It was a warm spring day when they met. She didn’t like him, and he didn’t care. He was so full of confidence then, his body powerful and lithe, his mind strong and certain. He knew that he could win anyone over, given enough time.
And it had been true, at least where she was concerned.
Eventually he had made her smile, and then laugh. When she laughed it filled him up, billowing through him like a mushroom cloud and blasting his heart into pieces, each one irradiated by joy. He had been forever changed, his DNA rearranged to make room for her. Where he had been treading in the shallows, she took him deep. Where he had been a shooting star, she made him a comet. She transformed him into something more real. Something better.
It hadn’t all been rosy, of course. No one said it would be. They had made their vows and took one another’s hands and waded into the thick of life to take it by the throat, to grapple and struggle and strive. There had been tears. Some of them had been his fault. He weeps sometimes just thinking about it.
Children arrived in time. They had both wanted a big family, and it had been easy enough at first. Soon there were three capering about their feet, and she had delighted even in the work, saying that the laundry and cleaning meant life was happening. He had never thought his heart could be fuller than it was when he pulled up in the driveway and saw them in the garden, digging and planting and playing. Sometimes he would bring them bubbles from the corner store, showing them just how to purse their lips to blow the iridescent orbs into the air.
Laundry used to dangle on the line, an endless stream of cotton squares bleaching in the sun before being swaddled around each new rear end. He thinks of those days and his heart squeezes tight in his chest.
There was one, of course, that changed everything. The marker still stands in the yard beneath the oak tree, a single name and date on its weathered surface. They stumbled like scarecrows through those days, trying to make sense of a world gone dark. She had gripped him like a drowning woman and he had tried to hold her head above water, telling her that they could survive anything, as long as they had each other.
In the end, it was the children who save them both.
They are gone now, spread across the continent like dandelion seeds, each one embedded in the soil of their individual lives. They can’t visit often, but she is endlessly proud of them, and he is too.
The two of them rattle about their home and talk about selling. Perhaps they’ll buy an RV, or move into a retirement home. The house is too big, after all, and the stairs are wearying. Still, they stay. It is what they know; it is full of too many memories and pictures and echoes of laughter to ever leave. The attic is full of boxes containing school projects and pictures, worn-out toys and tiny clothes. The flotsam of lives well-lived.
And then one day, it happens. He feels it before he hears it, the gasp before the crash, and the crash washing over him like a great dark wave.
His life is forever divided into BF and AF…before the fall, and after.
He stays with her in the hospital, of course, even if it means sleeping on a rigid fold-out couch and waking to every beep and buzzer that sounds up and down the long white hallway. The doctors and nurses urge him to go home, telling him that they will take good care of her, but it makes no difference to him. The bed at home is cold and empty.
Her scar is enormous and ugly, a red jagged line tracing from her hip to her upper thigh, but the surgery is successful, though the diagnosis that explains the fall is bleak. Dark forces are at work. The doctor explains what to expect in the days to come. The doctor’s hair is dark and her face unlined and she is kind but clueless. She doesn’t know that her patient holds the entire world in her two frail hands.
He takes her home and helps her up the steps. They sit and eat casseroles brought by neighbors and church members, watching the news and discussing the weather as though nothing has happened. When it is nighttime he helps her into her pajamas and they go to bed, where he wraps himself around her, the two of them curled together like the pencil shavings on his desk.
Once a week he helps her shower; she sits on the stool as he lathers her hair and rinses, the suds washing down her neck and onto the tiles. His arms and feet get soaked but he doesn’t care. Her hands shake as she rubs the soap over her skin and he resists the urge to take it and do it for her. The doctors have said that she should do as much as she can on her own, like a toddler learning to tie his shoes.
His eyes feel brand new and he sees her differently, as though a veil has lifted. Her face is etched, the hands crisscrossed with veins, the hair thin and white. Her breasts are small and empty, traced with the marks of time and the evidence of the nurturing she has done. He remembers when they were full, and the joyful romps in bed that gave life to his days. Looking up at him through the steam, she seems a holy thing; he fights a sudden urge to fall to his knees before her. Instead, he towels her off and helps her dress.
He buys her a walker to replace the plain grey model the hospital dispensed, making sure that it is a bright candy apple red, like the car they had when they were first married. He finds stickers in the shapes of flames and presses them to the steel, calling her a roller derby queen. She rolls her eyes but he knows that she is pleased.
The children call. They ask the hard questions.
How is she?
How are you holding up?
He doesn’t know how to answer. How can he verbalize the fear in his soul and the cold hand that grips his heart each morning as he touches her face, feeling for breath? She is both his mooring and his ship, the anchor and the sail together. She has taken him through every storm.
He had thought there would always be time, that the end would remain a shimmering star on the far horizon, always visible but never reached.
Now, more than ever before, he just wants to sit and look at her, to bask in her very here-ness, to feel her soft kiss on his cheek, to circle about her like a satellite. When the day comes for her to go he will fly away into the darkness, no longer held close by her gentle gravity.
Until then, he watches, and drinks her in.