I spent Saturday morning searching through bins in the attic for a particular photograph. My memories of the day it was taken are so vivid. The leaves had started to fall on campus, and my college boyfriend, armed with his new Nikon camera, wanted me to be his model. Because it was the 1980s, my hair was big and my sweater, draped around my shoulders, was tied in the front. I was in my favorite jeans and leaning against a tree, hands in my pockets. He said that was the quintessential writer’s pose. I remember being chilly as the leaves whipped around me. I looked every bit like the 18-year-old I was: possessing that precious omnipotence that only comes with youth—where you think you know everything but don’t realize life has not yet taught you anything.
I miss that girl, and I can’t find that picture.
The boyfriend, David, gifted a copy of it to my father who really liked it. Months later when David saw my dad had stuck the photo to his home office bulletin board, which received full sunlight, he suggested the picture would fade over time if left exposed to that light. My dad shrugged carelessly, but he later framed the picture.
Perhaps sometimes when what’s important is too weighty for your mind to handle, you become preoccupied with something as trivial as finding a picture.
David and I remained friends over the years, exchanging over 40 years of birthday greetings. His birthday is in November, so when he calls to wish me happy birthday in March, he reports on how the first five months of our new age have been.
This year will be different.
The day after the hurricane, I called David who lives in Orlando to make sure he had survived the storm. The next day, seeing my text, his ex-wife called to tell me that while the hurricane had posed no threat, David had been in the ICU for two weeks, was ventilated, and not expected to live. Years of drinking had caught up to his liver.
I should not have been shocked; I knew the last few years had been rough and he was spiraling. I had called him periodically and knew he was in a dark place. But here’s the funny thing about our minds: I still imagined him as the 18-year-old with a Nikon and a candy apple red Camaro. Immortal, like the girl at the tree.
His ex-wife kept me posted, and after a few days David was off the ventilator, conscious, and aware that he had only weeks to live. He was scared and sad and she thought it was important that I call and say goodbye. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a more difficult task. I managed not to cry and even made him chuckle, but after 20 minutes, when David said he was sleepy and someone was knocking at my office door, I didn’t know how to hang up. Do you ever think of the careless salutations we throw out at the end of conversations? See ya later. Have a good one. Take care now.
I was reminded of our late night phone calls in college: sometimes falling to sleep with the receivers nested against our shoulders. Or the summers when we would be separated. I was never good at farewells, and I especially didn’t know how to say goodbye for the last time. Finally I said, “I will call you again tomorrow.”
I have been calling him since then, often late at night because the nights are creepy and scary for him. Some of our conversations have only lasted a few minutes and others an hour. We talked about my kids, our friends, about deep dish pizza and hairstyles and politics and candles. We argued about music and our differing views of our political science professor. We discussed what a pompous name for blue the word cerulean is. We apologized; we forgave. We cried a little and then wondered who invented Kleenex with lotion. We reminisced our way through our college campus, our days together. I asked if I could do anything, and he asked for my pancreas. We belly laughed.
We talked about faith: how mine is strong and his is non-existent. He quoted the old military saying: “There are no atheists in a foxhole” and said he wants to pray but doesn’t know how. I suggested he just talk out loud—that voicing his gratitude and his regrets can be the purest form of prayer. I reminded him he is not alone and that I know his parents are waiting for him. And then, at the end of each call I say I will talk to him tomorrow.
Until there are no more tomorrows.
To be clear, David is not the man I should have ended up with. How well I know that! Life with him would surely have been difficult. But my love for David comes from a place deep inside that 18-year-old coed leaning against the tree. I love the part of my youth that is wrapped up with his and the friendship that spanned so many years. With him lies the intangible scrapbook of who I was.
I got my happy ending: marrying a man beside whom every day is a blessing, an adventure. With my husband I know true, selfless, boundless love and all the joy and comfort that accompany it.
Almost exactly 33 years ago, David and I went to dinner two days before my wedding. I had errands to run: sunscreen and toiletries to buy for the honeymoon. As I checked out, the Walgreens saleswoman asked if I was taking a trip. I told her I was going on my honeymoon, and she made the awkward assumption that David was the other part of that equation.
“No, I’m just a friend. I’m not going on that trip,” he said.
Now in hospice, his organs shutting down, David’s the one embarking on a journey without me. One I can only imagine. But from this experience I’ve learned two things: when everything else is stripped away, the very marrow of friendship is presence—even being there on an open telephone line, with large gaps of silence and hospital monitors beeping in the background.
Our college campus, where I work, is resplendent this time of year, and when I stroll across it, I think of him. I always will, and I told him that. And that’s where the second lesson comes in: I’ve realized that grief is a selfish emotion. For although I mourn the loss of a friend, in the end it’s all about me. It’s all about those autumn days so long ago and the changing seasons of my life. It’s about that girl in the picture.
Wherever she is, in the past few weeks she has faded a bit. And she never learned to say goodbye.