What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from, and I can feel it deep down in these old, weary bones, from here on my deathbed, that this approaching end is only the beginning.
I look over to Tina’s side of the bed, as empty at this moment as it has been for the last three months, and a single tear rolls down my withered cheek. I have never been a spiritual person. I’ve tried, but it’s hard to accept certain things on nothing but blind faith; it’s hard to ignore sensibilities and believe in extreme possibility; it’s hard to accept that things will happen that are beyond our control and defy all reasonable explanation.
There are so many emotions knotted together within me, and while they contradict themselves, they have been revelatory. Why is it hard to believe in something more? Believe in something beyond what we can see or touch? From where I’m lying, gazing at the empty space my wife inhabited for the last forty-six years, I imagine that the mattress and pillows are still indented to fit her shape, still smelling of lavender and something markedly her, still warm from her presence, and I am forced to confront the reality that there has to be more.
Why? Well, it’s all so simple, really, so simple that it takes a lifetime to know it. I loved Tina; I still love her; I will always love her. She was and is my soulmate, my best friend, my lover, my reason… my everything. And not one of these things – emotions, love, souls, friendships – none of these things are something that you can hold in your hand or sink your teeth into. They hold no tangible or corporeal form in this world, but they are as proven as mathematical equations and as solid as gravity; they are as real as the blanket warming me and as visible as any painting adorning the walls of this home. They exist in the abstract, and yet they are more real than any possession or scientific fact, because they give real purpose and real fulfillment. They are so real that you can see them with your eyes, even in the dark.
And it’s because of this, a lifetime of living in the abstract and feeling it guide me through the dark, that I know; I know that in order for Tina to have existed physically, she must exist metaphysically. I know that our connection went beyond mortality, and as soon as I step away from this plane, she’ll be there, wherever there is, to welcome me home. That knowledge fills me with great satisfaction because here or there, or anywhere… I will get to be with Tina for eternity. My connection to her is just as deep and strong as it ever was. Not even death has severed it. I feel her alive; I feel her healthy; I feel her waiting patiently for me.
I release a heavy breath as I stroke a wrinkled hand over her pillow. I long to see her and I’m ready to take that step. I can feel Death lingering in the shadows to collect me, just as he collected her, and while it hurts to know that I will miss out on so much of my children’s and grandchildren’s lives by stepping away into another beginning, I am ready to shed this body and go to my wife. That’s the purpose of marriage, isn’t it… forsaking all others? As much as I love my children, Tina is my home and they’ve made their own.
I glance over at the bedside clock. It’s one thirteen in the morning. I remove my hand from my wife’s pillow and struggle up into a sitting position against the headboard. My body groans with the movement, but I make it, taking a moment to catch my breath before switching on the bedside lamp. Its soft glow stings my eyes for a moment before illuminating the book resting at its base. I smile sadly as I reach a weak hand over to retrieve the album Tina gave me the last time I saw her. The last time she was alive.
My eyes snapped open, the beeping sound of the monitor attached to Tina’s lethargic heart having worried me even in my restless sleep. I ignored the sharp pains in my neck and back as I sat forward in the uncomfortable chair to check on her. Her warm hazel eyes were unfocused in the dim light of the room, but I could still see her glorious smile as she gazed over in my direction. “T, is everything okay?”
She exhaled heavily, too heavily, unable to speak before meeting my eyes again. Those deep hazel orbs said everything I needed to know and didn’t want to hear. They shouted of her love for me; they spoke an apology, but they also whispered a goodbye. A sobbed, “No, T…,” tore from my throat and I felt thick tears tumble over my lashes.
It was only a matter of time, and I’d known that for a long while now; hell, I’d known that most of my life. Everyone dies, but I still wasn’t ready to lose her. I was never going to be ready. I unsteadily got to my feet and crossed the small distance to her bed, sitting next to her and taking her hand. Her eyes fluttered and I looked up at the monitor. Her blood pressure had dropped even lower and there was little I could do but sit here and watch her slip away. Yet again, I was helpless. Life is humbling that way.
I couldn’t stop the tears from falling any more than I could stop her from leaving me, but I still just couldn’t let go of her. It was selfish… putting her in this hospital to prolong the inevitable, but she’d have suffered at home. At least here they could make her comfortable. So here we sat. She was too weak to even squeeze my hand as I linked our fingers, but I knew that she would if she could. My Tina was still in there. And that’s when I realized that her beautiful soul was trapped in a body that I knew better than my own, in a body that was holding her hostage within as it failed her. It took everything I had, but I meant it when I said, “It’s okay, T. Don’t fight anymore, baby.” I trembled with heavy sobs. “We’ll be okay. If you need to go…” That was it. I couldn’t even finish the thought, but by the look in her intelligent eyes, I knew that my message had been received loud and clear.
She pulled in great gulps of breath and I leant down to hear her. It was so faint and my own hearing so tenuous that I had to really focus, but I heard her. “There… in my bag… the album…”
I pushed my creaking bones back up and looked at her curiously before looking over to the overnight bag Rory and Sarah had brought in earlier. I stood, and it was slow work, but I finally retrieved the bag and located a photo album at the bottom. I brought it over to her, and with more effort than I can even fathom, she managed to put my hand on it. Her voice was gone with her breath but she mouthed the words, ‘For you.”
I stroked the leather surface and went to open it but she stopped me, her heart fluttering on the monitor, her head shaking minutely, her voice a hoarse whisper, “No… wait…”
I cried harder as I stroked her hand and she gasped to retrieve the breath she’d just expelled to get those words out. “Wait… for what, T?”
Her eyes were compassionate as she looked at me and her heart slowed yet again. She wanted me to wait until she was gone. I kissed her lips gently and buried my face in her neck as sobs racked me to the point where I could feel my ribs rattling in against my breast. They wouldn’t stop, but I needed her to know. “It’s okay, baby. I don’t want you to go… but I understand… yours in life and death… remember?”
I felt a weak kiss to my temple, her haggard breaths ruffling my salt and pepper hair as she pressed out what was left in her. “I… remember… I-I… I love… y–”
The rhythm on the monitor dipped into nothingness and an alarm sounded throughout the room. The pressure dropped and all of the air sucked out of my lungs as time stopped. I swear I felt her soul set free into the very air around me. My sobbing turned to shock as I sat back up and gazed into her hazel eyes, all the warmth and life gone. Someone far away called out to her. “T…?”
She didn’t respond and a nurse appeared at her side. She checked Tina but made no attempt to save her. Tina didn’t want them to, and while I resented that decision, I understood and respected my wife’s wishes. The nurse came over to me, putting her hand on my shoulder as she said, “I’m so sorry Mrs. Porter-Kennard. She’s gone…”
I leaned into to kiss still warm lips, lips that had loved me with their last breath. I gazed into those unseeing eyes for a minute longer before lifting a trembling hand and closing them, knowing that was the last time I’d ever see them. And it hit me, truly hit me. She was gone, and I was left here without her. I collapsed onto her, pressing my face into her breast as my heart poured out of me to go with her wherever she had gone.
I stroke the album now, just as I had when she gave it to me, and stare at it through blurry eyes. I haven’t been able to let this book out of my sight since Tina gave it to me in her last moments, but I haven’t been able to open it either. I have no idea what its pages hold and I’ve been too afraid to see. I know that I’ll see pieces of her, and I long to see her, but the loss of her is indescribably painful no matter how sure I am that I’ll see her again. The aching in my joints, the pain in my chest, and the difficulty that I have finding my next breath, they all tell me that it’s time to be brave, that it’s now or never.
It’s difficult, but I reach back to the nightstand to retrieve my reading glasses and scrub at my eyes before settling them on my nose. God, even that little movement takes so much out of me. I relax for a moment, collecting my breath and my thoughts. I’m anxious and apprehensive at what I will find as I open the cover to the first page. And what I find is that Tina wrote me a note. I gently stroke my fingers over her delicate script, letting the familiar feelings of the love that she inspires wash over me as I read her last words to me for the first time.
I know how much you love that I take pictures of you at the most inopportune times, but you know well that I can’t help myself when it comes to you. I thought that you might like to see why. I’ve loved you my whole life and something in me felt compelled to document that love. You are just as beautiful now as you were more than forty-six years ago, but these photos… they are exceptional.
I wanted to give you a record of how much I’ve loved you, of all the simple ways you’ve inspired me, of all the life you have breathed into me and our children in our time together, and of all the moments when I would see you doing something completely mundane and be struck by my overwhelming love for you. No one in history has loved anyone more than I love you, and while I know that my time here is coming to an end, I wanted to give you this final part of me so that you might be strong until I see you again. Not all of these are mine, but what they captured meant so much to me… you mean so much to me, that I felt that they should be here as well. Thank you for being my wife, for loving me, and for so many years of joy. I love you with all my heart.
I close my eyes, tears falling this time. I’d give anything to hold her and kiss her right now, to tell her that I love her just as much, but I can’t. I breathe in. It’s labored and not as deep as I need it to be, but it allows me to swallow against my tight throat and press forward. I flip the page to see the picture of us in India and chuckle softly through my tears. This picture… seemly innocuous, holds so much of my life and my heart. The last time that I saw it was the day that my life with Tina truly began, a day full of miracles, the day Tina proposed to me in our new home.
My eyes fluttered open, revealing a bright ray of light washing in through the balcony doors and bathing us with the hope of a new day. The room was empty and quiet except for the steady breathing of a soft, warm body curled up against my front as we lay in the makeshift nest of heaped blankets on the floor of our bedroom. The light bounced off the halo of corn silk hair splayed around Tina’s face, her skin glowing with youthful beauty, her bare chest rising and falling with satisfied sleep, and as I propped my head up on my elbow, my heart considered stopping in that moment to preserve it.
I leaned in, pulled by some indistinguishable force, and disturbed the swirls of dust motes dancing in the sunlight as I closed my eyes and kissed the back of Tina’s neck. I relished the taste of her skin, the smell of her hair, and the feel of her hand locking my own between the exposed breasts in front of her.
We had made love in most every room of our new home, interspersing our time with late night takeout from Mandarette and random bouts of stargazing. It was most certainly the least traditional Christmas Eve I’d ever had, but it was also one of the most special.
Tina stirred and I watched, enthralled, as the hazel flecks of her eyes caught the light and sleepily reflected the beauty of her soul. Her body shifted in my arms and her gaze locked onto mine, her voice velvet-soft as she smiled and said, “Merry Christmas.”
I returned the sentiment, smiling back at her, even when all I wanted to do was cry. I had been without her for just three weeks, but it felt like a part of me had died in that time, a part of me that I’d never get back. I had given up on the notion of even seeing her last night, so it was overwhelming when she not only came to me, but proposed to me. It was a dream come true. And then fate decided to add the raw beauty of her in this moment, and well… I couldn’t seem to piece together all of the facets of what I was feeling to come up with a recognizable emotion. It was all a jumbled mess; I was a jumbled mess, but when all was said and done, no matter how jumbled or overwhelmed I was, I could always come back to love, and so that was what I grabbed onto. She was, is, the only person that I’ve ever loved, but in that moment, I felt it stir places in my soul that I had never known.
My lips unerringly found hers, and it felt good to know that I was not only allowed to touch her this way at will, but that my desire was returned without hesitation. The embers cooled by exhaustion sparked to life as I ran my hand through her hair, scraped my nails down her back, smoothed my palm across her, and pushed my fingers through the light curls crowning her center. She lifted her leg with the pageantry of a ballet dancer, hooking it on my hip, and gasped into my mouth as I smoothly entered her.
Her insides greeted me with a shudder and pulled me in further. She was hot and wet and engorged, and I smiled against her full lips as I tracked mine down to her heaving breast. Her increasingly labored breaths tickled my ear and I flushed with gooseflesh when the sensation twitched low between my hips and a riotous buzzing fluttered to life in my stomach.
It was maddening how easily this woman could excite me without even meaning to. I was in a perpetual state of readiness and willingness, and with each deep stroke that I pushed into her, and each wet offering that I pulled out of her, it was almost as if I could feel what she was feeling. Her hands tangled roughly in my hair as I sucked a coral nipple into my mouth and laved it with a sensitive tongue. The rocking of her hips increased, taking even more of me into her with each steady jerk. I pressed my thighs tightly together as my sex swelled and my head spun. Her breaths became short, escalating whimpers, and each one penetrated me in time with the thrusts of my hand.
I felt wild and primal as everything focused in around this one moment in time that I’d never forget, and I followed her over the edge of ecstasy brought on by nothing more than the depths of my love for her. I released her breast and pressed my ear to her frantically thrumming heart, feeling more complete than I ever had, and unable to fathom anything being much better. How wrong I was.
We lay that way for long minutes, letting our hearts calm as we trembled in each other’s embrace and soaked up the yellow sun with our exposed skin. I had received the best gift anyone could have hoped for at any time on a bright Christmas morning, in an empty home, wrapped in blankets on a hardwood floor, in the arms of the most incredible woman I’d ever know. That gift was Tina.
I have to close my eyes. There are so many more pages to walk through in this book, and the first one is already tearing at my heart. While I would be glad to put the last forty-six years on repeat and relive it with her, that’s the problem. I feel her here with me, but I want to see her gorgeous face and stroke her gleaming hair… I want to hear the soft lilt of her voice tell me this story as we relive these moments together. How I miss her…
I pull a listless breath into my weary body and feel a deep peace wash over me as I find the courage to turn the page. I place a trembling hand over my lips as I gaze at the photo of me and my incredible bride, beautiful in my arms, as we dance to our song. I had dipped her back and kissed her with abandon, and I laugh as I locate the memory permanently inked onto my heart, closing my eyes and relishing in it like a favorite black and white movie as it flickers to life behind my eyelids.
I slid my hand further to the middle of Tina’s back and she pressed her body closer into mine without hesitation. Her delicate fingers drew absent-minded patterns on the skin of my neck as we swayed, and I sighed with contentment. I gazed down into her face, adoring her with my eyes as I spoke from my heart. “Thank you for marrying me.”
She smiled beatifically and my heart expanded. Her voice was playful as she responded. “Are you kidding? I’m just thankful that you showed up.”
We both chuckled softly and I shook my head. “It was a close call, wasn’t it?”
She grinned, her beautiful eyes twinkling. “Yes… but you did, and I am so glad because I really didn’t want to have to find you and drag you kicking and screaming to that altar. It would have ruined your hair in the photos.”
I couldn’t help the deep laugh that bubbled up out of my chest and I leaned in on an impulse to kiss her, but she stopped me, placing a hand to my lips and saying, “Uh huh. Didn’t you know that marriage means you’ll never get laid again? It’s in the rulebook.”
I swayed us in a slow circle, contemplating her words. “I always read the rulebooks cover to cover.” She nodded in agreement. “That information was listed in the warning section, but only under the heterosexual subtitle.” She laughed and the sound curled my toes before I continued. “Besides, if I want you…” I gazed into her eyes as I ran my hand from the small of her back, up her side, and settled it next to her breast where I could stroke her teasingly with my thumb. “…and I really do…” The burnished skin along her collarbones flushed pink and she glared at me. I grinned ferally. “…I’m certain that I could persuade you.”
She sighed, meeting my grin with a ferocity of her own. “Is that a challenge, Mrs. Porter-Kennard?”
My grin grew wider as my questing digit grew bolder. “You think you can resist me, Mrs. Porter-Kennard?”
She nodded, a smirk on her face that quickly melted away as I dipped her back and claimed her lips. She was startled at first, but it didn’t last long as her surprised grasp on my shoulders loosened into a loving embrace and she opened her mouth to invite me in. I delighted in the taste of her for a few long moments, completely forgetting where we were, until a stuttering round of applause and wolf-whistles started to erupt around us. I pulled her back up and smiled at her dazed expression. Her voice was low and serious as she said, “Let’s get out of here.”
I laughed and continued our dance, placing my lips to her ear and whispering. “You’re such a pushover.”
I felt her tremble and watched as her blush spread to the delicate lobe at my mouth and she replied, “You’re such a tease.”
I grinned again, nipping at her ear before saying, “And you are in serious trouble when we get back to the hotel.”
She was ravishing that day… quite possibly the most stunning woman I’d ever know, and like a fine wine, she only got better with time. I sigh, my heart aching to look into her eyes and aching with an exhausted age of its own. It’s a strange concept. Our souls get better with age, but our bodies do not. We are, in essence, born dying.
I stroke the photo, following the graceful line of Tina’s silky arm with my fingertip, and tears continue to leak from my eyes. I realize that it was just her time, and I’m thankful that she went peacefully. I just wish she would have been able to be home with me instead of stay in the hospital. She knew that her time was limited, and yet she faced it with a grace that I can only hope to achieve when it’s my turn. I wipe the tears from my face and flip the page to see another beautiful bride, her hand clasped by her husband’s as they run through the shower of bird seed raining down on them. Even now, at nearly eighty-six years old, I still remember that day.
I hesitantly stepped up to the door of Angie’s dressing room, my palms sweating so badly that I could barely grip the door knob. In life, there is a time for everything: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, but right now, it was time for me to walk my daughter down the aisle.
She might have been twenty-four years old, but for me, in my mind, she was still a toddler schooling her brother and sister in the proper etiquette of playground antics. Where did the time go? Where did my babycakes go?
I steeled myself and stepped into the room to see her standing by the full-length mirror. She turned to me, smiling radiantly, and I realized that my babycakes was still somewhere in this beautiful woman when I heard that child’s voice I’d known for so long call to me with infinite love. “Mama B.”
Tina stepped up to me and took the bouquet that I had gone to retrieve from my hands so I wouldn’t drop it. No, I wasn’t ready for this. Somehow, her husband-to-be had survived my threats and browbeating. She was my baby girl… she would always be my baby girl… and yet she was standing before me, a vision in white gossamer, a gorgeous and undeniably full-grown woman. When I finally met her eyes, I saw the tears glittering on her lashes and stepped up to take her in my arms. “Don’t cry, babycakes.”
She rested her head on my shoulder, just like she’d done a million times in her life when she needed comfort, and it was nearly my undoing. This was my baby, and I wasn’t ready to send her out into the world; I never had been, and I never would be. I sighed, trying to hold it together, but it was futile as she spoke again. “I can’t help it. When I saw your face…”
I squeezed her tighter. “I’m sorry, you’re just…” I pulled back, holding her at arms-length. “…you’re unbelievably beautiful.”
She smiled. “Thanks, mom. You are too.”
Rory took a tissue and helped clean Angie’s face, and Tina helped me with mine, tears in her own eyes. I composed myself, trying not to look at Angie, and reminded myself that Matthew would be a good husband. He’d been nothing but respectful despite my protests and threats of the last five years, and I knew that they really were in love with each other. I wouldn’t have abided this if I hadn’t known that. The honest truth was that I just didn’t want to let her go.
I turned back to them just as they finished and straightened my shoulders. Kit stepped into the room. “What’s takin’ you guys so long? It’s time… let’s get a move on.”
I exhaled a deep breath. “We just need a minute, Kit.”
She noticed my face and grinned crookedly. “Mm-hmm. Okay, make it quick. They have a plane to catch tonight and we don’t wanna to be late to the reception hall.” I sent her a scathing look and Rory kissed me on the cheek, smiling as she took Kit’s arm and ushered her out the door. Kit relented, mumbling and shaking her head as Rory turned, winked, and shut the door behind them. I had a moment of panic that Rory wouldn’t be far behind Angie.
Tina saved me, taking my hand and pulling us up in front of Angie. I couldn’t find my voice so she started. “Angie, we just wanted to tell you that we’re so proud of you.” Tina reached up and stroked Angie’s cheek. “And that we love you… so much.”
Angie hugged Tina and I had to divert my eyes as she said, “I love you too, mom.”
When they pulled away from each other, I cleared my tight throat and chanced looking at them. I managed to keep it somewhat together as Tina pulled out the heirloom hairpins she had worn in her hair at our wedding. She held them up to Angie and said, “Something old.” She delicately tucked them into the back of Angie’s hair as she explained. “I wore these in my hair at my wedding.” She stepped back and the diamonds sparkled in the low light of the room. A tear leaked from Angie’s eyes and Tina scolded her. “No crying.” Angie laughed and wiped gently at the tear before nodding.
I cleared my throat and choked back a sob as I pulled a ribbon-wrapped key from my pocket and held it out to her. “Something new.” She took the key, wide-eyes considering it curiously, and it reminded me so much of when she was a toddler that I had to take a moment before I could explain. “We wanted to surprise you both, so we bought you a starter home.”
Tina hastened to add, “It’s the one you and Matt have been looking at.” Yes, it was the one that wasn’t nearly what I would have wanted for her had it been my choice. But I knew that I made the right decision when those wide, hazel eyes met mine with so much love and gratitude shining in them that I could melt into a puddle. My voice was rough, but I got the rest of my words out. “All of your stuff will be moved in by the time you get back from the honeymoon. We’ll pick you up at the airport and take you there.”
She was so shocked that she couldn’t speak and Tina stepped in to continue, pulling her garter out of her clutch and grinning at me as she suggestively twirled it around her finger. I breathed out a soft chuckle. That look helped break the tension and I winked at my wife. I had a tremendous time removing that article of clothing on our wedding night. She held it out to Angie and I gulped as the insinuation hit me like a brick to the face. I did not, under any circumstance, want to add that issue to my growing pile. I diverted my eyes as Tina said, “Something borrowed.” She bent down to help Angie put it on and I sent my eyes skyward to wish for a bolt of lightning to strike me from the earth. To my dismay, Tina jokingly added, “I expect that back.”
I waited for another round of giggles to end and didn’t realize that it had gotten so quiet. I finally looked back at them to see them staring at me with mischief gleaming in their eyes. They laughed again and I glared. “Yeah, yuck it up… both of you.”
Angie reached out, her eyes sympathetic as she stroked my arm. “I know this is hard for you, Mama B.”
I nodded, swallowed hard, and pulled the last item from my pocket to hold it out to her. “Something blue.”
This item was self-explanatory and a few more tears leaked from Angie’s eyes as she held it to her breast. I continued. “When… if, you start a family… we thought you might want to put that in…” I could barely finish the sentence let alone the thought. “…in the baby’s mobile.” It was a blue bauble from the blown glass mobile that had hung above her crib. All of our children had gazed at those colors and shapes as they wondered and dreamed, and they’d all get a bauble. But just seeing it… well, none of us could maintain our composure.
She hugged us both tightly and I closed my eyes as we all shed quiet tears. Fuck, I needed to get a grip. The hardest part was yet to come. After a long moment she released us and took one of mine and Tina’s hands in hers. She gazed down at them for a moment before meeting our eyes and smiling a watery smile. “I have been so blessed to have you as my parents. You taught me how to be honest, and you taught me how to work hard; you taught me how to pursue my dreams, you believed in me, you taught me how to believe in myself… and you taught me how to love.” She stopped, a few more tears streaming down her face. She shook our hands a little bit to emphasize one final point that was everyone’s undoing. “But the best thing you ever did for me… was love each other.” Fuck, fuck, fuck… I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could take. “I love you both more than I could ever tell you. Thank you… so much.”
She hugged us tightly and it was a long moment before Kit finally opened the door again. “Angie, your groom is startin’ to think you stood him–” We turned to her with wet faces and she had to clear her throat. She swiped gently at her watery eyes and sighed as she stepped into the room. “Let me take care of baby girl while you two freshen up.”
She started to help Angie while Tina and I again cleaned up our faces. Once we were as composed as we could be, Tina leaned up and kissed me gently. I hugged her tightly and she whispered, “It’s going to be okay.” I nodded and released a heavy breath into her shoulder before refilling my lungs with the comfort of her lavender scent. She pulled back, stroking my cheek gently. “It’s time, Bette.”
The look in her eyes, the tone of her voice… I knew what she really meant. It was time to let Angie start her life. I smiled sadly. “I know.”
She kissed me again and Angie stepped up to us, beautiful and radiant. Tina breathed out the words that have stuck with me to this day. “You look just like your Mama B when I married her.”
I gazed at the impossible smile that split Angie’s face and there was no denying it, she did look just like me. She was just like me, and I couldn’t have been more proud of her, because ultimately, she had surpassed me.
She stepped between us, linking her arm in each of ours, and Kit placed her bouquet in her right hand. We stepped through the double doors to the courtyard beyond and made our trek along the hedge to the covered opening, stopping and gazing down the aisle. Everyone on either side stood and smiled at us, and I glanced over at Angie. Her eyes met mine and she grinned with all the happiness I could have ever wanted for her. It was time, and the three of us took the first step.
It was a slow, awkward, and halting walk down this seemingly too-short aisle, all of the faces greeting us were happy, tearful, and achingly familiar. These were our friends, our family, people who had stuck with us through everything and had been so very important to not just our lives, but the lives of our children.
As we approached the altar, the young man who would be my son-in-law, an orphan toward whom I had held animosity despite my regret at all he had been through, was waiting. I just couldn’t seem to really let him in or trust him. Malcolm was at his side, standing in for a missing Tom, and I realized that I had been too harsh on him. He was good enough for Angie because he was a good person. All he’d ever wanted out of life was a family, and love, and despite all of the loneliness and pain he’d endured, he had managed to stop running and be worthy of my daughter. I had been wrong not to see his value and his worth, but at least I was seeing it now. Tina had always seen it, Angie had always seen it, and I had seen it, even while I fought it, fought him… with all that I had. At that moment I had no choice but to stop fighting it for my daughter’s sake. It was Angie’s day, and his day, and they both deserved to be happy.
I approached him and he held his hand out in a plea of acceptance. What would have been grudging was now a gesture of faith as I took Angie’s hand and placed it in his. He took her from me with a smile of pure joy that was only for her, but he met my eyes when Valentino asked me and Tina that age old question that means so much to a parent: “Who gives this woman in holy matrimony?”
I gazed at Matthew intently, the responsibility of what he was asking of me heavy in my voice and my eyes. He didn’t flinch or waver as Tina and I chorused, “We do.”
He nodded in understanding and in promise, grinning brightly as he looked back to his bride, and together they turned away from us. And as my daughter turned her back to me, I realized that she was gone, leaving us behind as she walked forward with someone else. He would console her now; he would love her now; he would protect her now; Not me… not anymore. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it? Despite all that we do as parents, despite all that we want for our children, all the sacrifices that we make to get them to this point, we just have to trust that we have prepared them and that they have chosen a spouse worthy of them.
Tears welled in my eyes and I swallowed hard. Tina stroked my arm and led me to our seats, and I turned to look at my own wife, remembering our vows, and realizing that this was why marriage is so sacred: we have each other to pull through, just as Angie would now have Matthew.
Angie’s almost fifty years old and she has two beautiful children of her own, Tom and Malcolm. It doesn’t end there; my grandsons have three young children between them: Liza, Mia, and Bella. It is a constant source of joy to know that both Tina and I lived to see that happen, but it’s also a constant reminder of just how old I am. My baby is a grandmother, and it still just boggles my mind. But that doesn’t change anything. She will always be my babycakes, nothing more and nothing less.
I turn to the next page and can’t help the chuckle that causes me to start coughing. My lungs are weak and, in essence, my body is failing me. There’s just nothing the doctors can do. Besides, I want to be in my home, in my bed, a place full of memories and reminders of a happy and fulfilled life… of Tina. I’m not in pain; I’m just so very tired, and the coughing fits make me feel so drained.
I finally get control of my lungs and sip some of the water from the glass on the nightstand. It soothes my raw throat and I take several shallow breaths as I again gaze down on the photo. I smile as I stroke the surface. God, the look on my face is just… there aren’t words to describe it. But then again, I couldn’t explain all the emotions that I had felt if I wanted to, but I can remember it. My body may be failing, but my mind is as sharp as ever.
Angie giggled, showing off the two new teeth that had finally cut through her gums. It broke my heart to see her in pain, and all of the fevers and crying had scared me a little. We had tried everything in the last week: a trip to the hospital, frozen teething rings, and baby Ora-jel. And while Tina wasn’t looking, I’d slipped just a little whiskey into her bottle one night like daddy used to do for me. Of all the attempts, that seemed to work the best, but it was still touch and go. This day was the first that she’d been feeling better, and I gazed into her wide, hazel eyes as I tickled her until she erupted into delighted squeals.
I took her hands and clapped them in front of my face, hovering over her and talking to her about everything and nothing. Tina was curled up on the chaise in the corner of the room reading a book, but I would randomly hear the shutter of her camera as she tried to snap pictures on the sly. So long as these were for our eyes only, I was okay with it. Someone else seeing them would have just been too undignified.
I was in the habit of doing things very out of character to see my daughter happy. Case in point, at that very moment, I was leaning down to blow a delicate raspberry on my daughter’s tummy and I had no idea why I would do that, but I sure as fuck didn’t want Alice to tease me about it for the rest of my life.
Angie screamed with happiness and I laughed at her as she patted my cheeks excitedly, quietly asking for more. Who was I to deny her? I leaned in again and rumpled her ticklish tummy. She laughed and I looked over to see Tina chuckling with her. I grinned sheepishly. “What? She loves it.”
She put up a placating hand. “Please, by all means, continue. I’m enjoying it myself.”
I squinted my eyes at her, glancing at the camera in her hands with foreboding. She laughed again and lifted the camera, forever documenting my most feral expression, and that’s when it happened. Angie had been getting impatient with my lack of attention and wanted to let me know that it was unacceptable. Her small, innocent voice was strong, loud, and clear as she shouted, “Mama!”
I felt my face fall in shock and looked down at my daughter disbelievingly. She had just spoken her first word and she had just said it to me… she spoke to me… she called me mama. I looked back to Tina to see her smiling and tears gathering in her eyes. “T, did she just…?”
Tina nodded and our impatient daughter did it again, this time emphasizing her point with several pats to my cheek. “Mama!”
God, that was the best thing I’d ever heard. I could feel my eyes get wide with incredulous joy, a grin so wide my ears ached, and tears started to sting my eyes. I looked back to Tina to see her quickly depress the shutter before lowering the camera. She set it aside and came over to us, putting her arm around me and resting her head on my shoulder as we both gazed at our daughter, our hearts bursting to overflowing.
It was an incredible moment, and Tina captured it beautifully. I look at my young face, the expression so full of so many things, and can’t understand why I would care if anyone knew that I was capable of being silly. I guess that it’s one of those things you learn as you get older: be who you are, and be unashamed. So long as you’re doing the right things for the right reasons, other opinions don’t matter at all.
I’m at least thankful that I was able to be silly around Tina. If I hadn’t been, I’d have missed out on so many things with our children, and I wouldn’t be gazing down onto this photo right now, remembering one of the most precious moments in our history together. I grin one last time and put the memory back in its place for safe keeping, anxious to see what else my wife wants to tell me.
The next picture, well… it probably means the most to me. Alice took it, and it pulled me through the very depths of hell. This is the picture I kept with me during my trial. This is the picture that changed my mind about myself. This is the picture helped me to become free in so many ways. It’s a monument to joy but it’s also a monument to justice. It changed lives, some for the better, but some… not so much.
The phone rang and Tina reached over me to take it off of the nightstand. Her voice was sleepy and confused as she answered. “Joyce, hey…?” Pause. “Okay…” Tina squinted into the bright light of my smartphone, finally finding the speakerphone button and pressing it. Her head fell back onto my chest and she mumbled. “Okay, Joyce. It’s on speaker. I think Bette’s awake…”
She tilted her head and gazed up at me, and I furrowed my brows as I took over. “Hey Joyce, it’s three in the morning.” I yawned. “Is everything okay?”
I turned my face, closed my eyes, and buried my nose in the hair at the crown of Tina’s forehead as Joyce began. “I thought you both would want to know, Merle Rothman… she’s dead.”
I blinked a few times as the information tried to stick, but it just wouldn’t. Long moments of silence ensued before an extremely tense Tina broke it. “Joyce, are you sure?”
My mind finally had something to contribute. “How? What happened?”
“Duffy just called and said that a couple of hours ago, the station received an emergency dispatch. Merle was pushed out of her bedroom window. Her apartment is on the fourteenth floor…” Wow. “…it was Kelly.”
Tina sat up, wide awake. “Is Duffy certain?”
“Yes. Duffy was tailing her, as she promised you, and followed her to Merle’s apartment building. Duffy watched Kelly go inside and, not thinking anything of a meeting given their history, decided to just wait. Merle was pushed from her window. A few minutes later, Kelly came walking out and tried to sneak away. Duffy chased her into the street where they had an altercation and Kelly was arrested. A crowd had formed and several bystanders witnessed the event that transpired between Kelly and Duffy, and heard Kelly admit to killing Duffy’s family. There’s no way she’ll get bail, she’s going to prison for the rest of her life.”
Tina trembled a little bit and I stroked her back soothingly as she asked, “But can’t she just find someone on the outside to come after Bette?”
Joyce’s voice was strong. “No. We’re going to push to have her locked in a max security psych ward. She won’t be allowed to have visitors or use the phone. She’ll literally spend her days in a locked, padded room. Now that Merle’s dead, getting a deputy to follow through with prosecution shouldn’t be difficult.”
Tina still wasn’t convinced. “You’re sure that Bette’s safe?”
“I can have Duffy call you if you want, but I’m sure. There’s no way out of it. She was at the scene of a crime just hours after being released and twenty people heard her confess to another murder. There’s just no way out for her unless she can find a way to skip the country, but she’s already in a holding cell. And, her lawyer has already said he wants to cut a deal with the police to avoid the death penalty. It’ll take some time, but it’s truly over.”
I stroked Tina’s arm and she blew out an anxious breath. I knew that she’d have to see it to feel safe, but we had been doing well despite the worry and I wasn’t going to let it rule our lives. I squeezed her hand and answered Joyce. “Thanks for letting us know, Joyce. Tell Duffy that we’ll be coming down to the station tomorrow.”
“No problem. I’ll talk to you guys tomorrow. Goodnight.”
I clicked the phone off and Tina snuggled in closer, her voice soft as she said, “Thank God.”
I kissed her hair. “We’ll confirm in the morning and if Joyce is right, no more worry… agreed?”
She kissed my shoulder before settling down again and sighed pensively as she replied, “Agreed.”
I shake my head lightly as I remember the bittersweet justice of that moment. So much had happened, and while I’m thankful that there was an end to checking every corner for a shadowy figure, I just wish that it had been a less tragic end.
Kelly died in that padded room roughly ten years ago, and from what I understand, she had gone catatonic: the lights were on but no one was home. And Corky, well, he was hated into early retirement by Tom, Jamie, and the NO H8 protestors. They made such a fuss about him to the press that he didn’t really have a choice. He died only a few years later of a massive coronary. Not a much better end than Merle and Kelly’s, but a natural one nonetheless.
I gaze down into this photo of me and my young family, and the happiness of it is so contrasting to all of the connotations it holds, but all of that mess was worth it, because these people, my family, are worth anything and everything. I have been blessed. There have been so many of these moments in my life. It has been an incredible journey and I wish that I had opened this album sooner. I don’t know why I couldn’t bring myself to do it, except for the fact that it hurts. I miss my wife, but our story is also immensely satisfying.
I smile as I stroke the surface one last time and turn the page. I’m kneeling and squeezing the very life out of my twins from the bottom of their school steps on their first day of kindergarten. I roll my eyes at myself and shake my head, not the least bit surprised. I had no idea that this picture even existed; Tina had taken so many of them during our life together that it would be impossible to catalog them all, but I’m so glad that she did, and she apparently was sneakier than I gave her credit for. I’m so glad that she documented these moments and made this tribute. I was so lucky to have had her for my wife.
Tears well in my eyes as I gaze in on this loaded moment. Being a parent is exhausting for anyone, but for a control freak, it’s exceptionally difficult. It was so hard for me to send the children that I would die for out into the cruel world alone. And even though, I had already been through this with Angie, this was two at once, and therefore, twice as hard. But, as always, I had the love of a patient and understanding wife to help me through it, and the knowledge that they had each other in the same capacity.
The line leading up to the front doors of the Larchmont Charter School was a slow crawl. I was tapping the steering wheel nervously and I kept glancing into the backseat through the rear-view mirror. Chance was bouncing excitedly in his seat and Rory looked how I felt – sick to her stomach. I glanced over at Tina. “You packed one of the organic yogurts for each of them, right?”
She turned and smiled patiently. “Yes, Bette.”
I nodded and blew out a breath, letting off the brakes and moving a few inches forward. “Oh, did you grab the medical records off of the counter?”
“Yes, Mrs. Albertson will be in front of the school to walk Chance and Rory in, just like you requested. I’ll give them to her then.”
I nodded and gripped the steering wheel tightly as we moved a few more inches forward, worry knotted in the pit of my stomach. We’d missed something, had forgotten something, or were unprepared in some innocuous way; I could feel it. My voice was louder than intended as I nearly shouted, “I forgot their nap mats!”
Tina reached a hand over to pry one of my own from the steering wheel and I sighed as she linked our fingers over the arm rest. “It’s okay, babe. They’re in the back. I’ll give those to Mrs. Albertson when we get there as well.”
I let out a frustrated breath and moved forward a little more, the front of the school now looming in sight. I hated this. “We should home school, T.”
She laughed and squeezed my hand. “Bette, this is one of the best private schools in the area. Just like Angie, they’re going to be just fine here.”
“But think about it, T. There’s nothing they can learn here that I couldn’t tutor them in. I could have them doing college level algebra in just a few years, and we could focus on the arts–”
“Bette…” I looked over at her hesitantly. “They need to socialize and interact with other adults and kids their own age. We can’t give them that from home.” Tears welled up in my eyes and I jumped as the car behind us honked. With a deep sigh, I faced forward and travelled the last remaining feet, pulling up to the curb, and putting the car in park. Just as promised, a smiling Mrs. Albertson was standing there waiting for us. The interruption stopped the tears and I took a deep breath as I reluctantly opened my door.
Tina pulled me to a stop and I turned back to her gentle eyes. She stroked the haphazard curls from my forehead, her voice warm as she said, “I know you’re worried, babe… but we’re doing the right thing for them.” I smiled as best I could and Tina squeezed my hand one last time before we stepped out of the car and helped our children onto the curb.
Rory hid behind my leg and Chance tried to run right for the doors, but Mrs. Albertson stopped him. “Hold on a minute, Chance. Let’s talk to your moms first, okay?”
Chance sighed and nodded, moping back up to me as Rory pushed her glasses up on her nose and peered around my leg at the entrance with as much foreboding as I felt. I stroked her wavy chestnut hair and she glanced up at me. Her worried face broke my heart. Tina was right though, especially with Rory. She was such a shy child. She needed to learn how to interact with her peers, and I couldn’t give that to her. I was just so afraid for them. Kids can be so cruel, and I’d do anything to protect these babies. They’re just babies… my babies. And that’s why I needed to be strong for them.
I half-listened to Tina’s conversation with Mrs. Albertson as she provided the records and mats, and crouched down in front of my children, pulling them together in front of me. I swallowed around the lump in my throat as I gazed at them. “This is a big day, huh guys?”
Chance nodded, an eager grin splitting his face, and Rory lowered her head, a pathetic, “Yeah,” escaping her quiet voice.
I sucked up my emotions and smiled brighter than I felt as I smoothed down Chance’s unruly cowlick and gently lifted Rory’s chin until I could see her worried eyes. “You know it’s okay to be scared–”
Chance piped in bravely. “I’m not scared at all, Mama B!”
I grinned and nudged him. “I know, little man. And that’s why I’m counting on you to look out for your sister.”
He looked over at Rory and I watched as realization dawned on his young face. He slung his arm over her shoulder and said, “It’s okay, Roar-ery. I’ll be there, too.”
My heart nearly burst as I watched her smile at her brother, some of the anxiety lifting from her thin shoulders. I pulled them both in for a crushing hug, and sent a prayer out into the ether that someone, something, would protect them while they were away from me.
My poor, shy baby girl. Chance made good on his word that day, and has continued to do so unfailingly. I flip the page, anxious to see what more my wife has to tell me, and find that her thoughts seem to mirror my own at this moment. There, on the page, are my three children. Chance is between his sisters, his arm perched proudly around both of their shoulders, much like it was on his first day of kindergarten. No matter how big they get, they’re still just my babies. He and Rory are both dressed in their college graduation gowns, and I realize that not only did Chance fulfil the promise he made to Rory all those years ago, but the three of them would always love and protect each other every step of the way. Even now that Tina’s gone, and even when I’m gone.
I gripped Tina’s hand tightly as we made our way through the mass of black, royal blue, and gold-adorned bodies. From the look of it, we weren’t the only lost parents trying to find our children in this crowd. I pulled Tina with me towards the wall in the reception area, and I used my height advantage to scan the crowd. It took several minutes before I saw another taller-than-normal head peeking over the top, unruly blond hair poking out from beneath a black cap. He was talking animatedly with someone, a boyish grin on his handsome face, and I felt my heart swell with pride. Yes, that was my son, the college graduate.
I tugged at Tina and she pulled in close behind me as I led her back through the sea of people and came up behind Chance. He and Rory were talking to some friends, so we decided to wait unobtrusively until they were done. Rory would have none of that though. The minute she spied us through her glasses, she grinned a grin so much like Tina’s and shouted, “Moms!”
The group turned to us and before I knew it, my arms were full of my beautiful daughter. She clutched me tightly, her wavy chestnut hair smelling of lavender. Both of them were brimming with excitement and I laughed as Chance swooped Tina up in his arms, the toes of her heels barely scuffing the floor. After a few moments they both pulled back and Chance slung his arm around Rory’s shoulders as he said, “We looked everywhere for you. I was beginning to worry that you’d ditched us to get out of doing my laundry.”
We chuckled and Rory cut in. “Or maybe you’d started repurposing my room into…” Tina snapped a picture as if on cue, and Rory gestured to the item sardonically. “…a darkroom.”
Tina lowered the device and glared at our daughter seriously. “I’d never do that.” She paused for a moment. “I was thinking something along the lines of a home gym. I’m getting a little soft around the middle in my old age.”
Chance laughed at Rory’s indignant huff, and I brushed the honey-hued hair from Tina’s shoulder, the florescent lights highlighting silver strands at her temples as I gazed deep into the eyes that turned to lock onto mine. “You’re as beautiful now as you’ve ever been.”
She raised a delicate eyebrow and took my hand, kissing the knuckles. “So are you.”
I heard my children groan, and smiled as Chance broke the moment. “Well, on that note, we’re going to an after party.”
I looked around and asked. “Where’s Angie?”
Rory smiled. “She went to find Matt.” I rolled my eyes and Chance grinned at me. I wasn’t ready for how serious Angie and Matthew were becoming, but I didn’t have much say in the matter. I had been trying to scare him away, but it just wasn’t working. It was hard to push away someone who had been a part of my family for several years, especially when I had made it clear that his penchant for running was unacceptable. I looked to see Tina raising an eyebrow at me and sighed. It was especially hard when I was outnumbered.
Chance’s deep voice broke through my thoughts. “Speak of the devil…”
I turned to see Angie stride up holding Matthew’s hand. She held onto him until the last moment before letting go and hugging her siblings. I gazed hard at him, unwavering in my disapproval. He smiled despite my frosty demeanor, his voice polite as he said, “It’s nice to see you both.”
I watched Tina smile and start to chatter with him, holding my hand in silent communion. She loved him, but then she had a healthy grasp on our children. Mine was more of a desperate clutch. Angie met my eyes, smiling smugly in her conviction that an orphan and community college graduate who fixes cars for a living and has a penchant for running away, was worthy of an undergrad who would someday own and operate the Porter-Kennard gallery, let alone the fact that she was my daughter. I just couldn’t help it. No one, not even a good person, would ever be worthy of her.
She shook her head and came forward to hug me, and of course, I accepted it gratefully. We had gone round and round about him, and it was with exasperated pride that I had to concede. How could I fight her when he was part of our family? How could I fight her when her stance was one that I knew all too well: ‘You love who you love, mom. It shouldn’t matter that he’s an orphan, or that he made a mistake when he was younger, or what he does for a living, or how well-educated he is… any more than it should matter that you and Mama T are both women.’
Yes, the conversation was over at that point. I lost, and rightly so. My elitism was nothing more or less than a diluted form of bigotry. And while I did feel that way, ultimately it was a smoke screen for the real issue. Yes, I wanted the very best for her. I didn’t hate Matthew, he just wasn’t the best. But I was still learning the hard way that the best for her was to get swept away, to sing with rapture and dance like a dervish. And as much as I hated to admit it, I could tell that they were falling head over heels. He loved her like crazy and she loved him the same way. It didn’t make it any less difficult to swallow and I’d never love her any less regardless, but despite how much I wanted that for her… I just didn’t want to lose her and I didn’t want her to get hurt. Matthew was just too volatile, and I was so scared for her.
She pulled back, smiling and I winked to spite myself. She returned to her brother and sister and Tina grouped them together to take one more picture… our babies, all grown up. Chance’s deep voice was loud as he exclaimed, “Well, I think it’s time to go celebrate.”
I adopted the best feral expression in my arsenal and pointed at him in warning. He put his hands up in a gesture of surrender, chuckling as he said, “I know, I know! We’ll stick together and be careful.” His voice was genuine and there was conviction in his soulful eyes despite his coy smile. I knew that what he said was true, and the three of them hugged us one last time before they broke away to meet up with their friends who had been waiting patiently. I put my arm around Tina’s shoulders and we watched with solemn hearts as our babies disappeared into the crowd… and into the world.
It’s incredible. These children, born of mine and Tina’s love, are now successful adults, individuals, but bound together by an immensely heavy thread of commonality: their love for one another. It’s visible and I am so proud of each of them.
Rory went on to marry a very sweet girl, a girl she met when she was just three years old, when her Aunt Alice and Aunt Dana brought their daughter home for the first time, a little girl named Melissa. Rory and Melissa grew up as best friends, so becoming lovers was a gradual progression.
It was beautiful to witness, because while they did experience bigotry from the outside, they didn’t have that awkward coming out or nervousness that comes with falling in love with someone who wouldn’t understand. They are two people who can honestly say they’ve loved each other their whole lives. They were inseparable as children, and now, they’re both still as bonded – partners in life, doting parents, and joint owners of a private pediatric practice that specializes in low-income families.
Melissa was a few years behind Rory, but she became a psychologist; and Rory became a pediatrician. Together they have devoted their lives to each other, to their two adopted daughters, Leah and Sarah, and to the less fortunate as a whole. All of the elitist notions I was clinging to with Angie died with Rory, and I’m proud of her for pursuing a simple life with a simple goal: to give back.
Chance… Chance had me and Tina scared out of our minds for a long time. After college he joined the marines. How could I support that? Well, neither Tina nor I did support that decision, but he was determined and an adult, and no matter what he was our son. So, we lived with it and supported him in spite of it.
He served under the failed leadership of a failed government, but by some miracle, after many anxious nights, Chance came home. He was injured, and while we were desperately happy to have him, he didn’t actually come home; he was… changed.
He had been shot, and while that wound healed, his mind suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s when I realized that no one politician, Republican or Democrat, was better than the other. My son and all of the men and women that fight for our nation, they are just being used, and what’s worse is that the government doesn’t provide the medical care they need and earn. Fortunately for us, we had two medical doctors in the family.
It took years, but he’s healthy, both in body and spirit. I don’t believe that he’ll ever not be haunted by what he saw or was forced to do, but by some miracle he found love, married a beautiful girl named Julia, and together they had a son, Michael.
He’s never had the heart to express what he was going through to me or Tina at length, but we held him many nights when he’d wake from a night terror. Whatever it was, he found a way through it. And despite my bitterness at the situation, I grew to be very proud of him. It must have taken so much to really come home, but he eventually did.
I flip the page, hoping to move forward and dispel these memories. They’re important, but they’re in the past, and that’s where I want them to be. Tears gather in my eyes as I gaze in on the image of my son dressed in scrubs and cradling his newborn as my younger self wipes the tears from his handsome face. His smile is huge and genuine and my wife captured it perfectly, as is her way. That’s the day he really came home. Our son became a father that night, and I send out a thank you to my wife for reminding me of this perfect moment of healing for Chance, at the most perfect time for me.
Tina nestled her head further into my shoulder. The uncomfortable seats in the hospital waiting room where we had been anxiously waiting for the last three hours, might as well have been concrete slabs. My back was killing me and I knew that Tina’s must have been killing her as well. We were getting too old for this. Angie was curled up against my other side and I glanced over at Julia’s parents… the homophobes.
They hated that Julia had married our son. To them, he was the product of a biracial abomination, just like the rest of our children. It was that mindset, the only thing, that would cause me feel regret for choosing to have my children. Chance didn’t choose the family he was born into, and yet Julia’s parents would take their hatred of us out on him. They refused to allow us all to spend holidays together, and so, Chance and his family alternated them. I never wanted anything to do with them after that, but every Thanksgiving and every Christmas, despite knowing that it would be declined, they’d receive a formal invitation from my wife.
That was one of the many reasons I loved Tina so much: despite what people thought, she would make sure that we rose above it. If they were going to be angry and hateful, all of the responsibility for that negativity would rest on their heads alone. However, I was not as gracious, choosing instead to keep my mouth shut for the sake of my wife and my son… and now, my grandson.
As if on cue, Chance stepped quietly into the room, covered head to toe in surgical sheeting and fabric, his eyes swollen and red-rimmed from the tears of joy still leaking from them, and held a tiny swaddled baby who slept peacefully in his arms. We all stood and I gazed at my son curiously. He seemed… different, better, himself.
He smiled at me, his handsome face shining with more life than I’d seen in his eyes for so long, and I wanted to take him in my arms and cradle him. We all made our way forward as we gathered around him, and he held his son out to us. In much the same manner that I had introduced Angelica, he said, “This is my son…” He met my eyes and then Tina’s. “…your grandson, Michael.”
I heard the shutter of Tina’s camera and couldn’t stop myself from stepping forward and kissing my grandson’s cheek. He smelled of innocence and new life and I gazed up into the eyes of the grown man that I had held this same way, stroking his scruffy cheek as I let him know something that had been weighing heavily on my heart, something that I hadn’t said because I was so scared for him. “Welcome home.” He leaned in and kissed my cheek, and I finished my thought as I gazed into his happy face. “I’m so proud of you.”
He nodded his head with loving understanding as a few more tears ran down his cheeks, and I reached up to stroke them away as I had done so many times in his life. His soulful, dark eyes met my own, the healing of new life shining out from his soul as he said, “Thank you, mom. It feels good.”
Tina snapped another picture before stepping forward to take her own fulfillment. I could tell Julia’s parents were getting frustrated, having been ignored completely, but I couldn’t find the will to care. This little boy was handsome, just like his father, and not accepting his father was the same as not accepting him. Tina, being true to her nature, did care. She kissed Michael and then Chance, her voice warm as she said, “He’s perfect, Chance.” Once she’d had her moment, she invited the other grandparents in.
I was so grateful that she did, because in that moment, for the first time, I saw them view Chance in a new light… and maybe even us. They didn’t flinch at our close proximity, and I saw that they were capable of love as they hugged my son and finally welcomed him, just as they were welcoming their first grandbaby. He let them hold Michael, and while I wanted to begrudge them first dibs, I didn’t want to begrudge my son this healing in his own family.
Tina and I stepped away and watched as Angelica said something quietly to Chance that made him laugh. He kissed her cheek, adoring his big sister just like he had as a child, before he looked to Julia’s parents. Chance’s warm voice spoke softly. “Rory and Lissa are taking care of Julia. They’ll be out soon and then we can all go see her.”
Julia’s parents sniggered at the mention of Rory and Melissa’s names before focusing on the egitimate worry. “Is she okay?”
Chance smiled. “Yes. She’s beautiful. They’re just stitching up the episiotomy. They said she’d be done and moved to recovery in about forty-five minutes.”
Julia’s parents released a relieved breath and Chance retrieved Michael before stepping up to me and Tina. His face was bright with satisfaction as he placed Michael in Tina’s arms for the first time. Chance stepped away and slung his arm around Angie’s shoulders, and I cradled both my wife and my grandson in my own arms as I gazed into the face of perfection… my family, my legacy.
I have seen and endured some truly terrible things in my life, but as a result I have witnessed some incredible healing as well. It comes in all forms on both sides of the equation, but just like my son, if you can find the strength to move forward through it, you will find the strength to recover.
I stroke the image of his handsome face one last time and turn the page. The next photo only reaffirms my thoughts and solidifies the strength of my conviction. Tom has his arm around my son-in-law’s shoulders. Matthew was thirteen when Tom had adopted him, and he was eighteen in this photo. In those five short years with Tom, Matthew had learned what it meant to have a family and to be loved, something his young life had been so completely devoid of. And Tom, he learned what it meant to be a part of a family, to be a parent, an uncle, and a brother. They were good for each other, and while exasperating at times, they were good for us. It was just a hard road to get there.
I turned away from Tina groggily, the pounding on the front door downstairs getting louder and more forceful. Tina stirred next to me, her sleepy voice asking, “Who is it?”
I rolled my eyes and chuckled at her as I got to my feet, put on my robe, and handed hers to her. My voice was sardonic as I replied, “I’m not sure yet. I have to answer the door first.”
She yawned and slipped her robe on, smiling at me apologetically. “Sorry, I’m not firing on all cylinders yet. It’s early, but I’ll start some coffee. Whoever that is, it sounds like they won’t be leaving for a while.”
The hammering was becoming frantic, interspersed with spasmodic shudders of the doorbell, and we stumbled down the stairs, followed by two disheveled, fourteen year-old twins who had been woken far too early. I watched as Angie peeked out the window and hastened to unlock the door. Her voice was excited as she exclaimed, “Matt!”
We pulled up behind her and I felt myself become exceedingly irritated. Matthew not only kept trying to date my seventeen-year-old daughter, but he wanted to wake up my family at six am on a Saturday by knocking the door down? One of those was never going to happen, and neither of them was acceptable. Just as I was about to make that very clear, the look on his face, the tears in his eyes… they stopped me. Something was very wrong.
Angie pulled him inside and I watched worriedly as he buried his face in her neck and sobbed. I’d known him since he was adopted into our family five years ago. I never hated him or begrudged him anything until he set his sights on Angie. I felt sorry for him. I knew of his past… what he went through as a child was terrible, but not once, despite all his abuse and loneliness, had I seen him cry. No, he just ran away when things were too hard for him.
Tina and Angie got him to the sectional where he collapsed and put his head in his hands, Angie next to him and stroking his back. The sobbing wasn’t stopping and I looked over at Tina. The worry in her eyes broke my heart, because ultimately, there’s only one thing that would explain this. I approached him, sat on his vacant side, and hesitantly put my hand on his back to ask, “Matthew, what’s happened?”
He slumped over to me and gripped me tightly around the waist. I held him awkwardly, feeling like a wretch. It was getting exhausting putting him off. I looked to Tina for help and she rounded up our children, even Angie who protested but lost. Once the room was cleared, Tina got to her knees in front of us and pulled Matthew to her, meeting my eyes over his shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Tina… I’m so sorry…” She stroked his hair soothingly, a distant look of pain settling in her eyes as she braced. She knew, we both did, but his next words confirmed it. “It’s… it’s Tom… he’s dead…”
I closed my eyes against the anguish on her face and the pain blooming to life in my own stomach. When I reopened them, the site of my wife breaking down with him was just too much. I put my arms around them both, trying to… I didn’t even know what. I didn’t even believe him yet. I couldn’t. “Matthew, what happened?”
He was trembling, but at least he was starting to calm down. Tina was inconsolable as he related what happened, and all I could do was hold her and listen. “We were supposed to go fishing early this morning. When he didn’t get up… I-I just thought he decided to sleep in, so I started to make us breakfast. When it was ready, he still hadn’t come out, so I went to get him. He-he was cold…” He started to cry piteously again. “I called 9-1-1 and some people came. They don’t know why… but said something about a heart attack.”
I felt sick and Tina gripped me tighter as I put my hand on his shoulder. “Why didn’t you call us?”
He scrubbed at his face. “I didn’t know what to do… I wasn’t… thinking. I just started running and wound up here… I’m so sorry…”
Tina finally calmed down enough to take him in her arms again, and I looked on, tears streaming down my own cheeks as helplessness set in. Tom was almost fifty-five years old, but that was too young… Tina and I weren’t much younger… and I hadn’t realized it then, but I loved Tom. I had forgiven him, and now it was too late to tell him. Tina’s voice was gentle as it broke through my troubled thoughts. “Matt, it’s okay…”
He locked shattered, green eyes on her, searching her face as he asked, “It’s me… isn’t it?”
Tina and I both chorused an incredulous, “What?!”
I shook my head at him. “Matthew, this isn’t your fault.”
He snorted bitterly. “Right. My parents tried to kill me, my adopted parents died in a car wreck, Tom’s dead, and you… you–” His anguish dissipated into something calm, too calm, and he stood abruptly. “I have to go.”
He tried to make his way to the door but I managed to pull away from Tina and stop him. “Where do you think you’re going?”
He wouldn’t meet my eyes as he tugged away. “There’s nothing for me here anymore.”
I eyed him with repulsion. This is what I was afraid of. “So that’s it then. Now that Tom’s dead no one else matters.”
His eyes were cold as he finally looked at me. “You hate me, Bette.”
I sighed. “Matthew, that’s absurd. I don’t hate you; I hate the way you look at my daughter, and this is precisely why.”
He shrugged. “Then what do you care? I leave and you’re happy. I won’t see her anymore.”
Tina came up to my side, radiating anger. Whether it was at me or him, I couldn’t tell. I sighed, relieved, when she addressed him. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“I’m eighteen. You can’t stop me and the police won’t care.”
Tina stepped forward and touched his arm. “I care.”
His eyes softened. “And that’s why I have to go.”
I couldn’t help the ire that flushed through my system. He was so much like Tom – run away and use your past as an excuse to bow out when things get hard. “So you just want to disappear when it gets hard. We all took you in, Matthew, not just Tom. I may not trust you, for precisely this reason, but I’ve never been hateful to you. When are you going to stop running? Fuck, you ran away from Tom too…”
Tina gave me a look so scathing that I was surprised I didn’t turn into a pillar of salt. I swallowed my anger as she addressed him. “You don’t have anywhere to go, Matt.”
“Like I said, I’m eighteen. I still have my job. I can support myself. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Or you can stay with us.”
My eyes opened so wide they nearly fell out of my head, followed by an uncontrollable, “WHAT?” spilling from my lips.
I received another scathing look and pinched the bridge of my nose against the headache pounding to life in my skull. She couldn’t be serious. I didn’t see it, but I heard it, the door slammed shut behind him and I was left with his mess… his and Tom’s. I tried to take Tina in my arms, but she wouldn’t let me. “Bette, we’ll talk about this later. We have damage control to do, and being angry at you in the middle of all of this isn’t helping anything.”
Her eyes were still wet and she was shaking, but I didn’t know how to help her, and I shouldn’t have said that to him, at least not like this, with Tom… dead. I swallowed hard, tears of pain replacing anger. Tina saw my face and her own tears returned as she pulled me to her and tucked her head under my chin. I felt immensely better as she whispered, “I’m sorry. I just wish you hadn’t said that to him right now. I know he’s messed up and that he likes Angie, but he’s had a hard life and he needs our help. Why do you dislike him so much?”
I exhaled heavily. “I’m sorry, T. I just don’t trust him, and that’s why. I mean, he just took off… just like Tom.”
“Tom hasn’t… didn’t… do that again. Matthew’s not beyond learning either, babe.”
I held her tighter as we both cried for several minutes. I released a shuddering breath. “I know, but it took several years for me to trust Tom. I’m sorry, I just don’t want to see Angie get hurt. I don’t want anyone to get hurt, T. And I’m so sorry that you lost Tom…”
I buried my face in her shoulder, shedding more of my own tears. This was so messed up. We stayed that way until we eventually cried ourselves out and she released me. My shattered heart evaporated when I turned to see Angie sitting at the breakfast bar, looking utterly destroyed. She’d heard everything, and I couldn’t fix any of it for her. She lost her uncle and her first love in one fell swoop. At seventeen, it’s always worse. Tina met my gaze and stroked my face, reminding me that we could and would get through any and everything. “You get the twins and bring them in here. I have no idea how to tell them, but I guess we have to. And then…” I kissed her forehead, closing my eyes and breathing her in. She didn’t finish and she didn’t need to. I held onto her hand until the last minute before going to retrieve my children from the back patio. I heard Tina and Angie start sobbing together and decided to take some extra time before returning.
We buried Tom near the memorial for our first son, the same place that Tina is resting now, and the same place I will rest soon. We didn’t hear from Matthew again until two years later. He’d obtained his GED and graduated from Los Angeles Pierce College with an Associate Degree in Automotive Technology. Given how young he was and how little he had, it was an impressive feat. I was mostly surprised that he’d finished what he started. He came to manage the shop he worked at, and eventually bought it when the owner retired. He’s been an excellent provider, a superb husband, and fantastic father. It took a long time for me to trust him, and as much as what I said to him that day was inappropriate in its timing, he later thanked me.
Angie had been crushed, of course. Your first is always the hardest. I laugh as I remember her reaction to his reappearance. She had just started college and she put him through hell, dating everyone but him while stringing him along. I wouldn’t normally condone that kind of behavior, but he needed to learn and she was an excellent teacher. However, just like Tom, his change was legitimate; he just wouldn’t go away. His persistence paid off. They’ve been married nearly thirty-four years, and they’ve given me some of the most beautiful grandchildren I could have ever hoped for.
I still miss Tom, especially because of Angie and Matthew. He’d have been so proud of them, and I wish that I’d have realized how important he was to me before it was too late. It’s strange, and I was indeed too late in realizing it, but I really did love him… do love him, but I know that he loved me as well. This is one instance where a second chance just wasn’t available, and I didn’t get it right the first time around. That’s the unfortunate truth of life. There are no mulligans, not really.
I sigh, my eyes feeling weary and my lungs overworked, but I still have a ways to go, and I just don’t think that I could sleep right now. I feel… anxious. Like I’m waiting for something and I have no idea what it is. I rub my eyes, take another sip of water, and turn the page. Wow… I’ve never seen this picture. It’s beautiful, and as I realize what it is, when it was taken, I smile at what was as incredible as it was unexpected. Helena and Duffy’s wedding. That’s right, the stoic police Chief, Marybeth Duffy, and her bride, Helena Peabody, the heiress of the Peabody fortune… married.
My wife, the artist, finding meaning in even the most insignificant moments, if you can consider life and healing insignificant, captured the newlyweds reclined together on a wide Adirondack chair, next to the shores of Lake Tahoma. Tina and I were seated behind them as fireworks went off in the sky over the still waters in front of us, and they, like us, stole kisses in the darkness. This picture… it’s incredible. I’d have hung it in the gallery if I’d have been aware of its existence. The fireworks are brilliantly captured, both above the water and on the shore, the silhouette of two lovers embraced in their fiery glow.
I didn’t think Helena would ever grow to trust someone, at least not until a very exceptional someone came along. As it turns out, Duffy was that someone. She was very wealthy, due to her wife’s life insurance policy. Duffy didn’t want the money, and was prepared to give it to charity, but she changed her mind and devoted it to catching her family’s killer instead. Once she had done that, she still wasn’t free. That kind of pain just doesn’t go away, but that closure gave her a place from which to start over. Who knew that fresh start would be one of my closest and most valued friends?
Helena was pretty destroyed after Dylan broke it off with her, and Dylan didn’t earn any points when we saw that she had been dating Jodi Foster, and a slew of other wealthy women after Helena. She seemed to be drawn to wealth, and that’s perhaps the very reason that Helena didn’t trust her. Duffy, though, Duffy had her own money. It wasn’t as much as Helena’s obviously, but still enough not to need any more. And I think that fact comforted Helena and made her feel like a real person to Duffy, not just an inanimate object that satisfies desires.
Theirs wasn’t a relationship that sparked to life like a wildfire; it was a slow build from trusting friendship to trusting romance. It was, quite honestly, the way it should be. But of course, they had been dancing around it and denying it. I smile as I remember the day at the Planet when they first took the leap, with a little help from a friend… or several.
Tina and I pulled into the Planet parking lot. The kids had already been dropped off at school and we were both craving a latte. I stepped out of the Lexus and waited for her near the hood. She smiled as she approached me, and like magnets, our hands linked as we began our trek across the lot and through the doors. Kit nodded at us and gestured to the table in the back. I smiled at her and we continued through the café, confident that our caffeine fix was coming. I held out a chair for my wife, who smirked at me but took her seat. Yes, I still felt chivalrous, and if Tina scooting her chair closer to me was any indication, she still liked it.
I settled in next to her and noticed that everyone was very quiet, too quiet. I looked from face to face, brows furrowed in curiosity. Duffy was texting, her fingers flying furiously over her smartphone’s screen; Shane was reading her LAWEEKLY and sipping her espresso; Carmen was reading over Shane’s shoulder and sipping from her cup of coffee as she stole surreptitious glances at Duffy and Helena; Alice was working on her laptop, stopping intermittently to glance at Helena and Duffy before shaking her head and continuing; Dana was obliviously focused on downing a smoothie and a plate of fresh fruit as if she’d never eat again; Jamie and Tom were eyeing Helena and Duffy and whispering to each other; Tasha was reading some sort of police manual and eating a burrito, still aware enough to chortle at Jamie and Tom’s whispers; Helena was playing with a straw wrapper and staring at her phone anxiously; Malcolm and Ming were trying to play it coy but kept glancing at Helena and Duffy as they looked after their two daughters. Why is everyone looking at Helena and Duffy?
I watched as Helena grabbed her phone before it even buzzed, and smiled sweetly into the screen before typing a reply. I looked back to Duffy who was nonchalantly scanning the crowd in the room. Her phone vibrated and with controlled precision, she started typing a reply of her own. They’re texting at the table now? For fuck’s sake. I rolled my eyes and it went on this way several more minutes before Kit delivered my and Tina’s coffees. She squeezed my shoulder in greeting and I smiled up at her in thanks just to see her shake her head at Helena and Duffy before walking away.
I glanced over at Tina to see her silently feigning ignorance, just like everyone else, as she leaned back in her seat and sipped. This was getting ridiculous. If they were going to keep their relationship under wraps, fine; but did we all have to be so quiet and awkward?
I shook my head and took a sip from my own cup, nearly dumping it in my lap when a foot banged into my shin from beneath the table. I gave Alice a murderous gaze only to see her having some sort of seizure. She kept it up, her winking and glancing becoming more and more dramatic, and I realized she was trying to tell me something. I watched with furrowed brows as this went on for several more minutes, but I didn’t speak in Tourette tics. I shook my head and shrugged, at a total loss with her. I heard Tina chuckle under her breath and glanced over at her. She was smirking smugly and I folded my arms over my chest, whispering, “If you think you can figure it out…” I gestured to Alice demurely. “…then by all means.”
Tina winked at me and said, “I got this.” She nodded at Alice who collapsed back in her seat breathing heavily.
It happened fast, faster than I could get my coffee cup to my lips, and I watched in shock as, in a seemingly choreographed move, Tina snatched Helena’s phone and Alice did the same with Duffy’s. There was a riot of protest from the two individuals, and everyone was finally forced to liven up. I was concerned for Alice’s health and well-being when Duffy stood with an air of menace surrounding her, dropped her cloth napkin on the table, and held out her hand in quiet demand. Alice ignored her and scanned the messages, keeping a ten foot distance at all times. Tina and Helena were standing as well. Tina had turned her back and was reading quickly as Helena grasped around her from behind as if she was checking a point guard.
Duffy, indignant at her threat being ignored, upped the ante and pulled a set of handcuffs from her hip, dangling them at Alice. Alice eyed the steel and settled all her weight on one foot, glaring at Duffy with a bored expression as she said, “Don’t threaten me with a good time, Chief. I’m too much for you.”
Everyone laughed, Duffy included, at least before she caught herself. She made a desperate grab for her phone and Alice squealed in surprise as she threw the device to me. Duffy pinned me with her blue eyes and I sighed, glancing down at the phone I’d caught on reflex. I saw some of the text on the screen and my mouth dropped open as I pulled it closer and read the most recent reply. Duffy must have been mortified. Apparently, her favorite color was pink, especially pink lingerie. I clicked the sleep mode on the phone and stood, taking the other phone from my wife and ending her struggle.
I returned the phones to their owners, and retook my seat. Everyone was laughing, and once the offenders had resettled, Alice looked me right in the eyes and said, “Traitor.”
I glared at her and then my wife. “What they talk about in private isn’t our business.” Alice rolled her eyes and Tina raised an incredulous eyebrow at me, knowing I’d read the same information. Helena called out a, “Hear, hear!”
I smirked and addressed her and Duffy. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t sympathize with either of you. This is ridiculous. You’re about to implode and it’s going to be messy. Why don’t you just save us all the trouble and date openly?”
I sipped my coffee as they both protested in unison, “We aren’t dating.”
Duffy shook her head, a slight blush creeping up her neck and Helena furthered the point. “We’re just good friends.”
I set my coffee down, propped my elbows on the table, folded my fingers, and rested my chin on them. I stared at them disbelievingly for long moments, but they wouldn’t budge. My gaze didn’t leave Duffy’s as I spoke to Alice. “Al, how long have we been friends?”
Alice crossed her arms over her chest and grinned. “Almost twenty years.”
“We dated for six weeks, right?”
Alice nodded, drawling out, “Yup,” the ‘p’ sound popping off of her lips.
“Did we ever discuss how much I enjoyed the color of your–”
Duffy interrupted, lifting a frantic hand. “Okay, okay.” She turned to Helena. “Helena, are you free this Saturday?”
Helena stammered. “Well, yes…”
Duffy leaned back in her seat. “I’ll pick you up at seven?”
Helena nodded hesitantly. “Alright…”
I leaned back in my own seat, sipping my coffee and sighing. No matter how old we got, we were all apparently still juveniles. Tina put her hand on my thigh, stroking it suggestively as she leaned in to me. “How about you… are you free this Saturday?”
I pretended to consider her proposal for a moment. God, how I loved her. I nodded slowly. “For you… I suppose I could free up my schedule.”
“I’ll pick you up at seven, and…” She leaned in close to my ear, her hot breath sending a jolt down my spine. “…I’ll wear that pink, lacy set you like so much.” She pulled back and I grinned lasciviously at her. Sometimes, it was good to be young.
I can’t help but smile. Our friends and family have come so far. It’s crazy and beautiful in its simplicity. Duffy and Helena went on to adopt three children in the course of their marriage. Everyone had their own happy ending in their own way, and that’s the point to life, finding your own way.
I turn the page and my heart falls into my toes. God, it’s been so long since I’ve seen Dana. This picture though, it shows her at her most alive, most joyous, her toothy smile and crinkled nose offset by the gleam of happy tears in her eyes as she holds Alice and their newborn baby girl for the first time. I never thought I’d see the two of them get married and start a family of their own, but it happened. They were together for thirty-three years, and they had a wonderful daughter… my own daughter-in-law, Melissa. And just like those unbelievable occurrences, other things that I never thought would happen, happened…
Tina and I stepped out of the elevator and I took a huge breath. I hated hospitals, at least in this capacity. Tina’s hand was warm in mine as we made our way down the sterile, too-bright hallway, the bustling noise of busy staff, the heavy smell of disinfectant, and the eerie tempos of monitored heartbeats ringing around us as we moved passed each room. The atmosphere was heavy and we were bracing ourselves as we drew closer to the corner that would lead us down one more hall to Dana’s room. Tina and I glanced at each other when we heard a strange, high-pitched voice in the distance start to sing, ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ followed by a mournful wail that stopped the very blood in my veins. Our movement halted for a moment as that wail pierced right through us, nailing our feet to the linoleum. I turned to Tina. “That’s Alice…”
Her returning gaze was wrought with worry and we both sped up, rounding the corner only to stop again. There on the floor, against the wall outside of Dana’s room, was her wife and my best friend. She was weeping and writhing with a pain I knew all too well; it was the same pain that I had felt when Tina died in the hospital, and I expressed it in much the same way. The electronic sunflower next to her was singing its grossly happy tune and I felt my heart break as I rushed over to her, got down on my knees, and took her in my arms. She was limp as she cried, “NO!” through her shuddering sobs, but I held tight, unable and unwilling to leave her alone in this moment.
“No…” She finally realized that she wasn’t alone, and clung to me so tightly that I was scared she’d break her fingers as she fell apart. I couldn’t help but grieve for her, with her, knots of pain twisting through my stomach and heart. I didn’t need to look through the window above us as Tina was doing. Alice’s mournful sobs and desperate grip, Tina’s destroyed and disbelieving face… they were all the indicators I needed. My friend, my sister, a woman who taught me so much in this life, who I watched grow and fight with all her heart, was gone – claimed by the reoccurrence of the very disease we’d all thought she’d bested. And not only was I too late in my arrival, my presence wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. She was gone… just gone.
As I held her wife, shock and grief ripping through me, I called out to her from the very depths of my soul to let her know that I’d take care of her family, because they were my family… she was my family. I told her how much I loved her and how I’d miss her. I thanked her for being my sister and for giving me my daughter-in-law. I would miss her forever, and part of me knew that she heard me.
It didn’t make it any easier, especially when Melissa and Rory rounded that same corner behind us, and I watched as my daughter took Melissa in her arms to console her as best she could. Rory’s tear-stained eyes met my own as Tina went to them, and I could see the very same thoughts racing through her mind. How do you possibly console something so inconsolable? There are no words, or tender touches, or vows of peace in the afterlife to mend a broken heart, and each of us, individually and collectively, was utterly destroyed.
We spread Dana’s ashes at the tennis camp she used to frequent as a teenager. It was a terrible day of mourning. We missed her then just as much as we miss her now. The only comfort to be found is the fact that her legacy continues. Alice moved in with us a few years ago. She never fell in love again and something in her changed that day. She’s still Alice, bubbly and full of life, but she never got over that pain and her humor became more cynical than it used to be. She was angry for a long time. She knew losing Dana too early was a possibility when she entered into a life with her, but she accepted that love doesn’t care. Love lives forever, despite the mortality we will all face one day.
I swipe at the tears from my weary eyes and weary soul. I can’t help but grieve in this moment for my family and for myself. I miss Tina so much that it’s impossible to even breathe, and I suppose that’s why I’m wheezing so hard right now. My heart is fluttering in my chest and I feel lightheaded. For a moment I want to put this album aside and go to sleep, but something tells me to press forward. I lean back and sip some more of the water with shaking hands, and I finally regain control of my lungs.
I’m old and gray and tired, but I’m determined to see life to its end, no matter how hard it gets. And I’ve come to learn that this is how Alice has been coping all this time. I understand her pain and she understands mine. As a result, we’ve become closer these last few months. Like Dana, she is my sister.
With a heavy but determined heart, I turn the page. Tina, my wife, the mind reader, decided to give me a picture of Kit and Chance. This is the very day that she retired and handed the reins of her own legacy to him, and though it’s been fifteen years since she passed away, an old woman who went to sleep and departed life peacefully, I can still remember this day that filled me with pride – pride because of who my sister had become despite her past, pride because of who my son had become despite what he’d been through, and pride because this was the day I knew just how much my family loved one another.
Tina and I stepped in through the back of the Planet and she held onto my hand until the last minute as she went on ahead of me. I wanted to talk to Kit and I knew she’d be in her office making her final preparations before she officially gifted the Planet to Chance. Tina turned as she was about to step through the door at the end of the hallway, a coy smile on her face. She winked before disappearing and I shook my head incredulously at how much I loved her.
I didn’t knock, choosing instead to poke my head through the door and hopefully catch her unaware, just like I’d done many years before when I came out of my self-induced coma. As expected, she was sitting at her desk poring over her invoices. If she was going to leave her life’s work to another, she was going to leave it in impeccable shape.
I pushed the door open and leaned against the frame. She was too absorbed in her work to notice so I decided to go with this feeling of nostalgia. “Hey, the bathroom is out of paper-towels.”
She shook her head, no longer surprised by my visits, and I had to admit that it felt good to know that I wasn’t only wanted, I was expected, connected, the sister I had wanted to be. She sighed refusing to look up from her invoice. “Mm-hmm, well…” She grabbed a box of tissues next to her hand and set them out on the desk for me. “There ya go.”
I laughed and fully entered the room, shutting the door behind me. I took a seat on the sofa and just watched, glorying in the comfortable silence of this moment alone with my sister. Several minutes later, she set the invoice down in the file and shut it with a sense of finality. She leaned back in her chair, fluffing up her newly dyed hair, and releasing a heavy breath. “Well, I think it’s as good as it’s gonna get.”
My words were genuine as I spoke them. “I think you’re as good as they get.”
She smiled brightly at me, still beautiful despite her advancing years. “You know, I was just gonna say the same thing.”
I nodded slowly, my voice playfully disbelieving. “Sure…”
She got heavily to her feet and came around to join me on the couch, putting her arm around my shoulders and pulling me in close to her. I rested my head on the crux of her arm and sighed. She leaned her head against mine. Somehow, she always made me feel young, almost too young, like I was sixteen again. The way she soothed and instilled that familial comfort was so welcome, and it felt so good to allow myself a moment away from adulthood. “You know, baby sis… I could tell you how you will never find a group of people who love one another more… and who look after one another as lovingly as our friends do. You could give me any army… assembly of God… and I would put them up against my posse… because we are so tight and fiercely loyal.”
I leaned back to look at her and she shook her head with conviction. “Mm-hmm…” She looks at me, her eyes glassy with unshed tears. “I could tell you how proud I am of you… and your children. I could tell you all these things, but what it really comes down to, is I love you somethin’ fierce, and it just don’t get any better than that.”
I gazed into her eyes, blown away by the conviction of the love I found in them. She was absolutely right. “I love you too, Kit. We all do…”
She smiled at me, patted my thigh, and got to her feet. I took her hand and followed her out of the room, considering her words as we reached the door to the main cafe. We peered through the window of the door to see everyone mulling about, all of our friends and family… all but those no longer with us and one.
I smiled and couldn’t help but wonder if this really was enough for her. She’d dated a few times over the years, but none of the men seemed to stick. And as for her son, David, there is no excuse for his absence in her life, not anymore. I knew what she used to be like, but she changed, and she deserved a second chance. I couldn’t help but hurt for her. I put my hand on her shoulder and her eyes met mine questioningly. I hated to say it, but I felt like I needed to. “Kit, for what it’s worth, you deserve more.”
I gestured to my children through the window and she understood what I was trying to convey. She blew out a breath and shrugged her shoulders. “I have invited him to every holiday and major event, including this one, for a lot of years now. I would be overjoyed if he’d give me… just a chance even… but I understand him, and I love him. I just hope he knows that.”
I squeezed her shoulder in comfort and watched as she fought with her emotions. It was just a moment, just a cleansing breath, but that’s all she needed. She squared her shoulders and reminded me why less than perfect was enough. “Come on, baby sis. It’s time to live the life you love, and love the life you live.” She pushed open the door, and I watched her in awe as she joined our friends and family in the room, comforted by the fact that at least she had us, and she knew that we were her unfailing bond.
David did eventually come to see her. It was just so unfortunate that she wasn’t long for the world at that point. I haven’t seen or spoken to him since Kit died, but it’s just as well. He made it very clear how he felt about our family. It’s sad, but again, life isn’t perfect. Kit had it right, loving life is a choice, and I know with all my heart that she chose correctly, as did I.
I rub at my heavy eyes and sigh as I turn the page to see Carmen and Shane, older but still alive with youthful joy as they raise their champagne glasses alongside Rory, Melissa, Alice, Dana, and the first band they promoted. Even in their forties, they were like two overgrown children. To be honest, they kept all of us young. It most definitely worked for them. Their legacy wasn’t one of flesh and blood but more the impact they made on a struggling community. It was a legacy of its own kind, their kind.
Tina and I approached the doors to Sweet Spot Studios and Shane held it open for us. “Hey, you made it!”
She released the handle to hug us both and I scanned the room. People of all classes and tastes were ambling around and chatting in the stylish but alternative atmosphere that was so indicative of both Shane and Carmen. We spotted Alice, Dana, Rory, and Melissa, but they were too absorbed in their conversation with what appeared to be four gothic prostitutes to notice us. “Wow, Shane… I’m impressed. This place looks great.”
She smiled brightly and looked around. “Yeah, it’s pretty great. If Cherri Bomb’s record does well…”
She tucked her hands in her pockets, raised her shoulders, and sucked in a breath through her teeth, her eyes apprehensive. Tina squeezed her arm. “I’m sure it will be amazing. Bette and I’ve already ordered a few copies for the kids just to show our support.”
“Thanks. Chance is… well, a guy… but I know Rory likes it…” She glanced at me. “Not sure about Angie though… she’s a lot like Bette.”
I smiled and readily agreed. “I can’t help it if she has impeccable taste.”
Both Shane and Tina shook their heads in playful disapproval, and Carmen came bouncing over to us. “Hey!” She hugged us both tightly and pulled away, bursting with over-exuberant joy. “So what do you guys think?”
I glanced at Tina who played remorse perfectly as she said, “It’s…” She frowned and shrugged, putting on a fake smile. “…okay…”
Carmen’s mouth fell open and she nudged Tina on the shoulder. We all chuckled and Carmen wrapped her arm tightly around Shane’s. “Well, I have some great news…”
Shane turned to her, her eyes loaded with question. Carmen was about to explode and Shane finally caught on, her voice disbelieving as her mouth dropped open. “Nuh uh…”
Carmen nodded and Shane pulled her in to squeeze the life out of her, her voice strained with effort as she said, “No way…”
Carmen pulled back and nodded again, her smile wide. Shane’s face was incredulous as she said. “That’s fucking unbelievable.”
A waiter passed us with a tray of champagne and I snatched two of them for me and Tina. She smiled in thanks as she took her glass and we both sipped as we waited for Shane and Carmen to explain. They couldn’t seem to stop staring at each other with shocked and exultant expressions, and I finally broke the moment. “Would either of you care to let us in on what’s so fucking unbelievable?”
Shane finally tore herself away from Carmen and said, “Huh…?” Her dazed eyes cleared and she continued. “Oh, yeah, sorry… um, one of the bigger bands in the area, Lullaby Her, heard the album and they’ve booked us to record. They also booked Cherri Bomb…” Shane pointed to the four prostitutes and at least that much made sense. “… to open for them.” I looked back at her, hating how ignorant I was, but I was out of my league, and that didn’t happen often. Shane grinned and continued. “It means that we’re about to have a ton of exposure and new clients.”
I smiled. “Wow, that was fast.”
Shane shrugged. “The music scene is fast-paced.”
Carmen pulled on Shane’s arm. “Come on, you guys, the band’s about to start.”
Just as she said it, the prostitutes began playing and we watched as Shane and Carmen sped up to the front of the stage to join Alice, Dana, Rory, and Melissa. The noise was loud and abrasive and I glanced over at my wife. Her shocked eyes met my own and we nodded minutely to each other before abandoning the champagne and making our way to the doors. They closed behind us and we both breathed a sigh of relief as the harsh sounds muted. I glanced at Tina as we made our way to the Saab. “How can Alice and Dana listen to that?”
She smiled warmly. “Well, babe, they are a little younger than us.” I sighed, feeling my age and she continued. “But I like an older woman.”
She kissed my knuckles before releasing me and I grinned at her over the roof of the car as I asked, “You think they’ll notice we left?”
She opened her door and chuckled. “I’ll text them and tell them you had a headache.”
She got into her seat and I joined her, gazing at her disbelievingly. “Why me?”
She smiled and patted my leg. “Plausibility. They aren’t sure that I don’t like that kind of music, but you’ve already outed yourself. I get to keep my cool points but you won’t lose any.” I shook my head, as I turned the key in the ignition. Tina’s stroke on my thigh turned decidedly sensual and I met her eyes. Her smile became a feral grin. “Besides… I have just the cure for your headache.”
That was just the beginning for Shane and Carmen. That studio is a huge success even to this day. And even to this day, they still operate it. They never married or had children, but they birthed that studio from a place of love, and some of the biggest names in LA have recorded there. It was so much more than that though; they made a home for the outcasts of society. It became a place where LGBT artists could not only make their music, sometimes for free, but a place that helped to promote the equality that our world enjoys today. They brought hope and a sense of belonging to a community that was tired of fighting so hard. They have been inspirational in their work, as well as just decent people, and I’m honored to call them family.
It takes a moment for me to catch my breath. This bout of struggling is longer than usual. I take a few sips of my water and it’s everything I have to set it back on the nightstand. I relax a few moments until I’m at least operational and gaze down at the album in my lap, debating if I can get through this all in one sitting. I don’t really reach a conclusion as I turn the page.
I’m thankful I did. It’s one of my very favorite photos: Rory, Melissa, and their two children are splashing and playing in the pool in the backyard of this very home. Their faces speak of so much joy that my heart expands to a painful degree in my chest. How I love this family. I close my eyes and fight for another breath. This journey is taking everything out of me and I still have a few pages to go. I can’t stop now, no matter how tired I feel. There is too much love in these pages to be ignored any longer. I can still remember what it was like to meet our newest grandchildren for the first time, two young sisters whose lives had been far too hard, far too soon. Thank God Rory and Melissa found them.
I looked up from my latest edition of artltd and smiled at the sound of Rory’s voice. I may as well have been reading the magazine upside down. Tina and I had been anxiously waiting for Rory and Melissa to get back from social services with our grandchildren so we could meet them for the first time. Today they were bringing home two girls: a seven-year-old named Leah and a five-year-old named Sarah. Tina called out, “Coming!” and bolted from her seat. I chuckled as I rose to follow her through the patio doors.
We walked into the living room to see Rory smiling and I was relieved. Obviously everything had gone well. The door was closed and my brows furrowed. “Where’s Lissa and the girls?”
Rory pulled back, her face was serious as she said, “They’re outside. There are some things that I need to tell you about the girls.” She gestured to the sectional and I glanced at Tina as we followed. Both of us were confused and slightly worried but we calmly took seats across from Rory. I put my arm around Tina’s shoulders and we waited impatiently for Rory to say whatever it was she needed to say. Her voice was solemn as she began. “Before, when I was just their doctor, I wasn’t allowed to tell you any of this, but now that I can, I’m not really sure where to start.”
Tina stroked my thigh soothingly and I rubbed her shoulder. Tina reassured Rory just as she was reassuring me. “It’s okay, Rory. You can tell us anything.”
She nodded and smiled sadly. “I know. It’s just a difficult situation to understand, let alone explain.” She sighed. “Melissa and I told you that they needed a new home, but I couldn’t really tell you why. The night that they were brought into the clinic, they had been badly beaten and… raped.” I felt my soul die a little bit and Tina squeezed my leg painfully. I didn’t think it could get much worse but then she continued. “…by their own father.” She paused and let this information sink in, but honestly, I didn’t want it to. “He went to jail and he’s never going to get out again.”
My voice was seething with anger. “Good.”
She nodded and soldiered on. “The reason that this has taken so long is because they couldn’t find the mother so that she could either take the girls or turn them over to the state. So, there’s a potential problem. If she comes to claim them in the next six months, we’ll lose them and there’s nothing we can do about it. At this point in time, we are considered foster parents only.”
My heart fell into my toes and Tina vocalized my thoughts. “Rory, would you and Lissa be able to handle that if it happened?”
Rory exhaled heavily. “I’m not really sure. I guess we’d have to. We were already too attached to them. They’ve been at the clinic three times a week for the last six months to meet with Lissa. We love them, mom, so we at least have to try.”
Tears welled in my eyes and I pulled Tina in tighter as Rory continued. “Also, they’re very apprehensive of strangers. So when you meet them, they may be… reluctant, maybe even frightened. It took them two months to even let me touch them without flinching. They’ve been doing really well though, and they trust us. We’re probably the only people that they trust.”
I kissed Tina’s temple. This was a lot to take in. When I was able to meet Rory’s gaze, there was so much love, compassion, and determination in the dark orbs that it overwhelmed me with pride. I took Tina’s hand and said, “Well, we’ll love them as much as we can while we have them. And if someone tries to take them away, we’ll fight. Abandonment is bound to make a mother considered unfit.”
She grinned at me. “It’s a difficult battle to prove even the worst parent unfit, but we’ll fight it anyway.” I nodded at her and she stood. “Okay, so here’s how we set this up. Lissa has them in the backyard as we speak. We thought it would be good for them to get acquainted with their surroundings before introducing you, and they seem to do better in less enclosed spaces. We just have to be patient with them. If they get scared, we may need to leave. I didn’t want either of you to feel that it had anything to do with you.”
Tina and I got to our feet and followed her to the back patio doors. We saw two little girls sitting on either side of Melissa on one of the lounges near the pool, their backs to us. Both girls had dark hair and as Melissa turned to us, I was again reminded a very young Tina, only with straight hair and sky blue eyes. Rory gestured for us to wait at the doors and we watched as she strode over to her family. She leaned down and kissed Melissa lightly before crouching to speak to the girls.
After several long moments, both of them turned and looked at us, the apprehension in their eyes tugging hard at my guts. They were too young to have endured so much. I glanced at Tina to see tears running down her face and put my arm around her. She sighed as she settled into my side and I got an idea. I kissed her temple and whispered, “Come with me.”
She met my eyes in confusion but followed me to the side of the pool. I rolled up the end of my chino capris, and stuck my feet in the water. Tina chuckled and joined me, rolling up her jeans and splashing me playfully. That was the idea. I smiled at my wife in encouragement and splashed her back, looking over her shoulder to Rory. “Rory, why don’t you guys join us? This feels great.” She smiled at me and I looked to the taller child. “You and your sister can come too, if you want.”
I could tell that she wanted to but she was scared, and the look on her face broke my heart. Rory said something to her and I grinned when she nodded her head imperceptibly. Tina leaned into me and we watched as Melissa and Rory helped them out of their socks and shoes, rolled up their pant legs, and each taking a hand, led them over to us.
Melissa and Leah settled next to me and Rory and Sarah settled next to Tina. I watched Leah as she nervously set her feet in the water and I’d swear she was trembling. I splashed Melissa playfully and that seemed to make Leah more comfortable. Melissa laughed and retaliated, and this time, Leah chuckled. It was short, but it was something. Tina started talking to Sarah and I marveled at how quickly she put the little girl at ease. I turned back to Leah and smiled. “Do you know how to swim?”
She didn’t look at me, but shook her head and I leaned in conspiratorially. “Don’t tell Lissa I told you, but when she was your age, she couldn’t swim either. She’d just sink like a slug.”
Melissa splashed me again, followed by a playful, “Hey!” Leah still didn’t meet my eyes but she giggled this time and I grinned.
It wasn’t much, but like all things, nothing worthwhile is built in a day. I tried again. “Do you know what Rory did when Lissa would sink?”
And there it was, she looked me in the eye, and while what I saw there would haunt me on so many levels, it felt good to reach this little girl and help her to feel at ease. I smiled at her, wanting her to know that I’d never conceive of hurting her. “She’d try to save Lissa and wind up sinking too. So my wife and I would have to get out our nets to gather the slugs from the bottom of the pool.”
I heard Tina laugh and this time Rory splashed us both from the other side. Tina splashed her back and it was all over. We splashed and threw verbal jabs at each other like we’d done so many times when our kids were young. We were all soaked by the time Tina and I had called uncle, and if I didn’t know any better, both girls had been laughing despite everything. The human spirit is incredibly resilient, and as I saw the look of thanks in Rory’s eyes, I knew that these two little girls could still have a good life, if only given the chance, and I could think of no better parents to give it to them.
Six months came and went and the mother never turned up. They were my grandbabies the minute they put their feet into the pool, and no amount of biological relatives would have kept me from them. One of the most incredible moments of my life was that following Christmas when Leah hugged me. That was the first time she’d ever let me touch her. She’d never had a bike and she’d always wanted one. I was more than happy to get it for her and even happier to watch Rory teach her how to use it… safely, of course.
Leah will graduate college this year. I hadn’t realized it, but I made a fierce friend that day, and so had Tina. Sarah is her baby, through and through. Out of everyone, except for me, she took Tina’s passing the hardest. But both of them have been visiting me every day, and it’s with a happy heart that I know they’ll be okay when I pass. They have been thriving since they joined our family, and they will have all the love and support they could want or need to thrive in the future.
I rub my arms with weak hands, feeling chilled. I glance over at the clock to see that it’s nearly four in the morning. No wonder I feel so tired and so weak. I’m exhausted, but as I turn the page to the next photo, I realize that this compulsion I feel to carry on isn’t going to stop until I’ve completed this journey. I need to see what’s next; like any good book, I just can’t put it down. And what I find next is more than worth it. I pull the blankets up higher, tucking them around me as best I can to trap the heat, and take a heavy, rattling breath as I gaze at the photo of Malcolm with his daughters climbing all over him while Ming holds their newest addition and laughs at him. Christmas morning was a huge affair at our house with six adults and nine kids, five of which were Malcolm and Ming’s alone. I stroke the image of his handsome face, so much like daddy’s, and chuckle. Five children in eight years… it’s little wonder his hair was entirely gray by the time he was fifty…
“Mom, are you awake?” I grumbled and swatted at the annoyance tickling my nose as I heard a low rumbling noise. “Mom… are you awake?” Tina stirred against me and the bed rocked for a long moment as the rumbling sound became more distinguishable. The voice was sing-song as it asked me again. “Mom… are you awake?”
“What…?” I opened my eyes and blinked against the sleep still trying to hold them shut. The bed shook again but it wasn’t Tina. The room was eerily quiet and dark and I heard a chorus of giggles just before the bed erupted into violent convulsions. “Mom! Wake up! Mom! Mom! Mom!”
The laughing was raucous and I started to feel seasick. Tina rolled towards me, laying her arm across me and pinning me to the impromptu trampoline. One particularly rambunctious bounce sent Tina’s head flying up and snapping back down onto my chest with a painful, “Oof…” She groaned and all movement and sound stopped.
I reached over and flipped on the bedside lamp as Tina sat up. The light stung my eyes and I shook my head when I turned to find three hellions starting back at me with contrite expressions. I sighed and checked Tina’s face. “Are you okay, T?”
She rubbed her jaw and said, “Yes. Are you?”
My left breast was sore, and I was certain I’d have a bruise where her chin connected, but I’d be fine. “I’ll be fine.” I glanced at the nightstand clock: five-thirty a.m. I faced my excited children and smiled patiently. “Are your aunts, uncles, and cousins awake yet?”
Angie, the thirteen-year-old leader of this coup, answered for all of them. “Everyone’s taking care of their parents in a similar fashion.”
I shook my head and looked over at Tina. She was still massaging her jaw and I pulled her hand away to look at it. It was already starting to turn red. I looked to Angie and she lowered her head. “Sorry, Mama T. We weren’t trying to hurt anyone.”
Tina reached out and rubbed her arm. “I know you guys are excited. Just be careful next time. One of you could have been hurt.”
Angie smiled and Rory leaned in to kiss the fledgling bruise. Her voice was sweet as she asked, “Better?”
Tina smiled and fixed the skewed glasses properly on her face before looking over at me. I sighed and she smiled, and together we drawled, “Alright… we’re up,” and started to rise. There was a loud cheer and they fled from the room before we even had our robes on. Once we were decent and had freshened up, we headed down the stairs.
As Angie promised, there were several sets of weary eyes seated near the Christmas tree and holding excited bodies at bay. Kit was keeping my three in check and I could smell coffee brewing. I sighed and looked at her. “Bless you.” She laughed and relinquished my children to my watchful eyes and went to go get us all a mug. Malcolm and Ming had it the worst with five kids: Rosa – eight, Elizabeth – six, Katie – four, Mei – two, and one son, Tai, the newborn resting comfortably in Ming’s arms.
Tina grabbed her camera from the kitchen counter and curled up with me on the sectional as Kit returned with a tray loaded with several steaming cups of caffeine. I took mine and sipped it gratefully before looking over at Tom. This was Matthew’s first Christmas with us, and by the way he avoided looking at the presents, I wondered if he had ever been a part of a Christmas at all. Tina noticed this as well, and called a start to the carnage. “Matt, Angie, since you’re both older, why don’t you hand out the gifts together?”
Matthew didn’t look up but there was a harshness to his voice as he said, “No thanks.”
Tom sighed and whispered something to him and Matthew seemed angry as he pulled away from Tom and met Angie by the tree. Angie was too damn smart for her own good and was prepared with one of his gifts. She handed it to him with a bright smile and he looked at it in shock. He checked the name tag at least three times and looked up at her, his voice incredulous. “This is mine?”
She nodded excitedly and found another of his to give to him. “This one is too.” His eyes got round as she said, “And I know there’ll be more. We just have to find them first.” She held her hand out to him and he stared at it for a long moment before glancing at Tom. Tom smiled and nodded at him and he took Angie’s hand. The two of them dove into the huge pile of gifts and started passing them out. Malcolm sighed with relief when he let his daughters loose and collapsed back against the sectional. Tom cuffed him on the shoulder and Malcolm turned to him. “And you give me a hard time for my gray hair.”
Tom laughed and shrugged. “It could be worse.” He pointed to his receding hairline. “You could just lose it.”
Malcolm shook his head and chuckled before looking over at his children. “It could be a lot worse.” His eyes locked on mine, love and warmth and gratitude gleaming in the soulful depths, and I felt tears gather on my lashes. He picked up the coffee that Kit had left on the tray for him and raised it. “To family.”
Everyone raised theirs and finished the toast with a deep pull from the steaming liquid. Happy groans tittered throughout the room at irregular intervals and I looked over at my wife. She lowered her camera and smiled at me. “Merry Christmas, Bette.”
I leaned in and kissed her sweetly. “Merry Christmas, T.”
That is only one of many holidays that I can pull up from my memory at a moment’s notice and relive with relish. My life has been full to overflowing with memories that encompass love. Even in the moments when life was terrifying and painful, moments like the one I’m currently facing, there was always love hanging in the balance, the ultimate determining factor in how it would all turn out.
It’s with great difficulty that I turn the page. This is the end of the album and the end of our story. I’m trying to hold on, but I feel so heavy with exhaustion. I feel like I can’t breathe. My head is swimming and my bones seem to be fused together with a deeply embedded chill. I gulp in some empty breaths as I focus in on the picture and force a smile out through my trembling lips.
The last picture my wife wished to show me is one of just the two of us, one that tugs at my soul so forcefully that it could escape my body to go be with her in this very moment. It was our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and we spent it at our cabin in Big Bear. Tina had pulled her camera from nowhere, settled back between my legs on the chaise, and leaned her head against mine, forever capturing our radiant faces and exposed souls.
A deep longing, so painful that I feel paralyzed, wells up inside of me, and my body just can’t handle it anymore. I glance over at the bedside clock. It’s 4:28 a.m. I need to lie down and rest, but I can’t abide the thought of being away from her. I pull the photo from its confines with stiff but determined fingers, set my glasses on the album in my lap, and pull the covers up high as I collapse back into the pillows to shiver against the relentless cold. I prop the picture up against Tina’s pillow. I have to crane my neck to stare at it but my eyes are filled with the image of her as my lungs pull frantically at the elusive air. Tears start to leave hot tracks across my nose before they dissolve into my pillowcase and the heavy weight of weariness pushes me further into the mattress. I fight against it, but against my will, I allow everything to go black.
She was close; I could feel it shuddering through her like a ribbon caught on a turbulent wind and my own muscles tensed in preparation as her fingers stroked through the deepest recesses of me. I picked up my pace and she matched me with each thrust. I opened my eyes to see her head thrown back, her chest heaving, the flickering light of the fire dancing against her skin as she bucked wildly in front of me, and that’s when it happened. The tight coil of pleasure burning low between our hips gushed forth and we clutched at each other as we rode out wave after wave of intense euphoria.
Her thighs closed tight around my hips and I buckled, collapsing against the back of the chaise and pulling her against my chest. Our hearts were pumping hard in unison, and hot puffs of her breath tickled against the light sheen of sweat on my neck. I reached up and weakly brushed my fingers through the wet curls on her forehead and pulled one last whimpering mewl of exhaustion from her lips.
We lay this way for long minutes, the fire in the background snapping and popping against the howling wind and rain beating against the side of the cabin. Her eyes were unfocused as she finally pulled back and graced me with a satisfied grin, a grin I thought I’d never wrestle out of her this night. She had been insatiable, and I realized that it wasn’t over just yet as I reached a hand up to stroke her full lips only to have my thumb pulled tightly into the warm cavern of her mouth and laved with a velvet tongue. I groaned and shook my head at her, only inciting a wider grin from her magnificent face. She linked her hands around the nape of my neck and slid her center to my thigh, painting a slow, wet circle against me. Fuck, she was going to kill me, but it was a fate I was more than ready to accept.
I ran my hands up to her breasts, kneading and massaging them with my palms and fingers, and I drank in the sight of her as she began a slow and steady grind against me. It was incredible really. I had been with her twenty-five years, and seven years before that, but even now, especially now, with the silver streaks in her hair, the faint wrinkles around her eyes that told the tale of a life full of laughter, a passion that I thought would have quelled only burned brighter and hotter with the passage of time.
It was almost as if the physical changes had made her seem more exotic as she grew more and more beautiful with each passing day. I ran my hand from her mouth, down her sloping neck, and across her abdomen, the faint marks at the sides giving testament to a family and a legacy, and sending a thrill through my heart. It was the imperfections that made her perfect for me, and I couldn’t resist the pull to lean in and claim her mouth.
She tasted of something hot and forbidden, and I couldn’t seem to get enough of it, of her. I swallowed the groan that spilled forth from her and felt my sex swell, thick and hard and anxious. She slid up the length of my thigh, pressing herself into me and offering a delicious friction as her circles grew frantic. I squeezed the sharp points of her hips and felt a renewed sense of strength and urgency race through me as I aided her movements. I rested in the overwhelming torrent of passion she’d created and waited for her. It wasn’t long before she embraced me and we catapulted into the ether yet again, a place that only a soul could find, a place where we were one, without beginning or end.
We collapsed again and I felt heavy with exhaustion as she turned in my arms and rested her head against the side of mine. “I love you, T.”
She linked our weak fingers and brought them to her mouth, kissing them before clutching them to her breast. “As I love you, Bette.”
My eyes fluttered closed and I released a satisfied breath. I felt her release my hand and stir against me for just a moment. I looked up to see her camera and smirked in spite of myself. The shutter went off and I buried my lips near her ear. “Might not want people to see that one.”
She chuckled softly. “Don’t worry. This one’s personal.” I smiled in a way only the utterly fulfilled can, my eyes closed, and I was asleep in moments.
I open my eyes and breathe deeply. The air enters my lungs and fills them to bursting, and I smile in relief. That was the best sleep I’ve had since… in a long while. I stretch languorously. I’m warm, all of the aches and pains are gone and my muscles feel loose and relaxed. I pull my hands up and wiggle my fingers curiously. They feel strong and as I gaze at them, they look… they look like they did when I was twenty.
I furrow my brows and sit up. The movement is easy and uninhibited by age and pain. Some of my hair falls into my eyes with the motion, and I pull a lock of it forward to see it better. The curls are dark and thick and bounce back when released just like they used to. I glance over at the bedside clock to see that it’s 4:28 a.m. That’s not possible. I push back the covers and set my feet on the floor, looking around the room as if expecting… I don’t know what. This is all so strange.
The soft glow of the lamp illuminates the album that fell to the floor along with my glasses. I bend down to collect them and that’s when I see it: an old, wrinkled hand is hanging over the edge of the bed. I track the length of it to see myself: gray hair crowning a weathered face that seems to be sleeping peacefully as unseeing eyes gaze at a photo on the neighboring pillow. None of the trembling shudders of gasping breaths are present. My chest isn’t moving at all; I am not moving at all. I stand and look down on myself. I’m not sure how I feel in this moment besides strangely fantastic. I should be frightened, but I’m not. I just feel… calm, whole, and peaceful. Am I… dead?
A soft voice that stirs my soul calls out from behind me and I realize that if I’m not dead, I wish to be. “It’s okay, babe.” I close my eyes, savoring it and comparing it to a hundred different memories.
It sounds authentic, my connection to it feels authentic, but my mind can’t grasp the possibility. Who cares? So what if it’s a cruel joke being visited on a failing mind? I just want to hear it again. “T…?”
I turn slowly, afraid to know that it’s not true – that this is all just the fanciful imagining conjured up by a lovesick heart. But if it’s a lie, it’s perfect in its believability. My anxious eyes are filled with the sight of her beauty and my soul pours forward with hope. She steps toward me like a gorgeous apparition, and I feel tears gather and fall as my desperate eyes frantically search her for any sign that she’s not real. She’s radiant with health and youth and I nearly fall into her arms, her warm, real arms. They embrace me tightly and I bury my face in her lavender scented neck. It’s just too good to be true. “Please, T… don’t leave again…”
She takes my face in her hands and pushes me back. I drown in the hazel orbs gazing at me with infinite love, warmth, and joy, and know with all that I am that this is her. There is no force on heaven or earth, no fortunate and fevered imagining within any realm of possibility that could replicate the complex sincerity of her soul this perfectly. I laugh through my tears when she raises an incredulous eyebrow at me and a smile quirks up the corners of her full lips.
I lean in slowly, afraid that once I’ve gotten too close to see her she’ll disappear. The first sweet caress of her lips against mine is life altering. The second less tentative stroke is hopeful, but the third kiss, bruising and desperate, washes through me with deep fulfillment. God, how I’ve missed her. Her hands tangle in the hair at the nape of my neck and my arms circle tightly around her waist as I pull her up against me. I could hold her this way, kiss her this way, forever.
I pull back and gaze at her as I disbelievingly whisper, “Will I get to be with you forever?”
She grins and runs a finger over my lips. “One way or another, we’re meant to be together.”
I kiss the pad of her questing digit and feel a deep sense of satisfaction sweeps over me as I consider her words and meet her eyes questioningly. She grins and I can’t find the will to care what she meant so long as we’re together. “We’ll spend some time here and then we’ll be reborn.” I furrow my brows and she grins. “This wasn’t our first life together, Bette, and it won’t be our last. But no matter what life we find ourselves in, we’ll be together. That’s how it works. That’s how it’s meant to be.”
It’s strange. All of my questions have convoluted answers, but it all feels so… good, so hopeful, so loving. I can’t find it in me to worry. It’s as if there is no worry here. There is no time, there is no space, there is nothing but my soulmate, my wife, my forever, and she is joy incarnate. I smile as I lean in to kiss her once more and sigh as I release her lips to rest my forehead against hers. “So when it’s time, what’s next?”
She laughs and I revel in the sound of it as it washes over me. She raises a delicate eyebrow as she says, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
I reach up to stroke the wonderful brow with awe and she closes her eyes, her voice warm as she says, “I missed you.”
I shake my head. “You have no idea.”
She smiles. “I think I do.”
She pulls out of my arms and takes my hand. “Come on. I can’t keep you all to myself. There are some others who need to see you.”
I stare at her with excited tears. “Others? You mean…”
She nods, her grin melting away the last of my questions. I laugh with joy as she pulls me along and all of the old and tired trappings of this life we’ve completed fade away, replaced with the bright light of fulfilment, contentment, and joy. Her love is my turning page, where only the sweetest words remain. The end is only another beginning in a book of realities that revolve around one simple fact, one beautiful concept, one all-encompassing truth… here or there, or anywhere… I will get to be with Tina for eternity.