When Margaret Freeman was 18, she made a decision that would affect the rest of her life: she married sweet, funny Daniel Hernandez whom her wealthy father disapproved of.
“You marry that low-life and you’ll get nothing from me Margaret!” her father had screamed. “You’ll see what love really is when you get to live in a one-bedroom rat-hole with roaches crawling up the walls!”
But Margaret didn’t listen. She was sure she would never regret loving Daniel. Ever.
At first, it was romantic to go home to that tiny apartment (there were no rats and roaches — there was no space). Margaret found herself a job as a receptionist in a big hotel, and Daniel started working for the post office.
“Job security, love,” Daniel had explained when Margaret urged him to find a higher-paying job. “I have to know there’s going to be a pension to keep us when we are old!”
Margaret understood Daniel’s obsession with security. Hadn’t he watched his mother live on the pittance social welfare awarded her after his father died in a work accident at a construction site? He’d been an illegal, no insurance, no pension for his widow and five children.
Daniel was determined the same thing wouldn’t happen to Margaret or their children. Working for the post office, Daniel believed, would give them that assurance.
But two modest salaries didn’t go far with two children to raise. Even though they were frugal, every cent Margaret and Daniel earned, they spent. There was precious little leftover for savings.
Then their two children grew up, left home, and started their own lives — their son moved to Alaska, and their daughter to Brazil, and Margaret and Daniel were right back where they had started.
It was around this time that Margaret’s father passed away. Apparently, time and Margaret’s happiness hadn’t softened his heart because he left his entire, very considerable estate to his youngest son, who was untroubled by twinges of conscience.
Once you give in to doubt, it can destroy your peace of mind.
Daniel was devastated. “This is what loving me cost you, Margaret!” he said bitterly. “The life you deserved!”
“No!” Margaret told him firmly. “I wouldn’t trade what we have for all the money in the world!”
But Daniel grew silent and distant, and for the first time in thirty-eight years of marriage, Margaret started wondering if he still loved her.
Then Daniel started taking on overtime at work, a lot of overtime. “It’s this new overnight delivery mail, it has to be sorted 24/7…” he explained. But Margaret noticed that when Daniel came home at two or three in the morning, he smelled different.
He smelled of lilies, and Margaret had never liked lily-scented soap. It reminded her of her paternal grandmother, a woman she had never liked. Daniel smelled of lilies, and he didn’t make love to Margaret anymore unless it was the weekend…
At first, Margaret told herself it was her imagination, but things didn’t change. Two years later, Daniel still came home every night, still smelled of lilies, and worse of all, there was no extra money in their joint account.
Margaret tried to broach the subject with Daniel once, but he snapped at her. “Do I have to account for what I spend too? It’s my money, I earned it!”
After that, Margaret didn’t say another word and wept in silence when he came home every night and turned his back on her in the same bed they had conceived their children.
They never talked about their plans for their retirement anymore, and Daniel’s ‘overtime’ left them few opportunities to work through what was destroying their marriage. When the weekends came around, he locked himself in the garage fiddling with god-knew-what and only came out for meals.
From considering herself the happiest woman in the world, Margaret was sure she was the most miserable. All her dreams had evaporated into thin air, and she even started doubting if Daniel had ever loved her.
Margaret and Daniel had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary when Daniel had a heart attack. Margaret knew what the prognosis was even before the doctor spoke. He shook his head slowly.
“Mrs. Hernandez,” he told Margaret, “I think you should prepare yourself for the worse. Your husband’s heart is just plain worn out. The only option would be a heart transplant, and his age places him low on the list…”
“He’s sixty-nine,” gasped Margaret. “He’s only sixty-nine, he promised he was going to retire…” That night Margaret called her children and they flew to New York to say their goodbyes, along with Anna, Margaret’s only grandchild
Two weeks later it was all over. Daniel was gone, and even though he had spoken lovingly to his children and grandchild about the past, he had only held Margaret’s hand in silence.
“Margaret,” he’d whispered on his last day on earth. “I love you, only you, I always have…” Those were his last words, and a meager comfort after so many years of doubts and unhappiness.
Margaret’s son and daughter wept for their father, but they had their own lives to live, so they left soon after the funeral. It was Anna who stayed behind to help Margaret come to terms with her empty house, her blasted life.
The day after her children left, Margaret got up and decided she was going to make a clean sweep of the past. With Anna’s help, she packed every one of Daniel’s personal belongings into cardboard boxes for Goodwill.
She was closing the last box when a whiff of lilies assaulted her senses. She found herself screaming hoarsely, kicking the box over, spilling all the carefully folded contents.
Anna was there to hold her and soothe her, and somehow the whole story poured out. “He’s been cheating on me for the last 12 years, coming to my bed every night smelling of another woman;” Margaret sobbed. “And his last words to me were a lie!”
The tears and confiding her pain helped, and Anna suggested they tackle Daniel’s garage, clean the last bits of Margaret’s pain out. The two women walked into the garage and started sorting through the accumulated junk of a lifetime.
Then in one corner, Anna found an old suitcase with rusty locks. She was about to throw it out, but it felt quite heavy, so she decided to open it first. There was no key, but the use of an old spanner and a hammer soon had the suitcase open.
Grandma…” Anna gasped. “Please come here…” Margaret dropped the tin full of nails she’d been sorting through and came to her granddaughter’s side. The suitcase was open, and inside were neatly wrapped packs of $20 bills and an old journal.
“Where did this come from?” gasped Margaret. “This is a lot of money!”
Anna opened the journal. “Grandma,” she said softly. “You need to read this…I think he started saving every penny he could when you got married…Oh! This is from 12 years ago! Listen: ‘Today I started working at the NYC sanitation department, the sewer cleaning night shift.
“‘It’s not an easy job, but it pays a lot better than my day job, and I have to make sure of Margaret’s future. Her father was right. I am a loser. I cost her everything, but I am determined to give at least a small part of it back.
“‘I don’t want Margaret to know, so I told her I’m doing sorting of the overnight mail, and take a shower before coming home every night. I’m not bringing that stench into our home.’”
Margaret was weeping silently as Anna read out Daniel’s account of his double life. “Look, gran, he writes in what he is packing into the suitcase every month… There is a total of nearly $300,000!”
Margaret looked into that battered old suitcase at the living proof of her husband’s unconditional love, and his willingness to sacrifice anything for her. “Oh Daniel,” she whispered. “And I wasted so much time in bitterness…”