A piece of paper fluttered in the wind above my balcony as I opened my email. I clicked on my latest letter and read it quickly. I shook my head.
“Do I remember you?” I muttered. “Of course I remember you.”
It had been a difficult week. One of my great heroes had passed away a few days earlier and I’d been asked to speak at his upcoming funeral. The previous Saturday I’d gone to a wedding alone for the first time in over decade.
My life had been dramatically altered six months earlier. It hadn’t been pleasant. I’d spent most of my time surviving and was only now starting to find something akin to peace again.
But as I re-read the email, I felt a quickening. Felt my stomach dance. It was something I hadn’t experienced in a long time.
I took a deep breath, my fingers hovering over the keyboard. She’d asked me if I remembered her. Of course I had. Her email had caused my mind to overload on images. Pictures from a long time ago, when we were both teenagers. Pictures that made me smile. Would she consider meeting me for a coffee? The email hadn’t suggested anything like that, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask. I hesitated only briefly and began to type.
ONE WEEK EARLIER
Dust swirled in the parking lot as I pulled up to the Luna Gardens. It was hot, and sweat rolled down my face. The drive had taken longer than I’d expected, but I’d made it. I leaned over and pulled my suit jacket from the hangar and stepped out of the car. My “little sister,” my dear young friend who I’d known for nearly twenty years, was getting married. As excited as I was for her, it felt strange to move along the stone walkway to the grassy area where they’d set up the chairs and find a seat by myself.
I found one in the back. Couples surrounded me. I looked to the “altar,” where water splayed off the beach cliffs just beyond the minister. Sun glinted from a perfect blue sky. I checked the chair beside me. It was empty.
When the music began to play and the bridesmaids began the long walk to the wooden arch, I felt an ache form between my shoulder blades. I listened as my friend and her groom delivered earnest vows to one another, their love unmistakable. It was in every movement, every shift of their bodies. Tears rimmed my eyes. I’d never seen my little sister so happy.
When the wedding finished, I followed the crowd to the lounge. Dinner would be served in an hour. I chatted with the family, delighted to see them, but not recognizing anyone else, I took a beer into the parking lot to reflect.
As happy as I was for my friend, I found myself filled with emotion. I’d said those same words, those same vows, and yet the chair next to me was empty. I’d had time to process things this past year, but I still did not understand. Why me? Why was I alone? Why had my vows produced an empty chair?
A while later I wandered back into the crowd of strangers. It wasn’t easy, but it was good to be surrounded by happiness. And sitting amidst the revelry of new love, I smiled at the hope and laughter and love around me. These were the good moments, I thought. Life could be cruel, but it could also be incredibly kind.
This was a kind moment.
It wasn’t to last.
FIVE DAYS LATER
I sat in the second row with my parents, clutching my papers nervously. The funeral home buzzed with conversation. One of my great heroes had passed, and his son, a lifelong friend, had asked me to speak. Though I knew the contents of my speech, I was unsure whether I could deliver it without faltering. Mr. Lesco had been such an important figure in my life. A man of towering intellect and even greater compassion, he deserved the best. I’d practiced my delivery numerous times in my apartment. I’d broken down each time.
The faces at the funeral were familiar but not. Old teachers who’d become old. Old friends who’d become middle aged. Old memories that seemed fresher than they were. We were no longer young. I was no longer young. But we were there for a reason. When the MC called my name, I steadied my breathing and strode to the podium.
When it was over, I said good bye to my parents and retreated to my car. I opened the window, the sun hot on my arm. They’d said I’d done a good job. That I’d represented him well. That he would have been proud of me, (the greatest of compliments) his son had assured me.
Tears slid down my cheeks. I’d held strong through my speech and the funeral, but I could no longer contain them. Mr. Lesco was gone, and no words – no matter how pretty or sincere or well delivered – would bring him back.
I watched the wind swirl dust from the parking lot. I understood the cycle of life. Understood that people did not live forever and that death was not the end. Understood the cruelty and kindness of life.
It did not lessen the pain. Perhaps in time it would. But not now. Not tonight.
Mr. Lesco had suffered from chronic arthritis, a crippling and painful disease. Despite that, he had forged a life of love and compassion and empathy. I thought about what that meant. About what that meant to his colleagues and friends. About what that meant to me.
I thought about the email I’d received the other night, the one that had caused my stomach to dance. She had agreed to a coffee. Two decades had passed since I’d last seen her, but I’d felt a pull I hadn’t expected. I rubbed my cheeks. Not tonight. As much as I wanted to see her, I needed to grieve my hero. I pulled out my phone and reluctantly cancelled our meeting.
In the past week, I’d been to a wedding and a funeral. I’d gone to both alone. I knew that I was being taught something, but what it was I had no idea. Was I supposed to simply accept that life worked in cycles? That while things had gone badly for me the past year, others were experiencing different moments of the same cycle?
That seemed trite to me.
Yes, people existed in different stages, but why did we have to deal with such madness anyway? Why couldn’t we just live in a world that didn’t fluctuate so damned much? Why did everything have to be so unpredictable?
Unless, of course, you were in a kind stage. And if I was honest, I’d lived the greater portion of my life in those stages. As one of my old pastors used to say in regards to suffering, “this too will pass.” He was right, because I remembered other times in my life where the pain had felt like forever. It had passed. And even if I remained a bit scarred, hadn’t my old coach and mentor set the ultimate example for me? I put the car into gear, my tires crunching over the gravel at the edge of the parking lot.
…Nelson greeted me at the door when I finally returned home from my parents. I picked him up and rubbed his belly. His purrs reassured me that I was home. That I wasn’t alone. I put him down and strolled out onto the balcony. Traffic roared below me. A gust of wind snapped open my paperback on the small table beside the two deck chairs.
The hours on the road had given me the time I needed to grieve and reflect, enough to turn my thoughts back to the email. I thought about the twist in my stomach when I’d replied, the memories that had returned like they’d happened yesterday.
She’d told me not to worry about cancelling at such short notice. Told me that she understood. That it didn’t matter.
Maybe she was right. Maybe it was just a chance encounter, a throwaway email from an old friend kind enough to say some nice things about my writing. Maybe it was just a missed coffee with someone that had once meant a lot to me.
I smiled and picked up my cell.