She got the call late at night. It seemed like the phone was ringing in her imagination, not on her bedstand, but after a few moments everything connected in her head and she picked up the phone. She didn't know if she answered with a proper hello or if she just grunted into the receiver. She couldn't remember any of the details of the phone call, any of the words she heard that night. She just knew the cold hard facts:
Darin had been in an accident. A serious accident. It didn't look good.
Her heart was beating so hard that she could feel the blood pumping in her ears. She drove to the hospital as fast as she was able, swerving around corners and ignoring red lights. Who else would be on the streets at this time of night? And what police officer could pull her over? Who could deny that this was an emergency?
She thought she had experienced pain before. She thought she knew helplessness. But with every minute she spent at his side in the hospital room, learning more and more about the dire situation, watching the respirator inflate his lungs, waiting for doctors to make proclamations, sobbing along with his mother and father, she felt despondence filling up her chest. Nothing could prepare her to feel this way. At twenty-two years of age, still in college and working part-time as a sales clerk, how could she expect this?
She thought she had experienced love before. She thought she knew happiness. Then she met Darin, and all the rules changed. Their souls connected, and she could never be the same after that. He was the one.
How, then, could he be flat on his back, comatose, here in the intensive care unit? What could have caused an inattentive driver to have run down a pedestrian at such a speed? Why now, when they had just learned how to love each other?
She had lost count of the specialists who had paraded in and out of his room in the last few hours. Sometimes the doctors would arrive two at a time, drinking coffee and sharing anecdotes, and then launch into a brief examination of Darin's limp body and the machines attached to him. They always nodded at her with compassion, and occasionally made encouraging grunts, but that couldn't change what she was hearing:
"As far as we can tell, there's no brain activity."
"Extensive nerve damage."
"The injury to his spine is irreparable."
"It's only a matter of time."
"He's already gone. His body just doesn't know it yet."
"His heart can't hold out much longer."
Darin had never been comfortable with the whole idea of organ donation, and she knew that. His parents were aware of it, too, but were wrestling with the possibility of donating his organs anyway. Good things out of bad things, right? In the end, Darin made the decision for himself. His heart failed, and the oxygen supply to his body could not be maintained. He let go. As she watched, as she cried, he slipped away. She could feel the room get colder, and thought she saw his skin flush blue. Darin was gone.
His parents treated her like one of the family, even though they had been dating less than a year. They asked for her to assist with the arrangements. She was listed in the obituary as his beloved, right there in black and white.
At the memorial service, she wept like the typical grieving widow and felt like an impostor for doing so. How could she have fallen into this world? One short year ago, she was tumbling through life without a care in the world, thinking that love was something you saw at the movies and read about inside greeting cards, a myth perpetuated by poets and liars. And now she was dressed in black, standing over the failed body of the great love of her life as it lay motionless in a casket that she had chosen. She kept going back to that night in her bed, when the phone was ringing. What if she had never answered the call? Would the world have transformed around her and prevented this string of events from beginning? She found no comfort in this fantasy.
Darin's father came up beside her and put his arm around her waist. "You're doing great."
"You, too," she said, trying to wipe her nose without looking sloppy.
"Have you decided what you want to bury with him?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"I have an idea. But I'm afraid it might make you cry."
"Maybe you haven't noticed," she said, trying to laugh, "but I think it's too late for that."
He led her into a vacant hallway at the rear of the chapel and closed the door behind him. "A few days ago, Darin came home looking like he was on the moon. He couldn't wait to show this to me." Darin's father reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a tiny object.
"What is it?"
"A present. Something he wanted to give you." He opened his hand to reveal a small jewelry box.
"Oh my God."
"I think you know what this was meant to be."
She reached for it, trembling like a leaf. The box opened with a perky little pop to reveal a gorgeous ring that sparkled even in the dim light of the hallway. She tried to speak but couldn't find words. The ring fell to the ground. The tears came quickly now. Darin's father put his strong arms around her shaking body and rocked her back and forth, back and forth.
"He wanted you in his life forever. He loved you so much."
Her parents came to the memorial service and could see the anguish in her eyes. Darin's funeral would be held the next day. They insisted that she come home with them and sleep in her old room rather than go home alone. She agreed that it was a good idea. The shock had worn off and now she was starting to realize the permanence of it all. It was hard enough to be awake and alive right now. She could not bear to be alone too.
The bedroom looked the same as it did the day she moved out. Her parents weren't the type of people to remodel every room in the house given the opportunity, so it had remained vacant for the past few years. Her mother made the bed with a fresh set of sheets and waited for her daughter to come back from the shower down the hall. "You have to get some sleep," she said. "Everything looks better in the morning."
She didn't believe that, and wondered if her mother really meant what she was saying. Feigning strength, she put on a stiff upper lip and suffered through a long hug. Then her mother said goodnight and went down the hall to join her husband in bed.
Now she was alone, naked, dripping wet, in the room where she had grown up. How many hours had she spent gabbing on the phone about boys? Listening to cassette tapes of sentimental songs and screaming ballads of pain? Getting ready for high school dances? So many years gone by, and now the whole room was bare. Empty walls, empty closets, empty drawers. Even the phone jack was empty.
As she tried to fall asleep, the beating of her heart became a problem. The sound and pressure were overwhelming; she could do nothing but listen to the thump thump thump and feel the blood rushing through her veins. It took a long time, as she closed her eyes several times only to find them open again, but she did find sleep. There was peace, for a time, and then the dreaming started:
Windy. The blowing, roaring gusts of wind. Was there any sound? Perhaps the wind did not roar. Wind on the water. The ocean. The water was salty. She was on the beach, and a storm raged all around. She may have been wearing a swimsuit, or perhaps she was naked. Certainly her whole body was soaked to the bone. And cold. So cold. The waves were oppressive. They knocked her off balance, but she managed to remain on her feet. The waves crashed all around her face and forced her to close her eyes. This would not do. Before a breath could be taken, she was dragged underwater by a current of relentless strength. The water felt thick, like some sort of pudding, and she could not breathe. Always a strong swimmer, she thrashed in the water. Furious and terrified. Where was the surface? She had to reach the surface. Her lungs felt starved for air. Did sensations exist here? Could she hear the crashing waves in her ears?
Air! She had reached the surface for a moment, took a long sweet breath, and just as suddenly was pulled back under. Arms and legs flailed wildly. Which way was up? How could she swim to safety if she did not know the way? No light. Nothing but darkness. Desperation consumed her. Her limbs felt heavy and weak. She could not survive much longer.
More air! But then she was underwater once more. Mockery. A cruel joke. She wished for the darkness to absorb her cold wet nakedness. Why won't you let me die? She screamed into the darkness. Screamed and screamed and screamed. Why won't you let me die?
She wanted to wake up.
She could not wake up.
She tried to wake up.
She could not wake up.
She screamed into the darkness.
Alone in her bed, she came to full attention. Her body jerked violently as her senses separated fantasy from reality. She did not wake her parents. She did not vocalize her terror. She didn't have to. The beating of her heart told the story.
As the casket was lowered into the ground, with the engagement ring tucked safely in Darin's jacket pocket, she felt the rest of her life being buried with him. I only had him for a year, she thought, and I wanted him forever. The wind was unbearable out there in the graveyard. The howling, chilling wind made her think of the dream, and she shivered. Darin's father noticed this, and reached over to squeeze her hand. She let him do this, but could not find the strength to acknowledge his gesture. The casket reached its destination. The service ended.
This day was unquestionably the most exhausting day so far. A parade of mourners came to her side and offered condolences, and she forced herself to be pleasant and congenial when all she wanted to do was sleep. How wonderful it was that so many people wished her well; how difficult she found it to recognize them for it. As she undressed for bed that night, still at her parents' house, she felt as if her whole body had been drained of its precious energy. Oh, but how she had to sleep. She had hoped that the funeral would purge her of the lingering pain, but it did not serve such a purpose. If anything, she had become even more aware that the real battle lay ahead. Darin's death was final. Her survival would be a long, difficult process. And when would it end?
Again, sleep did not come easily. She wore an oversized t-shirt that Darin had given her, soft from years of washing and wearing. The sheets were cool and inviting. Darkness and silence filled every corner of her bedroom. Yet she could not seem to close her eyes. Grief came to her in waves. She would sob with a fury and just as quickly regain her composure. Finally, exhaustion had its way with her. Then the dreams returned:
An environment of rocky ground, like the seashore, only there was no water in sight. Black-and-white boulders, jagged spears of stone piercing the air as far as the eye could see. This place did not seem strange to her. She walked across the sandy plains with a single-minded intent: she was hunting high and low for a lost possession. It must have been important. Why could she not remember what she had lost? Where could it be? Where?
He was lost.
She needed to find him.
There he was!
She could see Darin in the distance, smirking and waving. She could see the stubble on his chin and look deeply into his eyes, but he was so far away. Perspective became a confusion. Here there here there. She ran in circles. Why did he keep moving further away? Here where? She would reach out to touch him and watch her hand punch through smoke. Where where where? Why are you running away from me? She could see Darin laughing now, but there was no sound. As she ran across the craggy surface, she could feel her feet being punctured by sharp rocks. Barefoot? How could that be? Darin got further and further away. He melted into the horizon. Why are you running? I need you I need you I need you! Stop running!
This time she woke up with a start, choking on her own misery, shaking like a baby, howling into the night. Tears soaked her pillow. Her mother came in to comfort her with reassuring words and a smothering embrace, but how could that help her now?
It took her a week to return to work, and even longer to fall back into routine. Old acquaintances would stop by the store from time to time and ask her what was new. Sometimes she could tell the story, but more often she did not have the energy. She hated the fact that so few of these people had met Darin. How could they understand what she had been through unless they knew about the love they shared?
She considered what she had lost. Now that she knew how to love, she had become powerless to share it. Like a waterfall into a black hole, her heart had been rendered impotent by fate. Was she single now? What would she say if someone asked her that question? And what about Darin? What happened to the love that he gave to her? Had it been lost forever when car screeched to a halt? Or when the words brain-dead were pronounced? Or when the blood stopped flowing? Or when he was lowered into the cold, unforgiving earth? When she thought about it, she could still feel him nuzzle against her earlobe in the movie theater. And she could still see him shake his head in good-hearted disgust when he caught her watching a trashy tabloid show on TV. When she closed her eyes at work, she could imagine him stopping by to say hello and coerce her to the back of the store for a passionate kiss. These episodes paralyzed her with feelings of loss. Where did his love go? And what can I do with mine?
She had been sleeping in her old bedroom for two straight weeks, and knew that she couldn't do it any longer. As the days passed, it became easier for her to stop at the apartment to change clothes or fix a light dinner. The time had come for her to return there and conquer those demons. While Darin had never moved in, they spent most nights sharing her bed and holding each other close. When he wasn't there, she missed him. Now that he was gone forever, she worried that the night terrors would return. She had woken up in a panic several times in her parents' home, but the concrete details of those dreams had always fled from her mind. The terror had been abstract, and continued to fade. The possibility of another nightmare filled her with dread. But this needed to happen. If she had to sleep, and she certainly did, she wanted to do so in her own bed.
Her mother washed three loads of laundry for her, including a fresh set of sheets, and then she moved herself out. She spent most of the first night cleaning the apartment: vacuuming all the carpets, dusting the bookshelves, changing the bedclothes, sorting the cabinets. She even changed the batteries in the fire alarm. The hour grew late. Concerned about a self-fulfilling prophecy, she made intentional changes to her nightly routine. She took a long hot shower and shaved her legs. She decided to sleep in the nude. She lit a few candles and placed them all around the bedroom. She read a few jokes from a copy of Reader's Digest that had been sitting around since Christmas. As she rolled over and gazed into the fuzzy blackness, she felt calm and relaxed. And for a brief moment, she felt guilty about that. Then the page turned:
Fire. Not scorching fingers of flame, but still fire. Omnipresent fire, manifested as flickering lights, a million colors all at once. No heat. As the flames licked her skin, a refreshing sensation tickled her inside and out. What a beautiful world, blazing with magnificent fire that did not destroy that which it touched. She danced in the rainbow inferno, consumed by its inviting radiance. She twirled and twisted and released a joyous scream.
A voice whispered in her ear -- no, in both ears at once!
"What do you want to know?"
She stopped short, while the whirlwind of flame continued to orbit around her waist.
"What do you want to know?" he repeated.
Her thoughts were muddy and confused. She did not know what to say. She simply stared at his luminous form and tried to keep it in focus. Did his eyes look like that? Were his shoulders that size? And doesn't his height keep shifting?
"Do you have to sleep?" she asked.
He laughed out loud, throwing his head back as used to do so often. All the colors in her sight shifted hue. She waited for an answer, but it did not come in the form of words.
Wildfire attacked her body and Darin merged with her. She experienced joy and pain at the same time, suddenly knowing how closely the two are connected. She could feel him caress her soul with gentle energy. She felt all the love in her heart being swept into the air and transformed into vapor where she could breathe it in again. And Darin's love was there too.
Now this whole world was burning bright with cold fire. Darin communicated his thoughts in wordless gesture, but she could easily interpret. "My dreams are more than you can imagine," Darin said. " I am sleeping all the time, and yet I never close my eyes. I have learned that eternity is a circle. At one point on the circle, I left the world where dreams come to an to end. At that moment, I loved you above all else. And I will always love you that way. The circle will remain unbroken."
She wanted to know if he had reached heaven. She wanted to know if she should keep loving him. There were so many questions in her heart, but she could do nothing but absorb the gentle glow of his blazing brilliance.
"I know what forever means. I will love you forever."
Was that Darin's voice? Or her own thoughts echoing in her head? Light changed to darkness, and her perspective swirled away. Sensations turned themselves inside out.
Her eyes opened slowly. She was tangled in her blankets, and every pore tingled with electricity. The candles glowed softly on her bedstand. She wanted to return to the dream and dance into the fire with him again, but she knew that it was over. Another page had been turned.
She knew peace.
She knew love.
And someday, she would know happiness again.