Friday, May 16, 2008

in mourning of what never was

I spent a long time in the churchyard this afternoon, waiting for a sense of peace that refused to come.

I'm not a member of a church and never go with the exception of weddings, funerals and the occasional holiday service at the invitation of the mother-in-law. Over the past few months, when I'm in need of comfort, I've taken to visiting a particular churchyard and sitting on a marble bench, my arms propped on a cast iron fence, staring off into the woods.

A friend of mine, a boy I loved, is buried there, but I don't think that's really why I go. I've never been one to feel the need to visit the graves of those I love, although I've visited his quite often since his death in September.

I realized today as I sat there, the wind whipping up, warning of an approaching storm, that it was as though I was waiting for him to appear out of the words, with some important message that I needed to hear. Of course he never did.

One of my fondest memories is of venturing into those woods one cold morning in search of him. A mutual friend had told me I could find him there hunting and had assured me he wouldn't mind the intrusion. As I was doing it, it occurred to me that it was probably not the brightest of things to do...tramping off into the woods in search of a deer hunter who was supposed to be hanging out in a tree somewhere in the area, waiting for something to shoot.

I walked softly, praying I wouldn't chase away the biggest buck of the season and wondering if I'd lost my mind for being there at all. I stopped for a moment, stripping off my bulky, brown corduroy coat with the thought that I was probably less likely to get shot if he could see the red shirt I had on and I'd rather be a bit cold than take a round of buck shot.

Somehow, I lucked up and managed to walk straight back through the woods to his location, whistling every few moments to alert him someone was coming. The sight of his surprised smile from high above the ground when he saw me is forever embedded in my mind. He just shook his head, laughing as he carefully shimmied down the tree. We walked out of the woods together, with him chuckling. Turns out I was the first girl to ever pull him out of a deer stand and I did so simply because I couldn't quit thinking about him and wanted some company for breakfast.

He obliged me, gentleman that he was, and we enjoyed a comfortable breakfast at a cozy little diner that has long since closed its doors. I guess you could call it our first date.

We had known each other for years. He was my best friend's cousin and as a little girl, I had a huge crush on him. My best friend and I spent hours giggling as we thought about how life would be when we were all grown up and he and I got married.

There were ten elementary schools in the county at the time and he didn't go to the same one she and I attended, so I had to settle for seeing him on occasion at various family functions and Sunday lunches at their grandmother's.

All that changed in 8th grade though, as there was only one middle school in the county. He was in most of my classes and since my last name started with "Sm" and his with "St", he sat behind me in them all, pulling my hair and passing me funny notes.

He was always the good one — went to church every Sunday and sang in the choir, played in the school band, and never got into trouble. I, on the other hand, smoked and cussed and was always looking for trouble.

He never judged me for any of it, expressing only his concern over my poor choice of boyfriends. I've always wondered if he knew that the whole time, the only reason I didn't have my sights set on him was because I didn't think I was good enough for him.

I moved out of state our sophomore year of high school and didn't see him again until nearly ten years later when I came back to my hometown. He had married, and divorced and had indeed grown up to be exactly the kind of man I always knew he would be — the kind of man that every woman wants to settle down with. He was still active in his church, loved his mama, was a volunteer fireman and worked constantly. If he wasn't at work he was doing side jobs to make some extra money, freebie favors for those who couldn't really afford to pay him, hunting or running fire calls. On the night of our second real date, he kept apologizing because we had to stop at the home of a little old man and woman whose air conditioning had gone out. It was gearing up to be one of those stifling hot southern summers and he couldn't stand to think of that elderly couple having to go without their AC so he wanted to fix it before we went into town for dinner.

I chatted with the lady as he and the elderly man worked on the unit. After it was fixed and we climbed into his truck, I couldn't help but think that THIS was how life was supposed to be. That night, for the first time since my husband had died, I honestly felt that I might just get to have my happily ever after yet.

I kept thinking of the line from the movie, As Good As It Gets when the main character told his female love interest that she made him want to be a better man.

There was no better way to describe it. He made me want to be a better woman and he made me want the white picket fence, minivan and house full of kids. He made me want to be the sort of woman who has dinner cooked for her husband every evening when he came home from work. But instead I was a widow with a son, incapable of having any more children. That fact continued to eat at me.

One night, when my son was spending the night away from home, I invited him to dinner, enjoying being able to provide him with a good home cooked meal, even packing up leftovers for his lunch the next day. We watched a movie and talked for hours. As he left, he kissed me for the first time, softly at first, growing in intensity as my mind forgot all its fears.

I laid awake for a long time after he left, still feeling the tenderness and urgency of his kiss, knowing that we had somehow turned a corner. It was sheer agony! I wanted nothing more than to be that man's wife, for us to enjoy the American dream together, yet I knew that he wanted nothing more than children of his own. It didn't seem at all fair to allow things to continue to progress without him knowing the truth so I began writing a letter of full disclosure.

The next day, while he was at work, I sat in his driveway trying to work up the nerve to leave the letter in his door. I cried as I did so, knowing that it would mean the end of a beautiful dream, yet hoping against hope that somehow none of it would matter to him and he would somehow love me anyway.

No such luck of course. It was enough to scare him off and leave me kicking myself for allowing myself to believe in the impossible.

That was four years ago. I've seen him a few times since, exchanging pleasantries in passing. We never really discussed what was in the letter or what could have been. I ended up getting married a little over a year later. He was set to get married last October but died on September 10, my wedding anniversary, crashing into a tree as he returned from a fire call. His birthday was this week, so as I flew back in time, mourning the loss of my first husband as the eight year anniversary of his death rolled around, I was also mourning the death of a man who would never become my husband.

The day of his funeral, the heavens opened up and poured down rain. I stood there, sobbing, as they performed the graveside rites and the firemen's pagers began sounding the final page in his honor. A mutual friend, who I didn't even know had known about our short-lived romance, suddenly appeared at my side, hugging me tightly, saying "I know what you must be thinking."

Everyone seemed to think I was thinking of how, if it had worked out, I would've been burying a second husband that day. But no, instead I was thinking that if it was going to hurt so bad either way when he died, if he was never going to be able to have his house full of babies anyway, then why, what was the point?

What if I hadn't moved away in school? What if I had never written him that letter? What if I had waited to tell him those things? What if, what if, what if...it's the what ifs that haunt me.

And I keep wishing I could march right into heaven and bring him down for breakfast.

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