He will leave behind a life that is rich and full and rare. We will see it coming—the end—and we will anticipate it even though we cannot be prepared for it. He will not let go, will not give in; he will force the disease to take him, to strike him down, because he is a fighter. And he will not give up.
Since 2004 I have acknowledged September 7 as a date on the calendar; more importantly, I have felt it. Some years it slips by with a few soft words shared quietly in my mind; some years it strikes a blow that leaves me in tears.
Dredging up the past can be both good and bad. Dwelling there is futile, a spiral down a dark chasm. But it’s sometimes important to touch the scars, even if only to remember that we once felt meaningful pain.
The anniversary of Derek’s death has sometimes been reason to lament, whether that be in public or private, yet mostly it has been a reason to remember, a reason to celebrate the wonder of a life lost.
As tomorrow has approached, my fingers increasingly have traced the patterns of these emotional scars, and I realize they mean something more than wounds that will never quite heal. Those scars, reminders of history’s pains, tell me of a wonderful past, a time of magic and joy, an experience every person looks for in life.
They remind me that the hurt I felt at his loss was only possible because of the profound elation I felt in his presence.
The first time we visit the family farm together, he will tell me he has never been on a dirt road. And once we arrive and he meets my parents, he will tell all of us that he has never seen a cow before, at least not in person.
I remember eight years of splendor followed by two years of watching you fade into history. Never before or since have I experienced such contentment, such happiness, such a feeling of palpable joy and belonging. You gave me what I didn’t know I needed and exactly what I wanted.
I remember strolling barefoot in the creek and laughing until I cried when you practically walked across water after I facetiously warned you about leeches. Never has anyone moved so quickly and with such purpose. Critters never were your thing.
I remember the first time you met my parents. How nervous you were! And I remember how my parents fell in love with you, especially my father who found you to be the opposite of everything he ever feared for me. You broke his stereotypes, you shattered his preconceptions, and you helped him see me—us—in a way he never thought possible. You changed his worldview for the better.
I remember dancing with you in the rain. No music save the drumbeat of a downpour. No audience save nature. No planning. Just us, just the storm, just a bit of impromptu romance.
I remember we could share a comfortable silence and find strength in it, find more of each other in the quiet between us. Perhaps we spent it watching the moon drift across ripples on the lake, perhaps we spent it listening to each other breathe, or perhaps we spent it letting our minds wander the walkway of what we shared. What mattered wasn’t how we spent the silence; what mattered was that it was a comfortable silence.
He will fear the cows in the pastures. He will approach the fences but will not get close enough to touch them. Or to let them touch him. His fear will be palpable yet entertaining. We will all laugh about the city boy’s first time in the country. And years later we will still laugh about it, though he will be gone by then.
I remember our neighbors treating us like every other couple on the block. The family from Pakistan inviting us over for dinner every week. The couple from Britain who needed us to babysit on short notice. The Texas mother who thanked us for being a good influence for her kids. The block parties. The dinners and walks and long conversations in the street. We felt at home in every way possible.
I remember vacations. Oceans, countries, states. But we never had to go far to find other worlds. A local park could be as thrilling a getaway for us as any travel to remote locales. It wasn’t the destination that mattered; it was the company that made a place worthwhile.
I remember standing in the driveway at night watching the rabbits play, watching the raccoons and opossums run about, watching the coyotes and bobcats, watching nature. You never did understand how so much wildlife could thrive in the big city.
I remember seeing both excitement and terror in your eyes when you saw your first and only tornado. You held my hand so tightly that I thought you’d break the bones.
He will ask me to take my telescope with us when we visit the family farm. He had never looked through one until he used mine. Then he was hooked. He will want to see the moon in close and crisp detail, he will want to see the gas giants as they hurry through the night sky, and so he will ask me to find every exciting thing even as we shiver in cold winter air. Mom will snap photo after photo between views of the cosmos.
I remember long walks after dark, endless phone calls when you traveled on business, constant e-mails and text messages. We couldn’t get through a day without touching base at least once, even if only to say hello, things are fine here, hope you’re well.
I remember you trying to read something into our shared heritage from New York, your Buffalo roots and my family scattered about Syracuse, Tully, Rochester and elsewhere. Only when we compared notes did we realize we had been in the same places at the same times on several occasions. Had we met before?
I remember your smile, your laugh, that mischievous twinkle in your eye, the sound of your voice.
I remember your quick wit and keen intellect. We used to laugh about you mastering sarcasm before you learned to speak. And I’ve only met one other person who can speak intelligently on so many topics, who can ask the right questions even when dumbfounded by the subject, who can see beyond the obvious so easily and with such clarity. Just as I always believed, you were indeed a rare person.
I remember thinking you were more conservative than the most radical of Republicans. It provided a captivating study in cognitive dissonance. You never met a Democrat you liked, and you could hardly believe your heart when you fell for me, a centrist with liberal social views and conservative fiscal views. How many debates we enjoyed about politics, you adamant in your beliefs and me always willing to look at both sides to find the best answer. And though you never considered voting for anyone other than a Republican, you accepted that you were a pawn for them, a member of a group they would constantly use as fodder for culture wars. And you accepted that.
He will stare into the heavens like a child’s first time looking into a kaleidoscope. He will laugh at how quickly the moon flies through the darkness, how it escapes the telescope’s gaze even as he watches it closely enough to count the craters.
I remember the smell of you. When your travels took you far and wide, it wasn’t beneath me to sneak a snuggle with a shirt you’d tossed in the laundry.
I remember your charm. You could elicit a smile from the most miserly and miserable souls. Everyone liked you. Even David, a married friend of mine from work, developed a crush on you. He was man enough to admit it and laugh about it; his wife was comfortable enough to encourage it because she said it made their sex life better.
I remember how much you feared introducing me to your family. You never admitted to them who you really were. They knew just as my mother knew before I told her. When I did finally meet your family, it was at the end. I’ve always wished that could have been different, that we could have met under better circumstances.
I remember how easily we shared our friends. Mine became your friends just as yours became my friends. And though we told a few of them that we were a couple, most of them assumed and accepted it on their own. Yours would call you and ask how I was doing just as mine would call me and ask how you were doing. It happened so silently and easily that we didn’t notice when we became a couple in their eyes.
I remember you kept backing your Cougar into the side of the garage, eventually tearing the mirror from the passenger door. I offered to switch sides with you but you feared that would just mean you’d tear the mirror off the driver’s door as well.
I remember taking you to Las Vegas for the first time in your life. Watching the lights reflect in your eyes as we moved around town seemed all the more apparent because you had your eyes open so wide, trying to consume every decadent sight, trying to understand how such excess could thrive in the desert. You loved it so much that it became a regular haunt for us, at least as often as we could fit it in our schedules.
He will die Tuesday night. I remember this detail clearly: September 7 just after ten in the evening. His brother will call, will tell me the news, and I will crumble to the floor beneath the weight of it. It will not surprise me, no, but that will not make it easier.
I remember near the end that my one hope in life was that no person be robbed of experiencing the kind of completeness that we shared, of meeting someone who could fill the voids that have gone unnoticed. No one should be robbed of the opportunity to experience such a thing, even if only for a moment.
I remember I didn’t feel angry at the thought of losing you. On the contrary, I felt that I had been given a gift unlike any other gift, one that I never expected, one that filled my days with all the good imaginable. Though I didn’t want you to go, I knew I had been blessed to share part of my life with you. I was a better man because of it, because of you.
I remember calling your family to tell them. They assumed you were ill but had no idea how sick you really were. I hated that their first real interaction with me would be under such circumstances.
I remember I let them take you back to New York because they had missed so much of your real life, so much of the real you. And I knew you had only weeks left and they deserved to spend it with you.
I remember you had the clarity of thought to say goodbye before the disease took your mind. It was the day before you flew to Buffalo. Only a few days after you arrived, they called to tell me you were no longer you.
I remember flying up to see you and how it made me cry when I entered your room only to realize you no longer recognized me, at least not most of the time. Through the screaming and the rambling, though, you paused a few times to tell me you were sorry, that you knew who I was, that you knew I had saved the day. Jenny had to leave the room because she couldn’t bear to see you like that, to see how quickly things had changed between us.
I remember telling your family that it was the end. They disagreed, perhaps from denial or perhaps because they wanted to believe the impossible.
I remember flying back to Dallas to tend to some work and personal business, a decision I would regret forever. I thought I had time. I didn’t.
I remember saying a few weeks. It turned out to be a few days.
I remember the call.
And I remember this was your favorite song. It reminded you of our first trip to Vegas, one of the best times in our lives. So let’s remember that together.