Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Way We Were

I tried to kill Verna the day after my brother got married in 1996.

We were at the Sunday morning brunch, saluting the newyleds, just a few hours before Verna and I were to fly home. There were two chairs in front of me and it appeared she was going to sit in the one to my left. So I pulled the one to the right toward me, the seat she was aiming for. She hit the floor hard, wrenching her neck and back. We spent our remaining hours in Boston in the emergency clinic as Verna was heavily sedated for the flight home.

Our marriage, like everyone else's, was a collection of memories, some funny, some poignant, some happy, some sad. One of the most painful parts of the grieving process for me is that I basically only remember Verna from photographs. I've been inundated with pictures, ones I've dug up or have been sent or given to me, and those images are the ones I now see in my mind's eye. What did she really look like? I'm afraid, very afraid, I will only see Verna in the two-dimensional images captured by a camera.

But, fortunately, I have memories, plenty of them, and I can see an endless loop of Verna caught live and up close over the twenty years we were together.

There was the time after work in 1990, when we were counselors at summer day camp in San Francisco, when Verna leaned over to me, a week or so after we'd started dating, and said, "How can you stand it? Don't you just want to kiss?"

So we did. And then one of colleagues walked in and immediately left, embarrassed that she'd interrupted our private time in a communal office.

Or the time in Israel when we'd eaten in an Italian restaurant in Jerusalem in 1992. I had pasta sauteed in oil and heaps of garlic. Verna went out for drinks with one of the women on our tour while I went to bed. As soon as Verna returned and opened the door to our hotel room, she shrieked, "Ohmigod, you reek of garlic."

Or the births of both Miguel and Maya.

Or the time she ran a 5K race in San Francisco just days after she found out she'd miscarried in 2004. She crossed the finish line, sweaty, in a light drizzle, and collapsed in tears about what her body could and could not do. Eight months later she was pregnant again with Maya.

The memories come to me at all hours, but often at night as I sit alone while the kids are asleep. Sometimes the memories trigger powerful emotions. This past Sunday, right before the start of the Race for the Cure 5K in San Francisco, the announcer said, "We'll be led today by so-and-so a breast cancer survivor..."

At that point, tears started streaming down my face. I remember when Verna ran this race in 2007 and hadn't really trained, but still managed to finish 4th in the Survivor's Division, only two or three minutes behind the winner, who earned roundtrip airfare courtesy of Southwest Airlines.

"If I train," she'd said at the time, "I could win this thing."

She never ran the race again.

So when I heard "survivor", all I could think was, "Verna is no longer a survivor, and it's not fair." I hugged Verna's brother Marty, let out a loud sigh, and rubbed Miguel's head (he was in front of me) as we waited for the horn to blare and the race to start.

And, yes, the memories are mostly wonderful, Verna in bright colors, smiling, funny, zany, adventurous. Like the last vacation she and I took in 2008 to Cabo in Mexico. It was our first vacation without kids in 11 years, and it was an amazing week of food, relaxation, snorkeling, drinking, meeting fascinating people, and waking each morning to say, "What do you want today?"

"I don't know. What do you want to do?"

We toured the real Hotel California, met an awesome Mexican artist, partied late with four sisters from Louisianna, sailed at dusk on the ocean, swam on the beach, played in the resort pool during happy hour, walked 4-5 miles each day, and never, ever felt more relaxed or at peace.

The memories, which also include Verna's face, indeliby frozen on my brain, as she took her last breaths, comfort me and haunt me and provide me solace for they are real and they were our lives. Memories of the way we were.

Misty water-colored memories
Of the way we were
Scattered pictures,
Of the smiles we left behind
Smiles we gave to one another
For the way we were

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