Sometimes I see scenes from my life like a long, disjointed movie on which the credits should have rolled hours ago. But it just keeps going, at least for now. Still, my lifetime, like the life cycles of the ash trees in my backyard, is finite. My trees, although a year or two younger than I am, are at the end of their life cycles, according to an arborist who came out to determine why they looked so poorly this fall. He recommends cutting them down and replacing them with young catalpa trees, but I am torn. It will take years for the new trees to provide the shade the old ones do now, and I don’t want to leave my son John, who will inherit this house, with the cost and worry of taking down the ash trees. The trees are living beings but not sentient, as far as I know, so I assume they have no sense of their impending end of days.
Damn those trees. Until this fall I always took them—and their shade—for granted. I even planted a garden of shade-loving plants beneath the shelter created by the giant canopy of the tree on the north side of the house. But then I believed Paul, my third husband and the love of my life, would live forever. He certainly seemed invincible. In his sixties he had low blood pressure, even lower cholesterol, and the sex drive of a teenager. He shoveled snow, raked leaves, kept the yard weeded, and built every stick of furniture in our house—right up till he developed a pain in his right upper abdominal cavity in the spring of 2014. He went to the doctor in July, spent the summer months undergoing tests, was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in late October, and died in the predawn darkness of November 7, 2014. It happened too fast for me to comprehend.
* * *
Paul and I met in the summer of 1996 when he fixed my power wheelchair. It wasn’t love at first sight, but his confidence and competence attracted me immediately. Later that day he told me of the night his parents died in a horrific car accident, and when he finished, he said in a hoarse whisper, “I’ve never told anyone that in my whole life.” I experienced a jolt the like of which I’d never felt before; a sense of connection I’d never had with anyone else. He made himself so naked with his words, it was more intimate than sex and I wanted more. I had eschewed passion ever since my partner Julie and I met in 1993. Instead, I poured all my energy into raising my sons, Ethan and John. I found peace, and my sons had the stability they needed. Until Paul, I thought it was a good trade-off. But now this man of sorrows had awakened a hunger I thought I’d buried forever.
I don’t know what would have happened that day in 1996 if Paul had touched me or if I had reached out for him. But neither of us did. There was just a moment when I teetered on the brink of I knew not what as we sat in his apartment smoking, drinking coffee, and listening to classical music. And then it passed. I went back to my life with my sons and Julie. I know now I wavered on a loss of control that would have blown apart the world I had built with Julie and my sons. Riding the bus home that day, I felt I’d avoided a calamity, but a sense of disappointment nagged at me as well. What I couldn’t know was that despite the restraint I’d exercised that day, I was headed straight into a decade of catastrophes that would leave my world in a shambles.
* * *
Milestones that commonly left my contemporaries dissatisfied with life and rethinking the direction their lives took never fazed me. For example, turning thirty didn’t make me feel old, and that decade was full of events most of my friends experienced in their twenties: I married for the second time, gave birth to my children, and earned an undergraduate degree. When I turned forty, my marriage was in tatters, but I had a plan of escape. I entered law school and graduated with honors three years later. I was too busy divorcing my second husband and rebuilding my life from the ground up after suffering a massive hemorrhagic stroke to notice that I’d hit middle age.
But for some reason turning fifty was a blow from which I didn’t recover for ten years. The mood swings of perimenopause incapacitated me despite remaining in treatment for bipolar I, a mental illness with which I’d struggled all my life.
To make matters worse, when the psychiatric nurse practitioner I saw for treatment added a second-generation antipsychotic to my medications, I had severe adverse drug reactions to every drug she prescribed. Finally, in exasperation, she took me off all medication. I had a major depression in November of 2005 and another in January of 2006, which morphed into a mixed-mood episode. I became suicidal in early February of that year and had to be admitted to a psych ward for the first time in thirty years.
* * *
I went back to see Paul shortly after my discharge from the hospital because the wheelchair dealers from whom I bought my chairs had pulled a bait and switch with the latest chair I bought. Paul and Julie were close friends, but he and I remained no more than acquaintances in the ten years since that first day I met him. He usually sought me out at disability events, and we’d talk briefly before he moved on. A tension still existed between us during these conversations, but I had long since concluded he was too damaged by life to be able to love, so beyond that vague sense of tension, nothing changed. I rarely thought about that day in 1996 when I felt so moved by him I was on the verge of disrupting my whole life just to touch him. When I remembered that day, I felt grateful nothing had come of it. I didn’t know how I would’ve gotten through the ten years in between without Julie’s rocklike steadiness to cling to. Her lack of emotion turned out to be a saving grace. I don’t mean to imply she was cold; she just presented the same unperturbed calm in contrast to my changeability. She parented my sons when I couldn’t, which was much of the time during these years.
When I told Paul the problem I was having with my wheelchair vendor, he looked right into me as if he could see all the exhaustion and despair caused by the last ten years. “I’ve got five wheelchairs in my bedroom. I’ve been building them since I’ve been taking care of Pepper. Why don’t you look them over and pick the one you want. I’ll trade you straight across for that piece of shit the dealers are trying to foist off on you.”
We rolled into his bedroom, where the wheelchairs sat lined up against the back wall. I pointed to a small, bright yellow chair and said, “Oh, I want the happy chair.”
Paul smiled. “The happy chair it is, then,” he said. “Let’s take it downstairs for you to try out.” And that’s all there was to it…no proving the dealer had committed fraud, no haggling; I just pointed at the happy chair and Paul gave it to me.
Paul made a few adjustments to the seating system, and I could have left within a half hour, but he kept me there most of the afternoon with fresh coffee and conversation as we smoked and listened to music. By the end of the afternoon I realized he was an acutely lonely man and how hard it must be for him to care for his beloved Dalmatian, Pepper, as he lay dying on the couch. I began to drop by Paul’s apartment whenever I was in the neighborhood and sometimes even when I wasn’t. Slowly a friendship grew up between us, and that tension we’d felt all those years ago remained as well.
I liked that tension; more than liked it: it kept me coming back to see Paul and Pepper on a regular basis. But it made me uncomfortable as well, because the more I enjoyed it, the more disloyal I felt to Julie. Then one day Julie shocked me by asking, “Do you and Paul like each other, like each other?”
I evaded her question with one of my own. “What do you mean?”
“Do you think I don’t see the way the two of you light up like Christmas trees when you’re around each other?” Julie asked.
* * *
In the summer of 2008 Pepper drew his last breath, and that fall I built a new wing on the house and we asked Paul to move in with us—John and Ethan were out on their own. Against all odds, it worked. Julie and Paul remained best friends, and Paul and I lit up the house wherever we were. Julie and I shared a rich emotional history that stemmed from all our years together, and for five years we thought we made an oddly blissful family. And then Paul died and left a hole in our lives nothing can fill.
* * *
The first year Paul moved in, he and I planted 120 spring bulbs one chilly October day: daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, and tulips. And every year they all bloom, but my favorite is the bright yellow daffodils.
* * *
This year we had a mild winter, and the daffodils began to bloom in February. I worried a snowstorm would wipe them out before they bloomed fully; it happens here all the time. It’s April and they still stand erect and with their trumpets wide open, blooming gloriously. I know tomorrow or the next day a freezing rain or spring snow might kill them off. Still, they comfort me as I write about endings.
And I know they’ll be back next year.
Pamela S. Carter studied with Joelle Fraser, and her work has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Midway and Pamplemousse. She graduated with honors from the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law and practiced law briefly after graduation. Pamela now considers herself a full-time writer.