Standing in my kitchen filled with the warmth of baking sugar cookies and the scent of a cinnamon candle, I pressed the phone harder against my ear. Every one of his ragged breaths spears my heart. His wife, my dearest friend, is dying.
And I have no words.
How do you comfort a man losing his wife, his best friend, the one person in this entire world he counted on always to be there, always to love him?
Deep in the hard pit that used to be my stomach I realize you don’t. I can’t.
I finish the call and six young teenagers, some mine and some borrowed, race in from the cold to find the cookies. I hand them out, present in person but not in heart, as his last words swirls around me.
“Why is this so hard?”
My answer was, “I don’t know.” Does anyone know how to say goodbye and survive?
I pour milk for the chattering masses worried about Fall Out Boy concerts and cross country rankings. Yet all I can think about is it’s not the letting go that’s hard, it’s the leaving behind.
While her struggle will soon be over, his will just be starting. The world will expect him to grieve quickly and properly, take care of his children, go to work, accomplish things. Face the world with courage and strength and a smile stretched across his unnaturally thin face. Yet some accommodation will be made since he is the widower.
For her friends, those who have sent cards filled with love when they can’t send themselves, those who have sat by her bed, reading her books because she’s lost her vision, we will say goodbye at the proper time and struggle to move on.
But I’m afraid. Afraid if I do move on it will be as if she never existed, never counted.
Yet she did and she does.
With her middle-grade mysteries and women’s fiction novels, her great scarves, white flowers, and endless cups of grande lattes, she is bringing her warmth and light and laughter to a new home. An act which will leave our home darker and colder and quieter.
And I will have to continue fixing a manuscript that she loved and believed in yet is suffering under the weight of my sadness and impending loss. She isn’t just a dying wife, loving mother, and best friend. She is also my critique partner and head cheerleader. Since her diagnosis I have been floundering, lost without her wisdom and wit, desperately trying to make deals with God.
I am determined to finish my manuscript before she passes. I want to read it to her, let her know how much I valued her attention and insight, let her know she was loved. But I’m struggling with the hard. Both in the letting go of my friend and my manuscript.
“More cookies?” my daughter mumbles with a mouth filled with sugar and pink frosting. “Peesh?”
Assuming that was a “please” surrounded by pink sprinkles, I hand her the second plate and take another tray out of the oven unaware of the imminent danger.
One of the cookies is crooked, a bit overdone, and the frosting is smeared. And for some reason the frosting looks more red than pink.
“Eww!” My son points at this anomaly. “It looks dead. It’s a bleeding heart! Gross!”
They are heart-shaped cookies because that was the only cookie-cutter I could find. The others are probably hiding in the piles of laundry or empty flower pots that have yet to be put away for the season.
“I’m not eating it,” the other boy says.
“I dare you!” My daughter, the fearless one who wants to attend Hogwarts, be picked as a Tribute, and join the Dauntless Faction all at the same time, waves it in front of her brother. “I’ll give you my time on the Xbox.”
“No way,” he says, grabbing the milk container. “If I eat it, my heart might break too. And I haven’t even fallen in love yet!”
“You’re too scared to fall in love.” With a shrug, my daughter smiles, takes a bite, and leads her tribe of three girls back outside.
Left alone with my son and his friend, I say, “Don’t believe your sister. You’ll fall in love when the time is right. And when you do, you’ll feel no fear. All you’ll want to do is fly.”
He nods, but I realize I said the perfectly wrong thing. Where his twin would take off without wings, he would want to know ahead of time there was no risk. And he’d want that reassurance notarized and posted in public.
I apologize, but he just looks at his buddy and says, “It’s cool, Mom. But when I fall in love, I want it in writing that I won’t get hurt.”
He and his friend pack up the rest of the cooled cookies and leave for the part of the house as far away as possible from the girls.
And for the second time that day, I stand there with no words to offer.
If I can’t explain the benefits of love–and why it’s worth the risk–to a friend or my own son, what business do I have writing romance novels?
Suddenly, my daughter reappears. “Where is he?”
“Upstairs,” I say. “You hurt his feelings.”
“I know,” she says. “That’s why I’m giving him my Xbox time anyway. And tomorrow I’ll make his favorite pancakes.”
I am not surprised by her sudden reversal. It seems to be a teenage thing. But I am happy she is making amends.
“And Mom?” She pops her head around the corner of the kitchen. “I’m also scared to fall in love. But don’t tell him. He’ll think I’m weak.”
She disappears, leaving me in the center of the kitchen with a dirty mixer, pink-stained cookie sheets, and a dog who would love to lick up all the dropped sprinkles.
Is that how my children see falling in love? As a weakness?
My heart breaks a little. How can I prove to them that falling in love–and staying in love–takes a lifetime of compromise, kindness, and courage? That falling in love is the antithesis of weakness? If talking to teenagers has a fifty-percent chance of penetration, how do I explain that falling in love–in spite of the dangers–is the most important thing they will ever do?
I look over at my desk covered in manuscript pages, note cards, highlighters.
Why is this so hard?
Why do I have to say goodbye?
Why can’t I finish this manuscript?
The birds outside my window struggle to find seeds in the mid-winter cold, and I realize the truth. Life is hard because it’s a struggle to meet basic needs. Loving one another is hard because it counts on two people being vulnerable, taking risks, willing to lose the other to a breakup, debilitating disease, or death.
But writing about love? It’s more than hard. It’s devastating.
Love stories are written in the midst of the tears and suffering of real life. And while living through these emotions is difficult, reliving them through your characters is nothing more than a brutal reminder.
So why do I do it? Why do I force myself to sit down every day and throw words on the page? Because of the Happy Ending.
Yes, all romance novels have happily ever afters. And yes, I know, real life doesn’t. But that’s where the beautiful comes in.
Reading love stories, with their Happy Endings, allows us to revisit the most horrible of emotions in a safe, secure way. In a way that teaches us not just to survive, but to thrive. In a way that helps us heal, maybe even enough to try again.
And that means something.
Our words, our characters, our stories, mean something. This alone propels me back to my computer, my notes, my charts. If I finish this story with the care and passion it demands, I’ll find words of comfort for my friend and teach my children that love is not a sign a weakness.
That love, especially when facing a loss, takes enormous courage.
That love, if you’re willing to take the risk, allows us to fly.
All photographs courtesy of Sharon Wray.