Tongues of Flame

 

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Tongues of Flame

 

Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling into at night. I miss you like hell—Edna St. Vincent Millay

Falling in love with the right person is no guarantee we'll never suffer the terrible, sometimes heartbreaking things that happen in this world. I met Jill when I was twenty-two and she was nineteen. She died at twenty-four. While her death is the greatest sadness of my life, I try not to think about why hers ended so tragically. Instead, I dwell on how she lived it. Memories of her constantly thread in and out of my mind. They help me understand why having her as my wife for those five wonderful years gives my life hope and purpose, even on the loneliest of days without her.

For Jill and me, fate, in a way, was uncompromising yet merciful. It allowed us to share her last moments of life before taking her. I know what happened to her, because she called me by cell phone from where she was trapped in her wrecked car.

There are things about her I can picture so clearly still. Like the day we met; it wasn’t quite love at first sight. At least for me.

My older brother, Hank, and I had stopped by a coffee shop near our campus. We’re waiting in line to order when he elbows me and then points out the girl behind the cash register. “Tommy, she’s eyeballing you. You should ask her out.”

I looked at the girl, the skinny one with large, baby-like eyes staring at me. She looked so young, like she was still in high school. I turned up an eyebrow and smirked at her. She smiled at me in return.

A few days before, Dory, my then-fiancé of two years, suddenly packed up and moved to San Francisco. She left our small east coast town and me behind—for good. I never saw it coming. So I wasn’t in the mood for my brother’s match-making antics.

The young girl working the coffee shop register that morning, the one with a warm smile and big, brown eyes full of innocent curiosity staring at me, didn’t interest me at all. I was at a point in my life when I said, No more women! No more dating! I don’t care how good looking they are, how educated they are, how interested they are in me—I was done with it! I felt love just wasn’t in the cards for me anymore.

And so when I stepped up to the counter, I didn’t smile or make direct eye contact with the girl behind it. I had no intention of impressing her in any way. I’d been jilted and I was heart-broken. My pain must have been obvious though, because from the corner of my eye I saw her giving me this sad, pouty-lipped look, as if she could sense what I was going through. A small radio on a shelf behind her was set to an oldies station. She hummed a melody as it belted out a scrap of an old tune I had heard many times before. It was Faithfully by the 70s group Journey. The song’s lyrics, a favorite of Dory’s, spun in my head and made me instantly think of her. I became angry and a bully at the same moment.

“By the way,” I said, handing the girl a twenty, “you have something nasty on your shirt, above your pocket.” I pointed at it. It was only powdered sugar. She looked down and swiped it away. “You really should be more professional and wear clean clothes when you come to work,” I added, feeling mean. I nodded toward the radio. “And can you change that icky station? It plays those sappy love songs. They’re the last thing customers want to hear.”

She handed me my change and then looked me straight in the eye, and said softly, “I’m sorry you’re having a bad day. I hope it gets better.” I just looked at her and didn’t say anything, but I was thinking, She doesn’t know what a bad day is, but if she keeps staring at me, she’ll soon find out.

I came back to the coffee shop the next day to meet some friends. I was minding my business reading a book, waiting for them, when the manager came by my table and laid down a folded note. He slid it toward me. “This is for you,” he said. “It’s from the sweet gal you were so mean  to here yesterday, the adorable one sitting outside on her break.” He turned to walk away as I began reading the note and then called out over his shoulder, “I heard every word you said to her. Be a nice guy and go tell her you’re sorry.”

Reluctantly, I went outside, and there she was sitting under an umbrella-shaded table, reading a book as well. It was Persuasion by Jane Austen. I cringed, sure something mental was wrong with the girl looking up at me, given the goofy smile breaking across her face. A part of me felt bad for her and wanted to apologize while another part of me said to be careful because she might be angry, looking for payback. Leery of a confrontation, I turned to go back inside when I heard her tap the chair next to her. “Please, don’t go. I’m not angry. Have a seat.” She closed her book and stuck her hand out. “My name’s Jill.” She paused, giving me a curious look. “You do know how to talk, don’t you? At least tell me your name.”

I pulled the chair around and sat down facing her. I cracked a quick, half smile and then dropped it just as fast. “Yeah, I can talk, and in complete sentences.” I reached out and shook her hand. “And I can read too. I even wear shoes. The name’s Tommy.”

“So, Tommy, did you read my note?”

“No, not yet,” I lied. “Your manager said I should apologize. I came out just to say I’m sorry for yesterday.”

“Well, are you going to?” she asked.

“What, say I’m sorry? I just did, didn’t I?”

“No, my note, Tommy. Are you ever going to read it?”

“Maybe.”

I can’t explain what happened, but at that point I just didn’t have the heart to be mean to her any longer. She was so sweet, so calm, so gentle. Maybe I sensed, without knowing it, Jill was one of those people that are always comfortable to be with and trusted by everyone she met.

For the next fifteen minutes we sat together while she did most of the talking, telling me about her life and dreams, doing her best to hold me captive until my friends arrived. I simply nodded or politely smiled throughout most of the conversation, saying very little. Again, though she was very polite and very social, and no doubt interested in me, I didn’t try to impress her by making up a bunch of stories or share my life’s experiences.  I simply didn’t care if she liked me or not.

The fact she was so forward, so brash in her like for me, maybe even aggressive, me made me more determined to not let her have her way. I thought, This girl is arrogant to think if she’ll ever have me as a boyfriend. I would never, never be with someone like her. She’ll expect movies, dances, flowers from me, then do like Dory and take me for granted. Never again!

In the end, I was totally, brutally honest with her about where I was in my own life—that I had just been burned in a relationship, that I was focused on getting in to grad school, that I was between jobs and had no money to spend on her, and that I had a family who loved me, so I didn’t need hers, and on and on and on. Yeah, I told her all those things . . . with no clue she would someday walk up the aisle and come back down it bearing my last name.

Jill wasn’t a beauty-queen type back then; she was the girl-next-door type, only prettier, with genuine smile, long brown hair braided in Judy Garland-style pigtails, and eyes the shade of light chocolate with bits of cinnamon-colored flecks circling their center. She always had this very clean, ethereal quality about her good looks. I remember she wasn’t wearing any make-up that day. She never did like cosmetics. She was always a natural beauty without them, freckles and all. She reminded me of a fairy in a sort of way with her big, round eyes, thick eyelashes, and long, skinny fingers. She was petite, slightly shorter than me, and weighed, I’m guessing, a hundred pounds soaking wet.

I left Jill that day with no idea if I’d even return. But I did come back. And I kept coming back. I wouldn’t ask her out, though. I didn’t want to date her. I simply wouldn’t. My wounds were still fresh from Dory and I thought, I can’t be seen with this girl. I just can’t.

I finally asked her out a month after we had met, and a year later we were married, just before I entered grad school.

For the most part, our marriage was great, but there were moments when we hit rough spots. We were both still young and quite often immature in our thoughts and behavior. There were times I didn’t think we would make it to the next year of marriage, like during an argument, but then I’d think afterward, Okay, you’re her husband now. You belong to her. And you have to do as she wishes—put up with her desires, her future as she sees it, her moods.

The truth was I was the moody one. We could get so annoyed at each other one of us would start yelling. Nine times out of ten it was usually me. I say this with great regret because I could be awful in our fights. I didn’t believe in giving in or giving up or in leaving anything unsaid.

Jill, on the other hand, when push came to shove, would let it go and call a truce before things got out of hand. She had this uncanny way of making you feel as if you were the only person left in the world when it was your turn to talk. She was like that. Always selfless and always a good listener, someone comfortable to be around, and always a friend. I was sure my friends and family liked her better than me.

She worked long hours as an emergency room nurse, but in her free time Jill and I liked to do adventurous things like river rafting, canoeing, primitive camping—even skydiving. She painted too. That was her favorite pastime. After she died, I kept all her unsold canvases and even bought some back from our local galleries so I would always be surrounded by what she loved dearly.

Everybody thought the two of us were great together and got along fine. And for the most part, we did get along. But when I would tell them we were just like any other couple, that we had our disagreements and sometimes squabbled, they’d say something like, Oh, we know better. Both of you were meant for each other. I thought, If they only knew! Yikes!

Our last evening together, Jill and I were relaxing before dinner, sitting next to each other on the gazebo steps out back. We’re drinking wine, watching the late November sun slide behind the mountains, ribs on the grill, and we’re talking and laughing. I can still smell the aroma of that night from the special marinade she always made with wild herbs growing in our backyard. She picked them year round, even in the rain, even in the cold snow. And it started snowing later that night.

I got up with Jill at five the next morning. Her twelve-hour shift started at seven A.M. at the hospital, an hour’s drive away. I was off for the day and wish now I had simply stayed in bed. For some reason, we had a little tiff that morning that only grew bigger by the time she was ready to leave. I said some awful things. I wasn’t feeling well from having had too much wine the night before, and the misery of a headache only made me angrier, even as she tried to calm the high intensity of my rant at her. Her efforts only enraged me more. I remember yelling something like, “I don’t know why I married you! You marry a woman and there’s all this crap you have to deal with! Ugh! Women!” At least that’s what I think I said. And she came back with, in a very calm voice, “Not all of us are like that.” I screamed at her, “Yes, they are!”

And as she walked out the door that morning, she said, “I love you,” but I was pigheaded and wouldn’t say it back. I just glared at her, fuming in silence. She closed the door behind her and I never saw her again. I think that’s the memory of her I have the most difficulty reconciling. I’m overwhelmed with the guilt of it, even after all these years.

I was outside shoveling snow when she called. My cell phone read 9:00 P.M., a full hour past when she should have been home. When I heard her voice on the phone, I was elated. I said, “Jill, how close are you?” thinking she was late because of icy roads. She told me she was only a mile from the house but had lost control of her car, slid down a steep embankment, and smashed into a tree. I told her I would come get her, but she said, “No, don’t. The police are coming. Stay with the baby.” I would learn later her right leg had been crushed, almost amputated, pinned between the dashboard and floor.  As a nurse, I think she knew any attempt to free her would’ve caused massive bleeding and her death.

She was very calm. She was very focused. She told me she had been trying to free herself for fifteen minutes but was exhausted. I called 911 on the home phone and gave them updates. Our house was on a hilltop. I could see down from our living room window the very road she had run off. It was impossible to see her car in the darkness. Even in the daylight, it would’ve been difficult because her car was white against a snowy background. I was fearful the police wouldn’t be able to find her.

It began to snow again. I was concerned the police wouldn’t see where her tire tracks had continued on after leaving the road as fresh snow would soon cover them. I told the 911 operator this and she said for Jill to blow the car horn when the sirens were really close; she would have the paramedics shut them off and listen for her horn. Jill told me she could hear the sirens, but they sounded far away.

Five minutes had went by. Jill said she smelled smoke and saw flames climbing the windshield. By now she had stopped talking about being rescued. She said it was hot inside the car and thick smoke was coming from under the dash. She told me she wanted to use her last few minutes alive talking with me. It would soon be time to say our farewells. She said for me to give her love to her family, especially our baby girl, and then we both began to cry about all the wonderful happiness we had shared together. I wanted to be with her, to die with her, but she said no. I had to live for our daughter.

The car was soon in flames all around her and she could barely breathe, but Jill never cried out in despair or pain. She stayed calm, speaking to me in a composed manner, as she had always done. She didn’t show one bit of fear, even when the glass around her was blistering hot; even when the acrid smoke took her breath away. I asked to her hold on, to pour her bottled water over her to take away the pain from the heat, and again, she said no.

At the very end, even as the smoke began to overtake her lungs, she just kept telling me, “I’ll love you always,” over and over. I was holding the phone hard against my ear, crying out to her to just stay with me. I heard sirens closing in and a few seconds later flashing red and blue lights filled the night sky. “They’re coming, Jill! They’re coming for you! Hold on!” But it was too late.

A loud explosion came through my phone. It rumbled for a few seconds. The car engine had exploded. Then there was a sharp, cracking sound, followed by a roaring noise. The glass surrounding Jill had shattered, letting in fresh oxygen. I held my breath. I knew what was about to happen. I heard Jill gasp, take in her last breath as the inside of the car flashed over and filled with flames. I screamed her name out as I crumbled to the floor. I sat there in the living room, crying uncontrollably, holding my head in my hands. A few seconds later the night sky lit up in a dance of brilliant light when her car’s gas tank exploded.

I couldn’t quit crying that night. I recall not wanting to sleep. I wanted to stay awake, to remember my wife, to remember all that we had talked about that day. As long as I didn’t sleep, that last day I woke up beside her, shared with her in words of love, would never end. No day would ever be the same afterward. I knew that. I held on as long as I could . . . just like Jill.

 

✽✽✽

 

Faithland Cemetery, an hour’s drive east of Asheville, North Carolina, is kept from the curious by the tall wood fence surrounding it as well as a wrought-iron front gate. The left side of the gate is hinged to a brick pillar topped with a life-size figure of an angel, chiseled in granite, cradling a small child. The right side of the gate latches to an identical pillar. It’s also topped with a similarly-sized granite figure, that of Christ himself, dressed in a flowing robe, his arms held out high and wide in welcome. A small sign attached to the gate warns visitors the cemetery is private and not to be entered without family permission. The love of my life is buried here.

   On each and every visit to Faithland, I talk to Jill. Sometimes, as I’m telling her about my life without her, I scan the empty plot next to hers, imagining I will someday rest alongside her. I tell her I’ll soon be with her. I do this in front of friends and family and feel no shame for doing so. I have no death wish, but doing this keeps me close to her, and that’s what I really need because the grief I have for her is very different from when my parents died. When they left this world, I was sad, and yet unable to cry. With Jill’s death, I cried a lot and still do. Losing her was deeper, more regretful, because I can still see and hear her, as if she’s still with me.

   It’s been ten years since I lost my beautiful, precious wife. I’ve never remarried. I was traumatized in a way I thought I would never recover from. My last memory of her is not of suffering and fear, but of bravery and unselfish love. I was privileged to be her husband. I picture her holding our baby girl. I see her in all her beauty, and I love her still. And I always will.

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