Father and daughter-in-law struggle to rebuild their lives

December 22nd 2022. The day my life was robbed of meaning. Robbed of a beloved wife. Robbed of a cherished son. Robbed of light, and love, and happiness. Robbed by a semi with corners cut on its maintenance. Two brilliant lights extinguished for eternity by sixty thousand pounds of out of control metal and cargo.

It wasn’t just me. Josh’s wife, Ava, had been with me. Helping make festive preparations for a celebration that would never happen. It was Ava who had opened the door to the State Troopers. A man and woman looking so sombre that the news they relayed in hushed, overly-controlled, voices was almost superfluous. We knew. Ava and I both knew.

On a gray and cold January day, I stood with Ava on one side, my daughter, Alexis, on the other. My arms round both, tears flowing, as we said goodbye to a mother and her child; a husband and a brother. Alexis had spoken at the service. Neither Ava nor I could bear to. I threw dirt into each of the adjoining holes, scattering it over burnished cherry wood. Then, turning away, left them behind. But turning towards what? Emptiness? Loneliness? Grief?

Ava and I had insisted on closed casket. We had crystalline memories, maybe too crystalline. There was no need to bid adieu to painted mannequins; at most the shells of previously vibrant, luminous beings.

Ava? My sorrow was like two spears, driven deep into my breast. But hers? I couldn’t imagine hers. A few years ago, not long before Josh had met her, she had buried her Mother. The poor woman had been cut down by the plague that shortened so many lives. Then, two months later, her Father was also in the ground. Tragically by his own hand. He couldn’t face life without Ava’s mother. I worried that Ava had inherited that tendency; I worried about that tendency in me as well.

Josh had been Ava’s guide out of grief. Savior was a strong word. Ava was her own person, the youngest Associate Professor at her Research Institute. A rising academic star. But my son had eased her pain. Helped her to smile again, to look positively towards the future. They had married only the previous August. So had just a few brief months together. The promise of a shared life destroyed. Replaced by the potential of a lifetime of heartache and regret. Vanessa and I had shared thirty years. I didn’t know if that was better or worse. There was no ISO unit of loss. No way to quantify and compare pain.Vanessa Ann Anderson : 1972 –2022Joshua David Anderson : 1994 –2022

As we walked away from the remains of our loved ones, Alexis squeezed my hand, kissed my cheek, and diverted to find the arms of her husband. He was holding their baby. Little Sophia. At least Van had got to meet her, to hold her granddaughter. The trip to California had been her last. Alexis’s departure left me and Ava. Alexis and Bob felt more distant than the few feet they were away from us. Maybe Ava felt it too as she slipped her hand into mine; her eyes still fixed on the ground. We walked the sixty feet or so to the waiting limos; raven black and with windows tinted to shield our tears from the world.

Seated now, Ava buried her face in my shoulder and wept disconsolately. Her sorrow spilled into anger and she beat on my chest with her fist.

“Why, Martin? Why were they taken from us?”

I had no answers. The World was a cruel place, our journey through it was essentially random, and life was fragile. All true, none suitable consolation for a twenty-nine year old widow. I let her take it out on me. Alexis leaned, put a hand on Ava’s shoulder, and she collapsed into sobbing again. I put my arms round her and lied that it would all be OK. I knew nothing would be OK. Not ever.- – –

They say that time heals all wounds. That’s bullshit. Some wounds are too deep. Ava had, of course, remained at the house after the funeral. Sending her home alone to her apartment would have be cruel and unusual punishment. And she just sort of stayed.

Alexis and Bob had departed with my granddaughter. I’d promised to visit in the Summer; and to FaceTime. The next day, Ava was sitting in the kitchen, her packed bag beside her. Staring into a cup of coffee.

“I don’t think I can do it, Martin.”

We’d talked about what she should call me and Van before the wedding. So long as it wasn’t Mr and Mrs Anderson, anything else was fine by us. She’d toyed with Mom and Dad, but I think the memory of her departed parents haunted her. We settled on Martin and Vanessa.

“What can’t you do, honey?”

She dropped her head and seemed to squeeze her cup harder.

“I can’t go back to the apartment. All our things, all those memories. Coming back to it after the wedding. After the honeymoon. I just can’t. I think I’m going to sell it.”

I moved closer to her and put a hand on her shoulder. She looked up with tears forming in her eyes.

“Can I…? Can I stay here for a bit? Until the sale goes through. Until I find somewhere else.”

My heart went out to her. This woman that my son had loved so much. Who had become part of our family so quickly and naturally.

“Ava. You are family. Whatever you call me, you’re my daughter. You can stay as long as you like. To be honest, I was dreading you leaving. This place? So big and just me rattling around in it. I’d welcome the company. It’s not as if…”

The tears overwhelmed me. I stumbled and reached for the table blindly, feeling the world spin round me. Ava stood and steadied me. She pulled out the chair next to her and eased me down. Turning her own chair to face me, she took both my hands, and we sat. Not sharing words, but sharing loss.

What I had said was true. The house felt less empty with her around. The weight of Vanessa’s absence was less severe. I guessed it was the same for her. I had always though that Josh had chosen brilliantly. Ava was obviously crazy smart, but she was funny, and compassionate, and interested in so many things. No one could take the place of my real daughter, but Alexis was far away. And, somehow, Ava became the focus of my life.

It wasn’t as if either of us were miraculously healed. I often cried at night, thinking of cuddling against Van’s warmth. I often woke feeling the bottom had fallen out of The World and that I was in free-fall to oblivion. Ava and I talked. She had the same anxiety, the same sorrow. It bound us closer again. Her apartment was sold, but I told her there was no need to leave until she wanted to. I was honest with her and said that I’d like her to stay. To stay for me.

Six months after the funeral, she was still sleeping in Alexis’s old room. Still bringing a little light to my gloomy existence. It was not as if we lived in each other’s pockets. She had gone back to work. Science was such a part of her, and she worked long hours; I normally waited up for her. I also had my job, in IT consulting. I travelled with that. Each trip, I yearned to be back home. Back with at least a sliver of my old life. Back with the person who understood and shared my grief. We took care of each other. What was wrong with having a second daughter? What was wrong with Ava having a surrogate Father?

Nothing it seemed, until she told me that there was something important she wanted to talk to me about.- – –

It had been in the morning, as we shared a pre-work coffee. She didn’t want to talk now, but asked if I was free that evening.

Of course I pressed her on what it was. But she was adamant that we wait until later. I was short of time as well, and we departed in opposite directions; me feeling frustrated with her, a most uncustomary feeling.

By the time we had eaten that night, I had convinced myself that she wanted to move out. That she had found someone new. I guessed that it was inevitable. Ava was highly intelligent and also an attractive woman. Her mother had been Vietnamese, her father a Euro-mutt; much like myself. She’d inherited the best of both sides, and had a calm elegance, a willowy suppleness of movement, and a delicacy of features that any man would covet.

Yes, that was what it must be. A new man. How stupid could I have been to think that?- – –

We sat at the dining table. At ninety degrees to each other. Plates pushed to one side. Ava had her black hair back in a sensible ponytail for work, and was wearing her rimless glasses. She looked every inch the committed Biologist that she was. Her work went over my head. Something to do with the spliceosome, whatever that might be. She had been preoccupied during dinner. I knew her well enough to not push things.

Now we sat in a silence that was becoming almost a third presence. I could tell she was fighting some internal battle. Perhaps revisiting a decision she thought she had already made. I felt bad for her and, in my blundering way, tried to help. I put my hand on hers and spoke softly.

“Ava, you know I have loved having you here. I don’t know how I would have got through the first few months without you.”

“You too, Martin. I needed you as well.”

She smiled. But a tight smile, something else clearly on her mind.

“But… but we never said forever. You have your own life and… well, if you have met someone, and…”

Ava laughed. A short and bitter laugh.

“No. No I haven’t met anyone. I don’t… don’t really want that. Not now at least.”

I blushed, my reading of people was clearly off. Or maybe it had been my own fears speaking to me. I realized that I desperately wanted her to stay.

“Oh, I’m sorry. My stupid mistake. I just think that a lot of men would like you, the way… the way Josh did. He was crazy about you. But I’m rambling. Telling you things you know. I’m sorry. Just an old man getting it wrong.”

“You’re not so old, Martin. And thank you for the compliment. You mentioned Josh. It’s sort of Josh I want to talk to you about.”

She leaned towards me. Wanting to speak softly.

“Martin, I feel I have nothing to live for. I feel so empty. Work doesn’t mean what it used to. In fact I blame work. He’d wanted to, he’d really wanted to. And I had this major project. And… and then it was too late. You think you have time…”

She trailed off leaving me confused.

“I know, honey. I know. I miss both Van and Josh, every hour, every day. But, I have something to live for. I have Alexis. And Sophia. And, Ava, I have you. I hoped that maybe I had helped… you know, just a little…”

It was my turn to run out of words.

“Of course you have helped.”

She squeezed my hand.

“Without you… well… I have been thinking about Dad a lot…”

Tears sprung into her eyes and a cold horror into my heart. I went and knelt in front of Ava, embracing her. Holding her close. This was nothing strange, we always tried to comfort each other, and sometimes physical comfort is more powerful than words.

I raised her lovely face. I kissed her forehead.

“Now, no more of that, Ava. You don’t need to despair. You have me. You will always have me.”

She nodded and wiped away her tears.

“I know, and I’m grateful, truly. But… but I need more.”

“What do you need, Ava? What can I do to help?”

A shudder ran through her. She tried to collect herself, but her voice was hoarse and trembled as she spoke.

“I did an awful job of explaining. Let me go slower. Josh wanted to have children. He wanted to start trying even before we were married.”

I nodded. He’d talked to me about it.

“But.. I… It’s not that I didn’t, I did. But I thought later. I thought maybe when I’d finished the project. We were so close to a breakthrough, and… and, at least back then, it seemed important. Not anymore. Not now. So… so we agreed to wait. Not long. A year, maybe. But we never had that year.”

Again she began to sob, but more softly than before.

“It’s OK, Ava. Take your time. It’s OK.”

She took a few deep breaths. As if she was preparing to dive into water. And then she dove.

“I want that still. I want the baby I can’t have. I want his baby, Martin.”

I held her again. Her slim form heaving. I was bemused, no idea where this conversation was going. But I knew to hold her.

She rallied a little, and pulled back from my embrace.

“But, I can’t. I know I can’t. I thought about adopting. I thought about a sperm bank. But that doesn’t work. I don’t want a baby, I want his baby.”

She bowed her head.

“I understand, Ava. But there is nothing to be done. It’s heart-breaking, I know.”

Ava slowly raised her eyes, her head to one side, looking at me slightly askew.

“Well… oh fuck this is hard!”

In all the time that I had known her, I’d never heard Ava use an expletive. It was jarring.

“I can’t have Josh’s baby. I know.”

She looked at me unblinkingly.

“But I can maybe do the next best thing.”

She was silent. It took me some seconds to realize her meaning. Then it hit me.

“You… you mean… with me…”

“No. Not with you. Not like that. But would you consider donating…? It’s weird. I know. I know. I’ve gone round and round. I had to ask. I understand if you say no. I expect you to say no. But I had to ask.”

She paused, overcome with emotion. Maybe not believing what she had just asked.

I could find no words.

When Ava spoke again, she was barely audible.

“I think… I think it’s the only thing that might make me whole again. I wouldn’t ask, but I’m desperate. I’m so scared of what I’m feeling.”

I was scared of what I was feeling too. When I first heard the words, I had been horrified, sickened. But then the distress in the eyes of a woman I now viewed as my daughter was so great, that I felt compelled to do something.

I stroked her face.

“Ava. You are asking a lot. Maybe too much. But, can I think? I have so many questions. Can I think about whether or not I can help? I… I don’t want to create false hope, but… but at least half of me wants to help. But… it may not even be legal. I just don’t know. Can we talk in the morning?”

“Of course. Of course. Thank you for even thinking about it. I know I’m guilt-tripping you. I’m sorry. Some things just came out. I’ve been struggling with what to say.”

I hugged her.

“Aside from anything else, thank you for talking to me. For trusting me. That means a lot.”

I kissed her forehead again as a goodnight, and we walked together up the stairs. Me turning left, her right.

“Goodnight, Martin. You have been a good friend.”

“It’s no problem, honey. Goodnight, Ava.”

It was past three when exhaustion eventually took over. I was no closer to figuring out what to do. And what I wanted.- – –

I found Ava in the kitchen again the next morning. It was Saturday and we had time. She was in her PJs and had made coffee. The temperature was already building, and we went and sat under a tree in the yard. Vanessa and I used to have breakfast there sometimes.

There was an understandable tension between us. Last night had not been a normal conversation. I started, trying not to blunder as much as I had before.

“So, I thought. And I went round in circles. And I think we need to discuss some specifics. Is that OK?”

“That’s OK, Martin. I’m sorry to have put you in this impossible position. It’s not fair, I know. I just didn’t feel like I had an alternative.”

“It’s OK. We can figure this out. Can I ask some questions?”

“Sure.”

I tried to sound dispassionate, but my heart was thumping.

“Look, I’m going to be blunt. No point having misunderstandings. Agreed?”

She nodded.

“Great. So, I am assuming, we go to a clinic, or something.”

“I’d do it myself. I spend enough time in tissue culture. And I’ve looked into it, no clinic will even talk to us. But if you are asking about methods, then artificial insemination. I’d need you to masturbate into a sterile cup.”

I couldn’t help a rueful laugh.

“I’m sorry, Ava. I’m trying to be OK with this, but listening to you saying those words. Well, it’s pretty weird.”

“I know, I’m treating it as a materials and methods section, I think it’s to stop myself from freaking out.”

She put a hand on my knee.

“It’s so kind of you to even talk about this. If it gets too much, we can stop.”

“OK, I’ll shout if it gets that way.”

It was my turn to take some deep breaths.

“What do they say? The elephant in the room? If we do this. And please, I don’t know yet. But if we do. What am I to the child? What do we even tell it?”

“That’s a tough one. I spent a while thinking about it. My conclusion was, it’s totally up to you. At one extreme, this would just be between us, the child doesn’t need to know anything. At another, we are open and say you are its father. In between, I suppose there are options around grandfather. What do you want to do?”

This was something I had been wrestling with last night.

“The honest answer is, I don’t know. For me, I think I’d like it to know I’m its father. But then, I think what would be best for the child? And that could be another answer. There is also legal stuff to consider and inheritance.”

“I know this is hard, Martin. Want to take a break?”

“No. No. I’m good. There is also the extent that you might want me to be involved in rearing the child. That links to the last question. I think I’d like to be involved, more than involved. But, what if you meet someone else? I know you said you weren’t interested. But that could change. Christ! This is complicated.”

“So, I’m going to say again, it’s up to you. I don’t have any financial or time expectations. As far as I am concerned you can be a doting grandparent, I don’t need anything more; I promise I will never demand anything more. But if you want to, then that’s great, and I’m sure we can work something out.”

She paused. Then her voice was tremulous.

“Other people? I don’t know, that feels like a long time off, if ever. But you are right, I could change my mind. There could be someone…”

Ava looked at me, eyes blinking in the early morning sun. She seemed to be wresting with some internal emotion. To be about to say something. Then she appeared to change her mind. Once more her tone became considered.

“Can I just say that I trust you to treat any change in circumstance in a way that is best for the child? Our child.”

That emphasis brought me up short.

“Our child? Is that what you think?”

“Yes of course. I don’t mean by that anything more than biological reality. We should legally record parentage, regardless of what we tell the child. I’d want to know you were there if anything happened to me. And, if I did meet someone, then you would have rights, and I promise to both respect them and to work out anything amicably.”

“OK. I have other questions. Lots. But I’d like to digest this conversation. Can I have some more time? I really don’t want to mess this up.”

“Of course, Martin. It’s just… well…”

“What is it Ava?”

“Well, one reason to talk to you now is my cycle. We could… we could try in two days time. I’m not trying to pressure you. OK, that’s a lie, I know I am, but I guess I feel bad about it. We can wait another month, if that makes sense. I don’t want to screw this up either. And I don’t want to ruin our relationship. So think really hard about whether you can really cope with this. I won’t hate you if you say no. Nothing will change between us. I’m already so grateful that you are even thinking about it.”

She stood and embraced me. Hugged me tightly. Then she kissed me on the lips. A chaste kiss, but a startling one. She said nothing else apart from that I should take as much time as I needed.

Our coffee and our talk both finished, we walked back to the house.- – –

We didn’t see so much of each other for the rest of the day. Ava had a competitor’s draft paper that she was reviewing for a journal, and I decided a walk would do me good. There was park not far from the house, and I strode many of its paths, trying to get things straight in my head.

The words I kept returning to were Ava talking about her father’s suicide. I knew Ava. There was nothing melodramatic about her. If she said that she had been thinking, then she meant it, and ideation was probably only a step away. So many contradictory thoughts swarmed through my mind, but one was crystal clear. I was not going to lose someone else, least of all like that. I refused to.

I obviously wasn’t entirely compos mentis on the day, as I had forgotten both a hat and sunscreen. Ava scolded me for my reddened face when I got back. She was right, I should take better care of myself. I should start that right now.

Suitably chastised, I suggested that we order some food to be delivered, and told Ava that I’d like to talk while we waited. A phone call and we were sitting at either end of a leather couch, perhaps a little nervous of each other, a feeling that was unfamiliar to both of us.

“Ava. I was going to say that I’ve made a decision. That’s probably putting it too strongly. I’m muddled about a lot of stuff. But I know two things, I want to help, and — regardless of what we tell it or other people — I liked you saying our child. You were kind enough to say that you thought I would act in the child’s interest. Let me repay the compliment. I don’t know what we’ll agree, but I know we will reach a sensible agreement about everything. I trust you. And…”

I had to wipe a tear away.

“…and you are dear to me and I know how much this means to you. I’ll do my best, I’ll try to help.”

Ava clasped her hands together.

“So, that’s… a yes?”

Her tone of supplication was heart-rending.

“It’s a yes. Though at my age…”

She flung her arms round me and kissed me. On the cheek this time, but more firmly than ever before.

“Thank you, Martin. You’re only fifty. It will be fine. I just know it will all be fine.”

I didn’t share Ava’s certainty about outcomes. But I knew I was certain I wanted to do this. For her, but also maybe for the memory of my dead son.- – –

Ava had said that it was good to have a cooling off period. Her proposal was that we start on Monday evening. She said we should carry out the protocol on three consecutive days. I had to smile at the use of the work protocol, always the scientist. This schedule meant we had all of Sunday and most of Monday to reflect.

We didn’t talk further. In fact, on Sunday, we kept out of each other’s way. I picked up the vibe that Ava didn’t want to pressure me any further. We had breakfast, and our evening meal together, but spoke about nothing of consequence. I saw an old friend during the day, my best friend I guess. I was so tempted to confide in him. To ask for his advice. But this wasn’t just my secret. It was private, private between me and Ava. We both retired early, but sleep would not come for me.

Monday morning I was exhausted. I needed to go into the office, which I figured would be good, would give me some space. Despite the push to open plan, and then pandemic-driven hybrid working, I had managed to retain an office. I was glad to be able to close the door and think. Doubts assailed me. This was crazy, right? I thought of Ava with a swollen belly, my child inside her. I thought of her nursing it. My mind went back to Josh and Alexis. Alexis? What would I tell her?

Then there was me. I think I had been a good Dad when they were growing up. I wished that I had prioritized them more over work. But many men of my age surely felt the same. My age? Fifty now. Fifty-one when it would be born. Nearly seventy when it went to college, if I was even still around. Was that fair on a child? Could my aging body deal with the sleepless nights? What about other kids? “Is that your Dad or your Grandfather?” This made no sense.

Then I thought of her. I thought of Ava finding her Father’s lifeless body. I thought of her restorative love for my son. I thought about her now being broken, just like me, and a chance for her to heal. I thought about just how much she wanted this. She had thought it through. She was twice as smart as me and had made up her mind. I thought of her smiling while cradling a baby.

Then me again. But different. I thought about time with Josh. Rocking him to sleep. His first steps. His first word. Helping with homework. Throwing baseballs. His graduation. I saw his face. Tears ran down my cheeks. Was this a chance to reclaim just a little of what I too had lost? Or was that a selfish thought?

I had some meetings. It was hard to concentrate, but I did my best. I grabbed lunch. I thought again. Wrestled with my feelings. The one constant was her. I wanted to help Ava. I wanted to protect her. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her too. It was time to head home. I was still confused, how could you not be? But I had a priority, and that priority was Ava.- – –DAY ONE

Ava opened the door as I was trying to put the key in the lock. She had clearly been waiting. Inside, I was brief and to the point.

“Green light. OK. Let’s try to do this.”

Ava held both my hands.

“Are you sure? Really sure?”

“No. But yes. I’m worried. I have lots of concerns. But I’m going to do this.”

She hugged me and whispered, “thank you” in my ear.

Ava took me through her protocol. That word again. She had adapted it from IVF, and explained that maybe some of the cleaning didn’t need to be as scrupulous given the sample would be used immediately. Sample? Used immediately? I did begin to feel like I was part of her experiment.

We went to her bedroom. I cleaned myself in her shower room, as Ava had directed. I peeled the sterile wrapper off the jar she had given me, and placed it on the bathroom shelf. I had undressed to wash and looked at myself in the mirror. Gray traced the hair on my head and chest. I’d let myself go since the accident. But there were traces of the man I used to be. I should start to run again. I needed to look after myself. I needed to be around. Around for Ava and for it. It? Such an impersonal term.

Enough of this. I had a job to do. I realized that I had no idea how to proceed. This detail was one I hadn’t even considered. I’d masturbated when Van was alive. When she was tired, when she didn’t feel like it, when I was traveling, sometimes just for me. But, since her death, I had seldom felt the desire. On the few occasions when needs had arisen, sorrow and guilt had held me back. Now I needed to be different. To be different for Ava.

I closed my eyes. Tried to think of something. Vanessa? That was too difficult. Then a name and a face swan into my consciousness: Ana de Armas. Yes, she would be ideal. Vanessa had jokingly said I could have a pass if it was for Ana. I envisaged her as Joi, from the Blade Runner sequel; I thought with a grimace that I could certainly use some instructions right now. I tried to focus. To visualize. Ana’s perfect face. Her startling, big, green eyes. Her breasts, displayed on a video billboard. Her image caused stirrings. I would surely be dead if Ana didn’t cause stirrings. Then the enormity of what I was doing came crashing in. I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. I knew I was letting Ava down, but I couldn’t.

I wrapped a robe round me and thought about what to tell her. The truth, I guessed. What would this do to her?- – –

I went back into the bedroom, carrying the empty jar; the emblem of my failure. Ava looked up expectantly, she too was wearing a robe. But also blue lab gloves. She saw something was wrong.

My voice was broken and I began to cry as I spoke.

“I’m so sorry, Ava. I can’t. I just can’t. I want to, but…”

She stood and put her arms round me. I buried my head in her shoulder. Her robe was open a little and my face rested against her skin. It was soft, it was comforting. She patted me.

“It’s OK, Martin. I thought this would be difficult. You said, you want to? Is that right?”

I nodded, my face still pressed against her flesh.

“OK. So, Martin, I’m going to ask you to trust me. Do you trust me?”

Again I nodded.

“So just hold me, just relax. Give me the jar, don’t worry about that. It’s all OK.”

She took the jar and put it on the bed, turning back to cradle me again. She whispered, “it’s OK.”

The I felt her hand. Slipping inside my robe. Searching. Finding. I pulled back in shock.

“Ava, what the fuck are you doing?”

“I asked you to trust me. We can do this. Do it together. Let me help you.”

“But, you said… you said not like this. I can’t. I can’t, Ava.”

Suddenly her voice was firmer.

“Yes you can, Martin. You can do this for me, for Josh.”

Josh? His face again. What would I do to see his face again? I’d already decided, hadn’t I? The whole thing was fucked up. Was this any worse? I looked at Ava. Resolute, but also scared. She looked scared. Scared that I would let her down. I couldn’t do that either.

“OK, Ava. I trust you. But I’m going to close my eyes.”

I felt her near me. Fingers undoing the belt of my robe. A pinging sound, which I assumed was her removing a glove. Something was happening to me, despite myself, I could feel blood pumping, filling, engorging. Then her touch. Long, delicate fingers. Caressing. Then gripping. Then stroking. I closed my eyes tight. But, in my mind, I saw her. I saw what she was doing, how I was responding. I felt… I felt desire. For the first time in months. It wasn’t just hydraulics, I wanted her touch. I wanted the feelings she was engendering in me. Was this wrong? I was only doing what she wanted.

And then philosophical questions were irrelevant. More primal considerations took over. I found myself breathing heavily. Heart pounding. Followed by another pounding as I released. I felt the lip of the jar touch the top of me, and assumed the consummate experimentalist had it in just the right place.

I kept my eyes closed. Closed until the pumping stopped. Until I heard her voice saying it was over. I opened my lids to a room that was spinning. My legs gave way and I stumbled, breaking my fall with a hand on the bed.

“Martin! Are you OK?”

Then she was with me. Lifting me. Hugging me. Checking that I was OK. I saw the concern in her eyes.

“I’m OK. I’m OK. Was it…? Were you able to…?”

“The sample is fine. I’m more worried about you. Thank you. I know that must have been so difficult.”

Her voice dropped to a murmur.

“It was tough for me too.”

Suddenly I stopped being so unforgivably self-centered. I put my arms round her and squeezed tight.

“It’s OK, honey. This is the right thing to do. Sorry to make it so difficult.”

She wiped her tears away and was again the professional.

“Time is of the essence, Martin. If you are OK. Can I have some time alone?”

“Of course, Ava. Of course.”

I kissed her hair.

“But, Martin. Can you stay just outside. I think I’d like you to be near.”

“Sure, angel. Whatever you need.”

I clicked the door shut and leaned against it. In five minutes, I heard her voice.

“You can come in, Martin. I think I could do with an hug.”

I held her of course. We clung to each other for a long time.- – –DAY TWO

I had fallen asleep quickly. Not because I was peaceful. Just due to emotional and physical exhaustion. Oblivion was a welcome relief from the multitude of thoughts doing somersaults in my brain.

Then she was there. Lying in bed next to me, propped up on her elbow. Nude and impossibly lovely. Her long black hair brushing my skin. Her lips kissing my chest. Her hand on me. Hardening me. Gripping me. Her arm moving up and down in fluid strokes. Stokes like the ones from yesterday…

And then I was awake. Awake and sweating and bone hard. Suffused with feelings I had thought lost. If I was honest, suffused with feelings I had not experienced since the first few years with Vanessa. I wanted to do something about my raging erection. But I knew I had more important things to save myself for. I squeezed my glans firmly. Opening blood vessels. Deflating slowly. Calming.

I lay thinking. Ava’s face swimming before my eyes. Part of me was worried about what was happening. But the greater part felt warmth, and a soft fuzziness. I told myself to not overthink things. That a beautiful woman jerking you off was going to have a lasting effect. I told myself it was no big deal. I am not a good liar, but it helped me to get back to sleep.- – –

I woke late. Given I was working from home the next two days, it was no big deal. I was hard again. Not as adamantine as after my dream, but morning wood. Not something I had really had to deal with since my mid-forties. Again, I calmed myself.

Ava was already in the kitchen. She was cooking eggs. It had got hotter and she was wearing shorts and a tank. The shape of her nipples was clear through the cotton. I’d seen her like this before, with nothing happening. Nothing beyond me acknowledging a shapely body, the way any man would. Today, I felt blood returning, and was glad to sit down. I told myself it was OK. That things would be normal again soon enough.

Ava smiled in greeting, and tipped eggs onto two plates. She handed one to me, along with the Tabasco sauce. Months of cohabiting meant a familiarity with eating habits.

I felt I had to say something.

“Ava.”

She looked up from her eggs.

“I just wanted to check. Are you OK? Yesterday was… well, it was intense, I guess.”

She moved her eggs around with her fork, pondering her response.

“I’m OK. I hope you are. I know it was weird. More weird than we planned. But I think we both tried to keep in mind what we were doing and why.”

I was less sure that this was my only motivation, but I nodded in agreement.

“We got it done. Somehow.”

We both smiled. This was less awkward than I had feared.

“And, you are OK… for later?”

“Yes, Martin. I’m more sure than ever that this is what I want to do. What I need to do.”

She sounded certain. As for me, I was trying to deny the thought, but an increasingly large part of me was looking forward to later.

Ava became shy. Again, only natural, I thought.

“I can help you again. If you like. I mean, if that makes sense.”

My heart was pounding. I tried to sound controlled. My voice did not sound controlled to me.

“I think that would make sense, as you say.”

“Sure. But… oh God, I’m going to make this more weird. I…”

She stopped. Then seemed to be more decided. Her tone was scientific again.

“I sort of hurt myself yesterday.”

“What happened, Ava? Are you OK?”

“Yes. I’m fine. But… OK, I’ll just say it. I think the syringes I brought home are a little too big. I’m not sure what I was thinking of. They didn’t look too big. But I guess the shape and also the angle I had to use…”

“You ripped yourself?”

“Nothing so dramatic. Scraped more. But it hurt. I thought, maybe if someone else was holding the syringe, it would be a better angle.”

My heart was incandescent at being restrained by my rib cage, and my mouth was suddenly like the Mojave Desert. I croaked a reply.

“If it helps. I’ll do anything.”

Ava smiled and extended an arm to pat my hand.

“As we are both at home. I thought maybe earlier. Perhaps five? There’s a new show on Netflix. The one I mentioned to you. I thought maybe we could relax together… afterwards.”

“Sure, Ava. Sure. That’d be nice.”- – –

We each had work to do. I made us both a sandwich for lunch, but we ate in front of our respective laptops. My head was spinning for much of the day. I didn’t get much work done. Soon enough the time arrived.

I knocked on the door of Ava’s room at 4:45pm. I knew I was early. She answered with a towel wrapped round her, fresh from the shower.

“Come in. You can wash, while I dry my hair.”

I took a shower. I had the opposite problem to yesterday. There was no need for Ana when Ava was filling my thoughts. I threw on a robe, conscious of the material being stretched outwards below where the belt was tied. I told myself this was helpful, not embarrassing. It wasn’t anything that Ava had not seen before. Had not touched before. At that thought I swelled even more.

When I walked back into her room, Ava was sitting on the side of the bed. She glanced up. I spread my arms out and looked theatrically downwards. Making eye contact with Ava again, a sheepish look on my face.

“You seem more… prepared… than yesterday, Martin.”

Ava smiled and I smiled back. There was a funny aspect to it all, I guess.

“Why don’t you take your robe off?”

I wasn’t expecting this. I had in mind what we had done yesterday. My hesitation was clearly obvious.

“Oh, Martin. If we are going to make this work, we need to be less shy around each other. Maybe if I…?”

She stood and undid her robe, easing it off her shoulders and letting it fall.

I had always thought of Ava as beautiful. But, like this, with no thread of clothing, no adornment, she was truly stunning. Dark hair flowing over her sculpted shoulders, brushing the tops of small breasts, topped with pale pink nipples. A narrow waist flowing into shapely legs. Nestled between them wispy hair as black as on her head. If Aphrodite had an Asian heritage, she could not have been lovelier; at least to me.

I was rendered utterly speechless. She approached me and undid my robe, also letting it fall. I was acutely aware of my elderly body, in contrast to her youthful litheness. She put a hand on my chest and kissed my cheek. Then breathed in my ear.

“You remind me of him so much. The Josh I wanted to grow old with. Is that OK to say, Martin?”

I put my arms round her and held her to me. Her soft skin a delight against my own.

“It’s OK, Ava. It’s OK. This is for him as well. I’ve come to realize that. We both loved him. I think he would have wanted this for you.”

She smiled a little sadly.

“Shall we get on with it, Martin? I’d like you to keep your eyes open, if you can.”

I nodded.

Ava retrieved a new jar from the bed and took it out of its wrapper. She unscrewed it and put jar and lid back on the bed. Then she knelt in front of me and looked up with her dark brown eyes. She kept eye contact as she gripped me. Pulled me down. Pulled me up. Then paused.

“Martin. I said you remind me of Josh.”

Her pale cheeks were flushed red.

“One part of you, in particular, reminds me of him. May I?”

Her intent was clear and, with how she asked, I would have struggled to deny her, even if I wanted to. And I knew I didn’t want to.

“I would be OK with that, honey.”

With those seven words, the Rubicon had been crossed. I had been telling myself that yesterday had a higher purpose. As Ava closed her lips around me, I stopped lying to myself.

She didn’t spend long on me. But it was the most emotionally charged exchange. I had thought she would close her eyes, the better to recall my son. But she never broke contact with me. Josh was clearly present, but we both knew that it was the two of us sharing this intimacy.

Ever practical, as I started to moan and twitch, Ava pulled back and cleaned me thoroughly with an antibacterial wipe. Then she was back to the task in hand. Literally in hand. It didn’t take long and she held the jar in place to collect her sample.

I collapsed to sit in the bed, panting, and my heart racing. She threw me the wipes, and got back to her protocol. I watched her, the precise competency of her movements, the certainty with which she unwrapped, decanted. I was unclear as to whether water-based lube was found in most laboratories, but she applied it to the syringe systematically.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, she applied more to herself. We were now beyond the point where staring was weird, and her puffy vulva and neat labia were — like the rest of Ava — just perfect.

She held out the syringe.

“Did you need me to wear gloves?”

“Should be fine. Just don’t touch the tip. Are you OK, Martin?”

“Yeah. I’m OK. Let me help.”

Ava lay back, raised her knees and parted her legs. I placed the syringe at her opening, and looked at her for some sign.

“OK, but go slowly. I’m going to rub myself. It helped yesterday. Will that be distracting?”

“Yes. But I’ll cope. Ready?”

She placed her fingers between her legs and commenced a circular massage.

“Ready.”

I pushed forward. Slowly and steadily. Keeping the syringe as level as I could. The shape was far from ideal and she winced as it slipped inside her. I paused and let her breathe.

“OK, deeper now. I’ll say when.”

I pushed as smoothly and slowly as I could, and inch after inch disappeared into her.

“OK, enough. Now the plunger. Slowly, very slowly. That’s good. OK. Now don’t pull out immediately. Give it a couple of minutes.”

Ava stopped her self-stimulation and reached out a hand.

“Thank you, Martin. That wasn’t pleasant, but it was lots better than me doing it myself. Here, let me take it out. Go have a shower. I’m going to lie here with my legs raised for a while. The position helps. Then we can discuss food.”

“I was glad to help, honey.”- – –

Showered, I waited for her downstairs. Twenty minutes later, Ava joined me. We agreed something easy, and I ordered pizzas.

We had sat on opposite ends of the same couch nervously only a few days earlier. Now Ava curled up next to me, her head against my chest, my arm around her. I found the show she was interested in, and we had just finished the first episode, when the food arrived.

We ate on the couch. Not something we had done before. Then she curled up with me again. At 10:30pm Ava said she was tired. I agreed. She held my hand as we ascended the stairs. At the top, we paused. I bent and kissed her. Not in the chaste manner that she had kissed me, only days before. Not chastely at all. She responded. She responded with tenderness, tenderness just barely masking desire. Her touch, her lips. It was like I was being bathed by the gentle flow of a sun-warmed river. For a few precious minutes, we were lost in our own world of closeness. Ava broke away first.

“Thank you, Martin. I think… I think I need to sleep. Until tomorrow…”

With that, she turned and walked to her room, looking back at me not once, but twice.

When Ava’s door closed behind her, I turned and made for my own bed.- – –DAY THREE

I had a warm feeling as I drifted naturally to sleep. As I teetered on the edge of unconsciousness, Josh and Vanessa’s faces appeared. Together. Serene. Smiling at me. I knew it was just my own psyche. My own psyche trying to protect me. But it was comforting nevertheless. I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

At breakfast, something was on Ava’s mind.

“Martin, first of all, I know what a big thing you are doing for me. I know it’s strange and it must be difficult. But you make me feel that you are putting my needs first. Looking after me. I don’t mean in some stupid white knight way, just that you really care. I like that feeling.”

“I’ll always do my best to look after you, honey. Whatever else happens, you can rely on me.”

“I know. And that makes me feel that maybe this crazy thing we are doing is possible. Thank you.”

“No need to thank me. It’s not as if it’s a chore…”

I was worried I had overstepped a mark. But she smiled.

“No. It’s bizarre. Anyone would say it’s bizarre. But it’s also been… nice. Nice is the wrong word. You have been wonderful.”

Ava walked round the table. Leaned towards me, her hands on the back of my chair, her face close to mine. For a moment, I was simply lost in her eyes. Then she smiled. Smiled openly and naturally and tenderly. She bent to kiss me on the lips, her hands now cupping my face. Her embrace was like a sharing of souls. She left me physically and emotionally breathless.

Her hands still on my cheeks, she spoke softly.

“I didn’t mean to just abandon you last night. But… I feel we are in the middle of this. I’m also… I’m figuring out stuff. Is that OK?”

A look of confusion clouded her brow.

“Ava, it’s all OK. There is nothing to worry about.”

She released my face and kissed my cheek. Now more cursory, but not without sweetness.

“Great. So, five? Third time’s the charm.”

“Let’s hope so.”

We both had work to do. I was able to get more things done. Maybe I was adjusting to what any external observer would characterize as a warped reality.

Ava suggested we get lunch out. There was a café a short distance away. She held my hand as we walked there. She looked beautiful in the Summer sun. Her plain linen dress floating around her as she moved. I felt a lightness that I had not experienced in a very long time.

Over lunch, we talked about this and that. Her work, how Sophia had grown. Normal stuff. As we walked back, Ava took my hand again. In the distance, I saw Mrs. Spinetti, a neighbor. I made to drop Ava’s hand, but she gripped it. She pulled me closer to her side.

“Hi, Martin. Hi, Ava. My, Ava, you look lovely today. Nice to see some color in your cheeks.”

“Hi, Maria. Thank you. The sun helps.”

I didn’t say a word, but smiled. Mrs. Spinetti patted my arm and went on her way. And that was that. Ava squeezed my hand and we walked home. I was quiet, lost in my thoughts.- – –

At 4:30pm I was mid-email when I felt hands on my shoulders. I turned and Ava bent to kiss me. Not just a warm kiss, one with undercurrents of fire. My heart began to race.

“Come with me, Martin.”

Ava took my hand and we walked up the stairs. She steered us left. Closing the door of my bedroom behind her, she pulled her dress up and over her head. Unceremoniously, she unclipped her bra, and dropped her panties.

My clumsy words could not come close to describing my feelings.

“You are beautiful, Ava, just beautiful.”

She looked at me shyly, but with something else behind her eyes. Walking towards me, she embraced me and pushed our lips firmly together. Once more her heat. I felt my own heat rising, mirroring hers. Our shared desire beginning to spiral upwards.

Arms still round me, she leaned back a little and our eyes locked.

“I didn’t bring the jar or syringe, Martin. Is that OK? I can go get them.”

“It’s OK, Ava. It’s more than OK.”

I kissed her again. More forcibly. And, together, we removed my clothes. Urgently. With growing fierceness. Despite my aging body, I lifted her into my arms. I kissed her long and deep, the laid her down on the bed. Ava raised her knees and spread her legs; welcoming me, inviting me. I crawled between and was above her on all fours. My hands planted either side of her face, my knees between her thighs. My loins yearning for her. She pulled me to her and we kissed, and kissed again.

Ava breathed in my ear, “I want you, Martin,” electricity coursed through me.

I positioned myself, and my tip brushed her welcoming flesh. Every inch of me throbbed.

“Martin.”

“Yes, honey.”

“This isn’t just about the baby. Is that OK for you?”

Fighting back tears I said it was OK. I let my weight ease myself into her. Her softness yielded then held me in its warm grip. It felt like finding something long lost. As I slid inwards, she closed her eyes and breathed three words.

“Josh, my love.”

I felt a pang. A rising panic. But if that was what she needed. I steeled myself to give her what she wanted.

“It’s OK, Ava. Josh is here. Josh loves you.”

My voice sounded broken to me.

“No, Martin, no. I don’t want you to be him. I was… I was finally saying goodbye. I want you, Martin. I love you, Martin.”

Floods of tears sprang from my eyes.

“I love you too, Ava. I didn’t… I couldn’t say it first. I hope you understand. But I love you.”

She kissed me and grabbed my hips, pulling me deeper into her. Making me hers. Filling the vacuum in my soul. Beginning to make us whole again.THE END– – –EPILOGUE

Fairytales are one thing, Biology another. When Ava started to bleed, we held each other and cried. I was all for testing sperm counts, and maybe a more radical approach. But Ava calmed me. Ava knew the statistics. She was the rational one. So we agreed to give it a few months. It’s not like trying would be unpleasant. The next cycle also ended in disappointment. But, as Ava had said, third time is the charm. We stood close together, not quite believing the two pink lines.

“Human chorionic gonadotropin, Martin! It’s human chorionic gonadotropin.”

As ever, I had no clue about the a science, but I knew to hug Ava as if I would never let her go.

Shortly after, I had a brainwave. Something that would resolve all our outstanding complications in one fell swoop. Something I marveled that I had not thought of before. Something that involved bending my bad knee and holding out a diamond ring.

I’d held back. My age weighed on me. How long would we have together? But now that the baby was coming, that seemed moot. One thing the loss of Vanessa and Josh had taught me was that you never know how long you have. What is important is to make the time you have count. She said yes. Tearfully, holding her bump.- – –

We waited. We wanted to be sure. Then, we booked a West Coast flight. I’d told Alexis that I wanted to see Sophia, and that I had some news. Of course she bugged me as to what, but I wanted to tell my daughter face to face.

When Alexis saw us walking out of SFO, and how protectively I was acting around Ava, she knew. Ava’s altered body shape was confirmation. I was scared of course, but she hugged us both. It wasn’t going to be a problem. I loved my daughter and was thankful for her understanding.

In a private moment the next day, Alexis surprised me by saying how she had sensed something on the day of the funerals. She then felt that maybe she was jumping at shadows, reading too much into an emotional time.

“But, Dad, it didn’t freak me out. It made me calmer. Made me think that maybe someone was there for you. I don’t know Ava that well. But how you look at her. How you speak to her. This is a good thing, Dad. And I think it will help Josh to rest more easily.”- – –

On the flight home, I raised a subject that had been on my mind for some time.

“Honey, I have to ask. Did you have a plan? Was this the future you saw? The one you wanted? Or did things just creep up on you, the way they did with me?”

Ava smiled serenely. She already had that pregnancy glow.

“I think sometimes, a man of judgement, knows when it’s best not to press a question. I always thought you had such good judgement, honey.”

And that was as much as she would say.- – –

Ava and I decided to get married after the birth. Ava wanted to wear her old dress, and that connection to our shared past brought me to tears. We both felt Josh’s presence. Not in any supernatural way, neither of us believed in such nonsense. But the memories, how his life had touched us both. How he would always be a part of us.

When the surgeon lifted our son out of Ava’s womb, and placed him on her chest, it felt like closure. Features are impossible to discern in a new born, but it soon became apparent that he had his Mother’s hair, but his Father’s face. Josh’s face. We never thought of him as Josh reincarnated, that was absurd.

But it was equally absurd to reject the connection, to deny history. We named him Matthew, it had been Ava’s Father’s name. Matthew Joshua Anderson. I truly believe that few children have ever been more wanted.

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