First, when a mutual friend calls you out of the blue and says it’s time, are you coming, say yes. Cancel all your meetings and appointments except your haircut. Hate yourself for caring about looks at a time like this. Cancel the haircut.
Tell your husband of 30 years where you’re going. Try to explain why. When he nods, mentally give him 100 points on the running tab you keep of your marriage.
Turn the house upside down looking for a specific photo—the black and white one you took from the audience when he was playing first chair in the orchestra. The one that shows off his cheekbones. Give up after two hours. Settle for the one you took of him cradling his dog like a baby. Hope it will make him smile.
Think about what you will say to him. Time will be short. He can’t focus for long. Never has it felt so important to be concise. Eloquence would be nice, but clarity is job one. You decide on “I came because I wanted to say thank you. You made a difference in my life.” Write it down. You will be nervous and might forget.
Think about what you will say to his young adult children. They likely have never heard your name until today. You decide on “I have to be honest. I feel awkward being here and I’m afraid I will say the wrong thing. Thank you for letting me come so I could tell your dad he made a difference in my life.” Write it down.
Forget to think about what you will say to his girlfriend.
Take food. It’s what people do. Bagels are good. They can be frozen for later. You buy a dozen bagels, fresh, and cream cheese.
On the drive to his house, get lost in the fog. Not just turned around, but so lost that you can’t find north. Think of how it’s a metaphor. Pull over and try to learn the car’s navigation system. Curse technology. Set the route. Get back on the road.
To calm yourself, take deep breaths and recite Nessun Dorma. When you get to the last two lines—“Until I say my real name on your mouth/Let all lights shine and no man sleep”—let yourself weep, but only for two miles. After two miles, allow for another 20 miles. Better to get the ugly stuff out of the way now. Wonder why, exactly, you are sobbing. For him? For your long-lost youth? For the loss of possibility?
Ignore the navigation system when, five miles from his house, it says, “You have reached the end of your charted route. No more information on your destination is available.” Acknowledge that you are off the map in more ways than one.
After you park, give yourself a pep talk. You can do this. It’s important. Forget to review your notes lying on the passenger seat.
Go inside. Introduce yourself—just your name. Don’t take off your coat. You’re not staying long. Thrust the plastic bag of bagels into his daughter’s arms. Silently berate yourself for not thinking to put them in a nicer container. Say, “Nice to meet you. Thank you for letting me come.” Forget everything else.
When things cannot possibly get any more awkward, make your way to the hospital bed set up in the living room. Find a fifth gear somewhere inside yourself. Do not show you are alarmed by how small he has become. Even though his eyes are closed, his children and girlfriend are watching. Be cool. By all means, do not think of the shape of his arms when you knew him, sculpted from wielding a planer all day. Touch his hand and say, “It’s me, Chris,” even though you go by Christine now, because that is what he called you back then.
Say, “I came to say thank you. You made a huge difference in my life.”
When he arches his eyebrows and answers with genuine surprise, “I have?” don’t panic as everything that was the you and the him together comes rushing back at the sound of his voice, which you had forgotten, the distinctive way he shapes his vowels. In a heartbeat, it will level you.
Regroup. Do not let all that is in you come pouring out. Do not tell him how often over the years he has shown up in your dreams, not as a lover but as a priest of creativity. Too complicated. Stick to the plan.
Smile so that even though his eyes are still closed, he can hear the smile in your voice. Say, “Yes. You showed me a different path—art and music—that a creative life was possible. You changed the direction of my life.”
Don’t be disappointed when he doesn’t respond. You have done what you came to do. Squeeze his hand. Say, “Rest well.”
Make small talk with his children. Say, “I knew him when I was just 18 and it changed everything.” Leave it at that. As you are walking out the door, remember the picture of him looking down at his dog. Hand it to his son. When it makes him smile, give yourself over to gratitude—for this, for everything.–Christine MacLean