In mythology it is said that the Raven is the keeper of secrets, silently carrying whispered confessions into the eternal void for refuge and safekeeping. Along this journey I have heard many heartbreaking stories, and even now – so early into the Ride – carry many secrets with me. It is an honor and a privilege to be entrusted with such a gift … and it is a trust I will never abandon. Occasionally these shared moments contain a story that begs to be told, and with permission, I share them. This is one such story.
I knocked on the door that Sunday morning, excitedly expectant … I was about to see friends I hadn’t spent time with in over 30 years. But I never expected what I saw when the door opened, or what I witnessed over the following week. Life & time had taken us along different roads and the last day I’d spent with them was their wedding day. It was a small, family gathering … a homemade cake, most of us in jeans, a friend with a guitar sang and there were many smiles and lots of laughter. I remember thinking how well suited they were for each other … both sensibly pragmatic, both athletic, both loving routine afternoons spent on the golf course, and both enjoying life, good friends, laughter and a couple of cold beers at the end of a day. They were a good match, and I had no doubt the marriage would last many years. And it did. It does, still.
The door opened, and I smiled broadly at Robert* … he hadn’t changed a bit in those 30 years. Well, maybe a bit more gray in the beard. We hugged warmly, said our “it’s so good to see you’s!”, and I turned to Nancy*. She stood by his side smiling, thinner than I remembered her, but there was something else … a vacancy behind the smile, and an emptiness behind her eyes. I’ve seen those eyes before … eyes in the nursing homes I worked in long ago that questioned why a spouse or child never comes to visit – moments after the children leave. I opened my arms to hug Nncy and felt her arms wrap around me in an empty non-recognition. “I’m glad you’re here.” She said, with a smile. Yes! My face broke into a grin … maybe I was wrong, and things were going to be alright, after all. But they weren’t.
Weeks before I started this Journey, I wrote that I could not even begin to fathom how I would change along the way. I knew my life would be incredibly altered by the people I met, but I didn’t expect that one of the greatest gifts would come from sitting at a kitchen table, watching a love story unfold.
A year or so ago, Nancy suddenly got very sick … some kind of infection, the doctors said. In a body gone haywire, she battled sepsis for a week in ICU before coming to a place of semi-recovery. But something happened that week … something happened to the vibrant, active, smart-as-a-whip woman that I’d last seen 30 years ago.
“Do you want dinner now?” Robert asked her.
“Yes.” she answered curtly. “I want steak.”
“But we’re having chicken, honey. Remember, you wanted chicken tonight.”
“No!! I want steak!!” she shouted angrily. Then, “Yes. Chicken. I need my mints…where are my mints? I want my mints!”
And with that she walked out of the room.
A few seconds later, “Hey Buddy, are we having steak?” she asks as she comes back in the kitchen.
“No, honey, we’re having chicken, remember?”
“Yes … ok. I like chicken.” “Corn?” She walked out of the room again.
“If you want, dear, we can have corn.”
“I don’t like corn…”
Over the week, the same discussion repeated itself a thousand times in a thousand ways about a thousand different subjects. Robert’s responses were always quiet and patient, always kind, always forgiving. Later that night they sat together at the table, a simple crossword puzzle spread between them … “Nancy, who was the girl in the Wizard of Oz?” No reply. “You remember, the one with Toto?” Still no reply. Over the following hour, occasional disjointed answers would come back. And for next five days I watched Nancy pace uncountable times from bedroom to kitchen and back again; from garage to family room and back again; from spare room to office and back again. I watched as she locked-unlocked-opened-shut and re-locked doors, drawers, cupboards. I watched as she shouted and struck out at Robert, demanding trips to the store for cigarettes or mints (as stacks of them sit on the counter) … and then in a heartbeat turn to me and say, “I’m really glad you’re here.” Though Robert & I chatted and reminisced at night, Nancy & I had no conversations, no walks down memory lane, no catching-up on 30 years.
But in the those five days I also witnessed two people give birth to a kind of love that speaks what words cannot. In spite of the challenges a long-standing marriage invariably faces, they are standing side-by-side in love to face an uncharted future. They are facing it together … even when one of them doesn’t realize it. Even when the challenges are doubled by fear. Even when the chalkboard memories of a lifetime that were so carefully written are erased by an unknown demon. And in those five days, I witnessed a re-birth in my own heart.
I’m not a crying kind of person. I was raised rather stoically and tears are few and far-between … but twice that week I cried myself to sleep as my heart not only ached in sorrow, but also overflowed with tears, breaking open in the remembrance of something I’d long put aside.
“Thank you.” I said to Robert as we stood on the porch the morning I left. “Thank you for reminding me that love really does exist.” I gave my friend a last, long warm hug, and tossed my bag in the car. A new day, a new stop awaits….
*names have been changed for privacy