair.
“I’m sorry,” I said finally, sitting up and wiping my eyes. She shrugged and started to reply, but I added, “you’re the one who’s…got the bad news, and I’m balling like a baby. I should be comforting you.” The last statement sounded more like a question due to my tone.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” she said simply, no bravado in her voice, a trace of sadness in her eyes. Then the sadness deepened, and she added, “but I don’t want to leave you. You’re my darling, you know.” The last sentence was in Czech, something she told me often.
“I’m glad. You’re mine, too,” I answered in turn…that, I could say with no thought and only a slight accent.
A few weeks later, when I returned from one of only two classes I was still teaching, she was waiting with lunch. “I’ve been thinking today,” she said, as we sat on the bed to eat. “We can get married if you want to. I mean, I’d like to do that for you.”
We had talked about it a few times since we’d been together, but not since she’d been diagnosed. Being a “legally bound” couple wasn’t really important to either of us, but having Czech (and subsequently EU) citizenship would be a big benefit for me, making life much easier regarding the yearly visa hassle. And Petra had mentioned wanting to live in the US for a one-year period to make some money before coming back home to settle. Automatic citizenship for her would save us months of hassle (and too much money) that getting a work visa would otherwise entail.
But Petra’s first marriage had been an almost-completely negative experience in her life. While she still had a friendly relationship with her ex-husband, their marriage seemed to be a string of bad memories. Along with that, almost every married person she knew, from friends to family, was unhappily married. For those reasons, I’d never pushed, and we’d never gone past talking about hypotheticals. We loved each other and were committed; that was enough.
“I appreciate that,” I said, putting my food down. As was happening a lot at that time, I’d been incredibly hungry just a few minutes before but now lost my appetite. “I don’t think I want to stay here without you,” I went on, my voice choking only slightly on those final two words.
“You don’t have to decide now,” she said logically. “But if we marry now, you will have the choice later if you want to stay.” After a silence, she added, “my family won’t expect you to stay, but if you do, you will be part of the family.”
Thoughts swirled around in my head, and I felt sick to my stomach. I tried to sort them out enough to decide what to say to her. I wanted to stay to remain close to her, close to her memory and her roots. But I didn’t think I could handle it…not at first anyway. I’d already decided by then I couldn’t return to the US, so moving on to Germany or Austria was the most likely option.
“You don’t have to decide now,” she told me, sensing the storm inside my head. “I just wanted to tell you. I’ll start gathering the papers together and we can do it if you want.” As if just remembering it, she added, “and Monika says you can stay with her for as long as you need, if you want to.” Monika was her sister, a divorcee who lived across town in Prague.
We were married three months later, in a typically-small, informal Czech ceremony at the Town Hall in our sector of Prague. Monika and a couple of our friends attended, and then we came back to our flat rather than going to a smoky pub. There are no pictures from the ceremony; Petra was visibly sick at that point, too thin, unusually pale, with permanent circles around her eyes.
She died in August, nearly three years to the day after we’d first met. She was buried in the small village where she’d lived for the first seventeen years of her life and where her parents still lived. Ignoring tradition, the weather that day was beautiful, sunny and warm…perfect for swimming. A number of children from the village were doing just that in a lake less than a kilometer away, and there laughter and yells were audible in the otherwise-quiet cemetery.
Monika leaned over and told me after the brief funeral that Petra had secured the wonderful weather for us. The two of us were still standing near the grave, and she looked around at the trees. “She’s here somewhere,” Petra’s older sister whispered, sniffling. In the back of my grief-stupored mind, a joke about reincarnation shuffled about, but I was in no mood for it.
Petra had known that I didn’t share her beliefs, and we’d both been good-natured about it. Just a few weeks before her death, she’d reminded me not to swat mosquitoes once she’d gone. I’d suppressed the familiar jolt of horror at the idea of life without her and responded by saying, if she was only good enough to make it back as a lowly mosquito, then there was truly no hope for the rest of us. She’d smiled, and I’d tried to, and we’d hugged for a long time.
Monika and I held each other and cried in the Summer sun, long after everyone else had gone home.
Now, two years later, I still miss her every day. I have a lot of regrets, typical for the one left behind, I guess: survivor’s guilt. I tell myself it’s stupid, but I often fear that my own pessimism in those early months might have doomed my Petra to an early death. After all, isn’t a positive attitude half the battle with things like cancer? What if she sensed my despair and lost hope for herself?
I know it’s not true, though. Petra had an inner strength I’ve known in no ones else before or since, and I’m sure I couldn’t have influenced her like that. She resigned herself to the fate of an early death on her own terms and at her own pace, with the peace and calm that I’d always admired in her. I attributed it to her Buddhism, but I’m sure she was an innately even-tempered and rational person even before she began to study the Eastern Philosophy.
But I still wonder…still ask her forgiveness at least once a week…still cry and apologize for losing hope so soon. There are other, smaller regrets and what-ifs, too. Why didn’t I stop working sooner and devote all my time to spending with her, enjoying the last months I had with her? What if I’d pushed her to see a doctor when she first had the unusual pain and nausea after sex? But these are routine thoughts, and I’m usually able to brush them aside, knowing it doesn’t matter now.
The one thing I regret the most, though, is that cold February morning. Petra didn’t resent it, I know; it’s not that. My regret is purely selfish. I wish I’d never made that special effort to wake her and share a beautiful Prague sunrise with her, together in our kitchen, simply because it ruined them for the rest of my life.
Almost immediately after her diagnosis, I began locking away the especially good times in my memory. I was afraid that after she was gone, my pessimistic mind would focus on the negative, wallow in its current loneliness and sorrow and begin to think things like “I wish I’d never fallen in love with her.” I wanted to remember the good, to always be thankful for her, for our life together, cruelly short though it may have been.
And for the most part it worked; I smile and laugh thinking about my greatest love as often as I cry. I remember our life together with fondness; those years were the first that I’d felt truly happy and satisfied for as long as I can remember. Monika and I exchange emails about once a week, and she sends me pictures of Šarka and tells me of the cat’s escapades. I’ve gone back to visit her in Prague from my new home in Bavaria several times over the past year. I’m still close enough to Petra, to the home we shared together, that I don’t feel like I’ve left her behind. But I’m far enough away not to have too many painful memories.
But that winter sunrise is the Achilles’ heel of my mind, my heart. I etched it in my memory that morning on my way to work, and it’s haunted me ever since. I can't push it away as I can the other regrets and what-ifs. I’ve never been able to watch a colorful sunrise (or sunset) again without crying. Several times, I tried to think positively, told myself “she’s there somewhere…we’re together in that splash of pink or violet.” But it didn’t work. I now prefer overcast skies, at least in the morning, because sunrises leave me feeling miserable.