I've been writing a long time about facing fear, about how it cracks open wide your life, and - to paraphrase Leonard Cohen - lets the light in. But I've just discovered it's one thing to face a fear of drowning by whitewater rafting, or of heights by paragliding off a mountain. It's another thing entirely to face a fear that you will not be strong enough to take care of your family when they need you most.
Almost a year ago exactly my father fractured his C1 and C2 vertebrae in a fall. He could have - should have, really - died. But he survived and after hours in our local hospital was transferred by ambulance 90 miles to a medical center with specialists more capable of handling his injury. While I was with him in the ER, T stayed with my mother. She's not really able anymore to spend much time alone. She's got emphysema, is on oxygen 24/7, is in almost constant pain from a distintegrating spine and is beginning to show signs of what I'm afraid is dementia.
Once, not long after my brother's death, she was so confused that my father and I had to show her a photo of Gunnar and gently explain to her that her son was never coming home.
"He died, Mom," I told her. "He's gone." I held her as she sobbed, thinking there was really not any way that I was going to survive the moment. It hurt too much. You always hear tell about how life is cruel, but until then I didn't understand just gleefully cruel it could be.
The night my dad broke his neck my uncle and cousin came to stay with my mother, so T could be with me. We followed behind the ambulance bearing my father, the stars shining down on us with a brillance that only seems possible on the very coldest rural Pennsylvania nights. After Dad was tucked in to the ICU we checked into a motel. I remember I was afraid to go to sleep, terrified the phone would ring and a voice on the other end would tell me my father was dead.
We were there three nights, the whole while my aunt and uncle watching over my mom at their house. Finally my father was stable enough to be transferred to a rehab facility in our town, where he stayed for two weeks. But I'd spent a lot of the time he was recovering in ICU numb with fear that I was going to lose him. The rest I'd pondered what I would have done without T. How could I have coped if I'd been without his quiet, steadfast support? What if, after spending all day at Dad's bedside in ICU, I would have had to go back to that motel and crawl into that cold bed, alone?
I used to believe I would have broken apart. Maybe I would have. But I'm no longer the woman I once was. The pain of losing T - and my ability to negotiate that pain, as unlovely as the process has been - has honed me. I think it has sharpened my abilities to bear trauma and stress. If it doesn't kill you it makes you stronger. Eventually, that is, after it's first torn you apart, left you bloodied in a ditch by the side of the road. But if you rise up out of that place, the seams where you've stitched yourself together are more solid than you would have believed possible.
Three days ago my father went to see his doctor. He wasn't feeling well. Before he could make it in he nearly collapsed in the parking lot. A creatinine blood test revealed he was in kidney failure. I took Dad to the ER, the same ER I'd taken him almost a year ago, after his fall, and waited four or five hours while they ran more tests. Although the ER physician believed his issues were only caused by dehydration, they admitted him. I was forced to leave mom alone. T, of course, is long gone, a memory I'm willing to become more faded, dull, like a Poloroid picture that never quite developed. My mother did fine. I did, too, on my own, taking care of my father.
They discovered the next day that both of my Dad's kidneys were blocked by stones, which he's suffered from his whole life. I get them, too. They scheduled him for surgery, to implant stents to drain his kidneys and restore their function. Sometime that day, while Mom and I were visiting Dad in the hospital, our pug dog, Lola, injured herself. When we came home she was having trouble standing on her back legs.
I spent yesterday getting Lola to the vet and Mom and me to the hospital, picking up Lola and taking her and my mother back home, making dinner and finally going back alone to the hospital tonight to spend time with my dad. It was stressful. It was exhausting. Mom and I got into a couple of arguments. I need to have so much more patience. Because she's scared, too, just like me.
But it looks like Dad is going to be fine, though I just heard they're keeping him another night. We're hopeful Lola will mend, too. My Dad and I have had our issues, our blowups. But last night I was able to sit with him for a spell, reading aloud to him as the hospital quieted around us. I'll never forget it, that time. I'm grateful for it.
I'm grateful, too, that I was able to handle everything, all of it, on my own. Not perfectly, or gracefully, or with as much good humor or equanimity as I would like. I want to do better. Unfortunately, I know I'll have the chance to try. But there is comfort in knowing that I didn't fail my parents. In knowing that I'm stronger than I once was - and less strong than I will someday be.
His name was Craig, though he told me I could call him CC. I met him in a honky tonk - Robert's Western World I think - in Nashville, the same city where I met T almost six years ago. I was with a couple of friends and I went to the bar to get a refill. I was drinking Red Bull and vodka, an insane beverage that if you're not careful can make you blackout drunk while you're still, more or less, walking and talking. I drink them when I'm exhausted but refuse to concede defeat. Or I did - before that night it had been years since I'd had one. I wasn't precisely intoxicated, but I was on my way. I was having fun. The joint was crowded, the band was good and I wasn't thinking about T. I wasn't sad, or fearful, or feeling guilty about something I couldn't quite name. I was feeling like the woman I once was - carefree, bold, even joyous - before pain came into my life and pulled up a chair, deciding to stay for a spell.
And then, drink in hand, I turned to head back to my table and there was CC. We looked at each other. And there was never any doubt what was going to happen. Because in that moment, quicksilver fast and white hot, like a lightning strike on a deserted beach, we recognized each other. It wasn't that we'd ever met before. I think that CC and I simply saw the same wild in each other that dwells within ourselves. That's the only way I can explain it. It's happened before to me, most recently in Ireland, the night I met Thomas. It's an attraction that goes beyond appearance, and maybe even chemistry. I think it's really more of an unconscious acknowledgement that you've just met one of your tribe.
CC was beautiful, though. I can't say that didn't matter. Only about my height, but packed with sinewy muscle that spoke less of time in the gym than long days of physical labor and intense dedication to play in the sun and fresh air. He had wispy silver hair, big fierce green eyes, a huge smile that revealed a mouthful of straight, white teeth and a laidback, laconic speaking style. He looked and sounded like the surfer he soon told me was. He'd lived in Hawaii, he said, for seven years, and skiied most of the big mountains in Colorado. I don't know if even five minutes passed before he kissed me.
When we returned to the table we found my friends gone. That was okay. CC and I spent the rest of the night making our way between honky tonks. I know Tooties was a stop, and maybe Legends, where my life had changed when T pulled me to my feet for a dance. T, who had broken my heart badly enough I feared it might never be made intact again. T, who I didn't stop to ponder once that whole long, sweet evening. Instead, CC and I kissed and laughed, buying each other drinks and telling tales about our lives. At 51 he was just a bit older than me - and he had my energy, too, like most of the rebels and madmen who have shared my bed over the years.
I took CC home with me that night, as I knew I would, and the next night, too. He was a skilled lover, ardent. We used our fingers and mouths to pleasure each other. His hands were roughened from carpentry and contracting work. His tongue, hot and seeking. It had been so long - going on four years - since I'd been with anyone but T. I was tense, a little shy, at least at first. But running my hands over CC's strong chest, pinning my mouth, tender from his kisses, to his hard abdomen, I felt something unmooring inside me. Perhaps it was the woman I once was, before T. She wasn't gone, I was discovering. She just been tucked up inside me, hidden away from criticism. From judgment. And now she was coming free.
When we'd finished, CC curled himself to me like we were two cats in a patch of sunlight. We slept like that, easefully.
We spent much of our second night talking. CC was a loner, living in a van he drove around the country anywhere he chose. A brawler, he had practiced Buddhism for years as a way to control his temper and still meditated every day. He smoked weed but seldom drank, was estranged from his family and had been in prison in his youth for dealing coke. He'd never married and was largely self-educated in the service of "freeing his mind." I was the first woman he'd been with in more than a year. He was kind to me, sharing himself freely, without hesitation. He told me of his youth growing up poor in Ohio with an alcoholic father. I told him my brother died of a heroin overdose.
Somewhere along the way, in between bouts of lovemaking, perhaps while we were talking, or maybe even sleeping, it came to me that I was more relaxed with this near-stranger than I think I ever truly felt with the man who I believed was the love of my life. With CC I could be utterly, completely myself.
When morning came, I suggested he pick up a copy of "On the Road." "You remind me of Dean Moriarty," I told him. Then, with a lingering kiss, he was out the door. He texted me later, asking again the name of the book I wanted him to read, but I haven't heard from him since. Maybe I'll call him on Christmas, maybe not. It's possible our paths may cross again, the way those of inveterate wanderers often do. Either way, he's nicked out a little space for himself in my heart. Not only for his fearless individualism and lively mind but for the part he played in healing me.
Because that's what happened in Nashville. I feel as if I've shed a cloak of iron. So free I might as well be floating. For the first time in months, maybe even years, I feel happy. I know the afterglow will dim, but I'm hoping it remains just bright enough to show me the way forward.
Jill Gleeson is a journalist based in the hills of western Pennsylvania. She is a current contributor to The Pioneer Woman, Country Living, Group Travel Leader, Select Traveler, Going on Faith, Wander With Wonder, Enchanted Living and State College Magazine, where her column, Rebooted, is featured monthly. Other clients have included