"This Is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"
The poppies bloomed red the summer that I died. They littered the countryside as if they were sunflowers or some other sturdy form of vegetation. The very sight of them was overwhelming, like walking into an invisible film of heavy cologne, lining the insides of your lungs and penetrating your alveoli. My death wasn’t his fault; it was a result of love and a certain martyrdom I felt myself responsible. Living would have only meant waking to every cold, sunless morning with the burden of guilt heavy upon my being. Yes, it was better to have died.
Darren was of average height and build when I met him in 2010. His shoulders were broad but other than that there was nothing particularly distinct about his appearance. His smile knew how to melt a mother’s heart, allowing me to extend my curfew and go on more excursions than I had ever been before. At twenty-two, he was fully aware of who he was and what he believed. I could have only aspired to be like that.
My hair was a curly shade of honey back then and my hips were slightly larger than the girls my age. I was like some awkward column with small breasts and these protruding hips that no amount of pilates could ever repair. I was my parents’ only daughter and at twenty-one, I was living the life of a Victorian lady, pressed and starched into restrictive corsets. My parents wanted me to play the part of a proper woman, go to medical school, and adhere solely to the Catholic faith. All I wanted was to figure out who I was outside of the world of politely wall-papered barriers and artificial floral arrangements. One glorious day in the park would change everything.
In a pale pink lace dress, I opened my front door as the sunshine greeted my face with a warm embrace.
“I’ll be back,” I yelled to my seemingly quiet house, one foot on the ground.
“Hold on just a minute, young lady,” my father called through a gruff tone. If it hadn’t been for his profession, I would have thought he’d had a burly beard.
“Dad, I’m just going for a walk. Nothing bad is going to happen to me in the park.”
He hesitated for a moment and sighed.
“Do you have your cell phone? And don’t bring that silly iPod of yours. You need to be fully aware of your surroundings. Call me when you are on your way back.”
“Okay, dad. Love you.” I smiled and kissed his smooth but time-worn cheek.
“I love you too, Joan.”
My father’s use of antiquated language indicated his desire to return to days of proper formality. Even the name he and my mother chose for me at birth was evocative of the past. My heart ached for the fact that he would never change. I loved both of my parents but sorely knew that I would never be that cookie-cutter image of a daughter they had painstakingly hoped I would become.
On my way to the park, I greeted everyone I passed with a smile. My feet couldn’t take me fast enough to the world of green encircling a dark blue pond and a dirt path that I loved to swirl into a dusty cloud with my feet. When I finally approached the entrance, I conceded to nature’s way. Whatever was going to happen today was going to be new and exciting. I just had to let it happen.
The first few laps had left my skin dewy and heart bounding with whimsy inside my chest. A moist wooden picnic bench seemed the only viable option to my winded state. Towards the water’s edge, a boy with broad shoulders and dark brown hair dragged a canoe up onto land. His white t-shirt and dark jeans reminded me of a modern-day James Dean and in my little old mind, I could only hope he was just as charming and rebellious.
He looked back at me and smiled. I turned around to see if there was anyone behind me.
“Yes, I was smiling at you,” he said, grinning, “What’s your name?”
“Joan,” I said, pausing. “What’s yours?”
“Nice to meet you Darren.”
“And you as well.”
He approached me and wiped his hands on the front of his jeans, leaving behind a dusty trail. He extended his right arm in offering of a handshake and I stood up to kindly oblige. We stood there staring for a moment.
“Are you going somewhere special?”
“No,” I said quizzically, until I looked down. “Oh. This. No, I just threw something on this morning.”
“Well, it’s not everyday a girl comes to a park wearing lace.”
“That’s a fair assumption.”
“Not saying it looks bad or anything. Just kind of peculiar. I kind of like it though. It’s different.” He stood staring at me for a moment. “Are you doing anything right now?”
“Well actually, I have to get back. My parents are expecting me for dinner.”
“Okay.” He sounded defeated and stood there for a moment before continuing, “You’re not just saying that to get rid of me, are you?”
“No! No, that’s not what I’m trying to do. I really do have to get back!”
“All right, Joan in the lace dress. I can see I’ve creeped you out enough for the day. I’ll leave you be.”
“I wasn’t creeped out. Believe me. It was a pleasure to have met you!” I said taking off into the distance. I stopped and turned when I was far enough away to shout but still close enough to be heard. “You should ask me out sometime. My last name is Donahue. Look me up on Facebook.” Then I turned to run away, flushed and embarrassed, stirring up dust with my shoes.
Twenty years later, Darren and I had been married for sixteen years. My mother had fallen in love with his boyish charm but my father was wary of his financial inabilities to fully support me in the way he believed I should be supported. “Foolish.” That’s what my parents called me when I packed my adolescence into twelve cardboard boxes. “Regretful.” That’s the adjective my parents used to describe my decision to walk down the aisle in a Buddhist ceremony. Darren and I preferred the idea of a ceremony that focussed on the purest states of love and devotion over tradition and formality.
Early life together saw us through two apartments and finally a modest home with red shutters. Darren and I had two children, a thirteen-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl. Our boy Zachary had been difficult to handle at that age, as he was bringing home poor grades and citing a disinterest in school. I was worried our seven-year-old, Hannah, would follow in his example. The toughest aspect of our relationship was learning to channel frustration into constructive criticism.
“Why wasn’t Zachary at soccer practice today?” Darren questioned, walking through the door in his blue pants and shirt with the name “Darren” embroidered in cursive upon the chest. His hands were covered in black grease.
“His grades are down, you know that,” I said, rubbing the hair away from my forehead. I began massaging my temples.
“It’s not bad enough to miss practice! The coach only has them sit out if they’re failing. He’s not failing anything yet!”
“Yet. Our son’s education shouldn’t be the judgment call of a coach.”
“Then whose judgment call is it? Yours? I haven’t had any say in this situation. Damn it, Joan, you’re acting just like your parents.”
My eyes filled with tears, as I looked penetratingly through him. I placed my hands upon the kitchen table, slid out of my chair, and walked solemnly through the hallway and out the front door. My breath turned cold and white in the night’s biting darkness. The door cracked open and Darren walked out. I felt him crouch down as he peered into my face.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. You know I didn’t. I just feel like I’ve been struggling to make ends meet lately... Your dad was right. I’m not able to support you financially and I hate it that he’s right. I’ve been so tense...”
“Darren, you know I don’t care about that. I’m fine working two jobs. We’ve had a lot harder times when we were first starting out. Do you remember when I was working third shift stocking canned vegetables and teaching in the day? At least both of my jobs are in the daytime now,” I said smiling, but still frustrated. “Tell me how you feel about this situation with Zach.”
“I don’t know. I guess I just understand how he feels. I felt the same way at his age. I didn’t go to college because I hated school so much...I just want him to be happy.”
“So do I but there comes a point in time when you have to make a decision to do what is truly best for your children. You graduated high school, right? Your parents pushed you to do that and aren’t you glad for it? You wouldn’t have found a job without that diploma.”
“I’m not saying he has to go to college or be a lawyer. I’m just saying that he needs to graduate high school without D’s and F’s.” I paused for a moment. “Maybe you could sit down and talk to him. Lord knows he won’t listen to me. He looks up to you though. Use that to your advantage.”
“I will. And I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. You’re the best thing in my life and here I am treating you like a stranger.”
“We’re working on it. Every day. You and me.”
Darren lifted me up off of the ground and pressed his mouth to mine, like he had for years. His chapped lips were irrelevant and the grease stains we’d discovered on the back of my clothes as we walked indoors didn’t bother me as it normally would have. Hannah had pressed her face up to the glass door while we were outside, leaving slimy smudges and fingerprints. We were greeted indoors with exaggerated kissing noises from both of the children. When night descended and everyone had fallen asleep, Darren laid me down upon our bed and with his lips slowly apologized for his words.
In fifteen more years, I was in and out of the hospital for shots and IVs to treat my illness. I had noticed that the muscles in my legs felt unusually weak, so it didn’t necessarily come as a surprise to me when I collapsed for the very first time. I was losing sensation in my body and couldn’t control my movement. My co-workers didn’t know what was wrong so they called an ambulance to take me to the hospital where they took a few MRIs and discovered some unusual lesions in my brain. Then using the largest needle I have ever seen in my life (and I’ve had an epidural) the doctors, in their pristine white lab coats, extracted cerebrospinal fluid from my back that confirmed the doctor’s suspicions: I had multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease with no cure but an optimistic prognosis.
“I’m going to do everything possible to make you as comfortable as can be,” Darren said, his face just a residue of the man I married, his hair a salt and pepper gray.
“I know you will. It was only a matter of time before they told me something was wrong with me. I’m fifty-six years old and I’ve been healthy my whole life. Did you really expect me to get through life that easy?” I said, hoping to make him feel better. Instead, his face shriveled into a wrinkly contortion, as he choked back tears.
“What am I supposed to tell the kids?” he asked.
“Nothing. I’ll tell them myself. It’s not like I’m dying of cancer. I have this...illness...but I’m still going to live. I just have to get an IV once a month and go in for weekly shots. Nothing could be any worse than that giant needle they used on me before.”
“You can’t just live like you used to, Joan. You have to be careful. You collapsed in front of a classroom of kindergartners, for Christ’s sake.”
“It was the hallway, thank you very much.”
“Same difference. You can’t just...you have to...”
“I understand Darren, I do. But you have to let me live.”
A single tear dripped from the pools that were his clear blue eyes, down into the weathered lines that defined his face.
I was in and out of the hospital, in and out of those stupid polka-dot tablecloths that the health care professionals called “gowns,” and in and out of the bank with Darren, pleading for payment extensions and loans. Our savings had dwindled to nothingness and though Darren now managed his own garage, the benefits weren’t as stellar as we’d hoped. To add fuel to the ever-burning fire, the school board didn’t see me “stable” enough to continue teaching in one of their facilities. My days were reduced to watching re-runs of game shows, the blue glow of the television diminishing any shred of usefulness I felt I ever had. The doctors wrote me a script for Prozac.
When Darren returned home from work, he assembled dinner, helped me into the bathtub, and gave me my prescriptions, a particular fatigue settling heavy upon his muscles. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night, only to find Darren half-stretched out upon the couch, still in uniform, dribble forming at the corners of his mouth. The only thing keeping him going each day was a pot or two of coffee and the hope that one day something would magically come along and take the pain and trouble away. I heard him talking on the phone with Zachary one evening, now 28 and living in New York City.
“I just don’t know how I’m going to go on like this forever. I’m not getting any sleep and it’s getting in the way of my work....” A phone lay on my nightstand so I picked it up.
“Dad, I told you I can send some money. Just tell me how much you need. And just as soon as I get time off of work I’m going to come down to see you. Hannah’s schedule is a lot more flexible so we’ll try to come down together...Dad, really, how much money do you need?”
“It’s too much, son. I can’t take your money. I’m just going to keep working. I’m going to take care of your mother the way she deserves. I’m going to do everything in my power to keep her alive and comfortable. Even if it kills me.”
“Zach, really. It would be nice if you and your sister could come down soon. Your mom would really love to see you two. She misses you.”
“I know, I feel so guilty that there’s nothing I can do...”
“Come see her. That’s what she wants more than anything...” I hung up the phone, tears rolling down my cheeks.
A few weeks later Zach and Hannah came to visit. Zach handed me a bouquet of red poppies, as Hannah walked over and enveloped me in her arms.
“Oh, mom,” she said.
“Don’t oh mom, me. I’m fine.”
“Poppies!” Darren exclaimed, “Your favorite, aren’t they beautiful, Joan?”
“Indeed, they are! Don’t I get a proper hug, Zachary? Or are you afraid MS is contagious?”
Zach's face froze in surprise as he pursued my request.
“Now, that’s more like it.”
Zachary and Hannah told me their plans to pursue scholarships and opportunities at work. I didn’t want them to leave; I wanted them to put their lives down in a book I could hold close to my heart forever. Seeing my children beam with life’s bright promise made saying goodbye a lot less difficult than I’d expected. Darren and I waved to them front the doorstep, as I turned to go inside and retire for the night. Apologetically heavy eyes lay ingrained on Darren’s face.
“Joan, I put some flags on the parts of the document you need to sign.” These were the bankruptcy papers. “I just can’t think of anything else to do.”
Unwilling to focus on any such nuisance, I looked into the face of the man I had shared life with for over thirty-five years.
“Do you remember the first day you saw me and I was wearing that silly pink dress?”
His frown shifted to a grin and I could see his muscular arms protruding from that white t-shirt, dragging the canoe from the water, dust on his jeans.
“Of course. I had never seen anyone so beautiful.”
“You were so handsome. I was so nervous around you.”
“I was shaking on the inside.”
I paused for a moment, and without expecting Darren to understand, I muttered the most allusive phrase I could think of, “I don’t think two people could’ve been happier.”
He laid his quiet body down beside me and we cried together, rocking ourselves to sleep for the final time. When I was certain Darren had succumbed to his peaceful slumber, I reached for the handkerchief I had neatly wrapped and tucked away in my bedside table. I’d been collecting those little green and white pills for a month and now cradled them in my hand. They were only anti-depressants, but in that moment they were weapons that would magically take the pain and trouble away. Sticky and sweaty in my palms the cylindrical marvels lay. Yes, I was certain this was what was supposed to happen. My sacrifice to Darren was life itself. In order for me to reconcile some semblance of peace, I needed to know that he was taken care of. Life was not forthcoming enough to provide a more favorable option.
I leaned over to kiss Darren on the cheek. His old, tired body had deposited layers of adipose tissue in places he had been svelte before.
“It was a pleasure to have met you.” I said, swallowing a handful of the only viable solution I could fathom to say thank you.