September 23rd makes four years.
Four years since the day my life came tumbling down around my ears. Every facet of who I am, who I thought I was, where I saw my life heading, who I’d spend it with…all reduced to mere illusions, cruel constructs I’d built in my head and heart, that, apparently, only I shared.
Most men aren’t good at anniversaries. Our internal calendar has only a few permanent, red letter dates in it – wedding anniversary, birthdays of our spouse and children, Valentine’s Day, and opening day of deer season. Everything else is just penciled in, and fades very quickly.
We don’t remember the anniversary of our first date, or our first kiss, or the first time we told someone we loved them.
And we damned sure don’t remember the restaurant, or what we were wearing, or what movie was playing. But it was probably a chick flick, because that’s what you wanted to see, and honestly, we could care less about the movie, anyway.
But the day a man comes home to find his wife and child gone, with nothing left behind but a note…
…that’s one that will be seared into your memory forever. Trust me on that one.
And when you read the letter and come to the realization that the reasons for her leaving were largely your fault, it shakes you to your very core. You look in the mirror and don’t much like the man you see there. You aren’t the man you could have been, or the husband you should have been, and the reason for being both of those things has gone forever.
But I get ahead of myself. We were talking about anniversaries. And to understand how this one came about, we have to go back to where I was when it all began…
But when I was a kid, I’d imagine my future, and see in it nothing but pain and misery. I saw failure. My mother gave her children many wonderful things, both inherited and nurtured, but she also taught us all the lessons we needed to fail. I was determined not to learn those lessons.
In my college psych classes, I learned of John Locke and the tabula rasa, and suddenly my childhood made sense. I may have been born with a blank slate, but the things being inscribed on it were hopelessly muddled. If I was going to have a clear path in life, I needed a new author.
In the great nature vs nurture debate, count me squarely on the side of nurture. I became a Lockean empiricist at age twelve, before I even knew who John Locke was. I was going to be the author of my destiny, and to do that I had to get as far away from my family as possible.
I suppose that’s where the aloofness comes from. When you’re twelve, you can’t just run away to join the circus, no matter how well it worked for Dennis the Menace. So when you can’t attain that physical distance, what you do instead is start distancing your mind. And your heart. When I was a child, my mother would often tease me about being off in my own little world.
If she only knew.
My brother Terry was my refuge. He was older than I, already a man when I came into this world. And when life at home became too difficult to bear, his home was where I ran. He raised me, taught me how to be a man. All the wonderful gifts my mother passed to us with her genes, Terry taught me how to use. For all life’s lessons my father tried, and failed, to teach me, Terry pointed out the same lessons in the example my father set. Dad was a poor teacher, but he set a good example. My brother and I were both grown men before we understood the importance of that example, and learned to forgive all the missteps Dad made along the way.
I’ve got three sisters. If I died tomorrow, they probably wouldn’t be at the funeral. Not because they don’t love me, but because I haven’t bothered to know anything about them for twenty-five years. I couldn’t tell you their addresses, or phone numbers. Whoever makes my funeral arrangements wouldn’t have a clue who to call. I have nieces and nephews I’ve barely met, and grand nieces and nephews whose names I haven’t even bothered to learn.
I don’t even remember their birthdays, Terry’s included. I have a twin sister with whom a feel absolutely no kinship, but at least it’s easy to remember her birthday.
In my family, I’m the arrogant asshole brother who thinks he’s better than the rest of them. And if I cared what they thought, that would bother me. But I don’t, so it doesn’t, and it’s probably true anyway.
I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church after being raised as a Methodist. Mom hated that. Terry and I attended an Episcopal church which had a rather affluent congregation, and my mother, predictably, saw us as social climbers who didn’t know our place. What should have been a joyful occasion was made less so by her bitterness and resentment.
Our priest was a gentle bear of a man named Frank Swindle, and during those tumultuous teenage years, he became more of a friend and mentor than simply the man in vestments we saw every Sunday at mass.
Shortly before I graduated high school, Frank took me to lunch. We were sitting on the levee watching the Ouachita River, eating our lunch, when I confessed to Frank that I felt alone. Not just lonely, but on life’s path all by myself, with no one to consult for guidance. And that was okay, because I was pretty sure of the accuracy of my own map. But sometimes, just sometimes, I wished I could see someone else taking that same road, just to be sure I wasn’t lost.
He didn’t answer me by telling me to seek God. He wasn’t that kind of priest. He knew I knew all those things. He sermonized on it every Sunday. He lectured us on it in confirmation class. Private conversations with Frank were a little, well…earthier.
Instead, he asked me a question that floored me. He just nodded thoughtfully, and quietly asked, “Are you gay, AD?”
“Gay??” I spluttered with all the shocked incredulity a male heterosexual teenager could muster. “What in the world would make you think that?”
“You speak of walking alone through life, of no one knowing who you really are. Of wishing that you could find someone out there who felt the same. Gays are forced to walk a very lonely path in our society. It’s even more lonely when you deny to yourself and your loved ones what you really are.”
“Uh, well,” I assured him, “I am most definitely not gay. I like girls.”
“And yet I’ve never met a girl you’ve dated,” he pointed out.
Yeah you have, Frank. Tracy Shipman from our youth group, in the back of a cotton trailer during our fall retreat. But if I told you that, you’d put an end to the youth group retreats.
“Well, that’s because the kind of girls I date aren’t exactly the type I’d introduce to my priest,” I said instead. It was even true. Frank was my priest, but I didn’
t tell him everything. I’m Episcopalian, after all, not Catholic.
“Okay, fair enough,” he said. “So you’d rather rely on no one in this life but yourself, yet you fear being alone.”
“Yeah, that’s it in a nutshell.”
“Life is hard,” he told me. “It’s a big shit sandwich, but we are given the choice of whether we want it on white or whole wheat. Going through it without a companion is most definitely white bread, with no condiments. It’s bland and tasteless.”
“I’ve had plenty of companions, Frank,” I protested. “Plenty.”
“You’re a seventeen-year-old boy,” Frank snorted, rolling his eyes. “Whatever number you give me, I can probably divide by three and still be on the high side. But that wasn’t what I meant. I’m not speaking of fucking. I’m talking about loving someone. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to trust someone enough to let them in. You can’t have joy in your life until you open yourself to the possibility of it. That means risking pain, too.”
“Maybe so,” I muttered dubiously. “Have you ever felt like that, Frank? Does it make sense to you?”
“I’m the son of an oilfield roughneck who grew up in Perryville, Louisiana and became, of all things, an Episcopal priest,” he chuckled. “Yeah, I know all about walking lonely paths.”
“And how did you find joy in your life?” I wanted to know.
“You’ve met my wife and daughter,” he winked. “You tell me.”
You know, much like today, except that as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that my feces actually do carry an odor. If you follow me into the bathroom, you may even catch a faint whiff of lilacs and jasmine. Sometimes honeysuckle, depending on what I’ve eaten.
I was also single, and busy sleeping my way through a growing collection of ER nurses. Not a playah, mind you, more like a serial monogamist with Relationship ADHD.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I was an asshole. Only no one thought I was an asshole, because I was charming and funny. Humor can be quite a useful disguise for misanthropy, you see.
And there was this ER nurse who had this…something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I first noticed her when I transported the husband of one her co-workers, an LPN who worked the med/surg unit. Or, more accurately, that was when she first noticed me.
I took the old man out of PGHNSTRACH’s ICU (so designated solely because it had a telemetry monitor and close proximity to the nurse’s station and the crash cart) to the Big City for treatment of his CHF. He wasn’t in good shape when we started, and got worse along the way. He crumped, and I had to intubate him and start a dopamine drip. He died a couple of days later.
She noticed me because I spoke gently to her co-worker, and took time to reassure her and coax a smile with a joke or two. I also took the time to call the hospital back and give them an update on his status. Apparently that wasn’t typical behavior for the medics in Podunk Parish at the time, and it got her attention. For me, it was nothing special. It was simply what I always did.
I didn’t really notice her, though, because once I took report and packaged my patient, the nurses just faded into the background. I didn’t see them as people; they were just a part of the furniture, wearing scrubs the same shade of institutional green as the upholstery. Unfortunately, that was also something I always did.
I first took notice of her when I brought an arrest into the hospital one day. I’d gotten a pulse back in the field, an all-too-rare occurrence in rural EMS.
My patient was still teetering on the brink of arrest when we arrived at the ER, and I anticipated having to hold the ER doctor’s hand and tactfully “suggest” all the things he needed to do in order to stabilize the patient, an all-too-common occurrence in rural hospitals back then.
Only I didn’t need to take over. The nurse did it for me. She gave orders like you’re supposed to give orders; calmly and politely, but with the undertones that say unmistakably I Will Be Obeyed. She cracked a joke or two, kept everyone loose, and ran the code. She was the Charge Nurse, and I say that with the capital letters because, rather than just being the poor nurse saddled with the responsibility for that shift, she was in charge, and everyone there knew it.
Including the doctor.
I remember thinking to myself, “Damn, she thinks like a medic.”
Thirteen years ago, that was the highest praise I could give.
And as I watched her work, it occurred to me that she reminded me of, well…me. I mean, not me as I muddle through the rest of my life, but me at my best, when I’m working with a patient. When I’m in my zone. She was all the things I’m most proud of about myself, only with big boobs and deep, expressive brown eyes. And long, dark brown hair. And a smile that lit up her entire face.
And I knew right then I had to go out with this girl. So I got Effeminate Partner to introduce us, and eventually I summoned up the courage to ask her out to dinner.
It didn’t take many dates before I realized what that certain thing was that I couldn’t put my finger on. Not only was she everything I liked about myself, she was also everything that I wasn’t, but wanted to be. She was warm. She was genuine. She was tender and caring. I was none of those things, but I had developed a knack for faking it.
And she was all of the above, yet still capable of ordering a burly and belligerent cop out of her ER, lest she kick his ass before she got him fired.
And she could make you believe it, too. She had spunk.
And despite my best acting, she could tell I faked it. She called it my Paramedic Face. It resembled whatever mask I needed to wear to get the job done, and it was convincing to everyone but her, but she recognized it for what it was – just a mask.
And she finally convinced me to drop it, and she didn’t run away. Every ugly thing I told her about my childhood, my past relationships, my career…all of that she countered with a gentle smile and, “So? That’s who you were. But who do you want to be?”
I didn’t know right then who I wanted to be, but I knew that night where I wanted to be.
When I dropped her off at her truck that night, she stood outside and asked me, pensively, “Soooo, what is this? This thing between you and me? Where are we going?”
I thought about it for a minute, and answered, “I suppose this ‘thing’ is us. Not ‘you and me’, but ‘us’. Like, boyfriend and girlfriend.”
“You sure that’s what you want?” she asked. “Because I’m serious. This is not casual for me.”
“It’s not casual for me, either,” I assured her. “I love you.”
She smiled big enough to light up the parking lot, but chuckled, “I’ll bet you’ve said that to every nurse you’ve dated.”
“I haven’t said that to anyone, not even family, in fourteen years,” I answered honestly.
And she recognized the truth in that, too.
So it began between us, and from that point forward, it was us; a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. A couple of months later I proposed to her, kneeling next to the jewelry counter at Dillard’s in the Galleria mall in Houston, Texas.
Effeminate Partner had helped me pick out the ring the week before, and helped me carefully lay my plans for the big day. Four of us – me, Effeminate Partner, The Girlfriend and her cousin – went to Houston for the weekend. The plan was, when we went to Six Flags Astroworld, we’d have The Girlfriend paged to the Looney Tunes Village, and I’d have Bugs Bunny present her with the ring, and ask her to marry me over the park PA system.
Six Flags refused to do it. They wouldn’t let me ask her over the PA system, wouldn’t even let Bugs give her the ring. Bastards.
Hey, Astroworld? I’ve got three words for you: Disney World, bitches. That’s why people go to Orlando or Anaheim and wear their little Mickey and Minnie top hats and veils, instead of your park.
Anyhoo, I had to resort to Plan B, which was effectively summed up by EP as “whenever it feels right.” Whenever it felt right turned out to be the Dillard’s jewelry counter, me with wet ass and knees from falling at the ice-skating rink. Still, everyone who saw it applauded, The Cousin said, “Awwwwww,” and Effeminate Partner cried like a little girl.
Most importantly though, The Girlfriend said yes, and became The Fiancee. Six months later, she became The Missus.
Effeminate Partner and Farting Partner and several other partners I’ve not mentioned were my groomsmen, although to be fair, we seriously considered EP for Maid of Honor. As it was, he bawled through most of the ceremony, and endured a merciless teasing from the rest of my groomsmen. Looking back at it now, I realized that my half of the wedding party was entirely EMS people.
I’m not really sure if that’s a healthy thing or not.