A Love Story in Three Parts

These three columns ran in The Kansas City Star over the course of three years and tell a story of life, loss and love. They are special to me and non-fiction. If you read only one thing that I have ever written, I would like it to be this.

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Part One: March, 2012

“When do I get to meet you?” was the message that greeted me on my Facebook page.

“Oh, I don’t know.” I typed back, “That might ruin the mystique. I’m not very interesting in person.”

That was the answer I gave Chris. It’s the answer that I give a lot of people.  Sometimes a flip answer like that keeps one more thing off of my To-do list.

Chris lived an hour away. I’ve spent a good deal of time with his wife- she’s one of my best friends. We are in contact, usually written, every day; once a year we go on a Chick Weekend with other friends. But if I got Nicole, Chris got the kids.

Last year, Chris and Nicole threw a New Year’s Eve party and invited my family. But the long round-trip drive on that particular night held little appeal to me. It held less to my husband who wasn’t thrilled about spending a late night with people he didn’t know.

Right. Didn’t know. He didn’t know one of my best friends or her husband. But we all do that, right?  Brian has his circle of people and I have mine. Sometimes, in a real life Venn diagram, those circles intersect-most of the time they don’t.  It’s a fact of modern life.

But Chris and I were connected through another fact of modern life: social media. I got to know him through the things he shared.  Always funny, always smart- I was often in awe of the depth of his faith and the quickness of his wit; I admired how Nicole and Chris parented as a team. I got that all through his posts, I didn’t have to be in the same room with him to know him.

Finally, six months ago, I did get to be in the same room as Chris. He was dressed in a nice suit, sharing with anyone who would look a picture that his six-year-old daughter drew.  Chris’ whole family was there, all five kids and Nicole, of course. When I walked into the room I went to her and hugged her hard- the physical contact so much more rewarding and personal than any phone conversation, text or Facebook message.

I walked over to Chris, “Never thought I would meet you like this,” I whispered.

He lay still. Hands holding a picture of Daddy in heaven.

Days before, Chris had set off to work like any day. He had kissed Nicole good-bye like he did every day, got in his car and drove the same route that he drove every day.

But that day, Chris met a man in another car who was traveling at highway speeds in the wrong direction.  The death was quick, which is a little comfort to Nicole and the kids.  The other driver survived. He is still surviving, still available to his own family.

I can’t attempt to understand the legalities of the accident- why justice seems so slow.

I can’t attempt to feel Nicole’s grief.  I can hear the raw emotions in her voice; I can see the pain in her eyes, in her words as I listen and learn more about Chris. Not just the stories that are sharable to anyone who reads his Facebook page, but the private Chris. Nicole’s Chris.

The Chris I would have met if I had made the effort.

I have yet to give my flip, “we don’t need to meet” answer to anyone. I doubt I ever will. Chris taught me that. I don’t care if I’m not interesting – I have to assume that they are interesting enough for both of us.

Just like Chris was.

Part Two: September, 2013

Everyone would change that day. They would insist on a longer breakfast, block the road, tell the drivers not to get behind the wheel.

If anyone had any power to stop it, they would have.

But it happened.

I shared this story awhile back, but, in a nutshell:

I learned the hard way never to make excuses and put off meeting people thinking that there is always time.

There isn’t always time.

My friend Nicole’s husband, on an ordinary drive on an ordinary day had the non-ordinary happen when he met a wrong-way driver.

Chris’ life ended and the path that no one would want for anyone began for Nicole, their five children and everyone who knew and cared for the family.

Grief. How do you handle grief like that? Sure, there are well published stages and steps, there are counselors who can guide a family through them but the family has to make the journey.

Nicole embarked on the journey. She had no choice; her kids had no choice.

Watching Nicole for the last year and a half has been heartbreaking. People surrounded them, blanketed them with love and casseroles- but there was nothing that anyone could do other than be there, as an ear, a hug, a meal, a drink, a laugh.

Nicole did what a lot of people do when faced with a loss of this magnitude: they wrote it out.

She began a blog.

She started it to work-out her feelings, have tangible evidence of her journey and, maybe, to offer hope to others who will go through something similar.

Most of the entries were obviously painful to write, they were painful to read. She was lost, hurt…alone. She admitted her failures; confronted and explored her feelings and turned to her faith as a guide. She found mentors in other women who had been on this journey before. She sought help for her family.

I have always admired her personality but her words revealed not only raw and vulnerable emotions, but true character- true strength.

She didn’t rush through each phase of grief, although I’m sure she wanted to, but she worked at it. She faced the pain and rode it through to the day when she could admit that the pain was just a little, tiny bit less.

One day she said that maybe, someday, she might like to date.

But she wasn’t ready and she knew it.

Death is a natural part of life. The journey of Nicole and her family isn’t unusual- but that doesn’t mean it’s any less life affecting. Being a common human experience doesn’t mean that it feels common when it happens to you, or to someone you love.

Nicole did what anyone would do when someone we love dies: use the tools that we have available to get our changed and confusing days to become ordinary ones. Ordinary days filled with familiar challenges- familiar ups and downs.

Old lives morph into new ones. People are the same, certain elements are the same, but it’s like they got broken up into a kaleidoscope and turned. Changed.

Then one day becomes a day that no one would ever change.

“I met someone and he’s special.”

Then she used the word “love”.

Nicole’s journey has taught me that happily ever after really is a myth. Every day is full of happy, sad, angry, delighted- a spinning color wheel of emotion that can’t be stopped.

But when it wheels past the special color, the cherished emotions- it’s happily right now.

And that is a moment we should never change and never, ever forget.

Part Three:July, 2015

Eight weddings. The year that I was 26 I attended eight weddings. It was a personal record that still stands.  By that age– three years, two jobs and four apartment moves since college– I got very good at the wedding guest routine: mail RSVP card, get gifts, buy dress and matching shoes, attend stuffy-fluffy bridal shower, fret over finding a Plus One, act like a grown-up at wedding, repeat.

Next wedding, same routine different dress.

When I was 26 I had a fairly steady beau. While he was not the steady beau that was my date to my own wedding, he was an excellent Plus One. He cleaned up nicely and was faking being an adult about as well as I was.

When I was 26 I took weddings for granted. They sort of ran together: another special day for a party; another beautiful friend who I was delighted for but quite happy that it wasn’t me.

After I did my own turn down the aisle, I understood the whole story. While armed with that newfound perspective, most of my friends were already married and wedding invitations dwindled. There have been a lot of non-wedding years since I was 26.

There have also been a lot of changes in weddings since then. For one wedding this past month I RSVP’d on Facebook and the bridal shower was less Stuffy-Fluffy and more Girls’ Night on the Deck.

I wore a dress that I already had in my closet.

I didn’t fret that my entire family was busy that day and I had no Plus One.

I didn’t have to pretend to be grown-up, although I had to remind myself of it several times when I was carried away with the joy of the day and the comfortable happiness of sharing it with a group of close friends.

The best change since I was 26 is that I possess empathetic involvement not only in the wedding, but in marriage. This particular couple’s journey to the alter was twisted like an emotional kaleidoscope. It wasn’t a special day for a party, it was a special day with a party. Accent on special.

And this one was very special.

It wasn’t simply that the bride was beautiful, the groom was beaming and the day shone bright and perfect; it wasn’t that they were surrounded by people who loved and cared for and about them.

It was more.

As the preacher began I looked around the chapel. I had never seen half of the people before, but the other half I had.

The last time that I had seen them I was sitting with the same group of friends.

The last time I had seen that collection of familiar and vaguely familiar faces it was at a church not too far by distance, but a million miles of experiences away.

“I, Nicole, take you Paul,” my friend repeated her vows…sickness, health, richer, poorer…I had heard the same vows eight times the year I was 26; I had heard them a hundred times since and I had said them once myself. But they never meant what they did that day.

“…until death separates us.”

The last time the vaguely familiar faces and this particular group of friends and I met in a church, we were there because death had separated Nicole from her first groom.

The most important change in weddings since I was 26 is that I now know that every couple has a story, every celebration unique. Every wedding is special. The ceremony and party may seem like the same old routine, but it’s not.

It’s the celebration of something new.

Something to cherish.

Nicole and I at her wedding.  Yes, I selfied in the receiving line.

Nicole and I at her wedding. (Yes, I selfied in the receiving line.)

Nicole’s (excellent, painful, raw, honest, well written)blog can be found here, My Ways Not Your Ways. I’ve linked you to the very beginning.

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