She tried to steady her breathing, her lungs almost burning as she inhaled and exhaled sharply from her mouth. Her nose was stuffy and aching due to being blown innumerous times that morning alone. Her eyes felt tired and her head was throbbing, as if she hadn't slept in days.
She grasped the bed sheets beneath her, listening to the low murmurs emanating from the living room. She needed to get away, to be alone for a moment or two as she rethought her life. But now, as she looked around the dark and empty room, she felt worse than ever. That room brought back so many memories. It was their room; hers and... his.
Linda had to remove her glasses from atop her nose to rub her fatigued eyes. The usually cheerful woman was having one of the worst days of her life, and it seemed like nothing could lift her spirits. As she adjusted her glasses back on her face, her gaze drifted to the bedside table at the left side of the bed. There lied a framed picture of her husband standing in front of their restaurant. He was smiling to the camera, hopeful and optimistic as he seldom was.
She couldn't help but smile a little at that old photo, but her brief moment of happiness was quickly replaced by the same sadness she had been experiencing before. If they had known back then what they had found out only two months ago, maybe everything could've turned out differently. And maybe he could still be there... with her...
If only they had paid attention to the symptoms as they began manifesting themselves... But how could they have ever guessed that something as simple as a headache could evolve into something so much worse?
Bob had begun having persistent migraines two months earlier, which he simply ignored as he carried on with his day-to-day life. The headaches began as a weekly thing, but not long after Bob was having them twice a week, then three times... Until it reached a point where his head was pounding several times a day.
He kept ignoring them, thinking it was just due to his age and because he was working himself too hard. Until that one fateful day...
"Oh God, my head..." Bob groaned as he massaged his forehead. "I don't understand these headaches. Do I need glasses or something?"
"It couldn't hurt to check." Linda replied as she served Teddy his burger. "I remember feeling like my head was cracking before I got mine."
"I think you'd look great with glasses, Bob." Said Teddy before taking a bite out of his burger. "They would really compliment your mustache. You could totally rock that hipster look."
"Thanks, Teddy. I think I'm gonna schedule an appointment at the optometrist, just to be safe." Bob stated as pulled out his cellphone. "Maybe I can just get some contacts or –"
Bob couldn't finish his sentence before he dropped his phone and doubled over, grasping his head with a look of pure agony on his face.
"Oh God..." He hissed, his face scrunched up in pain.
"Bobby? Oh my God, what's wrong?!" Linda gasped as she held her husband.
"My head... It's unbearable! I can't..."
He couldn't utter another word. Bob's body went limp and he collapsed lifelessly on the floor.
He was quickly rushed to the hospital, where he had a CT scan and a few other exams. After all that was done, the doctor gave the worst diagnosis possible.
"Mr. Belcher, I'm afraid I have very bad news." He declared, taking a deep breath before continuing. "You have a very large tumor lodged in your prefrontal cortex."
"Oh my God." Linda gasped, her eyes welling up as she took her hands up to her mouth.
"But... how?" Bob asked incredulously.
"Who knows?" the doctor shrugged. "It could've been due to prolonged exposure to radiation or it just decided to appear naturally. Who can really explain cancer?"
"But you can cure it, right?" Linda interrupted. "Bob could do chemo or you could operate him and remove the tumor, right?"
"I'm afraid not, Mrs. Belcher." He sighed. "The tumor is so big that no form of treatment will eliminate it. And operating is too risky, seeing as it's in a very delicate area of the brain. Any attempt to extract it could result in permanent brain damage... or worse."
"So... what am I supposed to do?" Bob inquired feebly, as if all will had escaped his body.
"My advice is to live your life to the fullest from now on. Enjoy your time with your family. Make every day count."
And they did. As Bob's health began to deteriorate, they tried to make the best of each day. They visited each of their kids and their respective spouses several times a week and even went on a road trip across the country. They couldn't afford to travel abroad, but they were still able to enjoy all the United States had to offer, until their trip had to come to an abrupt halt when Bob's health took a sudden turn for the worse.
Bob's hair started falling out about a month after his tumor was discovered, which affected him more than he expected. He had always been very sensitive to the subject of hair loss, so much that one day Linda found him crying in the bathroom with large patches of hair in his hands.
A month later Bob couldn't even muster up the strength to get out of bed. Linda waited on him hand and foot, remaining by his side at all times, and Louise took over the restaurant while her parents were unavailable. When he was asleep Linda would lie next to him and wrap her arms around his body, almost as if she was worried he would disappear at any moment. She would listen to him breathe for hours on end until she too would doze off.
One morning, two months after the diagnosis, Linda was embracing his husband like she always did. She hadn't slept at all that night; Bob had had a seizure in his sleep, something that had never happened before. She tried desperately to stop it in every way she knew, but nothing seemed to be working. The seizure stopped after about half-an-hour, much to her relief, and Bob immediately went back to sleep. As for her, she stayed awake for the rest of the night in case anything else were to happen.
She felt completely spent. The warmth of Bob's body and the sound of his somewhat steady breathing were lulling her to sleep, but she did her best to keep her eyes open. She needed to be awake and stay alert for any signs of other complications.
Her eyelids were unbelievably heavy. She let them drop, telling herself she was only going to rest her eyes for a couple of minutes.
Her eyes snapped open and her head quickly jerked upwards to look at her husband, his pale face now staring right at her.
"Yes, Bobby?" she replied, pushing herself up on her elbows.
Bob seemed to be examining her face, after which he gave her a feeble smile.
"You look exhausted." He said, eliciting a relived sigh from his wife.
"Yeah, well… it's been a rough night." She remarked as she rubbed an eye.
"No, don't be! I'm here to help you with whatever you need." She leaned down and tenderly kissed his cheek. "How are you feeling?"
"Actually, not that bad." He groaned. "I think I haven't felt this good in months."
"That's great!" Linda exclaimed as she sat up. "Do you want some breakfast?"
"You know, I've got the strangest craving for vanilla ice cream. Do we have any?"
"I think so. Let me check the freezer."
She slid off the bed and walked out the room, giving her husband one last glance from the doorway. Once in the kitchen, she opened the freezer and smiled to herself when she saw one last tub of vanilla ice cream near the back. After taking it out, she removed its lid, retrieved a spoon from the cutlery drawer and hurried back to their bedroom.
"You're in luck, we still had one!" she declared as she entered the room, immediately stopping in her tracks.
The room was eerily silent; abnormally silent. Bob seemed to had fallen back asleep, but something didn't feel right.
"Bobby?" she called out uneasily and stepped towards the bed.
She reached for his pulse, a gesture she was now more than used to making. His skin felt unnaturally cold against hers, but the worst thing wasn't what she could feel, it was what she couldn't feel.
She couldn't feel his pulse.
She dropped the ice cream and the spoon as her eyes welled up with tears, quickly jumping onto the bed and shaking him in a vain attempt to wake him up.
"Bob?! Bobby, wake up!" she pleaded as she shook his shoulders, an abundance of tears running down her cheeks. "You have to wake up! Bobby, please!"
She gave up and buried her face in his lifeless chest, sobbing heavily as she held onto him.
"Don't leave me…"
Bob's funeral was held the next day. Mort was kind enough to make Linda a special price, seeing as he was one of their long-term acquaintances and a usual customer. Louise was the one who took Bob's passing the worst, being the one who had always been closest to him. Teddy was another one who hadn't taken the news too well, going to the point of throwing a gigantic tantrum during the memorial service.
They had all headed to the Belcher residence after the burial, mostly to support Linda, who hadn't uttered a word the whole day. She was still shaken due to being the last person to see Bob alive, but all the attention was beginning to suffocate her. After a few minutes of her friends and children trying to cheer her up, she excused herself and headed to her bedroom.
She didn't know what to do. She had lived with that man for most of her life, and now she felt completely helpless. How was she going to live her life without him from now on?
Forcing herself to stand up with the last bit of strength she had, Linda walked up to the closet and opened the door. Her initial idea was to grab a handkerchief to wipe her eyes, but all that was forgotten when her gaze fell upon the article hanging from the hook on the back of the door: Bob's apron.
She stared at the old stained apron for a while, as if it was something otherworldly. One of her trembling hands reached up and pulled it down from its resting place, her fingers squeezing the soft fabric as if her life depended on it. That apron had been through so much throughout the years. She still remembered the first time Bob donned it on the day of the restaurant's grand opening, back when he was still young and full of hope.
Those memories were too much for her to bear. As the tears resumed running down her face, Linda fell to her knees and buried her face into the article in her hands, sobbing as loud as she could. She couldn't handle his absence. She needed him to be there with her. She need to hold him, to feel him…
Linda quickly stopped crying and turned her head around at the sound of that innocent voice. She saw a little ginger girl poking her head in through the bedroom door, her sapphire-blue eyes wide in bewilderment.
"Oh, Mandy." Linda sniffled, trying her hardest to show the five-year-old a smile. "Come here, sweetie."
Mandy slowly walked into the room, the skirt of her black A-line dress swaying with each step. Her tiny hands grasped her grandmother's, making it almost impossible for Linda to not break down and start crying again.
"Everything's alright." Linda assured her, her voice sounding a bit hoarse. "No need to worry. Gammy's just a little sad, that's all."
"Are you sad because Gappy went to heaven?" Mandy asked, slightly tilting her head.
That sentence alone was enough to break what was left of Linda's heart. She quickly wrapped her arms around the little girl and hugged her tight, mostly so she couldn't see her crying.
"Yes, honey." Linda replied, hoping Mandy couldn't hear the sadness in her voice. "But it'll be fine, I promise. Gammy will feel better in no time."
"OK." Said the little one.
"Thank you for checking up on me." Linda acknowledge as she released her from her embrace, affectionately caressing her granddaughter's cheeks. "Now go back to the living room and tell your mommy I'll be right out, alright?"
Mandy nodded and gave her grandmother her a tiny smile before heading out of the room. Linda stood up and dusted off her knees, still holding onto her late husband's apron.
She hung it back in its place behind the closet door, stopping to smile lovingly at it. Bob might not be there with her anymore, but she'd always have the memories of their life together. Both the good and the bad moments, she'd remember them fondly. All the times they laughed together, cried together… Even their fights. Those were all part of a marriage she liked to think was successful.
As she held onto the closet door, she couldn't help but release a content sigh. In a way, she felt like he was still right there with her.
"See you soon, Bobby." She whispered as she closed the door.