Last month when my brother Keith was visiting, I asked him to clean out and organize our entertainment center. Keith is a fastidious fellow, the ideal person for an organizational task. He likes things neatly stacked, artfully arranged, and, by all means, in alphabetical order. While cleaning out the center he came across a "mix tape" I made for Bill before leaving for a nearly month-long tour of Eastern Europe. I suspect that like most guys he acted all happy about the mix tape but, deep inside, thought it was a corny idea.
Mix tapes were an icon of courtship in the '80s and '90s. You knew things were serious when someone made you a mix tape. It was either a great way to cement a relationship or a surefire way to send an ambivilant suitor running, screaming into the night. In our case, it was the former. I looked over the CD and wondered why I had put "Muskrat Love" on it. "Maybe it was the closest I could get to a rabbit in a love song" I thought to myself (Bill had a rabbit named George when we met. He thought the rabbit was a boy; we discovered it was a girl when we tried to have it neutered because it keep trying to mate with my sweaters).
When I finished the kids' nests of gifts, CD, journals, etc. Bill asked, "Have you left anything behind for me?" I felt horrible. I had been so focused on the kids that I had given little thought to leaving something behind for BIll. "What would you like?" I asked. "Just a box of memories," he answered quietly.
I had been collecting a few things. I had a blank Valentine's card left over from a year I was too pissed at him to sign it (I know, I'm a bitch). And I had a an extra birthday card because last year I accidentally bought two; in fact, I bought the same exact card twice. The scarf originally intended for Aidan was transferred to Bill. (My friend Victoria graciously finished it for me when I developed too many hand wounds to complete it myself). Bill is a warm-natured person and hardly ever wears a coat in NC; he will never need the scarf for the purposes of keeping himself warm. But I thought he could keep the scarf in his bedside table and hold it when he missed me. Then I thought about the mix tape. I added it to the pile, but knowing there will soon be no device upon which to play it, I made him a CD of the original tunes (including Muskrat Love) and added several more that have had special meaning over the last 12 years since I made that first mix tape.
I was working on the CD the other day when Bill and I were alone in my hospice room. I asked him to lie down with me in my tiny hospital bed. Fortunately we are both small enough to fit into it together. I played the CD as we lay together and cried. "We've had an amazing life together," I observed. "I have loved every single minute of it," he responded. While I am pretty sure that he did not enjoy the time I tapped him less than gently on the head with the phone (not hard, just enough to let him know he was really pushing me to the brink), I think he was mostly sincere.
"After all these years, I still don't know why you stayed. You knew it would end this way."
"It was too late, I had already fallen love with you. I couldn't leave."
We were silent for awhile. I was basking in his words, running the sentence over and over again in my mind, thinking about how lucky I am that this man followed his heart and not his head.
"We were such a good pair," I whispered. And we were (are). Bill and I complemented each in other in nearly every way. What I lacked, he had in spades and vice versa. I literally cannot imagine being with anyone else but Bill; he is so much a part of me now. And I feel so sorry for him because I know he feels the same way and he has to let me go. I ached for the loneliness he will feel when there is no one there to understand all the inside jokes. No one will else will laugh when he drives by a beautifully landscaped house and he proclaims, "They must be nice people."
I kissed his wavy mane of hair. He's such a good man: loyal and steadfast, loving and dependable, witty and affable. He will find someone new to love. I truly want that for him, but laying in my hospital bed with him as we inched closer to the end of my life I finally felt the very natural sadness that comes with the realization that someone will take my place at Bill's side. He will share the remainder of his life with another woman who will run her hands through his wavy hair, keep him from getting lost, and act as tour guide on trips to foreign lands. And I felt a little angry about this other woman who is already out there, waiting for her cue to enter this tale. I let go of the anger though because, above all, I want him to be happy.
Laying there together in the narrow bed, listening the the soundtrack of our life was bittersweet. I tried to concentrate on the sweetness: Bill's unconditional love and devotion, the feel of his thick hair, the gentle caress of his hand against my arm. I had an urge to cradle him like a baby and let him sob because I know that he is afraid of the pain the will come when I pass away. I wanted to rock him and tell him, "It'll be ok. You will find love again. It won't hurt forever." But these are expressions of hope not truths. And, yet, I believe them, especially for Bill.