The sun was making its way across the sky, but Jack had lost all track of time. He rolled over taking a drink out of the glass on the nightstand and then adjusted the pillow behind his back, turning to the next page. He felt as if her life was unfolding before him like acts on a stage, and he couldn’t put it down. It was as if she had taken the reader back in time, leading them from room to room through the annals of her heart.
My late teens would be turbulent and full of a passive aggressive rebellion punctuated alternately by long silences and more than a few slammed doors. My brother joined the military and moved far away to a country with city names I couldn’t pronounce and food that resembled the bugs he ate as a child. Another family would form in place of my old one, and I would drift aimlessly, feeling that I had nowhere to belong. I left home by the time I was seventeen and by twenty two, I was married. By that time, I had already been on my own for nearly five years and it took me some time to figure out how to live with someone else. And just when I did, he went back.
Some men are born to the military and some are made by it. The latter start out more like Lost Boys who just sort of fall into it because they have no idea what else to do with their lives. Eventually they find their place. But the former… they just know. It’s in their blood. I don’t suppose it really matters in the end, which camp you are in, to begin with. What matters is the guy who ends up next to you and whether or not you have his back. John fell into the first camp and he would find his own sense of belonging within a tight band of elite brothers known as the Navy Seals. He would do his best to be there for me, but when he was called, he would go, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
For me, our wedding day would be the day I emerged from a cocoon that had never felt safe, but had bound me tightly and with little mercy. My spirit shed that old carcass with relish, lifting on new wings, like a butterfly freed. I stretched those wings with abandon that day, on the heels of a coastal storm. It blew in on a mess of sleet and snow, covering everything in its path. But butterflies aren’t meant for sleet and snow. Their wings are really…far too delicate.
I could see the clouds moving across the surface of the water in the way I pictured a Middle East sandstorm moving across the desert. I stood at the window reminiscing, noting the scattered debris on the beach from the warmth of my tiny cottage. I was grateful now for the small fireplace John had thought to install last summer when the weather was still warm, but at the time, I remember teasing him about it as he worked, floating around on a raft and splashing him whenever he came near enough.
“It’s 90 degrees out here, John and you’re building a fireplace!” I mocked. “What’s wrong with this picture?”
He pointed a finger at me, sweating heavily and squinting into the sun.
“Mark my words, woman! You will appreciate this come winter.”
How right he had been.
* * *
I started a fire and it was crackling cheerfully beside me now, as the waves roared in earnest just twenty feet out from the house. The hurricane had decimated the Eastern Seaboard and the damage was even worse than expected. My heart went out to those whose homes and businesses had once dotted the coastline. They were not as fortunate as I had been. Many of those structures were now washed out to sea, the historical landscape changed irrevocably. Our little place on the shores of Lake Ontario, however, had weathered the storm valiantly, not a single plank lost. The giant oak tree stood stalwart, bending and creaking perilously, but refusing to give up a single branch to that violent storm.
I felt a strange kinship with that tree. My eyes rested on it thoughtfully as I sipped my coffee, steam curling in ribbons and distorting my view of it into a lovely abstract idea for a painting. I filed that vision away, and determined in my heart to get started on it, as soon as I had cleared the breakfast dishes away. Sighing deeply, I felt at once, both lonely... and content. So often, I sensed these strange contradictions inside of me, confusion washing over me. Reaching up, I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear and smiled softly, thinking of him. John had always loved the habit I had developed as a child and had taken to reaching up to tuck it away for me, pausing to run a finger slowly along the side of my face. Before him, I hadn't even realized how often I did that throughout the day. Now, I felt him with me… every time I did.
Setting the coffee cup on the counter, I noticed how it matched the color perfectly. It was a deep blue, the color of a perfect April sky. I didn't do these things deliberately but there was something inside of me that often sought to keep my surroundings harmonious. Looking around thoughtfully at the interior of this space we called home I recognized that somehow, I had managed to take the best of myself and the best of John and weave it all into a pattern that pleased us both. I, personally used every shade of purple and blue I could mix together in my artwork, as I was drawn to water and sky. John, however, loved bold colors that mimicked earth and fire. Pulling those things together was like composing an intricately complicated symphony full of chords that mingled in both dissonance and harmony. I loved this place and I poured my heart and soul into it, covering it securely with his. Turning the stereo on, the melancholy strains of the violin filled the house as I washed the dishes and dried them, carefully putting them away in the cabinets above my head. I admired the grain of the wood and stopped to run my hand down the face of the cabinet doors in appreciation as I closed them.
John was a music man and traces of him were in every room. Wandering to his guitar in the corner of the den, I ran my fingers over the glossy curves of its face gently, pausing to close my eyes and draw his memory to me. Picking it up and pulling the strap over my shoulder and around my neck, I strummed the few chords he had managed to teach me when he could convince me to put the brushes down for awhile. I softly hum an old Rich Mullins tune he loved, before leaning it against my easel and sitting down to paint. As was often the case, several hours passed before I even looked up again, and my canvas was covered by a gnarled old tree dripping with vibrant blue and purple flowers. I cocked my head, looking at it critically, lost in memories of Maui, her winding roads lined by fragrant Jacaranda trees, raining flowers down on our heads and weaving them quietly into my hair. He used to come up behind me, kissing the back of my neck, lingering until he felt me tremble. It worked every time.
“It’s been too long,” I say to the tree in my painting.
Getting up from the dark wooden stool I stretched and made my way toward the windows at the back of the house. They make up the entire wall and the vast lake was nearly on the doorstep. That view never fails to amaze me. I was surprised to find that several inches of snow were now covering the lawn. Yawning, I put a pot of soup on the stove and decide to stay home for the rest of the day. This would be a perfect afternoon to write a letter to John. The snow was still falling softly, blanketing the world in the gentlest kind of quiet. I could hear the wind whistling in the pines and I opened the window just a crack, so I could smell them. Someone had a fire going and it wafted in on the cold. Closing my eyes, I soaked it all in. I would go for a walk out there later, but for now, I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and sat down on the stool at the end of the counter where I love to write. I can see the waves tumbling onto shore and it soothes my tired heart.
The silence in this cottage is profound, now that you are gone. I sit here listening to the tick of the clock, wondering how many millions of them will pass before you are able to return home again. But you always said, “One breath at a time…”
So just for today:
I will remember the beauty in the curve of fresh cut flowers. It is nearly winter now and most of them, except for the mums, have already gone by.
I will put on your favorite sweatshirt and take a walk in the snow.
I will lay aside the colors of anger for the softer shades of forgiveness.
I will listen to uplifting music and take ten minutes for a cup of tea.
I will stop trying to stick a thousand bandaids on an old wound but rather air it out and leave it uncovered to the wind.
I will bake an apple pie so I can smell it and savor the taste without worrying about calories.
I will revel in the light coming through the windows without trying to capture it.
I will breathe until my lungs have expanded to their absolute capacity.
I will read that letter that means so much to me and then I will go back and read it again. And again. And again. Until I've memorized it. Your words are a beautiful gift.
I will look in the mirror and say, you are beautiful and brave and strong, and I love you, and it is your face I will see reflected back at me.
I will be thankful that I am alive and that there are people in my life here who love me in your absence.
I will try to say it all without using a thousand words.:)
All I really need to say is this.
I love you more today than yesterday.
I chewed quietly on the end of my pen, wondering if I should add any further details but decided against it. Resting my chin on my hand I stare out the window and think back to the beginning of our marriage. John was a man of few words, but I was a woman who thrived on them. He appreciated when I conveyed my feelings to him briefly, and while the writer in me struggled with that, I had long since made peace with it. I knew he loved me and that he couldn't always find the words to say it. He was baffled by the way I could pour my emotion into the written word and in the beginning, he ran from that. Too often he was distracted before I had even reached the end of a sentence and before I really understood who he was, it would infuriate me. But he was very good at showing his love in other ways and I had learned to accept the man he was, long ago, just as he had learned not to fear my outward displays of emotion. John was not a man who sat still for very long. It was one of his biggest strengths, and it was also one of his greatest weaknesses. We had learned the dance in time and had come to respect that we each had our own unique moves that served to strengthen the bond that wove us together more tightly. It was a journey full of ups and downs, twists and turns, and compromises on both sides. Eventually we settled into a comfortable pattern and protected it as something sacred.
The sky was beginning to clear and the golden hour was quickly approaching. I was thrilled to see some patches of blue sky drenched in shades of pink and salmon that were just beginning to sink toward the horizon when I pulled aside the bedroom curtains. I really loved this time of day. The light was always so beautiful, especially out over the water. It was cold outside so I took care to dress in layers before heading out. There was something really special about the first snowfall of the season and while I was not a big fan of winter, I did sincerely appreciate it for the few weeks leading up to Christmas.
Winding my scarf around my neck, I quickly grabbed the camera from the little glass table by the door and trudged out into the snow. I could see my breath and there were tiny icicles forming on the porch railing, each one reflecting the various colors of the approaching sunset like sparkling little jewels. Those details were something I didn't often miss now that I spent so much time behind a camera lens. Photography was something I had picked up as a way to preserve ideas for future paintings but it had turned out to be as much a passion for me as the writing and painting were. Initially, it had caught me by surprise but I didn't know why now, because when I stopped to think about it, it made perfect sense. My camera was just one more way to speak my own version of the world to others around me.
Just down the road from the cottage, there was a little bakery that ran completely on the honor system and I headed in that direction. The local woman who owned it, lived in the big house on the bay at the end of a long dirt road. She trusted the people of our sleepy little town to be honest and leave their money in the wicker basket on the table surrounded by her homemade goods each day and in all the years she had been doing it, she was never disappointed. It was a sweet little dollhouse of a place, fashioned from a brand new shed with white paint and green shutters and window boxes that held fresh flowers on warm summer days, red and white poinsettias during the holiday months. There was always hot coffee in a thermos, with a little pitcher of cream in a bowl of ice beside it. Frequently I would find one or two other people there and we’d stop for a few minutes of our day to enjoy a pleasant conversation but today the snow must be keeping people indoors, because when I walked up, I found it empty. There was a single candle burning in a large glass jar filling the air with the scents of cinnamon and spice. I picked up a loaf of french bread that was still warm from the oven, thinking it would go really well with the soup, and a small box of chocolate cupcakes for dessert. I left a little extra money in the basket and a short note of thanks and closed the door softly behind me.
On the way back I stopped to survey the construction site of the new marina going in at the end of the street. John and I had been adamantly against it when we first found out about it, but some of the neighbors convinced us that it would be a good thing for all. The project would bring several much needed jobs to the area. John had warmed to the idea much sooner than I had. It would house a new restaurant and several boat slips, along with docks and rentals for people vacationing in the area during the busier summer months. He believed it would be a good thing for the local economy but I remained skeptical and had adopted a wait and see attitude rather than anguish over it unnecessarily. It was beyond my control now anyway and I preferred to expend my energy in places where I could really make a difference. I grudgingly admitted to him that I loved the atmosphere of a well run marina and had, from the time I was a little girl and my grandparents would take me to the lighted boat parade in Long Beach at Christmas time, when we'd visit. I was drawn to water even as a child and it really was a festive way to celebrate the holidays.
Change was always hard for me though, and I missed the trees and wildflowers that had lined this path before construction had replaced those things with a tidy gravel road and several unsightly pieces of heavy equipment. Thankfully I had a vivid imagination and was able to close my eyes and dream of what the marina would look like next summer when it was in full swing. For a moment I could hear children laughing, people splashing in the water, dogs barking, car tires crunching on gravel. I felt how wonderful it was when the sun was warm on your back and on your face. I imagined ice cream cones dripping, and lovers bending their heads together in some shared moment marked by sparkling water and sailboats. And the fireflies… oh the fireflies! I breathed in deeply at the thought of them. Every summer they returned, twinkling their way back into my heart. The fireflies always came back.
During construction, they had moved the neighborhood mailboxes to the other side of the dirt road and I stopped to collect what was in mine before continuing on my way. The light was waning and darkness was creating shadows all around me so I tucked the few pieces of mail into my coat and continued walking. The sun's last rays were illuminating the tall grass on either side of me and I breathed in the crisp, clean air withdeep satisfaction. Drinking everything in with my eyes as the camera dangled mostly unused at my hip, I did decide to stop and photograph one tiny snowflake that was glittering in the last light of the sun. It wouldn't be long before the first stars would begin to twinkle in an inky black sky and I didn't want to miss a moment of the magic unfolding before me. The morning snow had covered everything in a glittery curtain of ice crystals. Acres and acres of land protected by the state was now adorned in sparkling winter finery. It was divine. I hated to leave but it was nearly dark and I still needed to bring in some wood before settling in for the night. A small rabbit hopped out of the darkness in front of me and I scolded him quietly for scaring me as he scampered out of sight.
I walked the last half mile home thinking about how only five families remained on this street for the entire year. There was a time in my life when that might have scared me, but that time was long past. I was used to living alone now and this place was so much a part of me. I marched up the stairs to the front door, feeling pleased at how self sufficient I had become. Closing it behind me, I clicked the lock and turned the light in the kitchen on, setting the dimmer about half way so the light cast a soft glow over the living room beyond. Adding several logs to the fire I had managed to keep going all day long, I hung up my coat and scarf and settled in for another winter evening alone, careful not to forget the mail in the inside pocket of my jacket. Sorting through it, I found a few bills and a letter from John, and I couldn’t wait to read it. The sound of his voice would return to me through his words, and I would savor the letter slowly, since I knew they would be few. But if there was one thing John was very good at, it was in saying the most meaningful things, in the most succinct way possible. Tearing into the envelope, I willed myself to slow down, and was disappointed to find that it was even shorter than usual... until I read it.
My Dearest Love… I'm coming home.