The photo of the Christmas tree arrived on Sept. 7. Small, white lights, draped in a festive skirt.
“Look what I did on Labor Day. Yep.”
I was used to emails from John Tischner. He’s 86, an avid reader who likes to chat. He’s also my neighbor in Dunedin. He’s sent tips on coffee orders at Dunkin, pictures of cool moths around the yard, things like that. I assumed the tree was John getting ahead of the holidays. I said I was impressed.
That’s when he told me about Jane.
I asked to walk down to John’s house, where we sat in his sunroom in the glow of the tree. Last year, John tore his rotator cuff lugging their 7-footer around and decided to scale back. He saw this one on Wayfair and bought it for Jane.
They had left the big tree up until Easter Monday this year. Jane loved the way it warmed the house like a nightlight. She relished Christmas, the choirs, sentimental ornaments, midnight Mass from Rome on TV. John always said exchanging gifts was for kids, but she bought him something small to open, anyway.
They met at a Christmas party.
“Dec. 12, 1970,” he said.
He was a divorced dad. She’d never been married. He was interested in her friend, but he quickly connected with Jane instead, “like two well-oiled gears that meshed.”
He got her number and asked her out for New Year’s Eve. But John came down with a flu and had his mother call her to cancel.
“Oh, yeah, that’s a good excuse,” he said she probably thought.
He made it up to her. They were together more than 50 years, married 47. They had a daughter, growing their blended family. John worked in newspaper management in New Jersey and ran the Suncoast News in Pasco. He was involved in the Chamber of Commerce, ran for local office, opened a small business, was busy, busy, busy.
Jane loved to be home. She was intellectual but not streetwise, prized music, literature and theater. She worked as a legal secretary and medical transcriptionist, and also stayed home to raise their daughter. She calmed John down.
They traveled twice a year, visiting Jamaica in the spring and taking road trips in the winter through Florida and to New Orleans, seeking Christmas lights along the way. They were always home in time to enjoy the tree.
They sat side-by-side at restaurant bars. They loved the mahogany, the cocktails and appetizers, better if there was a piano. They had all their spots — Alfano’s, Positano’s, Cricketers Pub, Bon Appétit. John got the eggnog martini at Christmas, but she stuck to bourbon and ginger. She was witty and kind, her “Scorpio tongue” occasionally emerging.
Jane had survived breast and colon cancer by the time dementia set in. She was in the grips of Alzheimer’s when they realized she had pancreatic cancer. He promised to let her die at home. He met with health workers and made sure their personalities felt right for Jane.
After some months, she looked up at him.
“You can go now,” he said.
She was 78. She was never well enough to know about the small tree. Two weeks after her death, John got it out and assembled it. He flanked it with a photo of Jane in her wedding dress, one of them at a bar, another where he thinks she looks so pretty.
A few weeks after she died, he decided to try sitting at a bar again. He went to the Italian restaurant Dieci in Palm Harbor, where a man was playing piano. He ordered a drink.
The bartender kept asking if he was okay, but he couldn’t find the words. She told him she’d made a mistake with the first drink and placed a second on the counter.
John asked to borrow a piece of paper and pen. He paid the bill, thanked her, wrote that it wasn’t a mistake, that his wife had sent it. He closed the note inside the bill and went home to the glow.
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