Monday, September 19, 2011

The Promise

My husband left me. A loving father, a beloved son and brother, a cherished friend, and he was gone forever. I continued to stare straight ahead while my pastor droned on about how he was in a better place.

Bullshit. He belonged with me.

The memorial service ended after an hour.

At the reception, many of David’s former students made a point to speak with me. As shy and bumbling as some teenagers can be, each one carried a note of sincerity in their words. “He made class fun. He told good jokes. Skipping class wasn’t an option in Mr. Shepard’s class. He was funny.”

Our son’s soccer team attended the service in their soccer uniforms in honor of their leader and coach. The adolescent boys buzzed around the food table, then quickly made their exit outside.

I longed to join them.

But instead, I had to put on a gracious face and play hostess to over three hundred people. My sisters surrounded me like protective armor and let in only those they deemed worthy. As I moved through the crowd of people, I exchanged pleasantries and thanked them for coming.

I couldn’t help but overhear bits and pieces of conversations as I trudged through the masses. It reminded me of trekking through crowded airport walkways. They talked about next week’s soccer practice, the price of fuel, and the weather forecast. All they could think of were such frivolous things as next week’s PTA meeting.

Didn’t they get it? My husband was dead.

This is a time when everyone should talk about David.

A warm hand grabbed hold of my upper arm.

“Katelyn.” No one ever called me by my full given name. I lifted my gaze to meet the cool blue eyes of Seth Allen, David’s best friend from high school.

The depths of his eyes searched mine. The temperature in the overstuffed room must have dropped twenty degrees, because I swear the look in his eyes appeared almost icy. “Let me know when you’re coming to Alaska.” He stated simply.

“What do you mean?” Panic settled in and my knees wobbled. Good thing he still held my arm or I might have toppled over.

“Whenever you feel ready.” He let go of my arm.

“Ready for what?” I replied lamely, knowing damn well what was coming next. And now everyone would know.

The change in his face was like a shifting kaleidoscope. The pieces still weren’t settled to form a complete picture. His voice lowered an octave and he moved closer to me so only my ears could hear. “I’ll take you to spread his ashes. This year or next…or the next. Whenever you’re ready.”

Relief washed over me like bubbling surf across the sand. “Yes. Yes, of course I’ll contact you. Thank you.”

“If there is anything I can do. Anything at all.” He hesitated as though he contemplated what to say next. “Please let me know.”

A sheen of moisture in his eyes dissipated as he blinked and waited for me to respond. I opened my mouth to speak, but he interrupted me before the words came out.

“Dave was a good friend, a very good friend. He helped me through…a lot.”

Our gazes locked. He nodded, turned and left the room. I knew without a doubt how difficult it was for him to say those few words. And it meant the world to me.

When the crowd finally dissipated, I scanned for my younger sister Livvy and found her a couple of bodies away. We made eye contact and I mouthed, “Get me outta here” in a silent plea. She finished chatting to our parents neighbors and we cut toward the nearest exit. Like Moses parting the red sea, Liv found a path for our escape.

“I couldn’t stay in there another second,” I said. Arizona’s January air remained cool despite the late afternoon rays of sunshine. I took brisk strides in the parking lot and moved away from the church while Liv ran beside me to keep up. “I can’t breathe.”

I didn’t know which direction to go. I just knew I had to get my heart pumping and move my legs.

“People understand, Kate.” Liv attempted to match my steps, stride for stride. “It’s okay.”

We kept walking.

After several blocks, I spun on my heel. A well of tears formed on the edge of my eyelashes. “We have to go back. I have to get the boys.”

Liv placed her hand on my shoulder. “Kate. They’re okay.” She slid her hand gently down and gripped my forearm. “It’s going to be okay.”

I stopped. My eyes held hers. Concentrate. Think. Liv is right. Take a deep breath. Slow down and breathe. “Give myself permission to be sad. That is what the counselor keeps telling me.”

“The counselor is right, Kate. Everything will be all right. We are all here to support you. All of us.” She said each word deliberately. “Take…it…one…day…at…a…time.”

On the sidewalk of some street, God only knew where, and now, now is when I decided to break down.

The tears poured like an open faucet. Liv embraced me with all the strength her five foot two inch frame could muster. I bent over her and took all she had to give. Her soothing words calmed me.

“I can hardly breath without him.” I managed to choke out between sobs. “My lungs feel tight and packed in, like they don’t remember how to work.”

I shouldn’t dump my emotions on her. She was my youngest sister. I should be telling my older or middle sister this, not her. But Liv and I had always shared a special bond.

Liv smiled through her tears. “Do you mean like when we were kids in a hurry to clean our room and shoved our clothes in the drawers? We stuffed and crammed everything in, only they wouldn’t close shut.”

I stared at her. Then, I actually laughed. “Yeah, exactly like that. Cramming clothes in drawers that won’t shut. That’s how my lungs feel.”

Then I realized it. Today was my husband’s memorial service and I had just laughed. My tears flowed again in earnest. “As if you ever had to clean anything,” I said. “You always found a way to get out of it.”

She grabbed my hand and dragged me behind her. “Let’s go. There’s a little park up around the corner.”

I went straight for the swing set. Liv chose the swing to my left. We shuffled our feet along the gravel and got moving. When was the last time I’d swung on a swing set?

My body slipped through the air, again and again. The predictable rhythmic of pumping my legs invigorated me. The wind whipped through my hair and my stomach lurched with each dip. I forgot everything for a minute and enjoyed the floating sensation.

If there was anything I’d learned in the past eight months, it was to live in the moment.

“Hey, get out of my shower.” Livvy yelled when our swings were in perfect sync together.

I tipped my head back, looked up at the clouds and laughed again.

When we stopped to catch our breath, the bright orange sun had already begun its decent onto the horizon. How long had we been gone from the reception?

“We should get back,” I told Liv.

She twisted in her swing. “We don’t have to.” She stopped, kicked at the gravel so dust rose up. “We can stay here as long as you want.”

I needed to tell someone. I couldn’t keep it inside any longer. With everything happening so fast, I’d managed to set it aside for a while. But now I had to speak up. And why not tell my sister?

My head hung low while I concentrated on one multi-colored gray and white rock. I held tight to the cool metal chain links of the swing and tasted the gravel dust in my mouth. “How can I keep my promise to David?”

“What promise?”

I sighed and closed my eyes. “About a month ago, before the pain medication took David in and out of consciousness, we talked about the future. Or rather my future. With the boys. Without him.”

Liv remained silent. I couldn’t lift my head to make eye contact with her, but I knew she watched me. “He asked me if I would move to Alaska.”

“But…why? All of your family is here. Here in Arizona.” She sounded incredulous.
I opened my eyes to meet the disbelief in hers. “Because his family is there. And that is where he grew up.” I simply stated what Liv already knew.

“But you need the support of your family. Now…now more than ever. You can’t leave. You need all of us near you. Surely David didn’t know what he was asking.” Her eyes pleaded with me. Her face looked pained. It was my own pain reflected back at me.

Most people have several sections in their life. Like a peeled orange, or pieces of a pie, each wedge represents a space of time. Childhood, teens, college, career, married life, babies born, raising children, retirement and so on. But mine had just three.

BC—Before Cancer, DC—During Cancer, and AC—After Cancer. Currently being in AC, I longed for the carefree days of BC. DC was the shortest section of my life. Too incredibly short.

So how do you qualify for the three-sectioned life? Well, you have to suffer permanent loss. It doesn’t have to be death necessarily. It could be the loss of the use of your legs, or the right side of your body. It could even be divorce, the permanent death of a marriage, or the break-up of your parents. I suppose some children of a divorced home would consider themselves in a three-sectioned life. But at least for them, there is always the possibility of putting it back together.

So, like a child dreaming of her parents’ reconciliation, I dreamed of a cure for my husband’s cancer and irradiating it from our lives.

But it was not to be.

No matter how hard you fight, how much you pray, how much you risk, sometimes you still can’t win. A coach has a playbook to plan his attack. Our strategy to battle cancer followed all the rules. We were supposed to win.

I would have done or said anything in those last weeks of my husband’s life to give him comfort. Of course I would promise him to move. What was moving over 6,000 miles compared to combating cancer?

Cancer robs you of everything. Your dignity, time, and hope just to name a few. So doesn’t it rob you of telling the truth too? Isn’t there a waiver written somewhere that says if you do or say things you don’t mean because of cancer then you aren’t held responsible? The “truth police” surely wouldn’t prosecute me, would they?

The truth needed to be told to someone. The burden I carried was too much to bear along with everything else. “I did tell David I would move, when he asked me.”

“But you can’t mean it.”

I stood up from the swing. My feet crunched on the gravel as I stepped out. “We have to get back. It was rude of me to leave.”

My eyes were dry and I only wanted one thing. Get to my boys. Livvy’s short legs motored to keep up with me. She wisely dropped our conversation. It was enough that I told someone. I didn’t want to dwell on it right now.

The church parking lot had emptied by several more cars since we left. My boys were throwing a football on the front lawn with their cousins. My oldest son, Justin, glanced at me from the corner of his eye before he ran to catch a pass. His look said ‘you should have told me you left.’ Or was it my imagination?

My mother-in-law stepped out of the church just as we were about to walk in. Marie Shepard clearly looked relieved to see me. Wayne Shepard, my father-in-law stood behind her, and took an extra second to analyze me as if he stored the knowledge that I hadn’t been at his son’s memorial service for its entirety.

I headed past them into the foyer and followed the smell of burnt coffee. Liv clipped along close on my heels and beat me to the styrofoam cups. Packets of pink and blue sweetener envelopes lie scattered around amongst the spilled coffee grounds.

And I couldn’t help but think that is what my life looked like.

Scattered, disorganized and burnt.

By Becky Lees

Young Adult Fiction Author


~Posting again on October 17~

Copyright © 2011 Becky Lees

All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. No portion of this work may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.

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